Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: life inside Fortress UK

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Still from film The Lost Ones (2019) copyright Richard Whitby

My most memorable encounter with bureaucracy was in 1976 when a British Rail official embargoed the loading of my moped onto a train at Penzance station after a holiday in Cornwall. This was possible back then, when trains had a guard’s van. The realisation hit me how your life could be held hostage by a zealous stranger brandishing a rulebook. The tank had petrol in it, an apparent fire risk. I was so grateful to his colleagues who helped me to persuade him to let it on. 

State officials all have rulebooks to work to. By imposing these rules they can consign people to poverty, detention or deportation. Those with a cruel edge to their personality will revel in their work. More humane officials will take some comfort from bending the rules. But the real culprits are the people who make the rules. This is a consolation for the official enforcing them and a frustration for those having to conform to them. When tempers flare in such encounters the simple way to mollify the subject is to politely refer to the rules. I was once advised by a boss to counter every complaint from clients by saying: “It is the organisation’s policy”. This may appear robotic but it provides a carapace against the complainant’s anger. These bland, stonewalling guardians of state control were termed “soft cops” by Caryl Churchill in her play of the same name and included  teachers and social workers as well as law enforcers and immigration officers.  She drew on Foucault’s idea of “gentle punishment” and Bentham’s utopian omniscient prison design, the Panopticon, to warn that the threat of state surveillance is enough to maintain a controlled society.

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Modern visualisation of Bentham’s design for the Panopticon

The latest edition of this approach is the nudge theory of state intervention where  non-punitive measures are used to influence the climate of opinion and ultimately people’s behaviour. Banning smoking in offices led to pariah status for smokers and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption. The “hostile environment” approach to immigration and repatriation uses the same strategy. The “Go Home” billboards in suspected London hot spots were intended to nudge illegal immigrants into jumping before they were pushed. A soft survelliance operation, co-opting landlords, employers and health workers as immigration officers stoked a climate of fear and suspicion. How ironic that Amber Rudd, the politician responsible for the policy, resigned as Home Secretary blaming her officials for its over-enthusiastic implementation. 

The threatening, gratuitously offensive interviewer whose disembodied voice is a constant presence in Richard Whitby’s gripping film, The Lost Ones (2019), might represent one such official. This script decision by Whitby and his co-writer Alistair Beaton has two consequences. Firstly, the cruelty of the interrogator becomes conflated with the cruelty of the interrogation policy. This puts the focus on the official rather than the politician as the bogeyman.  Secondly, it downplays the unfazed rationality that is often the scariest aspect of any confrontation with a state official, their blank emotional expression leaving you seething. In contrast the hectoring official in Whitby’s film is a necessary device to shock the interviewees into retaliation. The actors playing them had no script so their improvised responses to the provocation of the often absurd questions are genuine and idiosyncratic. 

The Brexit mindset is herding us into a corral of shared national pride. By using questions from the citizenship test and benefit screening, Whitby’s film demonstrates that the barriers built by Border Control and the DWP are symptomatic of the state’s wider goals: the creation of pariah groupings and the enforcement of patriotic conformity. His choice of actors of diverse age and ethnicity reinforces that we can all be threatened with scapegoating. The minimalist setting in an anonymous waiting room with bucket chairs and a credit card reader to accept payments is the contemporary equivalent of the Circumlocution Office from Dickens’ Bleak House where you might spent a lifetime trapped in a bureaucratic circle of hell. The grating soundtrack, the intermittent views of the room shot from behind a ventilation grille and the looped screening generate an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. I felt relieved when the familiarity of the on-screen confrontation indicated my entry point in the loop and I could make my escape. The film’s interviewees were not so lucky, condemned to replay their imprisonment ad infimtum.

The most worrying Panopticon-style use of the internet comes from China where your status as a citizen can be downgraded by your online expressed views. Whitby’s film is adding to the body of art warning that it is not only in authoritarian states that bad things can happen. Good things, like the happy ending to my moped story, need more of us to challenge the surveillance-enforced rulebook that threatens to turn the country into an embattled fortress like the one pictured on the back wall of the The Lost Ones’  interrogation room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: has narrative gone?

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Installation view of For the First Baby born in Space courtesy of Jerwood/FVU

Since its launch six years ago, the Jerwood/FVU Award has highlighted many talented emerging artists of whom I unashamedly single out Alice May Williams selected in 2016, whose riviting film, Dream City was an intelligent fusion of  text, image and music with a symphonic, three movement structure (slow, fast,slow) .

This year’s award winning films on the theme of Going, Gone produce some memorable moments but the overarching sense of a narrative structure is (perhaps intentionally) missing. They have both opted for videos playing on a continuous loop which is a tricky structure to get right. Any narrative that emerges will be non-linear. A circular narrative with no start or finish point means you can dip in and out.  The images you experience will be ordered but it’s up to you to impose a structure (or not, if that is your choice). The danger is that the film loses coherence and it provides an series of unrelated images that are left unresolved. The potential benefit is that the viewer is engaged to fill in the gaps and make some sense of what they are seeing.

For The First Baby Born in Space (2019)  is a two channel observational documentary of Whitby teenagers devised by the artist-duo, Webb-Ellis. For them it is a “political” act of the artist to resist offering a meaning to their work, a view I thoroughly endorse. An artist who insists that the meaning imposed by others on their work has less validity than their own has really missed the point of art. Looking at art makes us more aware of the delicate process of constructing meaning that we are all engaged in. Our unconscious is devoted to filtering the booming, buzzing confusion of our environment. An artwork is however a pre-filtered sample of the world. Simply by choosing what to present to the viewer the potential meanings we can construct have been narrowed down considerably. The knowledge that the work was commissioned in response to a set theme will also direct our response. This year’s theme references Brexit but also alerts us to alternative meanings about boundaries and transitions filtered through our own cognitive and affective biases.  

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© Webb-Ellis – still from the film For the First Baby born in Space (2019) courtesy of  the artists

Teenagers are interesting subjects for documentary film-makers because of their wobbly, reticent perch on the threshold of adulthood.  Images of the funfair, beach, sea, bonfires, music, dance, flirtation all shout “our last teenage summer” as they bid farewell to childhood. The most striking images for me were the nightmarish, gaudy reflection of the funfair lights in the waves at night and a dying fish flopping around next to the flowered, flip-flopped foot of the girl angler who hooked it. Death is ever present in this film as teenagers often drift towards it with an attitude of nihlistic bravado. “I’d rather die than be a failure” is one boy’s comment. Given the rise in young male suicides this is either tasteless or requiring immediate intervention. A sense of fragmentation pervades this gentle, non-judgmental  film in which its many subjects are glimpsed so briefly, their narratives so sketchily portrayed that they seem to float untethered from the everyday concerns of living. The source of this fragmentation remains obscured and unexamined so ultimately the artists have achieved their aim of leaving space for our reflections. 

Something has gone. It might be the creative confidence of the artist reluctant to present a definitive line or narrative. It might be absence of development and structure as required elements of post-modern artforms. It might be the rejection of objective truth and the acceptance of subjectivity as the only reality. Whatever has gone, there is a clear alibi available : “iyou find this work incoherent …well that’s intentional… it’s not a sign of our inability to create a coherent narrative. Remember we live in the post-modern era where narratives dissolve into nothingness”  

The other selected artist, Richard Whitby, also uses a looped narrative in his film The Lost Ones but in this case it confers a claustrophobic and absurd atmosphere ideally suited to this satire on citizenship and its control by officers of the state which will be the subject of my next blogpost.