Blowing Things Up: Incident Report

Politics, Rambles, Theatre

"I want to blow up (a model of) the Palace of Holyroodhouse (for art), Buzzcut Festival, 2014

When I first began researching how to build a model palace and then blow it up, I hadn’t thought it through much beyond wanting to spend an afternoon doing something edgy-sounding that explored my political rage and the despairing feeling that I was unable to do anything about it. I’d been engaged in protest activities for years, and I’d been making political art for years, and an oppressive world was still bearing down on us with impossible weight, and I couldn’t stop questioning what I was supposed to be doing and what I was trying to achieve anyway. Building a model of a building I hate and then blowing it up seemed like a fun way to deal with some of those feelings, and if I got to thumb my nose at the establishment and score a few political points along the way, then all the better. I quickly discovered that I could use the process to explore all sorts of interesting issues around Anti-Terror legislation, and that gave the project life for a bit longer, enough for two more research sessions.

I apologise to my audiences and to the authorities for my failure to complete an auto-surveillance report for the third research session at Buzzcut. This was due to unavoidable staff cutbacks. Which is to say, the conditions of precarious labour which define contemporary artistic practice led to me not having enough time/energy/belief to write it in time, and when I tried to some weeks later it seemed too late, too distant, and not interesting enough. For my surveillance file, please see my Twitter feed on the day of Sunday 29th April which contains an ongoing report. The activity of the day consisted of (a) looking at videos of people using various dubious explosives methods on Youtube, (b) writing to explosives licensors and to pyrotechnicians for advice on how best to accomplish the task, and (c) digging through appalling self-doubt about whether I should be doing this project in the first place.

Imagining blowing things up is appealing. Fantasising about the Palace of Holyroodhouse collapsing into dust, flame and rubble is cathartic, and conjures imaginaries of transformative upheaval, a dramatic end to sorrow and suffering, loving militias of social justice: all the phantasms of radical protest. Nevertheless, I feel like my Mum was right when she argued to me that it would be more politically transformative to repossess the Palace and turn it into co-operative social housing than to reduce it to rubble. No propaganda of the deed feels as important to me as giving people quality affordable homes to live in.

Then again, I’m not actually trying to blow up the actual palace, just a poorly-made model. But then I have to face up to the privilege I’m bringing to this project: it is easy for me to talk casually about blowing things up because of who I am and where I live. If I were from Northern Ireland, for example, showers of smoke and rubble wouldn’t have the same aesthetic appeal. If I were from South Africa, I might remember the role of building explosions in anti-apartheid struggle, but I’d also remember everything that cost. If I were from Russia, a picture of blowing up a palace would conjure the waves of politicised demolition under Tsarist, communist and capitalist regimes. What blowing things up means to me is not what it means to everyone else, and I’m playing with a cocktail of emotions far more risky and dangerous than the cocktail of political ideologies. If nothing else, I need to stop treating the idea of an explosion as one big joke.

On Wednesday 18th June, by arrangement, two officers from the Police Scotland Specialist Crimes Division (Hello, DC C___! Hello, DS C___! I hope you are having a nice day) came to visit to talk to me about my art project. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t a terrorist. It was OK. I’m not a terrorist, and although it wasn’t the nicest thing to do on a Wednesday morning, they were the most straightforward and unthreatening police I’ve ever had to speak to.

They said the visit was “just to make sure that your intentions are for art purposes, and it’s nothing more sinister than that”. They asked me why I picked the palace, and I had to explain to two police sitting on my sofa why I don’t like the monarchy or big tracts of Crown Estate next to deprived areas. They asked me if I’d bought any chemicals, and I told them that I hadn’t because they all looked too impractically scary and dangerous to use. They wanted to know whether I’d film the explosion, and I said I would, so I suppose I have to make sure that the video isn’t posted in a dangerous terrorist-encouraging way. We had a discussion about artists and Public Liability Insurance. I laughed a lot. They mostly smiled. They asked me if I had any intentions of publishing scalings and calculations that could be used to demolish the actual Palace, and I said “No! Oh, good God. No. I hadn’t even thought of that. That sounds very dangerous.” They asked “So there’s no bigger picture?” and I said “No, there’s no bigger picture.” I told them it would be a really bad model because I was rubbish at building things and that I’d probably use balsa would and that made DS C___ laugh a little bit.

