Security as Danger
by Mark Cousins
In May 1994 Jamie Wagg exhibited two pieces at the Whitechapel Open. He probably received more press coverage than he expected. The Daily Mirror published reproductions of them, works entitled Shopping Mail and Railway Line. The works themselves were already reworkings of video images, one of which was by then the best known image of the year, an image of two boys with a toddler, an image caught by a security camera. The toddler was James Bulger; the two boys werde subsequently found guilty of killing him.
What then followed in respect to the images at the Whitechapel, was, at a social level, a banal, even ludicrous, persecution of the images, the gallery and the artist. What makes it interesting is the question of what Jamie Wagg had done that should call upon him the fury of the media. The Daily Mirror quoted James Bulger's grandmother as saying »How can you call that art? I just call it sick.« Prominent in the story was the information that the exhibition was sponsered by British Telecom. By the next day the Mirror was quoting the Bulgers' solicitor Sean Sexton saying »I find the idea of someone profiting from the death quite appalling. « Inevitably within the press the demand soon arose the Whitechapel to temporarily remove them. Catherine Lampert declined to do so.
The demand was extended by James Bulger's uncle who repeated what he had said to his sister »I told her that if the artist wants to pay tribute to James and stop causing distress to his family, he should have the pictures removed and destroyed as soon as possible.« [Sunderland Echo] Another uncle, Philip Bulger, exclaimed »I don't know what you can say about someone digging all this up again and making pictures of it.« [East London Advertiser]. But in any case as uncle Ray Matthews observed, since the pictures werde enlarged computer enhancements of photographs, »That means it is really just blown-up photography and that is definitely not art.«
The starting-point of the question - why was Jamie Wagg visited with such fury by the media, must start with the image of the three boys which was derived from the security camera of the shopping centre. This image had been used in the hunt for James Bulger and after his death this image became the icon of the story which the nation turned over and over in its mind. No image in the recent past had been reproduced so frequently nor was as immediately recognisable. But far from being an image of horror in the sense that what it represents is horrifying, it is an image of normality, of harmlessness, of nothing yet wrong. Insofar as the image includes the three boys we can read into it nothing of warning and dread, but only part of the infinite texture of the unremarkable. In its transformation into the image, around which the public respondes to James Bulger's death were constructed, it would be difficult to think of a picture whose subject is not a murder, being yoked to a murder in such a decisive and inseparable manner. The image became the official signifier of James' death, which was variously played out as the radical evil of the killers, the breakdown of domestic life, the failure of schools to discipline children or the costs of urban deprivation, and all the sufferings which Thatcher bequeathed.
The »success« of the image may be explained by certain powerful characteristics of the image and the insertion of its reproduction in the media. The most important characteristic is the relation between the image and time. The image represents a moment when James Bulger is alive and in the middle of normality. But this moment is already caught up in the time when he is already unseen and already dead. From the beginning the image has another image and time projected onto it - the space in which we lose him. We watch him, here as in this image, as he lives; but he is already dead, out of our sight. Then we ask - how could we have lost a child? How is it that no one else found this child? We vow to keep children in sight as they are in this image but not as they become in this image. The double register of James Bulger ambling in a here and now which has already been lost, creates a grief of repetition in which the image starts again and again in the time that it takes to lose him again.
This »signifier« - the image of the children in the shopping centre, circulates through the media with something of the following effect: What are we to think or to do to them about him? How can we save him in the future? »He« is James Bulger but not only James Bulger ... he is the representative here of anyone you might fear to lose. This is not necessarily a child, it could be a parent. It might be anyone who was represented as vulnerable. »They« are the two boys, the mysterious causes of the tragedy. They are to be interrogated; they need to be understood or indeed limits need to be set to comprehension, so that we may prevent them and their sort repeating their actions. In them the registers of understanding and punishment draw close together. But above all, who are »we«? We, as we look at the image in the newspaper are all those who immediately identify with the scene which the shot has established. Like the camera we want to see James Bulger because that guarantees he is alive; "we" then are whoever identify with that shot.
The circulation of the image through the media aids the campaigns that continued after the trial, especially the petition to seek that James' killers would be imprisoned for the rest of their natural lives. Now this system of circulation, this system which produces such powerful effect and such passionate connections, is founded upon a number of repressions and displacements. Indeed it is the argument here, that Jamie Wagg by removing the image from the system of circulation in which it was embedded, by splitting the signifier from the signifieds of assertions and judgments which had been thought to be the natural consequence of the signifier, brought down on his head the anger of a media, whose role had been uncovered by art.
An early and fundamental repression, in the whole relation between the Bulger case and the images concerns the relation between safety and security. The shot of the boys, the shot with which we identify, suggests the space of safety. Indeed the image is the very image of safety despite its tragic character. It is of a toddler seen, held in the gaze of safety. But the pathos of this safety has, as it were, an anamorphotic underside, an anamorphosis which is Jamie Wagg's subject. The gaze of safety turns out to be nothing of the kind. His picture re-imagines the scene no longer as a scene of safety but as a scene of security. For the shot of the boys never represented the concerned look of parental care. It was an empty look, the look of a security camera. Nothing could be further from the parental function than a security camera. It does not look; it records. In spaces such as shopping malls its functions are twofold. Its very presence is supposed to warn of the opportunist thief. Beyond that its function is to record. In the event of a crime, by recording it, the tape identificates the criminal both for purposes of detection and conviction. The "time" of the security camera lies always in the future of itself, in the role it will play after an event. It comes into play only in respect to the event. Its name is security not safety, and the two things are quite different. Possibly they are in contradiction.
