Friday, August 17, 2007

Why I became a guerrilla for the day!

I think it is worth sharing exactly how I ended up in a boiler suit waving an empty CCTV camera around in the middle of Birmingham on Wednesday. While on the train to Birmingham I tried to distil exactly why I was quite happy to subject myself to a fair bit of public ridicule!

On a personal level I feel that the use of CCTV cameras in public space is unacceptably invasive. There is little substantiated evidence to say that they are effective at reducing crime in public spaces. The capacity of CCTV cameras to control space and subsequently how we use and interact with space should not be underestimated. From one spot, outside WH Smiths in New Street station we counted over thirty cameras and were constantly reminded via loud audio announcements that we were being filmed. Personally, that doesn’t make me feel any safer. I feel as though I, and everyone else, is being scrutinised, judged monitored and evaluated. People don’t usually like that.

As an educator I am becoming increasingly aware of the many and varied opportunities that currently exist for educators to ply their trade outside the classroom. I’m not bored with teaching, but the idea of getting out of school to engage the public with geographical concepts has big appeal. Guerrilla geography isn’t about providing people with answers, but is more about getting public to begin to think like critical geographers and ask questions about the place and space they occupy. I believe this can only be a good thing.

As a geographer, I am concerned that the public or popular perception of our subject could do with a bit of a shake up. I don’t have bad breath, a beard, or leather patches on a tweed jacket and am probably as bad as the next person in the “geography” round of a pub quiz. However after five years as a teacher I think I have listened to every conceivable stereotype of a geographer and always despair. As a result, I feel I have a professional responsibility to challenge people’s opinion of what I do each day.

The reaction of the public to our actions was unsurprisingly varied, although for me, the most interesting revelation was the difference in reaction between adults and youths. For instance, when you pose the question,

Is there a big difference between us following you down the street with our camera, compared to you being followed on a regular CCTV camera?

Understandably, both groups usually felt uneasy about being filmed by either method, but after brief reflection, almost all young people were prepared to accept that perhaps there is not a huge difference. They were then able to begin to make connections between CCTV cameras and their use of space. They could cite examples of where CCTV can dictate the use of space and would usually be keen to articulate how it makes them feel. By contrast, while many adults were quick to agree CCTV is invasive, many were reluctant to accept was no real difference between our action and the current use of CCTV in public space. Why? I’m not sure I can answer this question fully. Perhaps we become desensitised to the presence of CCTV in the landscape. I’m of the opinion that this is at best undesirable, at worst dangerous. Being filmed, monitored and surveyed over long periods of time is not healthy for communities or groups of people, an episode of big brother makes that point quite well!

Space is the ultimate geographical idea. It is where everything we are interested in is played out. An appreciation of the uses of, changes to and control of space lie at the heart of what geographers do. Taken from this perspective, it is not difficult to see that geography was at the heart of what we did in Birmingham. Even if the public would not initially label it as such, they certainly had to think like geographers, and wrestle with these ideas. In that sense I felt that we achieved what we set out to do. As always, I’m really looking forward to meeting up with even more geographers (or what ever else you call yourself) for round two!

Simon Renshaw

No comments: