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The Poetics of Surveillance Culture with Iain Sinclair

Psychogeographer Iain Sinclair discusses the poetic effects of CCTV
March 27, 2011, 5:04pm

Under the watchful eyes of Roehampton University's alien parakeets, psychogeographer and author Iain Sinclair discussed the poetics of surveillance culture. Here's what we learned. . .

Currently, there are over 150,000 cameras keeping watch over the city of London. "This city has eyes and it's watching itself, a giant panopticon," he says. “The visual nerve centre, Its cameras ‘abuse the past and fragment the present’.”


Interviewed by Sinclair, forty years ago, Allen Ginsberg predicted that with the arrival of networked security cameras, history would soon be over. He felt that a new kind of truth would soon emerge, when all secrets and perversions were made public.

In actual fact, new kinds of secrets and perversions blossomed. From Wikileaks, (the website and the ensuing soap-opera), to mobile phone snuff movies, to airport carpark porn-tableuxs, these recording devices opened up new avenues of shadowy reality reconstruction.

Maybe the cameras herald the arrival of a new kind of avant-garde cinema, an electronic meditative device, where watching silent footage becomes a reverie? Or a benign voyeurism? Anonymous storage facilities full of recordings patiently await the day that the next Jill Dando will transmute their base material into prime-time gold. In the case of the James Bulger murder, the blurry supermarket footage has come to represent the crime itself. "CCTV isn't about stopping crime. It's about turning the events into a film."

Old-style cameras are like awkward architectural mantraps, "mean grey boxes." In a post-surveillance age "it's stranger, closer, more total". A reference perhaps to the tracking of London's “Boris bikes” or the way we hand over our most sensitive information to marketing tools like Facebook. TV shows like Embarassing Bodies desensitize our notion of privacy and personal space. "Those ideas have become antiquarian. It's a fast twitch world of soundbites and downloads that disintegrates the city. London ceases to exist. It disintegrates, it dissolves. It becomes virtual. A gate and a fence appears somewhere around Essex onto which movies are projected. The movies show a paradise that will never exist".

Ironically, Sinclair has, in the past, been arrested for photographing the cameras that were recording him.

Asked if CCTV cameras on buses which display their footage in real-time might be a step too far, he replied, "Aesthetically I was taken with it. The quality of the image, seeing myself, the configuration and colour of the upholstery. Better than any in-flight movie. But I didn't feel any safer."

In a talk that was refreshingly free of explicit commercial motivations, Sinclair remains the illuminator-in-chief of the the daily subliminal, a vigilant eye on the optic vigilantes.