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Dispatches from Camera Country

Arts & Culture | April 27, 2010

I’m sitting in a pub in London. Really one of the best spots in the city, but it gets me thinking: This place, London, is ruthless, it has its own agenda, and we are subjects of its immutable strength and growth, bombarded by dampness, relentlessly offered a “Free Evening Standard” hundreds of times each day, and there is nothing more cripplingly constant than the uniform Gray. An emulsion of sadness seeps into all stones of this city and the skies above London are drenched in it.

It even leaks into the Blackfriar, the beloved wood-carved monks shuttling about inside the spaces of my favorite pub. This little drinking hole is a wedge of charisma jabbed smack into the heart of industrial London. Yet this cheese-slice oasis, a rebel building in the middle of the City of London, it, too, broadcasts a message responsible for the woes of modernity that sicken this town: Industry is All. Motto and morals carved deep into the woodworked walls, the humble dominican friars scurry with as much industry and determination as the diligent cranes that overlook us today. Or at least, with as much economical toil as that which compels the fat-necked capitalists who greedily build and endlessly build their buildings, if not the breathtaking sovereign loom of giant construction cranes. Monks can’t be that evil.

But even so, this little pub I never want to crawl away from, not back to my flat, certainly never to another pub. I feel almost safe from the sovereign glare here. Not to mention the cameras. First thing I learned about London, friends, is that it is riddled with watching eyes: hundreds of thousands of security cameras. You need not look far for the black and yellow signs, stinging like hornets on every streetcorner; WARNING: YOU ARE ON CCTV. Sometimes even followed by a cheeky “SMILE.” It was this blatant disrespect, this tone of a feudal property owner disconcertedly throwing anyone and everyone in the dungeon filled with suspicious characters—it made me think about the power dynamics in the Panopticon, Britain’s own theoretical super-prison. Basically, the bounty of texts I discovered through academic research convinced me of the legitimacy of my regard for the CCTV ubiquity as a new, terribly modern form of discipline and punishment. As Foucault said of modern humankind, “the spread of disciplinary power invests itself deeper into the social body in creating hundreds of tiny theatres of punishment within the geography of the punitive city.” Not wanting to sound too pretentious about the whole thing, I kept my complaints lodged within a highly-marked 5,000-word essay, then pulled on tight my urban boots, my cement-gray Nikes, and said stealthily to myself, “This here’s Camera Country.”

There’s something unsettling about how really all is Industry here. Call it the Prison Industrial Complex of the Panoptic Neoliberal City. Call it capitalism, call it the free market. Don’t get me wrong, I have catalogued literally countless informative experiences in London, and stupid fun ain’t hard to have around here. The thrill of exploring London, however, has shuddered its last down my spine. My curiosity burnt out its naïve energy, and settled my focus squarely upon the corruption of this neoliberal metropolis, and I plummeted into scholarly research and reveries. Outside my window I watched a light flicker out, dying for a full week, and found myself unhappily married to London.

Stifled, I get up to walk home along the River, the air too cold and wet, but still black, deep, and open. Space limitless, wind unrelenting, the night crossing of Waterloo Bridge…Remember, this is the bridge I cross every morning, every night, each rainy afternoon. Obeying the pact I made with myself to greedily consume my visual diet, my eyes drink in the old city surrounding me. In contest with the security cams, I am simply trying to out-watch the fuckers. But bad blood aside, as I walk back on my bridge at 12:44 in the a.m., I realize how incredibly, bafflingly gorgeous London is. I stow what I see tonight securely in my mind. My mind’s eye is no panopticon, though—it’s open circuit television.

First and most noticeable is the National Theatre: illuminated, swathed in vivid light, the squat blocky building entirely a liquid magma red color. As I look left, there’s the old OXO tower, still alive and burning brightly, left on for some Friday reason. Along the water’s edge, between OXO and me, a double row of sparkly trees are glittering, too, their perennial strings of lights nested softly in their branches. Each Christmas bulb is a small solar system, the trees themselves whole galaxies each, crowded with stars of hazy electric blue and cloudsilver. The great austere ivory of St. Paul’s Cathedral is dimmed now, but imagine how still and peaceful it is! Undisturbed by visitors, photons, Paulie can sleep at last. Its dusk-colored dome is sort of lit from above by the all-night lights on construction sites in the surrounding commercial area.

On my right hand side Big Ben is also unlit, except for the clock itself, which glows like a moon against the thick stone tower. Behind it all the turrets of the silhouetted Parliament House stand black and ominous, like the dark castle it really is. And quietly, the London Eye beams that dawn-ish color like a halo, reflected on the wide, inky river below.

I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo to remember this place. Don’t know where I’d put it, but it’d be this: the stark insignia of the CCTV surveillance camera, the Panopticon Brand official logo, but beneath it I’d ink a new tagline—The London Eye. Because I’m just trying to out-watch the fuckers. So, SMILE.