“Surveillance abuses the past while fragmenting the present.” 150,000 cameras watch London, at all heights, all angles. “The city is eyes, the city is an organic identity watching itself”, according to Iain Sinclair. Sinclair, psychogeographer, poet and writer is in conversation with Sebastian Groes at Roehampton University, discussing the poetics of surveillance culture, March 2011.
Sinclair jokes that he started to plan what he would talk about during this conversation the night before on the bus, to laughs of recognition from the audience. He decided to start by counting the number of CCTV cameras he could see from the window he was looking out of on the top deck of the bus which was travelling from Hoxton to The Strand. Approximately 50-60 yards down the road he counted camera number 17 by the sign of a pub, ‘The William Blake’, close to Bunhill Fields where the infamous triumvirate of non-conformists Blake, Defoe and Bunyan are buried, outsiders, outside of the City. By the time he reached The Strand he had counted 76 cameras, which he says are “redundant – like mantraps in a museum”.
Surveillance did not begin with CCTV cameras – the City had its reliable surveillance as far back as Elizabethan times in the form of the Church, where one could be fined for not attending. Sinclair investigated the old Eastern Bloc card index file technology, the everyone-watching-everyone-else surveillance culture in one of his lesser known novels, Radon Daughters. Sinclair says this was the first book of his that William Gibson read, Gibson being the writer credited with coining the term “cyberspace”.
He was also involved in the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation conference held in 1967 at the Roundhouse in Camden, London. He says that two of the main strands of discussion at the time were the eco catastrophe of the melting polar ice caps, and surveillance, public versus private and in the context at the time of suspicion about the American military spying on the general public. Sinclair describes this as a “meeting of the tribes”, where these strands of thought, then groundbreaking, were taken to heart by the counterculture, as expressed in the work of Charles Olson in poems such as Polis is Eyes and in the work of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, amongst others.
Ginsberg thought that this idea of everything being pushed out into the open, no more secrets, would give rise to a more compassionate and tolerant civilisation, forced to acknowledge and accept everything normally swept under the carpet in polite society. In a world of reality TV, Facebook and Twitter has this been achieved? Or have we ended up with something different instead?
Sinclair is no doubt where this is going and what is going to happen next: “London ceases to exist…it becomes virtual”. We are now living in a “post-surveillance age with no obvious CCTV cameras”. This is the age of intelligent buildings, with one building in particular singled out as an example of this in his book London Orbital, the Siebel building in Egham: “Siebel, recognised at once, was the future. Post-surveillance. A discretion so absolute, so understated, that criminality and vandalism were impossible concepts. Siebel was the visible manifestation of Ballard’s coming Mediparc psychopathology: intelligent buildings for soberly dressed, quiet, indecently healthy people…Siebel immortals float through a chlorine-glass tank. Doing nothing.”
Iain Sinclair’s latest book, “Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project” is published by Penguin in July 2011