Eyes on the street: art and policing

Fiona Anderson, Newcastle University, fiona.anderson@newcastle.ac.uk

Al Hoyos-Twomey, Newcastle University, A.Hoyos-Twomey2@newcastle.ac.uk

2022 marks forty years since criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling named the ‘broken windows’ theory of social disorder, arguing that visual evidence of ‘decay’ – graffiti, sex work, abandoned buildings – encourages crime and should be prioritised by police. The theory was adopted by NYC police commissioner Bill Bratton and underpinned ‘quality of life’ strategies in the 1990s and ‘stop and frisk’ policies in the 2000s. Broken windows tactics are still deployed routinely across the USA and inform policing globally, from SARS in Nigeria to Prevent in the UK; resistance to them has shaped contemporary anti-racist and abolitionist movements. Broken windows theory has taken on what Rachel Herzing calls ‘a magical life’, diverting attention from policing’s ‘capitalist and white supremacist legacies.’

‘The magic of policing’ more broadly, Herzing argues, ‘rests in its ability to appear as the remedy to the very harm it maintains.’ Broken windows tactics, like all policing, depend on methods of visual analysis: deduction, close looking, surveillance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, police and policing have appeared as themes in work by artists in countries across the world. Artists have found themselves subject to suspicion or arrest as a consequence of racial profiling, obscenity laws, or in the context of authoritarian political regimes. As sites of display, care, soft power, and protest, museums and galleries have complex relationships with police. This session brings together papers which explore the visual culture of policing, the relationship between art, artists, and the police, artists’ engagement with true crime and the politics of surveillance, and artists recording and resisting police brutality.

Speakers & Abstract

Murder, and the Politics of Research

Dr Flora Dunster (Central Saint Martins)

On 26 February 1976, Paul Wong saw a dead body outside his Vancouver home. Wong photographed the scene, and in following weeks he and collaborator Ken Fletcher covertly gained access to the police investigation. The body belonged to Eugene Lloyd Pelly, a First Nations man whose death became the basis for their work Murder Research. Between an exhibition, film and publication, Wong and Fletcher weave Pelly’s death into a reflection on the representation and cultural consumption of murder, lingering in an ambiguity which defies the punitive nature of policing and renegade journalism of true crime.

Stan Douglas’ photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008) serves as a counterpoint, re-staging a historical Vancouver riot in manner described by Nathan Crompton as “mild” and inoffensive. I follow Crompton’s reading of Douglas through the Badiouan ‘event,’ mining the tear Murder Research conversely reveals in Vancouver’s social fabric, and which speaks to the imperative of addressing the everydayness of violence against First Nations. Murder Research offers a foundation for thinking about community formations counter to state-sanctioned policing, and art as a means of addressing—and redressing—its brutality. I ask how images around—rather than of—the scene of the crime could model alternatives to carceral justice, exploring Wong and Fletcher’s attention to the reverberations of Pelly’s death. The artists invite us to close the distance between the event and its representational afterlives. In doing so, what might we hope to see?

Policing the Crisis? The Battle of Cable Street Mural as Public Monument

Dr Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann (Open University)

The Battle of Cable Street Mural was completed by David Binnington, Paul Butler, Desmond Rochfort and Ray Walker between 1978 and 1983. Stretching 340 square metres across the exterior side wall of Stepney Town Hall, the mural memorialises the eponymous events of 4th October 1936. Offering condensed focus to the clashes by which assembled anti-fascists repelled attempts of mounted police to clear a path for Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts through the heart of London’s Jewish East End, the mural offers a public monument to a historic victory against the recurrent alliance between British Fascism and the Police.

Foregrounding the particularities of the mural’s status as a state-funded monument to a popular triumph over police violence, this paper will address its subject’s contributions to recent disciplinary debates regarding monuments, history painting, state patronage and the politics of public art. Drawing on archival research, interviews and the methodologies of Marxist Art History and the social history of art, the paper will explore the mural as a ‘site of contestation’ (Craven, 1997). Examining interrelations with anti-racist politics across a period of production marked by renewed far-right activity and the drift towards Thatcher’s authoritarian populist project (Hall, 1979), the paper will emphasise the mural’s active and counter-hegemonic intervention within local and national politics, and collective memory. The paper will thus assert its subject’s existence as a monument to a historic victory over the police as a ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for an oppressed past’ (Benjamin, 1992).

Photographing Black Britain: Community Struggles and Activism

Pelumi Odubanjo (Independent curator and writer)

This paper will examine the relationship between policing and community through photography. I will examine how, in the context of post-war Britain, certain photographers used their cameras as a tool to depict visualisations of power within the realms of state violence. I will be paying particular attention to police/community relations within the black communities of Britain. In this context, I will address the existing dynamics between subject/photographer, and environment/place, and I will aim to rethink the political and ethical status of photography. I will also discuss our understanding of the power relations that sustain and make possible photographic meanings, and in such allude to the present role of the photograph in recent histories of violence and citizenship. 

