Tim Sandys is an artist in Glasgow, Scotland
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Commuter Transgression Protocols: An Analysis Of Infrastructure And The Individual

Analysis of the rail-commuter environment reveals that an individual following normative behaviour is psychologically coerced by cues within that environment. A process of transformation from 'individual' to 'participant' occurs through the entering, traveling within and leaving of the rail-commuter environment. The first area of this discussion shows how this process can be explained by study of the transport infrastructure and the individual's exposure to the dynamics within it. The second area of discussion concerns a piece of experimental writing masquerading as a corporate missive or deviant's handbook which is related to the rail commuter experience. The document, Commuter Transgression Protocols outlines theoretical disruptive acts. Focusing on social and physical interactions, the first potential transgressions described are minor and familiar. Successive examples escalate to actual violence and criminality. As an experimental text, the document refers to a variety of sections 'in progress' in need of annotation or requiring diagrams or illustrations. It's authorship is elusive and it's audience ambiguous. In a response to the reading of this document, a discussion was held between Tim Sandys (artist and the author of the text) and artist Adam Lewis-Jacob. This discussion was un-prescribed, loose and informal in nature. It was the intention that the transcript of this discussion would serve as a secondary source; a distillation of the original text with a view to analyse the central issues evoked. The broader themes include the presence of deviant behaviour within a commuter system, their challenges to normative behaviour, and the associated ramifications within a contemporary art context, particularly within the artist's own practice.

A typical commuter platform within an inner city area is the default environment within which the transgressive acts described in the document are postulated. The commuter environment (including the train interior) is bounded by a tightly controlled set of rules, partly enforced by branded arbitrary regulations of the network controller (which include threats of legal action) and partly enforced by social norms. Such norms are long established in nature and rarely violated within commuter hours. It is important to note that the geography of the commuter platform inherently restricts the boundaries of behaviour through a variety of mechanisms. Within the urban environment, the potential for exploration is normally ever present but is utterly restricted in the long threads of unkempt, bounded, pseudo-industrial infrastructure that make up the rail networks. Fences and barricades, security cameras, warning notices and threats of fines are among the trappings of the rail networks that occupy land otherwise given over to civic free-roaming and exploration. The individual standing on a train platform may venture to it's far end and observe the endless miles of stained tracks and rusting steel. Mysterious structures such as towers, tunnels, cables, junction boxes and communication nodes enforce the vision of an environment inhospitable and privately controlled. Indeed, the very surface of the ground is alien to the commuter. It is an uncomfortable array of rough gravel, often punctuated with steel and cable. It is intentionally un-ergonomic. On the rare occasions that life is evident within these boundaries, it is either a fleeting glimpse of birds or foxes seen from within a speeding carriage, or perhaps a network employee clearly uniformed in high-visibility dress. The habitable areas within the commuter networks are correspondingly filled with symbols of restricted movement and the encouragement of subdued, normative behaviour. Commercial advertisements are interchangeable with community notices encouraging such messages as enrollment with the police force, warnings about unattended baggage, violence against staff as well as the threat of prosecution for incidences of trespass. Digital displays of current train activity serve as chronometers, implicitly encouraging tightly monitored spells of waiting and inaction to be broken with precisely controlled tides of queuing and physical movement. Turnstiles, access ramps, audio announcements escalators and automated doors serve as actual manipulators of physical activity that presuppose and direct normative behaviour. Within this environment, the commuter is psychologically ripe for coercion into a suggestible and passive state.

The transformation of individual into passive commuter is a social construct that benefits broader societal function and integrates the individual into the cultural apparatus. For example, the individual commuter is statically likely to be wearing work atire. Affordable, mass-manufactured business suits mingle with corporate uniform, identity lanyards, umbrellas and briefcases to result in a familiar livery. The individual is inclined to identify with group behaviour and accept their status as one of the migratory whole. This funneling of individual identity and blending it into the identity of a unified workforce occurs on the train platform and is consolidated in the traveling carriage. The individual's internal status is primed through personal dress and confirmed by it's aptness among co-commuters. This group identification is consolidated through the group activity of waiting within the unifying environment of the rail platform, absorbing the same visual cues and announcements in relative silence. Finally, the physical abstraction of entering and traveling within a pod-like transit mechanism (submitting to the strangeness of moving without moving) such as a train carriage literally removes the individual from their physical location and deposits them in a new environment to perform a new function. The outside world may appear familiar during this process but it is not instinctively recognised as the same world within which the individual now exists. They are suspended in a transit 'cocoon' in which they are powerless to prevent their own locomotion. Within this world, the individual is 'on hold' – internally processing the cues that are molding their attitudes to perform their function in the day ahead. The train carriage is a metaphorical teleporter, removing the individual, suspending their perception in an 'other' state, before emergence in a new frame of reference – thus the individual is no longer the same person.

