Spy TV

Aden Ikram was the very first video producer to contact the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) in the wake of the publication of a piece on the group in the August 1999 issue of Details magazine. He wanted to include a segment on the SCP in a show called Spy TV, which would eventually air on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. Finding this information sufficient, the SCP agreed to work with Aden, and asked no further questions about his show. This was a mistake, and the SCP eventually ended up paying for it.

As Spy TV's Web site makes clear, Aden was approaching the subject of video surveillance from a very narrow perspective, one that had nothing to do with the primary concerns of the Surveillance Camera Players, which are, of course, the right to privacy, the use of public space, and political art:

In the summer of 1999, two student filmmakers, ADEN IKRAM and KATE BERNSTEIN, went in search of urban voyeurism in New York City. Expecting to find illicit voyeurs, they instead uncovered everyday people who use everyday technology to snoop on each other. A year later their digital video interviews & captured footage was turned into the voyeur-tech series SPY TV. This online dossier takes you behind the scenes and inside the lives of the filmmakers and their subjects to reveal the events surrounding the making of the series.

Elsewhere on the Spy TV Web site, anti-surveillance activist Mark Ghuneim and civil rights attorney Chris Johnson are also referred to as "voyeurs." But neither the members of the SCP nor Ghunheim nor Johnson are "voyeurs," which Spy TV rather inaccurately defines as "prying observer[s] who [are] usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous." A voyeur, as everyone knows, is someone who derives sexual satisfaction from watching -- rather than participating in -- sexual activity. In other words, a voyeur is a sexually repressed spectator. If the members of the SCP are anything that relates to this subject matter, they are exhibitionists, or, rather, they are people who parody both the voyeurism of the watchers and the exhibitionism that is forced upon people by the placement of surveillance cameras in public places. Furthermore, the group's members are opposed to "snooping," no matter who is doing it -- secret government agencies, multinational corporations or "everyday people."

Had the SCP known that Aden was preparing to place the group in the company of adolescents who turn their bedrooms into sets for television or webcam broadcasts and grown men who use video cameras to look up women's skirts -- much worse company than the SCP was forced to keep by The Living Edge, which placed the SCP among women boxers and an old lady who runs a cake museum -- the group would never have agreed to work with him. But the group had no idea, and didn't take any steps to find out. On 29 August 1999, Aden shot footage at an SCP performance in Washington Square Park, and, on 24 September 1999, Aden interviewed Bill Brown as he stood underneath the closed-circuit television monitors in the Astor Street subway station. The Spy TV producer also received a videotape of the SCP's performance of 1984, signed a release form and, after some negotiations, paid the group a small licensing fee. Nine months later, in June 2000, the segment on the SCP ran on England Channel 4, right after the season finale of Ally McBeal.

Apparently modeled after A Current Affair, the 24-minute-long show was rather awkwardly divided into very two badly named segments: "Spies" (people who perform for television and Web cameras, and allow themselves to be spied on) and "Counter Spies" (people who do not practice spying of any sort and think that spying should be carefully regulated, if not prohibited outright). Like Mark Ghunheim and Chris Johnson, the members of the SCP was categorized as "Counter Spies." Needless to say, if the SCP is trying to "counter" anyone, it's the police and the politicians who are obviously using public video surveillance to control and suppress all signs of dissatisfaction and dissent -- not the exhibitionists on display in the first segment of the show. In both segments, indeed, in all three episodes of Spy TV that the SCP has seen, the presentation is centered around the commentary of four so-called "cultural critics," all of whom are white, none of whom know anything or seem to care about privacy rights: Steven Johnson, identified as an "editor/author" at Feed Magazine; Jane Buckingham, a "trendspotter" at a marketing firm that helps businesses sell products to young people; Esther Drill, an "editor/author" at Gurl Magazine; and Douglas Rushkoff, a self-marketer and "author" of books on marketing. First, these four young capitalist tools drone on and on about what the Counter Spies are doing, how they are doing it, and how "good" and "beneficial" it all is. After the Counter Spies are allowed to speak for themselves, the four tools return to chew the sound bites just provided and tell the viewer what he or she should think about them -- as if the viewer couldn't possibly make up his or her mind without such help. (Note well the contrast with the producers of Trackers, who were confident that their teenage audience would easily comprehend the SCP and didn't require any spoon-feeding.)