Security as it is deployed in shopping malls is devoted to property, not persons. Its concern as a system to protect and to assist the criminal justice system in prosecuting theft and damage to property, It has no concern with the safety of persons and its spread, though public spaces, may well have made those spaces less rather than more safe. This is especially so as it tends to displace the number of human attendants who, whatever may be their job description of safety. Consequently by identifying with the image of the boys as an image of them held in a gaze, the popular circulation of the image was profoundly misleading. Far from the tragic moment at which the boys were still with us, there never was an "us". They were caught by a security video whose purpose is not to see in the present, still less to look after, but to identify human subsequent to an event. There is no tragic contradiction between this image of James Bulger and the loss of James Bulger. The video image records them from the point of view of a future, subsequent identification. By definition, the more "secured" a territory is in respect to property the less the safety of humans becomes an objective. For the purpose is to protect the territory and the property against humans. All the humans who show up on the screen are suspects. What the public identified with was not a tragic photograph but the functioning of an identification machine. Its function was to assist prosecution not to rescue. What it seeks to make secure is property not children. Jamie Wagg's image has taken out the obscurity of this situation and has exposed it for what it is - an image in a system of danger for children.
This confusion, between the gaze of an anxious parent and the empty indifferent register of a security video has its corollary in another distinction that is at work in the media's system of repressing the issue of safety. It is in the strange use within all this story of the distinction between the categories of »public« and »private«. The death of James Bulger is a »private« affair; the family's grief is »private«. But from this understandable beginning strange consequences follow. The newspaper coverage of the affair is also »private« because it is merely »representing« a private matter. Perhaps this is because newspapers are private companies. By contrast to this Jamie Wagg's art work was »public« and thus answerable to public scrutiny in a way which newspaper coverage is not. The art seems public because it is hung in a public institution; and it is public because it is not simply representing a private grief, but intervening within that system with a sign of a different order. Only some such account can explain the otherwise preposterous allegation that the art work was a public intrusion on a private grief, an offence made worse by Jamie Wagg placing a price tag on the work. When one considers what must have been involved financially in all the events surrounding the case, the payments for newspaper stories, photographs, books on the case, not to mention the myriad payments made by the media to experts and others who involved themselves in the case, the fact that it is two unsold works on the wall of the Whitechapel which attract all the denunciation of profiteering certainly invites interpretation.
And yet behind the moral and financial absurdities of the media's position is a consistent, if largely unconscious, rationale. The newspapers claim a kind of copyright over the representation of daily existence. Any other register of intervention is potentially in breach of this copyright, this monopoly on a system of identifications. Especially if the art work challenges not only the standard representation but the system of its dispersal. In fact Jamie Wagg's work is public, deliberately removed from the sphere of the elaboration of a story and set out differently as a comment and an embodiment of that difference. The work seeks to set the image of the boys in a public space of memory which does not repeat identifications but works through them. It is a work in search of a public sphere in which canonic images are set within the historical and political conditions of their emergence. It is probably right that the newspapers expressed such outrage, for the work challenges the space of representation and identification within which newspapers coin it.
The media utilize well worn tropes of »outrage« against contemporary art. Whether it has been nappies in the case of Mary Kelly, bricks in the case of Carl Andre or a cow in the case of Damien Hirst, the outrage is between the "absurdity" of the object and the insult offered to the public because of their connection in one way or another with public institutions or public money. The populist fury that »they« have been funded has led the move towards censorship to shift from the legal prosecution of the object to the administrative attempt to curtail the financing of such work or the financing of the spaces which exhibit this work.
Now the object of censorship is not the object itself, but the condition of its exhibition. The object of attack is the public finance or the public space of the exhibition of the object. There is something here which seems even more insidious than the frank legal ban on the object. For it installs a distinction between the private and the public which is not so much about the distinction between the unseen and the visible, as it is between money which is directly owed and money which is raised for public objectives. This is doubtlessly a clumsy distinction, but it is one which attempts to capture a current distinction between the public and the private. The newspapers in the James Bulger case must be assumed to have spent large sums of money covering the case, and buying the stories of those close to it. Their actions, even if offensive to someone, are unconstrained in some mysterious way because they are »private«, a strange idea but one which seems to relate to paying one's own way. By contrast an action seems to be »public« if financed or exhibited by any agent other than itself [it will be remembered that BT sponsored the Whitechapel show]. By »public«, is meant that any private agent may challenge it. The legitimacy of any public art is then diminished if anyone objects to it. This position, concerning the difference between private and public, is important because it is the same distinction that ran through the very Bulger case and upon which the interpretation of the security camera existed.
[from: 15:42:32. 12/02/93, History Painting Press 1996.]