There are 129 surveillance cameras in and around Times Square, and Bill Brown, director of the guerrilla theater group Surveillance Camera Players, knows every one of them. He takes perverse pride in pointing out that the inconspicuous white-and-gray globe hanging above 46th and Broadway, just south of the George M. Cohan statue, houses a casino-style eye-in-the-sky originally installed by the NYPD to watch, says Brown, for Y2K terrorism. “It can pan 360 degrees,” he explains. “It’s good enough to see how much change you’ve got in your hand.”
On a recent evening, SCP took the stage – really, the traffic island – to perform a brief show called “Headline News.” (They were the second act on a left-wing double bill that opened with a Living Theater performance protesting an execution in Texas.) Lining up in front of the Cohan-cam, Brown and three other jeans-clad amateur actors held up a series of placards, including one with a huge CBS logo captioned we watch you watch. Other SCP members distributed hand-drawn maps marked with camera locations and explained to the crowd that they, too, were being monitored. “What surveillance camera?” asked a shocked office worker. “I’m being watched?”
Though he’s an accomplished paranoid who reels off a list of Defense Departmentrelated agencies that sniff out his Web server, Brown is also a polemicist who considers the number of cameras aimed at public space in Manhattan – at least 2,500, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union – an invasion of privacy. In 1996, when he was the New York coordinator of the Unabomber for President write-in campaign, he seized on the idea that any good camera deserves a good show and recruited some anarchist buddies to help. Their silent adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi for cameras on a Union Square subway platform became the model for the group’s subsequent work.
Though the SCP’s material tends to be heavy-handed (its repertoire includes 1984 and Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism), its performances can pack a subversive punch. Sometimes, as will happen in live theater, they get lucky. Last November, during a performance of 1984 at the West 14th Street IRT station, just when the villainous O’Brien was interrogating Winston Smith in Room 101, transit police overran the set, asking for a permit and forcing the crew to stop taping the event. Viewed from a certain distance, it makes for legitimately chilling theater-of-coincidence.
“This is the way surveillance works now,” charges Brown, lighting up a Camel after the SCP’s Times Square show. “We consume the violation of our own civil liberties as entertainment.” Big Brother is watching – and taking programming notes.