Monday, 5 July 2010

The Panopticon Singularity

A little while ago, when working on a private art project, I was taking photos of St Nicholas Church, Schoolhill and Upperkirkgate from the top deck of the St. Nicholas Centre. Nothing wrong with that, you might reasonably think. Think again. Having been observed (tracked by CCTV) "acting suspicious" I was intercepted by a burly security guard, who brusquely insisted that I stop, and demanded to inspect the photos I'd taken. I was accused of 'sousveillance' (ie surveilling the St Nic Ctr's surveillance system), the insulting implication being that I was planning 'something'.

I assured the increasingly antsy arms-crossed guard that I was planning nothing that would bother him or his bosses, but refused to show him my photos or tell him exactly why I was taking them. It was none of his or his employer's business - it was a private matter. I was escorted off of the deck and told not to return with my camera. You see, despite appearances, the top deck of the St Nicholas Centre is not a public space, it is owned by Land Securities plc and British Land plc operating as the "Scottish Retail Property Limited Partnership" and we go there at their sufferance only, and are therefore subject to their arbitrary 'rules'.

Who knew? I would, of course, been at complete liberty to take my photos on a street; which is a public right of way where I have inalienable rights of access, association, action etc. But these rights do not exist in/on top of a privately owned building. The same restrictions to our usual public liberty will apply in under and on ACSEF's City Square Garden. And so, finally and inevitably, we will be surveilled everywhere we go in the city centre.

But don't worry! If you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to be worried about, have you? Have you? Embra-based speculative novelist Charlie Stross calls this version of the future way we live today 'the Panopticon Singularity'.

And I'm reminded of the words of Bryan Finoki from his 'Field Guide to Military Urbanism' blog. The blog mostly refers to urban situations in war zones, siege areas, divided communities and the like - but these words are pertinent to us, now, here:

[The] contemporary city is defined by a kind of de facto psychopathology that is embodied in the very spaces and architectural rationales that order urbanization today, from gated communities to urban surveillance landscapes, to the last dying refuges of public space that have been [will be?] overwhelmed by privatization and a complete hyper securitization of the built environment at all scales.

One might ask... what is the current diagnosis and mental health state of western democracy? Or, how can the city be viewed as an architectural weapon to enforce behavior, to mandate neo-liberalism in a way, to turn a population into an obedient supporter of rampant commerce? What are the inherent narratives of power that run through spatial constructs like maximum-security prisons, shopping malls, refugee camps, suburban sprawl, and the hardened borderzones between nation-states? Is there a psychopathological connection between them? Is there a new urban archetype here to be deconstructed?

Aberdonians should consider this question carefully; for in the answer we will find the mind of our newly enthroned plutocratic city fathers and the elected members who are their trustys.

1 comment:

Ruddy said...

it is perfectly legal for you to take pictures from on top of St Nic Centre even if it is private property. Anything that can be viewed with the naked eye is photographable unless it is a site of "National Security".
It IS illegal however for the security guard to ask to see your photographs. THE POLICE ARE NOT EVEN ALLOWED TO DO THIS! They can, however, ask you to move on.