Doubling Down

17 September - 9 October 2021
Leicester Contemporary

Claire Baily, Alia Hamaoui, Jaime Welsh, Jack West, Grace Woodcock

Co-curated with Georgia Stephenson

In the casino, stale air circulates through a complacent ventilation system. The plastic slatted covers of which are the closest thing to a window for what seems like miles. Following the river of garish damask between the hotels – into lobbies, through heavy fire doors, back into foyers of heavy drinkers. The liquor swirls, and so too do figures in black jackets and headsets. A curly coil runs from ear to pocket, firm grip moving from walkie talkie to the hook of a drunk’s elbow. One blink and he’s gone. I look back to the carpet, searching for a join to no avail; it’s been fused so masterfully that I can’t tell where. Coming to a stop opposite a mirror that fits neatly into the wall panelling, I look at myself. I look like jaundice. How long has it been? I lean in to examine my pores – open and shiny – like I’ve been on a long haul flight. I feel eyes creeping on me as I rest my forehead on the cool glass, for one, two, three – deep breath. I turn around and no-one is there.

The watchtower is an easy shift, great on a hangover. The winding staircase can be a challenge, but once you’ve made it, you’re swigging your coffee at the top of the Space Needle. From my seat I can spin a full 360 – scanning every cell in The Panopticon. I used to pick a different in-mate each time, spending my full two hours with them. Nowadays my curiosity is waning and I keep my eyes moving to make sure there’s no trouble. In fact there rarely is. The in-mates have no way of knowing if we’ve got eyes on them, so they always assume that we have. Sometimes I’ll hit the alarm at random to keep the flame alive. Don’t whine that it’s not fair, it’s just part of the job.

Architectures of surveillance are part of contemporary life – from pub bouncers, to Ring doorbells to the Track & Trace app. States and communities (in the UK especially) implement a variety of technologies that allow for coercive control of their citizens. This coercion aims to create a more stable society with individuals governing their own behaviour. It was British philosopher Jeremy Bentham who designed both the physical institutional building of the Panopticon (Latin: all-sight), as well as the wider system of control based on its methods. The building, not necessarily a prison, sought maximum efficiency. With a central observation tower that allowed uninterrupted views into all chambers, meaning doctors could attend to their patients more urgently, or guards could punish their prisoners without delay. But for a prisoner or a patient, there is no psychological freedom permitted from the assumption that they are being observed.

Driving individuals into sedation is the key mechanism at work in a controlling architecture. Disorientation and lack of vision forces a person to internalise their view so they’re unable to critique, less grasp, their wider context. We make light of our constant surveillance in memes about the FBI guy watching us from our webcam – we think we cannot be tracked because of the sheer volume of users. But a panoptic view sees just that, all of us.

Doubling Down brings together a group of artists whose work looks to surveillance, the body and architecture. The usually large and open space of Leicester Contemporary has been transformed by a number of interventions to effect and control the journey through the gallery. The usual glass fronted shop front entrance has been blocked off, instead rerouting the viewer via a long thin fire escape corridor running parallel to the gallery with the space first revealed from the rear. Inside, the once uninterrupted space has been divided into two mirrored halves, carved up by angled walls tapering to a doorway in the middle. Standing in the threshold between the two rooms, the tapered walls mirror our peripheral vision as if the viewer has taken on the role of the guard in the Panopticon.

At either end of the space atop angular plinths mirroring the tapered walls, sit two totemic forms. These beacon-like structures, already large in stature, are exaggerated by their platform, echoing that of a communication device or all seeing eye overlooking the territory. The two structures wield their powerful vision, constantly engaged with one another through the threshold between rooms. As a viewer crosses the space, they may feel uncomfortably caught in the Sentinels’ gaze, but in doing so they step into an important position: the independent body who watches the watchmen.