Last month I flew from Istanbul to London to deliver four of my collages to be included in an exhibition of Stuckist artists at the A Gallery in Wimbledon.
It had been a long time since I’ve been back in England, (apart from a stopover last September after one of my pictures of the Prime Minister led to my arrest and expulsion from Turkey). This time I was in London for a week and had time to notice the changes. I was mostly struck by the huge increase in security’. I had a taste as we changed planes at Amsterdam airport, every passenger being x-rayed, physically frisked by guards and made to remove shoes before being allowed on the plane (with shoes back on, of course.)
I had occasion to use London Bridge railway station several times during my stay. There were uniformed transport police strutting everywhere carrying guns or gathered in loafing gangs. They say you’re getting old when policemen begin looking young. I suppose I am, because they looked young to me, and most like arrogant trigger-itchy bully boys, and reminded me that innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, suspected as a terrorist was held down in a train at Stockwell Tube Station and shot in the head 7 times by just such a little gang.
While waiting for your train you are constantly reminded to remain alert by recorded tannoy announcements. Zomboid male and female voices alternate to soothe and warn:
“ARMED POLICE PATROL THESE PREMISES 24 HOURS A DAY.”
“BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR UNNATTENDED PACKAGES. REPORT UNUSUAL BEHAVIOUR OR ANYTHING THAT SEEMS SUSPICIOUS.”
“DO NOT LEAVE LUGGAGE UNNATTENDED. UNATTENDED LUGGAGE MAY BE TAKEN AWAY, DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.”
Often announcements on other platforms play at different times, so you hear a mélange of security warnings echoing around the station all at once, repeating each other, maddening and brain-numbing.
And there are CCTV surveillance cameras everywhere not only at the train stations. Attached to lampposts in the streets, on traffic lights, in buses, atop buildings, outside and inside houses, shops and offices, scanning and spying 24 hours a day. According to the latest studies, Britain has 4.2million CCTV cameras–one for every 14 people in the country–and 20 per cent of cameras globally. 25 years after George Orwell wrote his prophetic novel ‘1984’, Big Brother is alive and watching in Britain. The book reads more and more like a modern documentary every day.
They probably have cameras inside churches too, but I didn’t get a chance to find out when I went to visit Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, because I was refused entry! The formerly free Abbey now charges a whacking 10 pounds entry fee, and 5 pounds for St Paul’s, where they even have a turnstile! When I told the ticket seller that I couldn’t afford to go in, and that they seemed to be serving Mammon rather than God, he told me to address any complaints in a letter to the Dean. As I was leaving the lobby I noticed a pretty message emblazoned on one of the glass doors: “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE GATES OF PARADISE, FOR A CHURCH IS THE HOUSE OF GOD.” I snorted cynically. So, you have to pay to get into Heaven nowadays?
Back to the spying. Of course, difficult though they may be to avoid, at least you are usually able to spot a surveillance camera and know when you are being filmed, but now along comes a new little surveillance device (only 70 cm wide) fitted with high-resolution still and color video cameras as well as infrared night vision capability, that actually flies!
The battery-operated drone’s four carbon-fibre rotors are so quiet they cannot be heard from the ground once it is higher than 50 metres, and at 100 metres up it cannot be seen with the naked eye. It takes off vertically and can be flown even when out of sight, because it beams images back to video goggles worn by the operator.
Originally developed by a German company for military use, the remote-controlled drone has been enthusiastically adopted by the British constabulary to police public order situations and prevent antisocial behaviour. Last Saturday they used one for the first time at a major public event, to monitor crowds at the V music festival in Staffordshire, and officers said that the remote controlled helicopter helped capture offenders at the festival site. By Sunday there had been 62 arrests, and over 100 cautions, 32 of the arrests made for possession of drugs.
Incidentally, at the same festival, popular songstress Lily Allen announced on stage during her gig that George W Bush is a “fucking cunt.” She wasn’t arrested.
MW Power, the company that distributes the mini camera-plane in the UK, plans to improve the drone’s capability by adding a so-called “smart water” spray–a liquid infused with unique chemicals which can be squirted onto a suspect from above. It infuses their clothes and skin and the chemical code can be used later to identify them. Perfect for picking out people in political demonstrations, for instance.
Ýstanbul is virtually surveillance-video-free, and you can walk around without having to worry about your camera angle. You usually only see them in at the airport, in banks or outside exclusive clubs, but I suppose it won’t be long before they’re everywhere here too, as Turkey matches itself up with Europe.
The police surveillance I have personally experienced here is a bit crude and obvious. My phone is bugged. There’s a sort of echo that everyone notices. The radio technician controlling an international phone interview between me and Dr Susan Block on her radio show a few months ago detected that my line was being listened to.
Last year, during the last few days between my release from custody and my leaving the country, I was followed quite obviously in the street by plain clothes cops, who admitted it when stopped and confronted. I learn that after I left the country my apartment block was under surveillance for several days, and police questioned other residents. They said that they’d seen me enter an apartment building on the European side and that I had never come out. (Huh?) They said that they thought I was a spy’. My neighbours pointed out that it hardly seemed likely after all the attention I had brought to myself with my protests.
But such Chaplinesque techniques will disappear as Turkey strides into the 21st Century. Before long I’m sure there will be little drones in the skies over Ýstanbul, too far up to see, watching and recording our every move.
But, as Western technology develops even smaller and more sophisticated spy devices, even then Turkey might not be quite as up-to-date as their European neighbours, where in the streets, now free of obtrusive bulky surveillance cameras, one hardly notices the tiny flies that hover silently and zip past so quickly in and out of rooms. You’d hardly know they were there.
MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at firstname.lastname@example.org