Monday, 13 February 2012

A Scanner Absurdly

The other day I came across an article in the Metro that appealed to my sense of the absurd (Rookie PC chases himself for 20min in CCTV bungle – Wednesday, 8th February 2012). The article describes how a probationary plain clothes police officer was seen by a CCTV operator to be “acting suspiciously” in an area “that had [recently] suffered a spate of break-ins”. The officer was then contacted by the operator and asked to pursue the suspect, which he did for twenty minutes unaware that he was trying to pursue himself and unable to understand why, despite the fact that, as he was constantly being told by the operative, he was “on the heels of his prey”, he could see no sign of the fugitive.

I am reminded of a novel by Philip K. Dick, 1977’s A Scanner Darkly, made into a film in 2006 by Richard Linklater, in which an undercover drug enforcement officer is asked to follow and apprehend a suspected drug dealer by superiors who fail to realise that the drug dealer is the undercover persona of the police officer.  The novel, and subsequent film, through the metaphor of a fictional powerful psychedelic drug known as ‘Substance D’ or ‘Slow Death’, is a classic paranoid exploration on loss of identity and multiplicity of personality. A person, Dick is saying, is not a single coherent identity. We are each of us capable of being many different and often contradictory people depending on context and circumstance. The mask we wear at work is probably not the mask we wear in our own home, or with our own family, friends or acquaintances, and sometimes that contradiction forced on us by social conventions can have debilitating consequences to an individual’s sense of self.

The imaginary tale of Dick has a much darker and starker conclusion than the real life story in the Metro, which ends with a sergeant entering the CCTV control room and recognising the suspect and police officer to be the same person to much hilarity. But the story does highlight I feel how the world, with the aid of new technologies, has come to resemble a science fiction more absurd than anything invented by a novelist.   

Friday, 10 February 2012

Still the Same

I feel compelled to write in response to the recent furore in some of the less contemplative areas of our print and digital media in reaction to an incomplete new work by artist Sam Firth. The film Stay the Same, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Scottish Sun earlier this week, involves Firth filming herself standing still for ten minutes every day at the same time and in the same place, in front of a loch on the Knoydart Peninsula in Scotland. Beginning on 22nd June last year she intends to repeat this process for a full twelve months after which time she will edit the sixty-odd hours of accumulated footage into a short twenty minute film. The film has been funded by a jointly awarded grant of £10,000 from the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland which are both publicly funded bodies.

With headlines such as: “Woman paid £160 an hour from public money to stand still by a loch” (Daily Telegraph 6/2/12), “Taxpayers' money spent on giving artist £160 an hour to stand motionless beside a lake (sic)” (Daily Mail 6/2/12), and “Money for nothing: Filmmaker’s £10k grant to stand beside loch” (The Scottish Sun 6/2/12) it is clear where the focus of the fracas lies. The issue is two-fold: a lack of understanding of art in large portions of the general population, and the question of how do we place a value on art. 

In this case the second point is the easiest to deal with. The £160 an hour mentioned in the headlines is the actual time spent filming. The project itself lasts a year, much more than a year when pre- and post-production are taken into account. £10,000 for over a year’s work does not sound like a particularly high wage to me. In fact, according to the report A Minimum Income Standard for the UK in 2011, published in July last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “a single person needs to earn at least £15,000 a year before tax in 2011, to afford a minimum acceptable standard of living.” (
The issue of understanding is much harder to address. Like any specialism there is a language to art. If you are not conversant with the language you will find it difficult to comprehend. In order to comprehend a language you would be expected to make a certain amount of effort. You can’t, for example, expect to understand the intricacies of quantum mechanics without putting in some work on the subject. It is the same with art. Sam Firth’s film, in an incredibly simple and elegant way, addresses a diverse range of complex concerns, such as identity, place, time, change, and aging. By placing herself so directly into the film she becomes the subject of the work as much as the landscape behind her and her relationship to it. 

It is a work with numerous precedents. The discomfort of staring silently into the intrusive lens of a camera is a subject explored most famously by Andy Warhol in his Screen Tests of 1964-66 and much more recently by Noah Kalina. Kalina took a photograph of himself everyday between January 11th 2000 and July 31st 2006 and uploaded the result onto YouTube (Noah takes a photo of himself everyday for 6 years) where currently it has been viewed over 22 million times and has inspired many other similar films. The comparative artistic merit of the two works is another, though not entirely unconnected, debate, but the fact that a work like Kalina’s can go viral on the internet and yet a work like Firth’s can cause such indignation says much about the hostility towards and misunderstanding of the art world shown by large proportions of the population. And this misunderstanding isn’t helped by the lazy and ignorant journalism shown this week in the reaction to Sam Firth’s film Stay the Same

See Sam Firth’s work at