from outside the closed circuit:

the antecedents of surveillance camera theater

It's indisputable that Guerilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment -- the anti-surveillance manifesto that inspired the formation of the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) -- is one of the very first documents of its kind. It was distributed in Nova Scotia as a hand-bill in 1995, the same year that Simon Davies of Privacy International wrote a classic anti-surveillance article, the publication of which in Wired Magazine constituted, in Davies' own words, "the first indication that CCTV [closed-circuit television] was being directly challenged on privacy grounds." According to Davies, the first public protest against surveillance cameras in England occurred in Brighton on 10 May 1997. In France, a group called Souriez, Vous Etes Filmes has been active since 1995.

But the SCP weren't the first to stage surveillance camera theater. Neither was Denis Beaubois, who started performing In case of amnesia the city will recall in front of surveillance cameras in Australia in June 1996, nor Mar Bucknell, whose theatre company, Big Idea Productions (Perth, Western Australia) performed a show in 1993 called Place: LESS, which included peformances in front of surveillance cameras installed at a downtown bus station. (Though video artists such as Bruce Nauman and Julia Scher were using CCTV surveillance systems in their works as early as 1969, these works were installations in private galleries, not theatrical performances in public places, and so are excluded from consideration.)

Properly speaking, surveillance camera theater was invented by a comedy writer, not a privacy advocate or a performance artist: i.e., the person(s) who in 1981 wrote the "On the Job" episode of the American TV sit-com Taxi, in which Alex Reiger (played by Judd Hirsch) temporarily gets a job as a camera-watching security guard. Bored out of his mind by the isolation and silence, Alex eventually learns to pass the time by improvising silly little skits in front of the surveillance camera and watching himself on the monitor at the same time. When Alex's shift is over, he is replaced by a veteran of the place (played by "Grampa" Al Lewis), who pulls out a ventriloquist's dummy and starts performing in front of the surveillance camera as soon as his shift begins! The implication was that every security guard -- when no one (else) was looking -- was passing the time in this way.*

On 12 October 1992, Saturday Night Live included a skit that imagined that during the night, when everyone else had gone home, the people who worked at Rockefeller Center -- not just the security guards, but also the cleaning ladies and the maintenance workers -- would amuse themselves and each other by putting on little skits in front of the building's surveillance cameras. As in Taxi, none of these skits had any political content and none of them concerned privacy rights. (In June 1996, a skit called "Security Camera Theatre" aired on Late Night with David Letterman, but we haven't been able to see it or to find a synopsis of it. Given the conservatism of Letterman's show, we doubt that this skit deviated from the pattern set down by Taxi and SNL.)

And so "surveillance camera theater" was the creation of television comedy writers, who imagined it to be (some) workers' very creative way of dealing with the boredom of late-night menial jobs. But because these writers perceived themselves to be at a distance from their counterparts in the (clever) working classes, they felt compelled to make the workers appear to be narcissistic, isolated, excessively furtive, even a bit paranoid. The on-camera performers and the members of the audience are literally the same people; and all of the people involved are workers. No one else can see the performances; like the video system itself, these unofficial TV shows are closed circuits. No doubt part of this concern with "security" derives from the simple fact that the bosses would certainly fire any employee who was caught fucking around in front of a company surveillance camera. But, since the bosses wouldn't care if the "plays" had a "controversial" content or not, one wonders why the workers are putting on such a bland show, with no "controversial," political or sexual content of any kind.

When they started in November 1996, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) knew nothing of their antecedents; all they had seen was the Guerilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment manifesto. Like the comedy writers at Taxi and SNL, the SCP knew that a central issue was the boredom experienced by the monitor-watchers (the security guards and police officers). But the members of the SCP weren't bored monitor-watchers themselves, nor did the SCP hope to gain access to and see the "unofficial" shows that the monitor-watchers were (might have been?) putting on for their own amusement. No: the SCP came from outside the closed circuit. Their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, the SCP offered to do the entertaining for the monitor-watchers, who would themselves no longer "need" to be performers. They could go back to doing their jobs, which meant treating the video surveillance system properly, like it was a very powerful and easily abused tool, and not a toy.

Originally posted 2004.

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*Note added November 2014: The last film Jerry Lewis directed, Cracking Up (filmed in 1981-1982 but not released until 1983), includes a scene that certainly deserves mention here, for it is certainly among one the very first instances of “surveillance camera theater.”

Approximately 28 minutes into the film, now available on YouTube, a group of gun-wielding gangsters enter a bank (the “2nd Insecurity Bank of L.A.”). One of them announces, “Awright, everybody: nobody move!” When there’s quiet, he then waves in a fourth robber, obviously the leader (played by Lewis himself). After his slow mincing entrance, the leader notices that there is a big surveillance camera watching the area in which he is standing. He stops before it and flattered – not alarmed – by its apparent attention to him personally, smiles for it, a big idiotic grin. After striking a few different “dramatic” poses, he then takes out a straw hat and a cane, and – to the sounds of “New York, New York” – starts doing a carefully choreographed dance-routine – all for the camera. His gangster buddies quickly join in. After a minute or two of this, the cops burst in and, after pointing their guns at the dancing men, start dancing, too. Finally, the gangsters form a kind of conga line and dance their way straight out of the bank, to the cheers of the crowd and evident confusion of the cops, who have been left behind. These “criminals” didn’t enter the bank with the intention of robbing it; they simply wanted to perform for its camera, in front of a captive audience.

Now, say what you will about Jerry Lewis – he certainly draws his gags out for way too long, as he does here – but he never stole an idea from anyone. When he conceived, wrote, starred in and directed this unfunny but highly original gag, he no doubt did not base it on anything else. It was the product of his own brilliant imagination.

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