Gary Genosko

or, the Professor Gets an "F"

A thorough search of the World Wide Web reveals that -- in addition to getting and keeping the attention of political activists and "the media" -- the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) are beginning to "get through" to students and professors. The SCP, or, rather, its Web site, has been included on the syllabi of several university and graduate level courses devoted to such subjects as contemporary theater, anarchist politics and the Internet itself. Several students have written to the SCP, asking if they can write a paper or dissertation about the group and its activities. In all cases, the SCP has agreed. Founded by two former academics, one of whom taught for several years at the university level as an assistant professor, the group sees itself -- especially when it presents its version of Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism -- as practicing a kind of street pedagogy. And so the SCP welcomes contact with the academic community, but especially with students (professors, as we will see, are another matter).

At the end of 1999, Gary Genosko, an assistant professor in Cultural Studies at Lakehead University in Winnipeg, Canada, wrote "The Art of Surveillance," which appears to be the very first academic "paper" on the SCP and its activities. Though it is a very sympathetic review -- written by someone who is both opposed to the indiscriminate surveillance of public space and knowledgeable about obscure "critical theories" such as those elaborated by Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, et al. -- "The Art of Surveillance" is neverthesless the type of review that the SCP does not want.

Significantly, had it not been for the efforts of a librarian closely associated with the SCP, the group would never have known about Genosko's article, because it was researched, written and published by someone who never thought to contact the SCP, that is, neither before, during nor after the article was published. In September 2000, nine months after it appeared in Border Crossings, a relatively obscure Canadian literary review, "The Art of Surveillance" was located in a search for "surveillance cameras" in a university library's networked database of publications. (Genosko's article didn't appear in searches of the Web because it wasn't uploaded to the Internet until the SCP found out about it.) No doubt the brevity of the article was the only reason that someone entered its text into the library database, rather than simply summarizing its contents in an "abstract" or, worse still, noting that the article had been published in such-and-such a journal on such-and-such a date.

Gary Genosko isn't the only one who has written a review of the SCP from the thoroughly detached point of view of the total spectator. Such reviews have become common in the last year, as the size, usefulness and popularity of the group's Web site have increased. There is in fact enough good information on the site to write a short, superficial but perfectly "adequate" piece on the SCP without contacting the group. But any such piece -- no matter how favorable or sympathetic -- couldn't help but be bad journalism, for the mark of a good journalist is that he or she wants (and finds) an angle or quote that no one else has seen or gotten before. It is easy to forgive bad journalism when it is practiced by writers who live in Europe and do not speak English as their first language. (To pursue the SCP's comments on superficial articles about the group that were originally published in German, click here.) But it is difficult to forgive bad journalism when it is practiced by writers such as Gary Genosko, who is a "native" speaker of English who can easily get in touch with the SCP (the group's e-mail address appears on every single page of its Web site) and thereby arrange to see a videotape or conduct a telephone interview.

More so than any of the other pieces of bad journalism written about the SCP, Genosko's article best illuminates the features of the total spectator. This isn't an accident: academics are specialists in detachment, non-participation and "neutral" observation. And so, on 11 September 2000, Monsieur le Art Toad decided to break Genosko's bubble by locating his e-mail address and sending him the following terse, insulting missive.

Thought it preety strange that you would write a lengthy piece on the SCP without contacting the group, which is an easy thing to do.

"If it weren't for their website, the Players would have disappeared, leaving only the traces in the memory of those who watched them, opponents and supporters alike."

This is really quite stupid. The SCP existed well before it put up a web site, and would continue to be a thriving group even if its web site were taken down. What you really mean to say is, "If it weren't for their website, I Gary Genosko would never have heard of the Players."

[signed] M. le Art Toad

P.S. If you had read or were familiar with the work of Henri Lefebvre, you'd know that guerrilla programming does not "retake time from the surveillance mechanisms," as you claim; it "retakes" space.

