Not So Private Lives

Tempe street-theater subversives stage command performance for Mill Avenue snoop cams

In Andy Warhol's world, everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. Charles Banaszewski -- friends call him Chuck -- is looking to grab 30, maybe more.

Closing the rear hatch of his black Nissan Xterra, he hoists a flapping stack of hand-lettered cardboard signs above his head and leads four other members of the Arizona Surveillance Camera Players across a parking lot in downtown Tempe toward their stage of choice, the brick-paved corner of Mill Avenue and Sixth Street.

It's 10 in the morning on September 7. And the surveillance camera -- called Sneaky Pete -- atop the building across the street is zeroing in on the corner. For the next half-hour it will snap pictures every minute, load them onto the city's Web site (www.tempe.gov), and beam them to multitudes of boredom-seekers around the world.

This does not make Banaszewski and his troupe of curbside thespians happy. But it does make their day. After all, the AZSCP is here to expose these kinds of candid cameras (www.notbored.org/arizona-scp.html).

At the corner, he and the group scan the roofline of the camera building like government agents searching for signs of a sniper. Then, at 10:04, he holds up a brown cardboard sign scrawled unevenly with the letters AZSCP. A moment later, still holding the sign, he flips open his cell phone and asks a roommate monitoring the Web at home, "Can you see it yet?"

It's his opening act of a half-hourlong contribution to International Anti-Surveillance Camera Day.

Most people celebrate -- if that's the word -- the occasion by looking impatiently, often unknowingly, at the security cams used by banks, ATMs, Circle Ks and any number of other security-minded institutions.

Banaszewski prefers to mark it by performing street theater that protests snoop cameras and other public and private erosions of Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable searches.

"At the moment," he says, "our shows are geared to the Tempe Web cam, and all the anti-fun laws on Mill Avenue. They're kind of a comment on the no skateboarding, no cruising, no sitting attitude down there. And on the fact that all they really want to encourage is shopping."

But that's just the tip of his concern.

"There are so many mechanisms of surveillance that people aren't aware of," he says. "Every time you go to the grocery store and swipe your Fry's card or whatever, it documents what you eat and then sells that information to a database that then sells that information to other groups, creating profiles of you."

He and his troupe are also piqued by the increasing use of privacy-invading technologies, such as face-recognition programs and x-ray and heat-seeking devices that can peer through the walls of houses.

Not to mention "cookies," those packets of data that pass between your hard drive and your favorite Internet sites, tracking your electronic tastes.

The courts haven't been mute on the subject.

This past year, the Supreme Court, citing the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, shot down police use of heat-imaging devices that probe the innards of a house to detect illicit activities.

Banaszewski contends that beyond the matter of law, these kinds of intrusions are altering the meaning of urban anonymity and security.

"If you're a stalker or something like that," he says, "you can just sit home and wait for your favorite waitress to come into work."

The group, which formed in February, is a clone of the NY Surveillance Camera Players, which began playing to Big Apple surveillance cams in 1996.

In addition to the Arizona and New York groups, another 20 or so groups were carrying out simultaneous Web-cam protests on September 7, in places as far-flung as Germany, England, Italy, Minneapolis and San Francisco, he says.

A graduate student in theater at ASU, Banaszewski came to cam consciousness through a class about theater and social change.

"I've always been more interested in social theater and working outside the traditional black box theater."

Like many other street players, he's following the lead of the renowned Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal, who has devoted himself to using theatrical techniques to advance social change.

"What Boal wanted to do, and I guess I'm trying to do, too," says Banaszewski, "was empower the spectators to come out of the audience and onto the stage."

Forget those cushy orchestra seats, and the traditional distinction between actor and audience, performer and spectator.

"Basically, people sitting in an audience will just stay there seated," he says. "They're safe, but they're never going to prepare for a revolution."

The line between art and protest has always been hazy. On the street, where political and social dramas are daily occurrences, sit-ins, rallies and the antics that accompany them are theater writ large -- performances that occasionally force onlookers to examine their consciences, or choose sides. That was as true of the civil rights and anti-war marches of the 1960s as it was of the anarchist-sponsored, anti-globalist demonstrations held recently in Seattle, Milan and Goteburg.

Of course, revolution isn't what it used to be.

"Revolutionary thinking could just be a matter of changing your normal daily behavior," says Banaszewski. "That might be just brushing your teeth at the end of the morning session in the bathroom, as opposed to the first thing. You know, help break up those routines."

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