Expanding and Contracting Barriers
1st - 25th February 2019
This was the first thing I saw after arriving in Wakefield. The cameras point at the entrance to the station building and to a piece of wasteground, respectively. This type of functional aesthetic is really interesting for me – It forgoes any desire to disguise the violence or obscure the power dynamics involved in this type of security.
There's the unsubtle threat that's inherent in fitting out a security camera with spikes, even if it is to keep birds from sitting there. The spikes are a metaphor for the guard at the end of the cable, the inherent threat that you will suffer if you don't obey the camera. The camera doesn't necessarily want to observe disobedience, in the same way that a gun doesn't necessarily want to shoot. It's there to make sure that the observed know to remain obedient, to not act against the will of the camera and by extension whoever installed it.
Something about disembodying threat like this is always problematic for me. It reflects bureaucratic barriers in a very immediate and physical way, it presents itself as impossible to negotiate with, above or outside of dialogue.
These cameras, at the back of the station by the tracks, have spikes. The cameras at the front of the station do not. There are many cameras, presumably observing the same people (and birds), but in a public space. Once you cross the ticket barriers, into the area for travellers dedicated beyond friends and family, you are in private space. This being change presents a visual implication that isn't the express purpose of the modification – It almost appears like the camera is no longer interested in hiding its threat. It made me think about violence against prisoners, police violence, state sponsored violence and how easily those recordings seem to go missing in private space. The aesthetic implications very quickly go beyond their actual function.
I went back to take the photos I the mid-afternoon, having arrived this morning and the barriers to the station were all open, with no ticket inspectors or staff other than one woman on the information desk. I probably spent about fifteen minutes taking the photos of the security cameras (and some not pictured of the open barriers). During this time, people on the platform looked uncomfortable, with one man staring at me for a bit before moving further down the platform. When I left the station and photographed the barriers, the woman on the desk looked uncomfortable. It's weird that the think that makes watching (and recording) people okay is the lack of humanity immediately present, that we inherently accept the disembodied observance. It's reflective of an ublinking faith in authority, an assumption that whoever is in charge of those cameras will be responsible with what they capture.
It reminded me of a friend who got searched by the police and had an SD card wiped for taking photos of architecture – as they ran his name and address they said “it's because of terrorism”. That word has been appearing too often in the embryonic stages of this research, inherently violent security as counter terrorism. I'm a white male from Scotland in my mid 20s, I was wearing polo jacket, jeans and trainers. What if I wasn't?
I wanted to talk to someone about that observation, about the fact that me being able to walk through those barriers without buying a ticket and photograph the CCTV cameras was made significantly easier by the colour of my skin. I think observing white privilege can be complicated when that's the only way you've lived – part of it comes as not actually having to think about it, obviously. This was just something I felt very conscious of and want to consider further in relation to the works and research.
The First Brick
The idea for this piece of work was the catalyst for beginning this project. I was noticing more and more of these sorts of improvised security systems and thinking about the inherent violence present in them. What do they say? I would rather you cut your femoral artery and have you bleed out on the stones at the bottom of my garden than gain access to my home.
I'm not saying that everyone putting these sorts of security systems in place is actually thinking this, I understand that it comes from fear and frustration and attitudes propagated by mainstream media outlets, entrenched in politics.
Fear is the thing that jumps out at me immediately, the idea that people are afraid and seek to circumvent that fear by passing it on – by causing fear in the other, the other that they fear. it makes a concrete distinction between those who are granted access and those who are not. It makes no bones about exclusion.
This is the first brick. The aim of the bricks Is to make the inherent violence of something like this clear. When it forms a wall, when it's part of a large group, it's security. It's protection. When it is protecting private property, it is a necessary evil, an eyesore but one which serves a purpose. It keeps a certain type of person out, it maintains a degree of order within the space it surrounds. It was put there by someone who believes that it is their right to harm someone for trying to climb over their wall.
A brick alone, with glass and concrete, is a weapon. This is a violent weapon that could be picked off a plinth and used to maim someone. This is more violent than, for example, pepper spray. Pepper spray, as a protective measure carried in a purse or handbag or jacket pocket, is an illegal weapon.
If you surround your garden with bricks like these, you could face legal action from an injured intruder – unless you place a sign somewhere on the wall stating that there is glass on it. You can find more information about the legal grey area here. Their use of intruder is interesting – it's further to the idea of othering, pushing the potential person outside of your empathy bubble.
The particularly difficult thing about this is that it rejects empathy completely. It rejects the idea of social responsibility or of social consideration, it has no interest in dialogue. It exists soley as an enforcer, there is no negotiation.
Notes on Fear - Subversion and The Shoplifter
Taken from LAPD Archives
Fear is useful and fear is primal. Fear helps us reflect and deflect, to process situations and identify actions. Fear is useful outside of ourselves, in the context of control, fear is the greatest currency. Punishment, in the judicial sense, creates a strange context for morality. It presents fear as the barrier between citizens and immoral (illegal) acts – as if the only thing preventing widespread acts of extreme violence was the fear punishment, as opposed to a lack of desire.
This paints humanity in a troubling light, it creates the assumption that we all act purely in self-interest. It creates the assumption that community, society and social structures only exist for fear of punishment in the event of their destruction. Maybe the only reason the government stands is for fear of persecution but is this the same for the corner shop? Maybe, maybe not.
In some instances, fear is overridden by morality or desire. Think about the moralist shoplifter: Human desire for things, sustenance, security – security comes with money, so one has a desire for things both outside of their budget and without damaging their security:safety net. The moralist shoplifter is stealing from Asda, stealing from TK Maxx, stealing from big businesses and chain stores. This moralist shoplifter doesn't steal from mom n pop and doesn't steal out of desperation, they steal from big business as an act of protest or out of desire.
