Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Surveillance in the snow

Snow isn't a problem here - we could cope with a few more inches. The problem is the cold. As people walk in the snow, or as cars drive on the less-travelled roads, the snow turns to slush. Then it refreezes. I don't need to head to an ice-rink for thrills - between home and the station I slide precariously every few yards. My new technique for walking involves checking for crisp, snowy patches and cluching at walls, fences, lamp-posts and railings. What was usually a walk of less than ten minutes required concentration. balance and quick reactions. As my feet slid away from me, I bent my legs and caught hold of the railing, pleased to have avoided a serious tumble.

I was determined to have a day out. I'd booked leave - I'd told my friends I would do something special, even if my ambition had shrunk to a china boot filled with gluhwein and a visit to the exhibition at Nottingham Castle. I was feeling good about it. If nothing else worked out, I could always settle down in a warm café with Les Misérables.

I rang the castle in advance. The man who answered assured me that it was open and, more importantly, that the steep path up Castle Mound was well-gritted. He didn't mention that the steep pavements in the way to Castle Mound were glazed with ice and compacted snow. I staggered and slithered uphill, looking anxiously at the other tottering pedestrians who seemed more practised at walking on ice. Somehow I didn't topple down the slope but, carefully taking small steps, passed the Robin Hood statue and reached the castle gate. At last there were clear paths. I walked up the slope, delighting in the sight of the black branches above the snowy bandstand; the small, cold Christmas tree and even two or three warmly-wrapped children playing in chill of the white playground.

Perhaps an exhibition of art inspired by prisons and surveillance wouldn't have been everyone's choice for a day out but it suited my mood - and my sense of questions that matter in Britain today. I walked up the stairs inside the castle and into the exhibition. The first two exhibits are probably the ones that will stay longest with me. Louise Bourgeois's "Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)" may not comment on wider social and political questions in any obvious ways but it evokes the horror of being imprisoned and watched. It seems right that this horror should provide the basis of any political consideration of prison and surveillance - surely horror is the natural reaction to both.

I don't always spend long in video installations but I caught Manu Luksch's Faceless shortly after it had started and stayed nearly fifty minutes till the end. The film consists entirely of CCTV images, following rules set out in a manifesto. CCTV has also inspired the story of the film, which is told in a voice-over by Tilda Swinton. Again, the film isn't a direct comment on contemporary life - it's set in a future envisioned according to the CCTV trail each of us leaves every day. I emerged disturbed and impressed by the way blurrily familiar CCTV film had been turned into narrative with actors and choreographed dancers performing amid passers by for the mechanical gaze of the cameras.

I blinked as I emerged from the viewing booth and caught sight of the "Millbank Penitentiary" a model by Langlands and Bell of a now-demolished panoptical prison. The idea of the pantopticon was originated by Jeremy Bentham. It envisaged prisoners kept in separate cells, never seeing their fellow inmates but believing that they were watched at all times. A modified version has influenced prison design for many years. Bentham thought up the design as a benevolent model that would achieve reform of the prisoners. When developed to the extremes of Bentham's vision, many prisoners went mad.

I wandered into the next room. The gallery was empty apart from me, the attendant and a man leaning over a computer at a desk. I smiled at the attendant as I passed him and began to concentrate on the exhibits.

First I gazed at a history of imprisonment and death in Nottingham Castle. The past seemed to blend into present as I saw the orange jumpsuits in a nearby photo.

Then my attention was caught by what looked like Lego boxes opened up and spread out on the wall. Looking closely, I realised the scenes involved black-clad armed guards herding, beating and executing white skeletons. The notice beside gave the title and artist: "Concentration Camp Series" by Zbigniew Libera. I gazed some more.

They had captured my attention more than the flayed man in the Marc Quinn sculpture though pictures of Quinn's work had drawn me to the exhibition. Christine Borland's "Air Heads" were similarly powerful but I was following a different trail of thought. I looked at the words projected on the wall ahead of me.

"LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS," I read. "The lady with the LROB bag looks at the Lego posters." I paused and checked my bag. It's my favourite fabric bag from the London Review of Books. I was being watched and my actions were being described in large letters on the wall.

I looked round. The attendant was still sitting in the corner. The man with a computer on his desk was typing. I read an earlier entry projected on the wall. It referred to "desk man." Desk man was watching me.

I tried to forget the presence of desk man and gazed at an exhibit which invited members of the public to operate a surveillance camera. But the exhibit was enclosed in plastic - I couldn't see how this should be done and wasn't sure I wished to watch anything like that, not even plastic trees and houses. I moved on, out of sight of desk man. Looking up at the wall I saw that my uncertainty about the exhibit was now described for new visitors. I moved into a corner where I felt sure I'd be out of sight. Then I saw the joystick to move the CCTV camera. I touched it tentatively and moved it just slightly, catching a plastic house and tree in a dark noose of shadow.

A few minutes later the words on the wall said that I had touched the joystick but hadn't moved it. I stayed out of sight and was glad when a family came into the gallery. Desk man shifted his attention to them and I sidled out into a suddenly sinister collection of Victorian paintings. Every model seemed to be a victim of the artist's gaze.

I made my way down the stairs, uncertain whether desk man - or some CCTV operator - was watching my back. Then I paused in the café for an excellent macchiato and mince pie. I took out my copy of Les Misérables. Jean Valjean has eluded Javert again and is carefully staying out of sight. Reassured by a fictional past, I headed out of the castle to meet my children and enjoy a celebratory gluhwein in the Old Market Square.


Kate J said...

The exhibition sounds really worth seeing - glad you managed to make it through the ice and snow! That bit about being observed is really spooky... trouble is it's happe ing for real in so many places. Even here in our small village, there are now police cameras at the edge of the village, I'm told they are car number recognition cameras. The councillor got quitre shirty when my partner enquired about them. I'm thinking of taking a photo of the cameras...
Hope you enjoyed the gluhwein!

Kathz said...

I think you should get a group together and perform a mime for the cameras, then, following the example of Manu Luksch, pay £10 for a copy of the film so that you can edit it (for You Tube at least).

David Mery said...


Manu's work is excellent. It's well worth exploring further her website. A more recent project, which you're likely to find interesting as well is 'Love, Piracy, and the Office of Religious Weblog Expansion'.

Related to Faceless and the manifesto, have a look at the essay 'Faceless: chasing the data shadow'. (I linked to it from A web of indifferent watching devices.)

Best wishes for the festive season. -d

Kathz said...

Thanks, David - I should have picked this up from your blog two years ago but I think you posted when I was busy. In any case, nothing would really have prepared me for the experience of viewing Faceless.

I hope you too have a very happy holiday.