The Age of Anxiety – Elizabeth Chisholm
Open from 11th May to 13th August 2017
In 1994, parliament launched the Partners Against Crime initiative to increase public surveillance. Realised through the increased presence of CCTV cameras, this was done as a response to the tragic abduction, captured on CCTV, and murder of a young boy by two teenaged boys. By 2006, Britain had more CCTV cameras than all of Western Europe combined. At this time, my two daughters were entering their teenage years. Fear for your children morphs as they morph and by the time my children were teenagers, I was frightened of casual violence. I knew that my fear was riddled with irrational thought, the irrational thought that is the currency of the imagination, which led to making art examining this condition of fear.
I began to draw from CCTV, using the dense offering of video footage on the Internet. By examining the footage over and over, I found there could be discovered a single fraction of a second where more of the human condition was revealed than in the banal and mindless acts of violence that is frequently highlighted in CCTV footage. That very brief moment would be the image that I would draw. The drawings were made with grey marker pens: they appeared sombre yet surprisingly gentle. However, painting that moment was more complicated. Colour is by its nature beautiful – and decorative. How to not prettify, or trivialise, these poignant images?
CCTV doesn’t feel familiar: the position of the camera, the flatness of the lighting; it feels as though sunlight, moonlight, oxygen don’t exist in the CCTV world. It creates a distance from what we see as our world; these crimes occur in other places, not here; we place crime there. CCTV colonising crime. I decided to examine high colonial paintings, which were numerous at the height of Britain’s rule – paintings of ‘exotic’ scenes of Asia and Africa; images seen through the self-aggrandising gaze of colonialists – to see if I could find dominant colours that I could sample to create palettes to paint this CCTV colony. Two colours are repeatedly found in these paintings: crimson and gold. I created a pink and yellow palette to mimic these original colours.
The ‘etchings’ that are in the furthest corner of the gallery are not true etchings: they are made using a craft material called Scratchboard. A layer of India Ink is poured over silver foil so that when the black surface is removed, the silver beneath is revealed. This is generally a craft popular with children. The purpose of this work was to play with the potential that popular culture could become nostalgic for the ‘CCTV look’ (at this point in time I was also using artificial CCTV as a source – CCTV imagery generated by films and television, to see how mass media imagines and transforms CCTV), so I chose to work with a craft material reminiscent of childhood to impose a nostalgic aesthetic onto the imagery. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword; it is a romantic view that sands off the hard edges of truth, but, conversely, in its most fruitful condition it can be a way of revisiting a time, a relationship, diagonally rather than straight on.
The perspective or viewpoint of the CCTV camera was seen in paintings historically as the view of God. In the 20th century, socially and culturally, that was no longer a view we could even understand, so the view was rebranded as the ‘bird’s eye view’. It was a subtle shift, but one that affects how we are expected to understand pre-modern art. The view or perspective that is presented – whether God’s or that of the post-1850s’ ‘artist of genius’, whose view of the world is afforded tremendous respect – is a position of enfranchisement. It is the view through which we learn to see the world.
For instance, to bring this up to date, we could take POV as an example: POV (‘point of view’) is currently an expression associated with both gaming and pornography. Within gaming, it refers to games where the gamer sees the world of the game as if through the eyes of their character, typically within ‘first-person shooter’ games. In pornography, its use refers to a camera angle used to simulate the view of the man as he is being fellated. Here we have a new perspective, one that is predominantly a male view, attached to violence in first-person shooter games and attached to a genre of pornography that offers the man anonymity and presents a full view of the (complicit) woman. Perspective is powerful in its formulation of culture.
What is interesting about POV is that it is a new perspective, a new ocular perspective. The subjects that it is has the potential to be applied to will generate a new way of seeing the world, a new way of understanding what it means to be us. When I began using CCTV, drones didn’t exist. In the charcoal drawings it is clear that the perspective that I use has shifted upwards over time, it is clear that inadvertently I have – we all have – learned the drone gaze.
When I decided to make larger paintings for this exhibition, I knew that it was not simply a question of scaling up the images. CCTV and drone views are distant, the detail small; the question of how to keep that experience of scale was important. I decided to create an aperture around the paintings through which the scene is seen. I didn’t want it to be a television monitor or a camera aperture: what you are seeing and seeing through are apertures painted from manipulated images of debris: debris from a bomb explosion, debris from a hurricane. I wanted the often peripheral but constant sources of anxiety to be present, and I wanted their peripheral nature to be experienced.