From the slammer to the clamour
Two new UK exhibitions show the imprisonment of society and the struggle for rights and freedoms.
Here, Jo Herlihy reviews an exhibition in Nottingham, The Impossible Prison, which examines Michel Foucault’s idea that we are constantly under surveillance. Below, Tim Black reviews the British Library’s exhibition Taking Liberties, a celebration of the way that freedom in Britain has been fought for through the ages.
The impossible prison is the thought-provoking title of a stimulating, multi-media exhibition in Nottingham which features a range of ideas-rich art works.
The exhibition explores the notions of control, discipline, conformity, confinement and routine, as well as the overall dehumanising experience of imprisonment. The art works span four decades and are accompanied by written material with sources dating back to the 1750s.
Underpinning the exhibition are the ideas of French philosopher Michel Foucault. He conceived of society in terms of surveillance and control, a social world in which all aspects of people’s lives are observed and ordered, with prison being its most severe manifestation. It is rare that a philosophical idea is used so centrally within an exhibition, but I for one was thankful for this approach. With the range of initiatives and legislation around surveillance set to intensify over the next couple of years in Britain, this exhibition represents an important and serious contribution to the debate.
At the exhibition’s heart is a crucial question: To what extent has everyday life become an extension of prison?
Some artists explore the regimentation and routine of prison. Pieces by American artist Bruce Nauman depict the monotony of the exercise yard, while the drawings of Atelier van Lieshout represent snapshots of the dull conformity that prison instils. Others delve in to the deep emotions and behaviour generated by the loss of liberty and the impact of institutionalisation.
The works of Vito Acconci and Harun Farocki are particularly arresting. Acconci’s videos are startling pieces that capture acute human emotions provoked by an intense experience laid bare for the audience to react to. As the viewer of his piece ‘Centers’ (1971), you become the accused, and in ‘Face Off’ (1973), you bear witness to the hysteria of someone hearing back their own confession – is the person feeling shame, guilt, remorse?
The intensity of the human experiences portrayed in these videos is in stark contrast to those inmates within a Californian maximum security prison shown in Farock’s ‘I thought I was seeing convicts’ (2000). Here, men are seen as mere items in a system tracked on computer screens with the aid of tagging devices.
In keeping with the aim of the exhibition to revisit the ideas of the French theorist Michel Foucalt, some exhibition pieces break out of the prison cell to explore power and surveillance within society at large. They examine the blurred lines between authority and control and show how mass surveillance of the public is analogous to the intrusive surveillance of a convicted criminal.
This is done in a number of ways. The most stark example is a piece that shows itemised lists, displayed on police station walls, of government initiatives that seek to extend further surveillance of the general public. Anand, in ‘Cold Clinic’ (2008), provides a simulation of a CCTV control room – the most visual evidence of mass observation of behaviour. In contrast to Acconci’s piece where you, as the viewer, become the accused, here you become the observer of the public, trying to anticipate crimes. You are forced to reflect on the images shown on the screens, knowing it could easily be your own routine and mundane activity that is being captured.
More subtle and ambiguous is Dan Graham’s ‘Pavillions’ (1999). Here, images from the external world are reflected in glass and mirrors – reflected, self-reflected, observed, transparent, captured. This is the world of contemporary public space and work life, mediated through architecture and buildings.
All the material displayed in The impossible prison is historically contextualised, helping the audience understand the changing nature of power and its administration. The exhibition takes us from the early nineteenth century concept of the Panopticon (designed by Samuel Bentham for an industrial context and by his brother, Jeremy Bentham, for a penitentiary) through to today’s surveillance society. Alongside the informative texts are displays with artifacts such as policemen’s uniforms from different areas and various tools of the trade taken from the permanent display of the adjoining Galleries of Justice.
