Sarah Pickering, Public Order
Architecture is never apolitical. Rather it is, in the words of Robert Hughes, the ‘carapace of political fantasy’, the thing that simultaneously represents and contains our supreme collective ambitions, and our worst communal nightmares. A new exhibition which has just opened at London College of Communication brings together work by seven photographers who have documented a particularly potent form of this fantasy, specifically the constructed spaces which are used by militaries and emergency services around the world to train in readiness for war, catastrophe, or civil strife.
The precise focus of the show, the small number of projects and the tight selection of the work makes for an interesting and well curated exhibition. Sarah Pickering’s Public Order is one highlight, a series of understated photographs of towns including ‘Denton’, constructed by British police services in order to train for euphemistically named public order incidents, better known as protests or riots. ‘Denton’ is an entire town complete with a tube station, a night club and a job centre, however the town’s buildings are nothing but hollow façades, and an occasional open house door gives way to the green of a field behind it like a surreal illusion. The real action occurs not in the non-existent interiors of these houses but in the streets which are barricaded with shopping trolleys and truck tires, the tarmac and bases of buildings burnt black by improvised incendiaries.
The show includes some artistic heavy hitters including work by three former Deustche Borse prize winners. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Chicago documents a mock-up of an Arab town constructed by the Israeli Defence Force to train for urban combat. In their own words, ‘everything that happened, happened here first in rehearsal’ a summary which perhaps rather overstates the ability of such training grounds to anticipate the course of events in the real world, but which is still an engaging idea. In a rather different vein, Richard Mosse’s series Airside records the aircraft shaped metal hulks that are installed at major airports and which are periodically set ablaze in order to train emergency personnel to deal with a crash or a similar aeronautical disaster. If, as I have, you ever happen to land at an airport while such a training is in progress, the effect is deeply unsettling, not so much because of the threat of fire but because of the uncanny and grotesque look of these structures. The sight is less one of people battling to save a plane, and more one of them trying to slay a terrible monster. It’s maybe unsurprising that so many of the photographers in this show practice a form of photography which borders on or borrows from traditions and practices associated with conceptual art. What are these structures after all but conceptions of imagined places, anticipated events, and grotesque fears, all made material.
The exhibition also incorporates several sound installations produced by members of CRiSAP, a sound arts research group based at the college. These include Sounds from Dangerous Places, a series of recordings from the Chernobyl exclusion zone made by Peter Cusack. These blend audio cues now inextricably linked with nuclear disaster (like the scratchy clicking of a Geiger counter) with the evocative sounds of the exclusion zone’s now resurgent nature, and the people who have gradually returned to live there. Another piece, one of my favourites, is Cathy Lane’s Preparations for an Imaginary Conflict, which responds to the way political rhetoric is often used to prepare and condition populations for war. The listener is confronted by a semicircle of speakers, which gradually crackle into life with voices from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. The voices rise and fall, blending into and over one another, creating an orchestrated medley of rhetorical fear mongering.
Returning to the photographs, I think its notable that while some of these environments are stark places of poured concrete and undecorated chipboard, most by contrast feature details that go well beyond what is needed to simply train people to fight an enemy or suppress a riot. A case in point is Claudio Hill’s fascinating series Red Land Blue Land, which focuses on a model of an Irish town built in Germany for use by the British Army in training soldiers preparing to deploy to Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. The town includes many seemingly unnecessary details including painted ‘for rent’ signs in shop windows, and mannequins inside phone boxes. As I noted in a review earlier this week, there is a question, which is ever present in this exhibition, about the point at which a simulation and the reality it depicts collide with one another. It is irresistible to ask how those who train in these deeply artificial environments find their expectations about the real world shaped and conditioned by them, and how they respond when those expectations are, or are not met by the real world.
As Dr Jennifer Good writes in one of the accompanying catalogue essays, these are fundamentally spaces where ‘form follows fear not function’ and the devil of this is very much in their detail. Seen that way, the anti-American graffiti in An-My Lê’s 29 Palms, or the nightclub and job centre signs of Pickering’s Public Order take on new meaning, as symbols of the often quite specific groups of people that these spaces are very definitely constructed against. It is impossible to know, but seductive to ask, how far these training simulations actually serve to ease the fears that they represent, or how far they in fact entrench and even exacerbate them. How in each new drill the political prejudices of these hollow streets and empty rooms are engrained on the trained. Fears heightened, intolerances nourished, and the sense of disorder’s inevitably cemented.
Staging Disorder is on at London College of Communication from Monday 26 January until Thursday 12 March.