Words by Molly Openshaw, Arts Print Editor
Over the past few weeks, I have been watching BBC’s new Vigil, made by the same creators at Line of Duty. This television show follows DSI Silva in a murder investigation upon HMS Vigil, a nuclear powered submarine with ballistic missiles on board. This six part drama discusses the role of the government and army in matters of state, as well as the influence of foreign relations in the safety of a small town in Scotland. Depicting themes of loss, sexuality and trust, this show ultimately highlights how humans respond to stress.
While watching this show I think one of the most significant motifs is this idea of surveillance and the idea of feeling watched or observed. Throughout the programme there are references to CCTV, social media and observation. The protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva, has been placed on Vigil to observe the crew and to discover the murder suspect. There is this eerie cast throughout the programme, it feels uncomfortable and suspenseful, as though the watcher themselves is feeling observed and tested. I think part of this comes from the duality of the show, primarily taking part in two main places: aboard Vigil and back in scotland. Between these two locations there is no contact meaning there is this sense of dramatic irony as the viewer observes both of these locations and feels almost omniscient in comparison to the guesswork and investigations taking part on both ends.
This theme of surveillance is reinforced by the role of mistrust and corruption seen throughout as the crew face murders, drug overdoses, security breaches and miscommunication. Throughout the arts we can see this theme of surveillance from Orwell’s 1984 to Poe’s The Raven. After watching Vigil, this idea of surveillance was at the forefront of my mind and I seemed to recognise how prevalent it is in arts and culture from the beginning of the press and the development of technology. Looking at Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, we can see parallels in how surveillance is represented. There is this mistrust in a wider organisation, issues in communication and routine and scapegoating. As well as this, there is an ever present feeling of being observed and the inability to relax that you feel engaging with both. Another great example of this is Moving Wall’s 22nd installation titled ‘Watching you, watching me’, exploring the role of photography in surveillance culture. In this exhibition they explore the role of new technologies such as drones and satellites in observation and art.
Here we can see how throughout the 20th and 21st centuries there has been a growing role of surveillance in art and culture, a movement that I think has grown even bigger since the Covid 19 pandemic struck last March. During the pandemic and isolation periods, there has been a huge increase in monitoring with the introduction of the NHS track and trace app as well as many concerns surrounding vaccinations. The pandemic itself has prompted a lot of the arts to embrace technology and go online, with gallery Hauser and Wirth introducing ArtLab. This project was initially started in 2019 but was accelerated because of the pandemic. ArtLab is a VR exhibition model, allowing people all over the world to experience a gallery based in LA.
Here we can see how Covid has impacted the arts and redefined surveillance culture. I don’t think that surveillance being represented in the arts is an inherently bad thing, purely a response to increased technology and fear as we have faced issues as a society. Even before the role of social media and television, this idea of being watched was discussed, for example the eyes of T.J. Ecclesburg in The Great Gatsby. Observation is a huge part of art and will continue to be.
Etymology of the Edition: Surveillance
A noun. Coming from the french surveillance meaning supervision or watching in 1802. This has come from sur- meaning over and veiller meaning to watch which came from the latin vigilare from vigil meaning watchful. This word seems to have come to English in the 18th century after the terror in France when surveillance committees were formed in 1793 to monitor the actions of the public.