The range of ideas in the exhibition are not entirely unproblematic. There is, for example, the question of Foucault’s focus on prison itself. Since it was partly informed by the brutalisation experienced by radicals imprisoned due to their involvement in the French radical movements of 1968, his was a particular response to historically circumscribed events. However, Foucault’s observation on the systematic regulation of life in order to establish control remains important. And the ability to establish areas where private and public lives should be free from such regulation is lacking in contemporary debate.
The exhibition also overemphasises the technical aspects of surveillance, be it the panoptican or the video camera. In truth, the regulation of personal space takes many forms beyond those related to technology. The social pressure to conform around norms of taste and decency is one example. This is further exacerbated by the prevalence of social networking sites that elide the traditional distinctions between private, public and work space. As a result, open conversation, honesty and free expression become more constrained as more private forms of communication are publicised online, leading to degrees of self-censorship.
However, whatever the exhibition’s lacunae, by drawing attention to the imprisonment of everyday life, it is an important, provocative contribution to the debate around the all too inconspicuous forms of state surveillance.
Jo Herlihy is a writer based in Nottingham.
The impossible prison is a Nottingham Contemporary exhibition, showing at the Galleries Of Justice in Nottingham until to 14 December. For details see here.
by Tim Black
The British Library’s excellent, often inspiring, exhibition Taking Liberties – the struggle for Britain’s freedom’s and rights does, as its title might suggest, struggle to contain itself.
Despite beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215 in the opening section ‘Liberty and rule of law’, any attempt at a linear narrative is quickly abandoned. Instead, there are sections within sections, histories within histories. There are the main areas; ‘Parliaments and the People’, ‘Human Rights’, ‘Freedom from want’, ‘Right to vote’, ‘United Kingdom?’ And within these you’ll find all sorts of mini-displays, be it ‘Causing offence’, ‘From Protectorate to Monarchy’ or the ‘Beveridge report’. The concluding multi-timeline, a splattering of correlates plotted on multiple axes captures the disparate, near incoherent nature of it all.
And, admittedly, such diffusion does teeter on the brink of ahistorical meaninglessness. But, all in all, it just about works. Released from overly strict chronological constraints, individual exhibits are given room to breathe. For example, the original handwritten transcript (only discovered in the late nineteenth century) of the Putney Debates in 1647, between senior officers in Cromwell’s Army and the Levellers over the future of England, is rendered especially arresting.
Everywhere you look, famous, history-defining documents abound. The 1689 Bill of Rights stands unfurled in one section; in another, a copy of the 1789 Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. But smaller testaments to everyday struggle are equally powerful, such as a completed 1838 People’s Charter survey. Some, meanwhile, are peculiarly resonant. For instance, Charles Booth’s Poverty Map would strike a chord with many contemporary moralisers, from social commentators to policymakers. Focusing on a portion of south London, Booth shaded areas according to wealth with, for example, yellow for ‘upper middle and upper classes – wealthy’ and red for ‘well-to-do, middle class’. Right at the bottom however is black for the ‘lowest class, vicious and semi-criminal’.
Through this vast profusion of exhibits, one encounters something akin to a charnel house of political struggle. Every exhibit testifies to surging social currents, each document an eddy in the history of freedom struggles, from the Roundheads to the Chartists, from the Levellers to the Suffragettes. Even the Magna Carta, despite its 1215 origins, remained largely ignored until it was revived in the early seventeenth century due to rising political and social tensions.
A Thomas Paine quote – ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it’ – accompanies visitors on their way out. It seems strange, then, that a history of British struggles for freedom and rights, one that documents so powerfully the arrival of more and more people on to the stage of history, should end so didactically, as a lecture to the people. The demos here is tacitly reconceived as the ignorant mob of yore. It’s a telling moment. From 42 days detention to a new Bill of Rights, debates around freedom and liberty have retreated from the street back to the corridors of power. In such a context, condescension comes all too naturally.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Taking Liberties – the struggle for Britain’s freedom’s and rights is showing at the British Library, London, until 1 March 2009. For further details see here.
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