In this instance, we could argue two immediate points:
Subversion of fear as an act of protest – If we fear punishment but override this fear in favour of doing something that we believe to be morally sound, we are taking control of our fear. It is a protest against the constructs designed to maintain a social order that we want to subvert. More so than the act of taking something because we want/need it or because we can't afford it, we are more concerned with the act of taking. This is a political act, a social act and a personal act – it is a rejection and one that provides immediate satisfaction. Subversion of fear as direct action.
This subversion of fear is an inherently political act, it's the movement of free-thinking but in a way which creates a new structure, however malleable. By making a decision of who to and not to steal from, by deciding that theft in general is justified by a particular situation, the moral shoplifter undertakes a sort of revolution. These micro-actions; not paying for your lunch in Tesco, leaving the fitting room with a second pair of jeans on – through to picking up an entire rack of Patagonia jackets and running to the door hoping for the best – create a moral dichotomy. They encourage consideration in multilateral perspective. There are sides and sides to these sides but once the products are gone, the store must react. Socially, those around the moral shoplifter must react. Admiration, admonishment or ambivalence – we pick one and define our position.
The superseding of fear by desire – In this example, the argument could be put forward the desire superseding fear exists as a symptom of capitalism. Our shoplifter has a desire for a product but does not want to or is not able to spend to acquire it. They are aware that if they are caught stealing the item, they will suffer consequences of some kind. Something negative will come of this. They weigh their desire for the item against their fear of being caught (and/or the consequences that come with this) either consciously or unconsciously, then fear trumps desire.
Is this a neo-liberal idea? A sort of individualism tied up in subversion of late capitalism that is actually just a snotty adherence to it? Maybe, I suppose we're all guilty of allowing advertising, FOMO, desire to influence us to some degree. It's the question as to whether or not, in the instance of the shoplifter, when does acquisition become dependent on the product? Once we bring products into the discussion, we assign value to those products based on desirability. Is it worth stealing a can of coke? Is it worth stealing a Balenciaga jacket? Weighing fear against desire, or maybe consequences against desire, we create value. Is this any different from labour? We sell hours based on a necessity to receive income which ultimately feeds into our desire for things we value. We weigh the actions against the consequences, the difference being our social assertion that fear of something happening to us is different from a desire not to have something happen to us.
I feel like it's important to reiterate that our shoplifter is not stealing because they have no choice, that is something different entirely and can't really be discussed in the same context. That becomes more like on fear superseding another fear – fear of starvation trumping fear of punishment, fear of suffering substance withdrawal trumping fear of social (or actual) death.
World of Fear
I'm old enough, although maybe just old enough, to remember going to the video shop. I might well be at the top end of people who remember the excitement of renting videos, of going somewhere where they would have videos different from the ones you had access to – someone's older sibling who had videos that you weren't supposed to have access to.
Avoiding sloppy nostalgia, the reason I mention this is because there were three VHS covers that I remember vividly from the Alldays store near my parents' house: American Psycho, American Beauty and Sexy Beast. I still haven't seen Sexy Beast and I'm not going to be googling it for the purpose of this but the other two ended up being formative movies for me (and I assume many other pretentious kids who thought they were smart and were seeking an identity).
The reason I bring this up is because those movie covers have stuck with me for decades, both because of their content and the implication of their titles.
One day, when I was off school and I assume annoying my Mum, she took me to the video shop. I wanted to rent John Carpenter's Vampires. It was rated 18 but that wasn't really something anyone in my family (or those of my immediate friends) ever took seriously. Those ratings were for Christians and Politicians, normal people made their own decisions and my Mum knew that I was old enough to watch Vampires.
I was not. I don't think I slept a full night in my own room for about six months, I had nightmares, I cried and I begged and I left every light in the house on. It was probably 1999/2000, making me 7-9 years old depending on release dates. That movie (in spite of not being very scary at all) had terrified me to my barest bones.
In doing this, it also instilled a lifelong fascination in me – fear. The macabre, the paranormal, conspiracies, the unknown, the subversive. Whatever was weird, or dangerous or wrong, I wanted to see it, I wanted to be part of it. I would watch horror movies, then run to my room and stare at the ceiling, terrified to close my eyes. As I got older, the fear went away and the fascination didn't, this is where I feel like this story actually begins to become relevant to this project.
I travel a lot and subsequently listen to a lot of podcasts; true crime, horror, conspiracies, from trashy to intellectual, I'm into it. I started to notice adverts popping up in these places for a company called Simplisafe.
Simplisafe offers a service (and there are many others identical to it) whereby customers purchase a “system” ranging from an alexa-style speaker alarm to a full set up of cameras and motion sensors (starting at $259) and then pay a subscription (starting at $14.99pcm) for them to be monitored by professional security professionals trained professionally to monitor your home in a professional manner, professionally.
This is problematic for so many reasons but I'm going to save the mechanics of private security in late capitalism, the other and offering tiered systems of “Safety” for another post. I want to touch very briefly on the surface level marketing of this product.
This is their website's landing page:
Now read that sentence pretending to be the voiceover artist for a movie like The Mutilator. If you haven't seen the trailer for The Mutilator, just make up what you think the person doing that voiceover might sound like.
The posters sprinkled throughout this article are inspired by the design of horror posters during the 1980s, using verbatim quotes or extrapolations of quotes from Simplisafe's marketing material.
Using fear to sell safety is a dystopic premise. The assumption that we do, and should, live in fear is challenging because fear can be rational or irrational. If we live in fear, do we live in a fear which is anchored in reality and experience or do we live in a fear which is purely ephemeral? If it's the latter, what propagates this fear?