Sarah Pickering describes herself on her website as ‘ a London based, British artist interested in fakes, tests, hierarchy, sci-fi, explosions, photography and gunfire’. The photo series ‘Public Order’ is about fakes but in a context that indirectly references explosions and gunfire.
The course notes have already explained the premise of the series, but I have tried to view the images as if coming to them afresh.
At a quick first reading, these are views of buildings and streets, but they look odd, with no roof or eaves details. The station turnstiles are just lumps of concrete and everything is constructed in grey concrete blockwork – very rarely seen as an external finish in the UK. Intrigued and looking closer, we see that many of the ‘buildings’ are simply flat facades and we realise that they are supported by steel frameworks. In some images, we see that some higher-level walls are of painted plywood.
At a second reading, then, perhaps this is a film or stage set, which would explain the sterile appearance and lack of people. But this explanation is also unsatisfactory because of the unconvincing surface finishes. Some kind of drama is played out here, but not for public display. Detail touches, roadblocks, derelict vehicles, piles of tyres, and scorch marks on the walls suggest that some sort of violence either occurs or is simulated.
The C&N course notes and various reviewers tell us something that Pickering doesn’t (at least, not on her website (Sarahpickering.co.uk)). These images are police training grounds, environments set up for practicing for real-life emergencies, riot control etc. In her Vimeo interview for the Aperture Foundation (Vimeo 2010) she tells us that she started off photographing riot-control exercises but realised that the empty images had more power, what she describes as a ‘sense of latent violence’. I appreciate being allowed to use my imagination, although Pickering tells us that the police were initially disappointed about it. The depersonalised treatment gives at least an appearance of objectivity.
The series is good documentary because it brings the viewers’ attention to aspects of policing that we may not have considered. Of course the police need training in crowd-control and riot-control techniques – it would be dangerous to rely on on-the-job training and it is vital to practice alternative tactics. We now have some idea of how it is done, if not where. We are reminded that policing is about more than detecting crime.
Kuball, L. (2010). Explosions, Fires, and Public Order Special book review. [online] http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk. Available at: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/images/pdfs/Texts/Book-Review_Liz-Kuball.pdf [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].
Pickering, S. (n.d.). Public Order. [online] Sarahpickering.co.uk. Available at: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].
Vimeo. (2010). Sarah Pickering on Public Order & Explosion series: Excerpt. [online] Available at: https://vimeo.com/11931505 [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].