I Spy with My Camera Eye…How Surveillance Functions as an Abstract Wall That Permeates Modern London

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In Iain Sinclair’s book Lights Out for the Territory, the reader is taken on a grand tour through modern London, a bustling bursting metropolis replete with geographic areas that have been re-appropriated over the years. As old sectors of London become replaced with high-tech financial and real estate-rich districts, the manner in which one travels around the city is also distinctly altered from them olden days. As writer John Evelyn notes in the story London was, but is no more, the “mythology of gates”eternalized by “Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Newgate, Ludgate, Billingsgate, with the Tower, the Barbican and Castle Baynard,” haunts the increasingly modernized city (102). Now that the “meaning of the gates has been carted away with the brickwork,” physical constructions and re-constructions of architectural features around London have transposed post-modern symbolism onto layer upon layer of ancient landscapes (102). No longer gated, per se, London’s walls and gates remain “an enticement to the urban stalker” because place-names now signify an archaeological past that we can capture today with curiosity and a “little Japanese toy” that is the simplest camera (102, 106).

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A print from 1756 of 8 London city gates

In fact, now that meandering through London is characterized by much more camera and much less obscura, traversing the London landscape today means being accompanied by a remarkable amount of surveillance. This perpetual Big Brother-esque element of the flashy metropolis tinge movement with a disturbing sense of being imposed upon by the city itself. Evelyn’s claim that “[t]he New City is immune from threat, defended as it is by invisible gates, gates that can be shifted at a phonecall” demonstrates this replacement of physical geographic barriers with the new modern logic of technological barriers (104). However, this modern preference for “invisible gates” and “[f]orests of surveillance cameras” suggests the disturbing thought that perhaps the New City’s new threat is, in fact, the hyper-surveillance within city boundaries (104). The numerous security check points, road closures, and “barricaded bridges” exist as now-typical but important “intrusions into our freedom of passage,” thereby limiting how Londoners can move through their own city (104).

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By “[p]hotographing each of the surveillance checkpoints” at Bishopsgate, Evelyn and Marc Atkins flip the tables on the proliferation of surveillance cameras by using their own physical and metaphorical lens to try and gain a vantage point into the new London (105). However, because they could not wander through such a heavily tracked area without being photographed themselves, their failed attempts to document the city’s ubiquitous mechanisms of scanning reflect the ever-growing and increasingly unsettling nature of London’s treatment of its people. Remarking, “I didn’t see why I couldn’t photograph, without permission, a thicket of cameras that were making a feature film about my wanderings in the City,” Evelyn touches upon the disconcerting idea that London as an active agent is intentionally trying to prevent people from seeing the City freely (105). Instead, it is the people who must be constantly watched by invisible eyes that stare so intensely, it seems as though people’s travels turn into an unwanted “feature film.”

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Ultimately crafting a narrative of frustration with the impenetrability of post-modern London and it’s modern technological walls and surveillance, Evelyn depicts the struggle of living in a popular metropolis that refuses to let its people wander and experience space freely.

*song because relevant

 

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