The policing of the artist
Officers are now imposing their own conformity on the culture of the street
Tuesday December 11, 2007
Here's a tale for our times. Over the last three years, it has been possible to catch the "Chewing Gum Man" at work somewhere in London, crouched on a pavement. From a distance, he could be homeless or a drunk - his coat is spattered with paint - but as you near, you see that he is painting in enamels, with great delicacy, a picture on the discarded gum that litters urban pavements. When he moves on, the picture will catch passing eyes - particularly children's - for months to come. Each picture tells a story as recounted by a passer-by: this was the place where someone was knocked down or had their first kiss. The pictures are small signs of personal connection, a humanising of an anonymous urban environment; he doesn't want payment, it's a gift of recognition in the city's commercialised and often violent public space.
Romantic or eccentric, you may think, but surely no challenge to public order. The artist, Ben Wilson, estimates he has now clocked up about 500-600 encounters with the police during this project. Most have been amicable. Some local policemen came to recognise that buried in Wilson's purpose are ends not that dissimilar from their own about building a sense of connectedness, often among alienated groups such as teenagers.
It helps that Wilson is softly spoken, gentle, and clever enough to ensure that he is not breaking the law. He paints on the gum, not the pavement, and you can't be charged with criminal damage to litter. Unlike the graffiti artist, Banksy, who has had to remain anonymous or face criminal charges, Wilson wants to connect his public art with people.
He has sometimes run into more heavyhanded policing, but nothing prepared him for what happened a few months ago. Arrested and charged with criminal damage in front of a crowd of horrified tourists, he ended up being punched and dragged across a police cell. The story illustrates what little space is left for spontaneity, or even the gentlest subversion, on our streets.
The police now have extraordinarily broad powers for regulating behaviour in public space. The pretext for acquiring these was in part terrorism, in part anti-social behaviour. They can intervene with options such as imposing a fine, making an arrest, or stop and search. Absurd recent examples of how far these powers stretch include a drunken Oxford student who said a police horse was gay and ended up with an £80 fixed-penalty fine. And the penalty fines handed to wearers of a "Bollocks to Blair" T-shirt. The most egregious instance of this new civic conformity was Tony Blair's measure to ban political protests within a mile of Westminster. It led to the removal of anti-Iraq war placards, which, in their subsequent resurrection by artist Mark Wallinger as State Britain, won the Turner prize last week - a powerful indictment of how the messy, chaotic nature of protest is now tidied into the safe spaces of artistic institutions. The police have been made arbiters of our civic space, with unprecedented scope now to impose narrow definitions of conformity on the culture of the street - often places in desperate need of civilising with just the spontaneous human exchange Wilson initiates.
But Wilson's story didn't end there. Once at the station, he was told they wanted a DNA sample, which under a 2004 amendment, the police are entitled to take from everyone accused of a recordable offence. Even if the person is never convicted, or even charged, the DNA sits in a national database until they die, or their hundredth birthday. Wilson balked at this invasion of his privacy; he tried to reason with the police, and ended up on the floor being punched, as six or so hairs were taken for the DNA sample. Charges of obstructing police in the course of their duty, and criminal damage, were brought against him and then dropped.
The question left in Wilson's mind as he recovered from this shocking experience was how something so integral to his personhood and dignity as his DNA could now sit forever on a database, which is subcontracted to private laboratories. It is accessible by more than 50 other bodies and subject to the risks of being stolen or ... lost in the post.
The routine collection of DNA slipped through parliament with barely a murmur, while campaigning efforts were focused on anti-terrorism measures. The UK is accumulating the biggest DNA database in the world - and no one can be entirely sure of how this could be used in future, and by whom. What frustrates critics is that the government has yet to produce convincing evidence as to why it needs this vast database. Liberty, the human rights organisation, has a case challenging the way DNA is routinely collected and retained, due to reach the European court in March.
Has fear so cowed us that we are prepared to offer up so much - the culture of our streets, our very own DNA with the genetic code whose significance we are still unravelling - to the discretion of the police and the state?