Artists' Revenge for Surveillance

By David Kirby

New York Times, Sunday 17 January 1999

THE SETTING The Literary [sic: Libertarian] Book Club's Anarchist Forum, at the Brecht Forum on West 27th Street near the Avenue of the Americas on Tuesday night. Fifty people heard Bill Brown, founder of the Surveillance Camera Players, talk about his group's staging of philosophically charged plays and novels in front of security [sic] cameras, ostensibly for the edification of the police, security people and others. Of course, being anarchists, they also protest what they see as the state's growing intrusion into everyday life.

THE BUZZ "We are unwitting citizens of a surveilled society," declared Mr. Brown, who is a member [sic] of the Situationist International, the motto of which is, "Never Work." "But we have an unwritten constitutional right not to be photographed in public."

Conceding that anarchy [sic] does not always go together with art, which usually involves some order, Mr. Brown said he would discuss "cultural subversion, political street theatre, whatever you want to call it." But he added: "Don't hurt your head. I'm not finicky about terms."

Mr. Brown founded the Surveillance Camera Players in 1996 after being inspired by a "guerilla manifesto" that labeled the camera "a tool of social control."

New York's falling crime rate, he said, has given the police and security people "less and less to watch on their cameras." But that, he said, has also presented "an opportunity and a problem: A bored surveillant is an inattentive surveillant."

Mr. Brown showed videos of some of the group's subway productions: "Ubu Roi" by Alfred Jarry at the Union Square station; "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe and "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett at the Astor Place station, and "1984" by George Orwell at the IRT station on West 14th Street. The actors, using hand-lettered signs to identify characters, scenes and bits of dialogue -- the cameras have no audio, of course -- perform the brief plays while other members watch on monitors in the station.

During "1984," on election night last November, the group was approached by the police, who were alerted by a token booth clerk. "They got really frustrated with us," said Mr. Brown, who wore a skeleton mask during the play. "They kept asking us who was the leader. And we kept saying: 'Nobody. We're anarchists!"

The audience on Tuesday had plenty of questions, too. Was the group a deterrent to subway crime? "Actually, I picked 55 pockets that night," said Mr. Brown [sic: as a joke!]. Did passers-by stop to ask questions? "Nobody noticed," he said. "They couldn't even take the bait of someone in a death mask on election night. We are a society of automatons." What about the use of cameras to protect against anthrax attacks? "Terrorism is staged to keep us frightened and in place. It's the cold war redone for the '90s." Isn't what you are doing just an elitist argument for bad art? "I'd say you are right and I'd say I just proved you wrong."

Despite the skepticism, the Surveillance Camera Players are hatching more plans. "I'm told people are being harassed [by the police] for flipping off cameras in Washington Square Park," Mr. Brown said. "We want to go there and dare them to arrest us. If you're interested, just sign your pseudonym here on this sheet."

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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