Mona Hatoum @ Whitechapel Gallery: Current Disturbance
By Jeffrey Andreoni - 12/02/2011
For anyone who hasn't seen We Live In Public, Ondi Timoner's 2009 documentary about the social experiment/performance art piece orchestrated by Josh Harris in New York in the late 1990's, Mona Hatoum's work will not make sense. Harris created a temporary society inside a building in Manhattan and allowed people to live there if they agreed to give him total control. In his experimental society he installed dozens of transparent "pods" which were similar to the sleeping compartments you would see on a submarine or space shuttle. In each of the pods there was a camera and also a TV screen. Each pod was equipped with a remote that allowed the occupant to tune-in to other pods which were all connected by CCTV. In her own words, her 1996 work Current Disturbance is "part of a body of work looking at council flats and architecture as prison – basically, architecture as control. When I came to London, there were all these cameras. I felt like I was in Big Brother-land." The correlation with Josh Harris is remarkable. It is as if Hatoum, who made the work before We Live In Public, was able realise in sculpture what Josh Harris was almost simultaneously performing in real life: a commentary on our lives under constant surveillance. The other comment regarding council flats and architecture as prison is equally interesting because of Hatoum's Palestinian Background. The Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) is attempting to remove the psychological effects of decolonisation on Palestinians in evacuated areas where former Israeli houses are "understood as symbols for racist ideologies, as physical entities embodying power relations, as military weapons or ammunitions, as the site and instruments of a crime and even as haunted places." (Which makes me wonder what effect European architecture would have on people from former colonies now residing here, especially when European artists had originally misinterpreted their own influences, leaving us all bereft of colour)! Having lived in council flats, I can attest to the effect they have one's mental wellbeing, and the effect of seeing ubiquitous CCTV cameras on poles outside your windows. It's almost as if Jeremy Bentham got his wish for a "Mill for grinding rogues honest, and idle men industrious." He believed this to be possible by placing people under the constant watchful eye of the Panopticon. However the laugh is on Bentham in the end because there is no human eye watching us, just a nearsighted electric one. And unlike the minds of the people whose idea it was to put the cameras there in the first place, our's are not susceptible to "The mind-forged manacles" that lock their brains into tiny compartments like the ones in Hatoum's piece.