Surveillance Art as Participatory Performance

Surveillance, that sociopolitical fixture in our contemporary world, is, by design, participatory. Its many forms – from publicly installed CCTV cameras on streetlamps and traffic lights to online credit checks, personalized Google advertising, and Facebook stalking – demand our participation as citizens in the digital age […] Clearly, the ways in which we participate and are rewarded for our participation in surveillance society have changed radically in recent decades, not to mention centuries […]

[There are] a growing number of artist-activists who have reconfigured and reimagined surveillance interfaces in order to critique and disrupt patterns of “user-friendly” participation in them. […] As of 2013, a wide range of surveillance art is performed in a variety of contexts ranging from national theaters, art galleries and websites to political protests, academic and corporate conferences, and quotidian urban spaces. […] These artist-activists appropriate techniques and technologies of surveillance from military and commercial contexts to create models of usership and participation that are critical of and disruptive to state and corporate ideologies of discipline and control […]

The New York-based Surveillance Camera Players do not work at the technologically complex level of the IAA [Institute for Applied Autonomy], [Steve] Mann or [Ricardo] Dominguez, yet their works show that even simple acts that disrupt the anticipated, normalized visual field of the everyday can politicize and make visible for critique the techno-human interface of surveillance.

Using the surveillance technologies most readily available to anyone in an even remotely urban or suburban setting, the SCP has been performing for publicly installed surveillance cameras for over a decade. The group first started to perform for CCTV cameras out of ironic sympathy for the unseen labor of those paid to watch the streets and inhabitants of New York City. Their early performances – versions of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1996 and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1998 – were ostensibly performed for surveillance guards who, the SCP worried, might be getting bored by watching surveillance cameras on which nothing threatening or out of the ordinary ever happened. Tongues partially in cheeks since then, the group has performed regularly in front of publicly installed cameras in New York City and many other American and European cities, entertaining the odd surveillance guard that catches a performance and, more frequently, groups of passersby walking in the bust urban centers where they stage their performances. For these varied audiences the SCP has adapted nine works for performance (including an adaptation of Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot), and written seven original plays (including It’s OK, Officer, which has been translated to several other languages).

In addition to performing for surveillance cameras and the guards who monitor them, the SCP regularly leads tours around urban neighborhoods, pointing out the abundance of state, corporate, and private cameras in a given area. In their ten-year report, the group wrote, “Virtually every Sunday since Thanksgiving, 2000, and using its own maps for guidance, the group has given free walking tours of heavily surveilled neighborhoods in New York City. Those tours have concentrated on what the things look like, how they work, and how they will work if they are improved (‘smart cameras’). Over the years, approximately 3,000 people in total have attended.”

While the tours sometimes attract tourists passing through a city, the audiences most often comprise residents of the city. The tours revision the urban landscape for people who may have ceased to see or have never looked for the surveillance cameras with which they tacitly interface every day. SCP street performances and tours also serve to create new communities of passersby, as audience-participants stop and gather together on strange, new common ground, peering up at the surveillance cameras on the sidewalks of their neighborhoods or urban centers.

Like any good community theater, the SCP also makes an effort to extend an invitation to interested participants to join their ranks. The group readily shares their methods and techniques with amateur “surveillance camera players” around the world. Visitors to their website are urged to download and copy their projects and ideas freely; the group has even published an online handbook titled How to Stage Your Own ‘Surveillance Camera Theater’ in 10 Easy-to-Follow Steps. The low-budget, DIY (do-it-yourself) aesthetic of the SCP illustrates that critical interventions can be made using only cardboard, markers and existing publicly installed surveillance cameras. In contrast to more sophisticated digital technologies that tend to be the property of economically empowered classes, publicly installed surveillance cameras are encountered by and accessible to nearly everyone in contemporary urban and suburban areas around the world. This commitment to providing a usable model of interventionist art is perhaps the biggest and farthest-reaching impact of the SCP, as it extends an invitation to anyone to participate […]

(Written by Elise Morrison and published in Theater 43:3, 2013.)

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