LONDON — At the heart of artist, writer, and technologist James Bridle’s project is the notion that the images that we are not shown are just as carefully selected as the ones we are: in this day and age, visual concealment is tactical, not accidental. As Bridle put it frankly in a recent interview, “Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it.”
Accordingly, Bridle’s oeuvre has aimed to reveal the concealed. In past work he has drawn attention to covert drone strikes by regularly posting satellite imagery of strike locations to Instagram account Dronestagram and by painting life-size drone-shaped shadows onto the ground in such politicized locations as London and Washington DC. Through his work on drone strikes, Bridle became interested in issues of contested citizenships, and the manner in which UK citizenship is stripped or denied behind closed doors. On view at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, his latest project, Seamless Transitions, sheds much-needed light on some of the UK’s more out-of-sight immigration and deportation practices.
A short film on loop pulsing from the gallery’s Media Wall, Seamless Transitions tours three virtual spaces. They may be computer-generated, but these architectural visualizations capture very real locales. With jump cuts, slow pans, and the occasional split-screen, the viewer moves through three sites in which immigrants are detained, judged, and deported (in that order): the Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre at Heathrow, the Special Immigration Appeals Court in the City of London (SIAC), and the Inflite Jet Centre at Stanstead Airport.
The renderings, which aren’t winning any awards for visual interest, nonetheless capture the bland, bleak structures made with industrial materials and steeped in a vague institutional authority. In the Inflite Jet Centre, everything is clinically symmetrical, down to the standard-issue office plants bookending the exit to the tarmac. The film zeroes in on a private plane decorated with faint gray stars that deny identification but imply clout. SIAC is depicted as a blocky, modular building with the nubby blue carpet, fluorescent lighting, and hard plastic chairs of generic office blocks. The entrance to the building is host to a metal detector and other features of security screening. Harmondsworth looks like a prison through and through: heavy on the locks, grilles, and security cameras, with a hideous banana-slug-yellow design motif.
Why did Bridle’s deportation tour opt for CGI in lieu of photographs or film? In fact, each of the three spaces depicted have been kept from being photographed. At the Inflite Jet Centre, mass deportations are subcontracted out to private companies who use their luxury jets to expel immigrants from a private terminal under the cover of night. Also a subcontracting gig, Harmondsworth is run by a private security company and, like a high-security prison (but for people who have committed no crime) is resource-poor with stringent visitation policies. At SIAC, secret courtroom sessions take place in locked rooms and appellants can be convicted by virtue of “secret evidence” to which they are not privy and that is passed from security services to a judge in screened-off seating. (In 2013, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the SIAC procedures violated the right to a fair trial.)
To depict these unphotographable sites, Bridle relied upon eyewitness accounts, his own observations, reports by activist organizations, planning applications filed with local councils, and the publicly available treasure trove that is Google Maps and Street View. Architectural visualization studio Picture Plane transformed this collated information into computer-generated spaces that recreate both the design and ambiance of the sites. In Seamless Transitions, CGI — the domain of moneymaking commercials and Hollywood blockbusters — is brilliantly rendered a powerful and subversive tool for investigative journalism.
The Photographer’s Gallery commissioned Seamless Transitions as a complement to the main exhibition on view, a show of black-and-white documentary photography entitled Human Rights Human Wrongs. The pairing of Seamless Transitions with Human Rights Human Wrongs is an astute one that puts two strains of human rights documentary side by side. Seamless Transitions can be a bit emotionally anesthetized as it expresses a concern for human rights without depicting any humans, instead focusing on the shifting legalities and neoliberal networks — there is no one person responsible for anti-immigration measures — that violate human rights. Human Rights Human Wrongs, on the other hand, features more traditional human rights documentary, engaging the viewer emotionally as it zooms in on the lives and narratives of oft-disenfranchised individuals in wars, racism, and political conflict. In marrying these two factions of the genre, The Photographer’s Gallery wisely proposes that, to address today’s numerous and nuanced human rights violations, we need both.
James Bridle: Seamless Transitions continues at The Photographer’s Gallery (16-18 Ramillies Street, London) through 15 April.