Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sung Like a Canary Wharf: Any Resemblance Denied by the Windowless Consultant

I hold in the camera a head and squeeze, flattening it against the glass, a poster, splayed legs of the Tower and pedestrians beyond, drop it from my eye and await the equation.

The official website, if you include what's silenced along with what's there, says it all: Canary Wharf has been designed with emphasis on creating a pleasant working environment. Careful attention has been given to the provision of public open spaces, including parks, squares and promenades.

Readers with us for the long haul may remember that, largely as a result of my work in window display, I've long had an interest in the -rama, be it dio-, cosmo-, or pano-. Never one to take periods of inaction lying down, I'd decided to fill a gap in work with research, recalling many years previously in the Museum of London Docklands having come across a copy of a London panorama installed in the round, a long lost riverine view recently rediscovered lining the inside of a barrel, or something, as I recalled, image so meticulous in detail people had come to see it -the waterside, boats, buildings, streets, tiny distant people - from all around.

What is that you're taking? asks a voice by my shoulder from behind.

I've been waiting for this moment with anxiety and interest, Canary Wharf notorious for it, but, despite our earlier experiences, I can't quite believe it's true. To the idle eye, the place looks like any other: pavements, trees, roads, cars, people, buildings. Newer, brasher, flash, granted, but with nothing you'd put your finger on as precluding reproduction. Here, then, though, confirmation - as at the British Land Landorama, a place that placed between itself and its appearance this difference by injunction.

I should have seen him coming, doubtless, claims to the photographer's eye surely dependent on the ability to see, but I was absorbed in that one little framed space, all outside it indiscriminately absent, so now there was the uniform demanding answers.

Precision about what it was I was taking would be hard, already the idea that it was taking moot. No, nothing - people, buildings, nothing you know, not taking, just leaving.

This was the first of many times I was to be accosted, and one of the least unpleasant in manner. Certainly intrusive in terms of asking to see other shots in the camera, what it was all for, who I was, whether I had ID, but strangely hesitant, allowing me to skirt the demands, and, if without reason in content, reasoning in form, explaining, for instance, that it was down to the camera, a slightly higher performing model than some (though low-end, SLR), so suspicious; down to me, my dress and demeanour, clearly not from round there; that it was the times, the suspicion of plans to attack; that it may disturb the locals, freak 'em out with sudden shock, psychological warfare of some sort, presumably. Photography was allowed, I was informed, but I needed permission, would be hassled; the street was okay, but not the buildings; the buildings, but not their entrances, exits, windows; anywhere but where there were security cameras, which, there, are everywhere.

As a businesswoman, but as a person, too, I've long been used to gauging dishonesty in explanation by the proffering of multiple cause, laying it on, as they say, and causes incompatible counteract: terror by plot or action, identity, camera type or clothes, the buildings or their users, it was clear, were beside some point that not even he appeared clearly to grasp. Something vaguer, more fundamental, could be felt behind this invisible chasm between London and its first Enterprise Zone.

As a blogger, given the aims within these posts, I've come to see these gaps as key. They are, perhaps, the spaces I'm looking for, may at last afford the camera an uninterrupted glimpse of that moment that I've set myself to track. So, if inconvenient, perhaps the man's confused and contradictory instructions may prove convenient, their restriction liberating.

With this man, as with all those that followed him, pacing the streets looking for issues, standing burly by exits or rushing gesticulating from doors, the response I thought wisest was slippery co-operation, appear at the same time polite, helpful, interested, and yet withhold as much as possible, make no more promises than necessary, express interest in the rules of the place - which required no faking on my part - and yet, once they were gone, ignore them.

Some of the rules, apart from those outlined above, and remembering that contradiction was central to their application, proved to run something like as follows: people dressed in standard-issue business suits enjoyed a basic right to photograph unhindered, though presumably this could be withdrawn should they step outside the expected roles of, for instance, memorialising a business trip at the entrance to a bank HQ visited, or snapping a scene for wives and children at home; photographing the water of the old docks was actively encouraged, though for some reason other than guarantee against further harassment, which was as prompt as at any other scene; retail outlets were strictly off limits, and, lastly, permits were available via the press office, who would drag out the procedure, asking what exactly one sought to photograph at what exact time, though with the proviso that most places were ruled out, what photographic equipment would be used, the purpose, etc., in a game of patience which, in this case, I won, they themselves withdrawing from communication presumably out of boredom before the final details had been worked out, though I didn't let this trouble me, having by then finished the job anyway.