There is a temptation to view this description of 'transformation' as a metaphysical curiosity – some arbitrary imposition of philosophical speculation lazily surrounding the vagaries of dull workaday travel rituals. However, it's reality can be evinced by anecdotal examples of it's exploitation. The inherent 'danger' of rail networks or other mass-transit systems is formally identified through reference to personal, mechanical danger ('Mind the gap'). The litany of safety and security announcements help reinforce the message that the body, the individual's actual flesh may be at risk either through accident or injury by transgressive or 'terrorist' acts. Within days of the United Kingdom's armed forces' involvement in the 2003 deployment in the Iraq conflict, platform safety and security announcements were escalated and re-worded to include warnings regarding 'unattended luggage' and 'suspicious behaviour'. Concurrently, army tanks were ordered to patrol the border of Heathrow airport to serve as a public display of tension and state alertness despite their obvious tactical redundancies. Transport infrastructure can be manipulated in this way under the guise of safety and security to formulate consensus. In this particular example, fear was re-appropriated and amplified to justify an unpopular foreign policy. The delivery system for this message was by insertion into the transformative commuter dynamic.

Having established the nature of this social construct, it can be seen that there are numerous variations and boundaries. At it's heart this construct is an interface between population and infrastructure. The rail network is effectively multi-purpose at a societal level. It caters for the tidal movements of cultural subsets. For example, although this discussion illustrates a particular transformative process that mechanistically populates the cultural apparatus with civilian volunteers, the rail network will also transfer drunk people to their homes on a Friday night. The diagnostic research that has formulated this set of observations can be equated with the sort of processes that an artist may use to advance a set of ideas. This 'transformative commuter dynamic' serves as a framework from which artwork may be 'hung'.

In a direct response to this, the document Commuter Transgression Protocols was written as a first step; an embryonic occurrence in the advancing of a new set of artistic expressions. A monitored discussion was held in response to this document between the artist and another reader as a means of distilling the content and potential within a contemporary art context. Upon an initial scan of the document, it appears to be written as an internal corporate document. The Network Rail logo and bureaucratic style give the impression that the document may be an instructional fact sheet – a reference for which employees to identify and be aware of potential deceptive, fraudulent or vandalistic acts. One might hypothesise that it could have been written in response to a worsening culture of social behaviours or even terrorist acts. By discussing everyday acts such as standing in doorways or dodging conductors to avoid paying fares, these initial points combine with the formal, corporate atmosphere to provide a sense of recognition. It can be argued that this provides a 'way in' for the reader – an essential broaching of subject matter and setting of scene that introduces reader to subject matter in a matter-of-fact, if slightly comedic way. As the document progresses, it becomes more apparent that the intention of the writer could perhaps be to suggest deviant behaviours to those desirous of committing transgressive acts for their own sake. The final points that concern actual physical harm and major destructive acts such as train derailment drive home the 'other' nature of this text. Clearly, not a corporate publication, the document's authorship is ambiguous and, left with no clarification, the reader is challenged and untrusting.

In the person to person dialogue that followed this document, it is notable that Adam Lewis-Jacob makes reference frequently to a comedic quality that emanates from the descriptions of the selected transgressions. Surreal examples of interpersonal behaviour apparently evoke a 'Monty Python, even a "Limmy" vibe'. His story of the person feigning disability and his perception of humour being replaced by disgust draws attention to the conflict at the heart of these deviant acts. The notion of conflict illiciting humour is apparent as the transgressive acts in question are clearly striking at the formal, controlled commuter environment. The deviance in challenging legality is as apparent as the deviance inherent in challenging an ordered train carriage, no matter how minor or subtle. It is the irreconcilable conflict, the flipping status between ordered and anarchic that cognitively illicits a humourous response. Transgressions and their consequences are, after all, presented as an abstraction - it's written form is a 'safe' platform removed from reality far enough to be considered without fear of exposure. It's okay to laugh from a distance.

