Virtual Control: Security and the Urban Imagination
By ucyow3c, on 17 July 2015
Written by Freya Rudd, work experience student, UCL Communications and Marketing
Can you have imagination where there is also control? Is freedom possible where there is security? These questions are explored in photographer Max Colson’s new exhibition, ‘Virtual Control: Security and the Urban Imagination’, currently on display at the Practice Space of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
Colson’s first solo exhibition at RIBA, presented and sponsored by UCL Urban Laboratory, showcases how public spaces seem to be guiding people toward social freedom and comfort; however, they are owned by commercial entities, with everyone venturing into these areas constantly being observed by security cameras, surrounding them at all times, watching.
Colson graduated from UCL in 2007 with a BA in English Literature, and from London College of Communication in 2012 with an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. Since then, his work, mainly consisting of collaborations, has been exhibited at Brighton Photo Fringe, C/O Berlin and the UCL Slade Research Centre, just to name a few.
His involvement in the works Hide and Seek: The Hidden Nature of Plant Life in High Security Spaces and Neighbourhood Watch have been printed in Hotshoe and Darwin Photography magazines. In 2013, he won the title of UK winner in the Flash Forward Emerging Photographer competition. These achievements caught the attention of the Leverhulme Trust, who offered him a grant in 2014. So far, I’d say he’s doing pretty well.
As I entered the area, I noticed it was very spacious, and at first glance I could only see a few images on the walls and some plants dotted around. The atmosphere was undisturbed and relaxed, until I noticed a surveillance camera peeking out of one of the plants. This immediately changed the way I felt, going from calm and relaxed, to suddenly paranoid and cautious, as I knew there were cameras around that I couldn’t see. Plants, in fact, are a major factor of the exhibition. I know that may not sound like the most interesting thing you’ve ever heard, but Colson explores how complex security regimes and surveillance cameras could be disguised by something very natural, and something that we may not take a second look at.
An additional focal point was how these privatised public spaces are marketed. On the walls were TV screens displaying erratic, brightly coloured images with what could be described as propaganda, advertising positive statements about what these privatised public spaces offer, but shunning the negative ones. Of course when a product is being sold, the focus is on the good things – hooking people in, investing in it, and then, at the last moment, discovering its faults.
The images on display, and the quotes that went with them, showed idealised versions of these spaces, instead of what’s going on underneath. For example, “We create outstanding places which make a positive difference in people’s everyday lives,” which was teamed with an altered version of a well-known shopping centre (see image above): the sky looked unnaturally blue with lots of fluffy white clouds; it looked extremely inviting, warm and welcoming. And going back to the quote, who is ‘we’? Elusive commercial entities? Possibly. Well, what are they doing? Creating complex security regimes, tracking certain individuals without them knowing? Maybe.
None of this is certain, of course, but the exhibition does make you wonder. It certainly did for me, anyway.
I have to admit; the content of the exhibition and the scope of Colson’s ideas were a lot to take in at first. But once I started to dissect my interpretation of it, I realised just how interesting and thought-provoking the display was.
With this in mind, I urge you to go and have a look around the exhibition, but be wary of the plants – they might be watching…
‘Virtual Control: Security and the Urban Imagination’ is on display until 25 August 2015.