Urban Expression – Inspiration & Idea Development

I’ve always been fascinated with the relationships of power expressed within the city. Urban environments are where I spend most of my time living, working, thinking, and they have become a central influence of my work and creative exploration. I am particularly interested in the relationships between people and places, how places affect people’s actions and how people change places.

Power and the city

Structures that we find ourselves in influence and change the way we behave. When you are walking on a street, there is a certain way you are expected to behave, a certain path you are most likely to take, and this is all predefined by the way streets are laid out, and the way urban environments are designed. What is more, in places such as the United Kingdom, where CCTV is used as a form of surveillance and control / crime prevention, you would often find yourself being even more cautious what your actions are in those public spaces – knowing that there is a possibility you might be watched right now changes your behaviour. A bit like the Panopticon concept introduced by Jeremy Benthan and explored by a number of theorists, including Michel Foucault. Another similar reference was made in a film I watched last year, ‘The Century of the Self’ by Adam Curtis – ‘There Is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads’. The argument there was that instead of external power structures controlling society, there is something much more effective that is being used – our internal, subconscious minds, controlling our own behaviour based on expectations and (often) unwritten rules.

There are a number of urban artists exploring these themes. One of the most influential images I’ve come across was Banksy’s work ‘One Nation Under CCTV’.

Banksy - One Nation Under CCTV

Banksy – One Nation Under CCTV (click image for source)

It really made me think about the scale of CCTV surveillance and what it means. About all those unhidden eyes constantly watching people’s every move. Their power is so pervasive that even people who don’t have a reason to be cautious, start thinking about their actions in public. They start being suspicious about others, thinking that if there are that many cameras there SHOULD be a reason…

But is there a reason? And if there is, are the means justified?

To quote another one of Banksy’s artworks, What are you looking at?

Banksy - What are you looking at?

Banksy – What are you looking at? (click image for source)

Walking along the streets of Urban England, day after day, keeps these thoughts and images constantly in my mind. But I don’t want to just walk around and be watched. I decided I can turn my own lens to the cameras. Some of my first photographs taken in the UK show just that:

Who's looking?

Rumena Zlatkova – Who’s looking? (click image for source)

But there is another side to the urban environment. The people. Urban artists have found a canvas for their artistic expression, and this canvas is public space. Walls, signs, doors, gates, bridges – pretty much every surface that the city can offer. Some of them are expressing their anger; others, though, are expressing love. Looking back through my archive of urban art, the things that really make me stop and take a picture are creations of beauty and love:

Love. Take all you need.

Unknown author – Love. Take all you need. (click image for source)

Here, the medium of the paper advert / announcement is subverted – the author is sharing love.

The happy one

The happy one (Click image for source)

Here, a rusty piece of electric equipment has been turned into a smiley face.

Love rEVOLution

Unknown author – Love rEVOLution (Click image for source)

And here is a photo from the streets of Central London.

Another interesting piece that influenced the way I look at urban expression was Pahnl’s ‘Nowhere Near Here’ video installation, part of the Street Art Exhibition at The Herbert last year:

Pahnl turned his attention to the hidden, untold stories of the city – which in turn inspired me to look at the positive creative expression on the streets.

Bringing it all together

My piece, Urban Expression, was made combining the ideas of power on the streets and the power of expression. The visual treatment was informed by some of my previous work, plus I was trying to use the typical and recognisable aggressive style of graffiti / street art / stencil artists. I wanted to use a few strong images, contrasting in style, and aggressive, high contrast text, changing with the rhythm. I was combining the expressive styles of the ‘street’ and the ones of ‘institutions of control and power’. Even the font I used is designed to mimic stencil style graffiti.

I re-used some old footage and re-filmed bits and pieces that I hoped would fit the theme. I also had a few very strong visual ideas from previous photos I had taken that I now wanted to turn into video clips and use:

High homes

Two round windows

The music track I used is a trip-hop piece by Tab & Anitek – ‘Merlot Downer’. It was released under a Creative Commons license as part of the ‘Project Monarch’ album, through the Dusted Wax Kingdom netlabel. The whole album is dealing with the issues of control and power, sourcing and sampling parts of a documentary about CIA experiments to control people. Ever since I first heard this track, it grew on me, and I knew I wanted to use it for a piece with a strong message and potential impact.

Here is the final result of my efforts:


A couple of weeks after the artefact was completed, while passing through the same locations, I noticed something interesting – the wall that had been covered in hearts, had been cleaned up.  I wonder if this was a case of authorities reestablishing the order, or they cleaned the canvas ready for a new artist to express themselves?


Links and sources

Banksy, One Nation Under CCTV

Banksy, What are you looking at?

Who’s looking?

Love. Take all you need

The Happy One

Love rEVOLution

High Homes

Pahnl – ‘Nowhere Near Here’

Tab & Anitek – ‘Merlot Downer’

MKULTRA CIA Mind Control Research Documentary

Foucault and His Panopticon

Adam Curtis – The Century of the Self


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