The question of 'motive' is complex. During their discussion, both Sandys and Lewis-Jacob draw upon examples of deviance such as the Breivik shooting in Norway or Islamic terrorism when dealing with the issue of motive. A consensus is evident that there is a necessity for motive. In line with a societal need for understanding, it is acknowledged by the artists that there is something powerful in the concept of transgression occurring without any clear motive either than whimsy or, as Lewis-Jacob suggests, 'the logic of no logic'. Sandys' assertion, 'You need the invocation of an inferior mind or a deviant ideology to classify and reject the action' illustrates that the 'terrorist' or 'lunatic' motivation is a narrative that comfortably fits within the real-world commuter context. A long history of publicly explained incidents within commuter dynamics or societal interactions out with but not excluding foreign policy have educated the populace and normalised their undesirable manifestations. As a result, there is inertia within the media to accommodate the reporting of such incidents that do not follow the set agenda. In their discussion, the artists recount the initial reporting of the Breivik incident, the erroneous impression given of an act of 'fundamentalist islamic extremism' followed by the incredulity of the possibility of a lone, indigenous antagonist, and the eventual normalisation and accommodation of the deviant act by way of character assassination. Terrorism lives within the narrative of commuter life. By creating an artistic expression of deviance such as Commuter Transgression Protocols, motive has been re appropriated. It has been lifted out of the real world context in order to fuel the writing of the document. It's absence, the yawning hole it leaves in reality creates a peculiar 'other' dimension in which terrible acts must be entertained without the healing potential of analysis, understanding and eventual closure. Normalisation cannot occur because no motive is there to be classified and rejected. The artistic re-appropriation of motive has precedent. In 2006, loyalist terrorist, Michael Stone, described his failed armed invasion of the Stormont assembly as 'performance art replicating a terrorist attack'. His history of prior violent acts made this explanation doubtful to the authorities.

If the 'art' of this document does exist in some parallel universe, it raises the question of where tangible art can exist outside of writing or discourse. It asks whether transgression can be interchangeable with an artistic expression. In the post-post-modern, contemporary environment it is argued that we have reached, as Grayson Perry explained in the 2013 BBC Reith Lectures, 'the end point of art'. Literally anything goes. Commuter Transgression Protocols serves as a starting point for a set of ideas which may well generate 'happenings' that could be viewed through the lens of performance, or perhaps the 'People Plough', 'Needle Coat' and 'Derailers' are physical artifacts whose physical manifestation may inhabit a gallery space. Such objects certainly have the potential for critique within formal aesthetics and have the advantage of strong, if slightly dark conceptual underpinnings. One cannot escape the possibility, however, that there are greater depths, subtler ambiguities, stranger and quieter dimensions that can maybe explored in the interplay between social dynamics and art. As has been stated, this particular mechanism identified as the 'transformational commuter dynamic' is a convenient structure for two reasons: first, it has a familiarity common to those who dwell within cities – a primed audience, and second: it has boundaries associated to it's facility within urban life, both geographical and ritual – this keeps the scope manageable and suggests boundary limitations for an artistic project associated with it. One could view artistic end-products as a distillation from another world that can only be theorised. It exists alongside our daily experience and can be observed, but we cannot interact.

The central mechanism that divorces the potential artwork from the implied reality of the Protocols is the implicit assumption that the viewer of artwork is aware of their status as an outside individual observer and capable of maintaining that default position whilst projecting themselves into the role of transgressor or witness to one of the deviant or destructive acts. If the subjected individual within the 'transformative commuter dynamic' is aware of their metamorphosis, they will instantly remove themselves from the process – the dreamer who becomes aware of their dreaming will wake. It requires submission to take effect. Deviance, whether it be hiding from the conductor or derailing a train, serves to jolt the individual from submissive commuter into a free-thinking individual. The bureaucratic structure of a rail network's authority may be challenged by a transgressor, but without motive there are no victims, only witnesses – whether they be absent-mindedly traveling to work or viewing this strange, destructive world from a gallery.

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Bibliography:


BBC Radio 4 (2013) Reith Lectures, 4/4, I Found Myself In The Art World, Grayson Perry

Sandys. T (2013) Commuter Transgression Protocols

Sandys. T (2013) Commuter Transgression Protocols - A Discussion

 

 

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