The following comments are made after reviewing the series “Public Order” by Sarah Pickering, available from her website (1)
Approaching this exercise after having read the relevant passages of the course guide is quite challenging, given that I already knew what to expect when looking for these images in Sarah Pickering’s website. Her website provides a link to the series (1), but this includes a slide show of the images with no explanation or background, other than the title to the picture and the date it was taken. Looking at these pictures objectively, right from the first image it is clear something is off. The starting picture is titled “Denton Underground Station” (link), which people familiar with London will have trouble recognising, as it does not exist. If that clue was not enough, the buildings running along the side street are all in profile and is clear that they only consist of a front wall: these are clearly fake buildings in a fake area of London. We know from the outset the scenery is fabricated, but we do not know what it is. Subsequent pictures continue to give up clues (like boarded up windows) that something is off, but throughout the series it is not clearly indicated that these are police training grounds, with Pickering giving this up slowly instead. The earliest indication we have of this comes from the picture “Guards / Violent Man” (link), where riot gear can be seen through one of the doorways in this indoors shot. Further clues are provided in later pictures, such as “High Street (Barricade)” (link), and “River Way (Roadblock)”(link). Knowing in advance that these pictures are about police training grounds takes away the mystery from the viewer, but anyone paying attention to the visual elements without that knowledge could also conclude that these were pictures of a large film set (see for instance “Magdalen Green” (link), where the fake house is built indoors, like if it was within a giant sound stage).
The pictures are detached and calm. There are a record of a place, which is shot as straight as possible. The sensation I get is that something seem to have happened in this place (there is rubble on the floor in some of the pictures and there is no person in sight), perhaps some sort of riot (or the filming of it), but that all is over and now everything is in peace. There is no explanation as to how this peace was achieved and this adds a degree of anxiety in the viewer.
I do not think the pictures are misleading if you consider the series as a whole. It is clear from some of the images that these are not pictures of real houses or real towns, if you look carefully at the visual clues. The curiosity that these pictures generate on the viewer, trying to guess what they are, must lead to something and this is a bit of a mystery to me, although I believe that in the end the deception is only there to challenge our sensorial response (what we see) and to make us conscious that what appears to be is not necessarily what is, that what is photographed is not reality itself. But these are not pictures which are documenting something in the social sense of the word. There is no situation that is being exposed and there is no intrinsic political statement from the subject matter (although the deceit itself can be interpreted as a political statement). In that respect, I do not believe the use of a “documentary style” for the series in this case is misleading or inappropriate as such, but is a valid tool that has been used by Pickering for artistic purposes.
(1) Sarah Pickering. 2017. Sarah Pickering. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html. [Accessed 11 July 2017].