Despite the fact that the post script on Lefebvre seems unrelated to the main point of the e-mail (it isn't), M. Toad decided to include it because time and space is the one theme in "The Art of Surveillance" that isn't cribbed from the pages maintained by the Surveillance Camera Players. In other words, it is a theme that Genosko imposed upon the SCP. (Though the SCP is aware of the importance of time and space, the group has yet to produce a statement on the subject, and has relied in the interim upon the NOT BORED! text.) In a passage that suggests that "The Art of Surveillance" might have been written to flesh out a theory, graduate-level seminar or book on "post-modern" time, Genosko declares with arrogant, ludicrous certainty that:

The guerrilla programming of surveillance cameras is an art of time, of the timely maneuver, because it lacks a space of its own, a proper autonomous place over which it has control. Tactically, guerrilla programming retakes time from the surveillance mechanisms of an environment policed in the name of business interests.

This formulation isn't right, and can't be right, for the simple reason that -- in stark contrast to "traditional" surveillance, which focused upon moments in which the suspect(s) might say something incriminating -- contemporary surveillance focuses upon spaces in which crime is likely to occur. (For an analysis of this "militarization" of domestic surveillance, see the SCP's text The Theater of Our Operations.) The duration of the plays, the exact times at which SCP performs, the dates on which the group performs -- these decisions are made on the basis of convenience to the group, not in accordance with the inflexible parameters established by "the surveillance mechanisms." If anything is in fact determined by these mechanisms, it's the locations in which the SCP chooses to perform. The group only performs in locations in which surveillance cameras are present. That's why the SCP makes maps and not chronometric measurements!

Though Genosko responded quickly to M. Toad's hostile missive, the unperturbed academic said nothing about the facts that M. Toad had, without any help from Genosko himself, heard about and read the text of "The Art of Surveillance"; that M. Toad had located Genosko's e-mail address, and thus demonstrated how easy it is to make contact with someone if you really want to; and that M. Toad was contacting him nine months after "The Art of Surveillance" was first published. Genosko also completely ignored the central point of M. Toad's e-mail, which was the fact that Genosko had written a piece without contacting the SCP, and had thus (inevitably?) confused the group with its presence on the World Wide Web. That is to say, Genosko maintained his detached position, even as he was descending into the murky depths of personal confrontation.

To guide him, Genosko help aloft the brilliant theme that M. Toad had placed in a post script: time and space.

Toad [Genosko wrote on 12 September 2000]:

My reference was to de Certeau rather than Lefebvre. No matter, since it is obvious that you do not retake space; rather, you merely do so for a time. To retake space implies a major strategic undertaking, which is beyond your means. The SCP are artists of time, of the timely, tactical intervention.

Your other undoubtedly heartfelt beliefs I will let deflate of their own accord.

Neither my editor nor my audience (quite different from yours, I assume) would allow me to develop the opinion piece or short column further.

The existence of a Website does not guarantee much in terms of exposure. My modest column merely extended your reach into another medium and audience.

Anyway, a timely intervention draws its strength from the fact that it does not linger any longer than necessary to make its point. So, in a way, your weakness is a major strength.

Clearly, though, you don't agree.

Despite the bad smell of this soup, there are some tempting morsels in it. There's the preposterous idea that it's "obvious [?!] that you do not retake space; rather, you merely do so for a time." The reality of the situation, easily discernible to those who've seen the SCP perform, either in person or on videotape, is that, for a time, the group retakes space. And then there are the ridiculous notions that "a major strategic undertaking" is "beyond your means" and that the limited or impoverished SCP must content itself with being among the "artists of time, of the timely, tactical intervention." Trying to spark a movement against the unchecked proliferation of surveillance cameras in public places -- at a moment in which "Big Brother" is a stoopid game-show, not the name of a murderous totalitarian ruler -- is clearly "a major stategic undertaking," isn't it? And yet that is precisely what the SCP is trying to do.

But the Toad didn't take Genosko's bait. The SCP's director refused to get drawn into a series of pointless -- i.e., typically academic -- debates between "de Certeau" and "Lefebvre," or between "time" (Genosko's "interpretation" of what the SCP does) and "space" (the SCP's own "interpretation" of what it is doing). Toad knew what he wanted to talk about -- for he was the one who'd initiated the conversation -- and that Genosko had, in the words of an e-mail Toad sent on 13 September 2000, "bluntly refuse[d] to deal with my objection." As a result, Toad told Genosko that he had "no interest in pursuing further communication with you" and asked Genosko to "not send me any e-mail of any kind." Genosko complied.

(Note added May 2003: to read about another professor who deserves a big fat "F," click here.)

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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