The evalutaion of the Counter Spies by "trendspotter" Jane Buckingham was especially bad. "The negative consequences of the Counter Spies," she said,

"is that it [sic] really can undercut the good things that Big Brother is trying to do. Big Brother is trying to protect you. They [sic] are not trying to invade your privacy, they're really just trying to protect you. [The] Counter Spies can make it all seem very negative, very horrible and really prevent the public from accepting some good things that might be happening."

Oh! The ingratitude and selfishness of the Counter Spies! And after all Big Brother has done for us! These negative-minded Counter Spies should be ashamed of themselves: they are the ones who are actually deceiving and thereby harming the public!

Were it not for the facts that the interview segment with SCP spokesperson Bill Brown is especially good -- it includes the line, "Resistance [to Big Brother] isn't futile; resistance is necessary" -- and that the show is filled with images taken from the SCP's videotape (especially the performance of 1984), the Spy TV segment on the group would be worth forgetting. Everything in it can be seen, and seen better, in other programs about the SCP -- with a single, and singularly remarkable, exception. Unlike every other person whom the SCP has brought to highly surveilled Washington Square Park, Aden managed to get permission to go inside the police "communications" van in which the monitors are housed. Furthermore, he was able to shoot some footage in the van. Some or all of it appears in the final edit of Spy TV.

Today is 11 June 2000. Preliminary analysis suggests that the surveillance cameras in Washington Square Park are indeed very sophisticated and capable of serious violations of privacy. In the coming days, the SCP will digitize this footage -- it is only about a second or two -- and upload it to this Web site. Stay tuned.

* * * *

Today is 22 October 2000. The SCP has not yet made good on its promise to upload the footage, and doesn't look likely to do so in the near future. The groups has (temporarily, one hopes!) lost its access to the necessary equipment.

However, in the meantime, the SCP has received the following missive (dated 19 October 2000) from Aden Ikram, the producer of Spy TV. Evidently Aden or someone he knows recently did a search for the phrase "Spy TV" and found this very Web page.

Greetings Bill,

It was just brought to my attention your displeasure with the way SCP were featured on the SPY web site and in the Counter Spy segment, which is a real surprise as when we last spoke you were really excited and happy with it.

The website misinfo is our fault and is being redone to clearify your role as the series deals with privacy in addition to voyeurism. On the TV program, while I am personally a big fan of you guys our format was to show both sides of the issue, hence Jane's comments - the overall tone and bulk of the piece however leans overwhelming in favor of the counter spies. The term counter spies is a stylish contexctual term that fits the format of the show rather than a litereal meaning which the audience does realize. We did let you know the title of the segment in advance as well.

Please let me know if any of this helps or if we can do anything to rectify your displeasure with the segment. Much Thanks - Aden.

This is the second time that a reviewer of the SCP (someone who has written an article or produced a TV programme about the group) has objected to the SCP's review of one of those articles or programmes. This first was Rick Karr from National Public Radio. (It seems that, since May 2000, when he wrote to complain about the SCP's review of him, Rick Karr has seen his radio show Anthem canceled. Karma!)

There was little to say to the Spy TV producer except, "Changes to your Web site will not prompt changes to the SCP's site, precisely because you can't go back in time and change what was broadcast."

Aden's response --

No worries about your comments on me on the panix site - if its how you feel, its how you feel. You are however listed under agents, not voyeurs, on the SPY website and the agents definition includes "activists." As for the tape we can change future recuts that represent you in a way you feel is right. I sincerely apologize you feel you were misrepresented as I am a big supporter and fan of your mission.

-- left Bill with two choices: say everything ("change all future recuts so that this is that and that is this") or say nothing. Bill chose the latter.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail Info@notbored.org

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

Return to

Surveillance Camera Players


Return to