The Living Edge

As recently as March 2000, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) had given up on Robert Riechel, the California-based producer of a television show called The Living Edge. Riechel and his crew had come to New York in November 1999 to tape a segment on the SCP. In addition to being present at the SCP's great Berlin Wall performance, the Living Edge crew got a guided tour of the surveillance cameras in Washington Square Park and a copy of the SCP's compilation tape. But, upon returning to California, Riechel didn't get in touch with the group, despite repeated attempts to reach him by both telephone and e-mail. After several months went by, the SCP put The Living Edge on its list of dead-ends and moved on.

And then, one fine day at the end of April 2000, the SCP got a half-hour-long video cassette in the mail, sent to the group by one Robert Riechel. Was the show about to air? Did it already air? There was no way to know. Though he included a nice letter, Riechel didn't mention either the air-date or the broadcasters who would be showing episode #120 of The Living Edge. Judging from the video, it would appear that the market for this show, which refers to itself as "your secret window" into the "strange" lives of people for whom being strange is simply "business as usual," are the usual assortment of voyeurs, gawkers and professional spectators who watch cable television on a regular basis. In addition to the SCP, episode #120 featured segments on such cool subjects as "Extreme Cat-Fighting" (women who fight each other in "no holds barred" contests) and "The Cake Lady" (little old lady who runs a cake museum). Had the SCP known that this would be its fate, it would never have agreed to work with Riechel. No one who is genuinely interested in Cat Fights or Cake Ladies will be interested in the SCP. And vice versa.

Let us here remind our readers that the SCP never seeks out media coverage. If there has been coverage of the SCP, it is because the media have contacted the group, rather than the reverse. Because coverage of the group helps expose the semi-secret existence of widespread video surveillance and explodes the myth that only those who are "guilty of something" are opposed to surveillance cameras, the SCP has been liberal in its policy of granting interviews and access to its performances. But this isn't because the group's members need to think of themselves or be thought of as "strange" or "cool." These concerns are not relevant to either surveillance cameras or the SCP's objections to and protests against their unregulated use in public places. Indeed, from the start, the SCP have defined themselves as "ordinary Joes and Josephines." And yet this preoccupation with the SCP's "coolness" is becoming a theme in coverage of the group. It has been sounded by Details and MTV Europe. Though its members (mostly a bunch of old farts) find it somewhat flattering to be thought of as "cool," the SCP would prefer to be thought of as justified in sounding the alarm about the dangers of video surveillance.

In a very telling moment, the "secrecy" of the show's "window" is broken. In doing the segment on the so-called cat fighters, Riechel seems to have encountered difficulties with one of the women, who, on camera, tells the producer that she'd like to kick him in the face. "I can tell you don't like me," Riechel can be heard saying off-camera. "Why don't you like me?" Her insightful response is, "It's not that I don't like you; it's just that you're insecure." Just so! The SCP also found Riechel to be nervous and, despite his position as a producer of a hip TV show, insecure about himself. (But it is also true that the group found Riechel to be enthusiastic, energetic and full of good cheer.) But the significance of the remark isn't simply its relevance to Riechel personally. Who would watch a self-avowedly voyeuristic show like The Living Edge? Who is its intended audience? No doubt people just like Riechel (and the sleazy guy who organizes the cat-fights), that is, white males obsessed with being cool, or, failing that, obsessed with being someone who knows who is cool or who isn't. But perhaps cool people are "cool" because they are secure in the knowledge of who they are, what they stand for, and when and where they are willing to fight.

From this perspective, the weakest aspect of the segment is the fact that SCP co-founder Bill Brown was the only person interviewed. His is literally the only voice one hears for five straight minutes. It is understandable that Bill might be taken as the SCP's spokesperson. But Riechel didn't do what every other TV reporter has done, namely, include footage of comments made by ordinary New Yorkers or spokespeople from the NYCLU, the police department or the Mayor's office. Perhaps the producer of The Living Edge thought that Bill was so "strange" and "cool" that no one else was necessary. But when it comes to a group such as the SCP, sometimes "cool enough" is too cool. Perhaps this is another way of saying that Bill is in fact not cool enough to pull off some of the bits attempted in the segment, especially those in which he is shown standing underneath television monitors in the Astor Place subway station and talking about the SCP in pretentiously ironic tones. Neither interviews nor performances, these engaging but very corny bits -- included because Riechel wanted to tape Bill in a place where monitors could be seen and thus recorded -- make even Bill himself squirm. After lengthy consultations with Art Toad, Bill has decided that, in the future, he will stick to interviews and performances, and completely eschew set-pieces such as the one attempted in Astor Place.

Despite all of its limitations, the piece Riechel put together on the SCP was actually quite good. Five minutes long, it is easily the longest and most extensive feature on the group ever broadcast. In addition to the stuff taped in the Astor Place subway station, which is used to provide a general introduction to the problems posed by widespread surveillance of public places, the segment includes excellent footage of Bill describing and giving a tour of the surveillance system at Washington Square Park, and excellent footage of the SCP's performance at the Berlin Wall. There are also a few excerpts from the SCP's own videotape of its performance of 1984.

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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