I will speak through works by British photographers such as Pogus Caeser, Liz Johnson Arthur, and Chris Steele Perkins, as well as Vanley Burke and Leroy Cooper. These are photographers who either explicitly present police presence or allude to the presence and effect of policing. I will also reference the recent ICA exhibition ‘War Inna Babylon’ as a case study. A great acknowledgment of this paper will be that these photographers are majority male (with one being white) and address why in the terrain of street photography and photographing images of real-time violence, a vast majority of photographers were indeed male, and what this means again within dynamics of power with photography and the inclusive history of photography. This paper's theoretical elaborations will be rooted in addressing empirical standards of observation, and argue that in such a context, photography has demonstrated itself to be a key political instrument of emancipation in current social struggles. 

Policing Street Harassment or Policing Feminist Street Art Against Street Harassment? Tensions and Paradoxes in the Relationship Between Feminist Artists and the Police

Frankie Morgan (University of Birmingham)

In 2019, an activist for Chalk Back was arrested and charged with making graffiti and trespassing whilst writing an experience of sexual harassment on the pavement in front of the high school in which the incident occurred. This paper will examine Chalk Back, which describes itself as an “international youth-led chalk art movement against street harassment”, in relation to the notion of policing, through an intersectional feminist lens. As this paper will explore, Chalk Back presents a paradoxical case study in which the activists experience policing whilst attempting to use street art to expose the limitations of policing in tackling street harassment, which in itself can be considered as a form of gendered policing that restricts women’s equal access to the public sphere. Simultaneously, privileged white women’s trauma and safety can be weaponised against marginalised bodies to justify punitive measures and increased policing, and women’s narratives of sexual violence can shore up racialised and classed stereotypes of criminality. By comparing Chalk Back to Suzanne Lacy’s large-scale performances in which she collaborated with police departments to tackle sexual violence, for example Three Weeks in May (1977) and Three Weeks in January (2012), I will able to more fully examine the paradoxical relationship that exists between feminist artists and the police. As I will demonstrate, whilst Lacy clearly advocates the productive and positive potentials of establishing coalitions and partnerships between feminist artists and activists and the police in eradicating sexual violence, Chalk Back exemplifies the tensions that exist in this relationship.

Framed: Underperforming Monuments in Street Performances by David Hammons and Pope.L

Martyna Ewa Majewska (University of St Andrews)

Police presence in the photographs of Pope.L and David Hammons performing in street spaces comes as no surprise. Since the 1970s, both of these artists have repeatedly played with stereotypes of black disenfranchisement, homelessness and misuse of public space, consciously attracting police interventions. Yet their performance images, in which the black male body is subject to surveillance and eviction, nonetheless refuse to conform to the schemas that historical representations of racist policing have conditioned us to process. Not only are their performances designed to make viewers uncomfortable, but the resulting images cause discomfort too: they deny us the transparency and legibility associated with photography. This paper argues that both artists underperform for the camera, their bodies framed by towering architecture, monumental public art and historical statues, so as to disrupt standardised representations of black masculinity – representations premised, as Rinaldo Walcott writes, ‘on neoliberalism’s new managerial regime in which black masculinities are understood to be underperforming.’ The policing of black manhood, captured in the photographs of respective performances by Pope.L and Hammons, is integral to this larger managerial project. As this paper demonstrates, however, the two artists recognise that if they present a problem in need of management for urban redevelopment programmes or the neoliberal colour-blind ethos of steady betterment, they are also an inconvenience for artworld elites and institutions. By framing their performances in spaces of overlap between these interdependent systems of power, they pose continuously relevant questions concerning race and representation.

Becoming Media: Surveillance, Violence and the Policing of Queer Bodies in the Art of Keith Haring

Tom Day (Courtauld Institute of Art)

Alongside utilising recurring motifs such as radiant babies, dogs, and snakes, Keith Haring obsessively returned to the icon of the television set as the medium through which the multifaceted political realities of American life were most commonly experienced, controlled and manipulated. Haring was part of the first generation of American artists to grow up with commercial television as a central part of their lives, and to experience the US political landscape as mediated and filtered through the nexus of TV. While a number Haring’s works examine the political significance of television as cultural sign and everyday media reality, the artist also deployed a number of artistic strategies to contemplate the technology which undergirds television, video cameras and monitors, and their role in the surveillance and policing of queer communities. In this talk I focus on a series of untitled canvases by the artist that specifically engage video surveillance, a system of voyeuristic entrapment used as a method of control and spatial legislation against queer communities since the 1960s. Drawing on histories and theories of surveillance (Gilles Deleuze, Jonathan Finn and Anna Lvosky); queer writing on and Haring’s own experiences of public sex; and the work of contemporary artists including William E. Jones and Adam Baron, I posit Haring as an astute commentator on the techno-political significance of video as a tool for social control and a weapon in the arsenal of policing tactics to suppress nonconforming and dissident sexualities.



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