The History of Surveillance

According to Those Who Have Imposed It

The New York Surveillance Camera Players (NY SCP) did a great deal to help the British TV production company called World of Wonder (WOW) when the company -- then working on a documentary series on the history of surveillance for the British TV station Channel 4 -- sent a crew to New York City in September 2000. Not only did the NY SCP give a command performance for WOW's cameras, but the group also gave the TV crew several extensive interviews and walking tours of three highly surveilled neighborhoods in Manhattan.

As previously noted, all of these shoots took much, much longer than the average.

To tape these segments properly, that is, professionally, Bill [the tour guide] had to repeat his remarks and gestures over and over and over and over again, so that the crew could record the "action" from several different angles and thus make absolutely sure that it would have enough usable footage, even if something bad happened during the shoot (a shot, a gesture or a spoken line was blown, the sound was out, there was too much noise, etc.) or happens after the shoot is done (a whole tape is damaged or lost, etc.). Quite obviously, it's also good to assemble a lot of overlapping footage if you intend to create a multi-layered or fast-moving final version.

The same repetitious method was used to tape the SCP's 5 September performance in Times Square: the group had to repeat each of the three plays over and over and over and over again, so that the crew could record the action from several different angles and, once again, make absolutely sure that it would have enough usable footage, no matter what. But neither the group nor Bill found the repetition to be frustrating, tedious or boring; for the members of the SCP, the shoot was a great deal of fun. By contrast, Bill found that the repetition required of him in his solo spots did become a drag. There seems to be a lesson in this. Perhaps it has to do with the unique satisfactions of being in a group, which are quite different and perhaps more rewarding than the satisfactions of being a unique individual.

With the exception of a single set of remarks made by Bill, all of this painstakingly created footage did not make into WOW's History of Surveillance, which finally aired between 5 and 26 August 2001 over the course of four one-hour-long installations. Ironically, Bill's remarks -- which concern the surveillance camera that watches a slice of the Berlin Wall that is displayed as sculpture in a small urban park in Manhattan -- were originally recorded at Bill's request, and not in response to the plans or suggestions of the WOW crew.

It seems clear that the only reason these remarks were included in the final version of the documentary -- and note that a phrase or two was cut out of them so as to create an even more concise "soundbite" -- is the fact that they happen to clearly enunciate a theme that was already central to the producers' own ideas: i.e., after the collapse of Communism in Europe, American intelligence agencies turned their attention away from international enemies to domestic subversives. And so Bill's soundbite appears right at the beginning of episode three, entitled "The Joy of CCTV."

It is, of course, very frustrating to find out -- over a year later -- that so much time and effort was wasted. Instead of spending a whole day with the WOW crew, Bill could have limited his time to a mere 30 minutes, and still could have managed to record his soundbite! The rest of the SCP need not have been involved at all! But there is more than just wasted time to the NY SCP's immense disappointment with WOW's History of Surveillance.

In its way, WOW's documentary is the most one-sided thing to include the NY SCP ever aired; it is even more one-sided than the show aired by Court TV, if you can believe that. Nowhere in WOW's overly long and drawn-out History -- which stretches from the end of the 18th century to the present -- does one find a single individual or group of people who has actively resisted or fought against either surveillance or "the paranoia of the State," which is positioned as the motor for or primary cause of increasing surveillance (there is no consideration of the idea that the "paranoid State" has been created by and acts on behalf of certain groups or socio-economic classes of people). All one hears about -- for hours and hours on end! -- is how, time and time again, surveillance has been "imposed" upon certain types or classes of people. Because some (but not all!) of these people have been sick or insane, the implication is that surveillance has been good for the people upon whom it has been imposed. And though there are a great many denunciations of surveillance and the way it has been imposed upon others, these denunciations are never made by or attributed to people who are actually struggling against "the Surveillance State." This is history as told by the victors: nothing but half-truths and outright lies.

There are people who struggle against surveillance, of course: the WOW crew even talked to a few of them when they came to New York in September 2000! And so, when the narrator of "The Joy of CCTV" segment says that Americans -- "average Americans," all Americans -- have "accepted" surveillance "without a murmur" [of protest], the New York Surveillance Camera Players haven't simply had their time wasted. It's even more outrageous than that: they have had their very existence denied.

Contact the NY Surveillance Camera Players

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

NY Surveillance Camera Players