As it's abundantly clear that no terrorist will be hindered by the inability to take photographs, it would be a mistake to believe the danger the Wharf seeks to dispel is that of acts preparatory to terrorism. The absurdity of the overreaction is simply too clear even to imagine that. As the furious response of, say, a be-suited guard to a bemused family of tourists posing in the vicinity of his revolving door for a street shot made clear, the act itself is the object of their hatred, and without any proportion to its consequences - blindly.

Not until my last day there - Saturday, that completely different atmosphere, when the purpose of the place becomes still more obscure, and, as such, a focus of greater interest, clearer - did I get the opportunity to grasp photographically the object of this blindness itself.

If the original purpose of the visit had been, as I say, to capture the panorama, all sight of this idea had long been lost, the behaviour of the guards having distracted me for days, pushed me to research their limits, the effect these had on the images, the space shot, behaviour - that of others and my own; above all, what was behind it, these rigid injunctions half applied, proffered permissions that never came, inconsistencies to the point of whim, one guard placing a not usually where another a never, one allowing what another forbade.

These days I spent wandering this Isle that isn't an isle, and yet, though belonging to London, studiously not, that is. Because the first thing that must be remarked of this corner of East London is the numerous means it employs to suggest it isn't, from the bizarre arrays of clocks displacing its time zone abroad to the toy-town aesthetic, Charliesque checkpoints, retail blingery, price, wage and finally legal exception cutting it off from the rest.

It wasn't till a Saturday I finally entered the museum, getting directions to the panorama at the desk, though I had to revise my intention of photographing it, as here, in distinction to the main site at London Wall, featuring in the previous post, for instance, for their Vauxhall recreation, a no photograph policy's operated, appropriately enough. There, on the wall, I found as instructed the image, shiny, screwed to a wall, and, on closer inspection, a photograph, no less, the original having been shifted. Still, I take the time to look slowly, admire the detail, the reproduction no less useful than the original, though without the installation I recall in the round, recall having visited all those years ago with the Archaeologist in our early days, before we'd lost touch, and then, meeting again, begun blogging together, before blogs even existed, reproducing at least something of what the original set out to achieve. The logic of these things is dependent on the viewer's at the same time viewing what their eyes tell them must be the real thing, and yet being instructed by other details that it's not, a panorama no good of course, if you mistake it for the real, who'd pay to see the real, in distinction to this thing that as exactly as possible reproduces it? There must be that little twinge, the detail that says the buildings here are not buildings, the ways on this land are not ways, this is only a representation, usual life in suspense.

Winding down through the museum, then, I took the opportunity to browse through the displays on the Docklands development, try to uncover something of what the Enterprise Zone meant, the handing of public land over to private investors along with incentives, the extraordinary dispensations as to planning, financing, and transport, the encouragement to think of it as a place apart, a new New World, island without natives, cities of gold, the dreams of a virgin land, strange designations, and, in refrain, the permanent threat of a fall in prices, the endless search for an edge.

On the way out, I took the opportunity to photograph an image from a conversation I'd had on an early day. I'd been trying to take a shot involving shadows and light on some coloured gauze, passers by transparent from motion above. A woman of East-Asian appearance waiting at a bus stop there had smiled, expressed interest in what I was doing. She'd just emerged from Credit Suisse, but details in her appearance suggested she was both of and not of the island, regular visitor, perhaps, from a company based abroad. Perhaps it was just her using the bus, means of transport intended, surely, not for Wharfers proper, but for the cleaners, barworkers, security invited in to serve needs. As ever in these circumstances I was slightly embarrassed about my activities, but let her see the disappointing results, explained what I'd been trying to achieve. The conversation drifting to the specific qualities of the Wharf, I took the opportunity to seek to gauge her reaction to a sign I'd seen posted within the shelter where we stood, almost Brechtian in its eagerness to dispel the illusion elsewhere carefully maintained: This is private land, and no right of way, public or private, is acknowledged over it. The ways of this land have NOT been dedicated as highways, bridleways or footpaths, nor has there been any intention so to dedicate them. All resemblance to real footpaths, bridleways or highways, public squares, promenades or streets is coincidental. The woman had smiled knowingly, though of what I couldn't tell, whether an islander's smile to the foreigner, after all, or one to another. And on the weekends they board the buses and search, she said, even under the seats.