DC C___ said “I saw on your website that you were looking to create something that is ‘terroristic enough to scare an audience but not enough to scare the police'” and I said “oh dear, that does sound like an ill-advised line, doesn’t it?” and we laughed and DC C___ said “Mm-hm, OK.”

In truth, though, that’s precisely the line that I’m trying to walk. I don’t want to break the law, and I don’t want to be a terrorist, but I do want to do something that references terrorism closely enough to raise questions about what terrorism is, what protest is, what illegality is, what blowing things up means. I wasn’t surprised that they visited (I’ve said in the past that I’m absolutely certain there’s a civil servant somewhere logging all this and thinking “What a stupid wee shite of an artist”, quite reasonably), and I couldn’t tell if I was sad or happy about it. Sad to live in a state where anti-terror surveillance is so pervasive, sad that art projects can be created that play off that surveillance, but a little bit happy that I’d provoked the authorities just enough. Because I am childish, I have a knee-jerk ankle-biting anti-authoritarianism that gets a rise out of getting a rise out of a uniform or a suit. I can’t tell whether that’s a great thing about this project or an awful, poorly thought through thing.

When the police came to visit, I wanted to be reassuring and friendly. I wanted to play along. I didn’t want to perform to them the kind of rage and truculence that I’m performing by building a model palace and blowing it up. I didn’t like having the police in my house; it did feel invasive; and I could have reacted with the kind of grinning obstinacy that I’ve brought to protest actions in the past. But it seems, with the art project, I’m only willing to go so far. Looking inwards, this too is the kind of contradiction of political art I’m trying to explore with the project. Political art of the kind I make, especially art-activism, tries to perform change in the world but is frequently more conservative and more timid than much direct action. Art-activism rarely breaks the law. Art-activism often collaborates with the police, as I am doing. Art-activism positions itself as the radical end of art, but I don’t know which side of the barricades it will be on. I will not blow up a palace, but I will build a model and detonate that. Derrick Jensen is still writing books.

DS C___ said it was a comfort to them that I found the situation humorous, and very reassuring that I wasn’t standoffish, that I had a friendly demeanour, that I didn’t have war memorabilia and daggers and I Love Hitler signs on the walls. I do have a gigantic colourful feelie sculpture of a vulva on the wall, which may or may not have helped matters; it wasn’t mentioned. That conversation brought my privilege glaringly into view. If I were anything other than white, the conversation might have been more tense. If my previous interactions with the police had been forced on me by racial or class profiling rather than chosen by me at protests, I would have been more resistant to their questions. If I were a Muslim, I might have had to remove iconography from my house. If I didn’t have the kind of reassuring social affects produced by a middle class upbringing, everything might have gone differently. It was easier for me to talk to the police, it was easier for me to risk provoking the police in the first place; it is more possible for me to do this project than it would be for the majority of the planet’s population. That being the case, perhaps that’s precisely why I’m doing it.

DC C___ said, “We spend our days doing this. I fully understand your project, and each to their own, we’re not here to judge you. But you can understand, when your website is there for all to see, and when you click round these links you’ve got a photograph of the actual Holyroodhouse with a fuse coming out… I’m not here to tell you to remove that, but just so you can understand, it might be misinterpreted. But just so you understand, I’m not here to tell you what to post and what not to post, it’s a free world at the end of the day.”

I finally have a date for the actual explosion of the model to take place, to be announced here soon. I don’t have a certain method yet, but it will be safe and legal. I was advised to be cautious in what I’m saying “for my own good”. I will be. I’ll keep trying to walk the right line. I will state repeatedly, for audiences and police officers reading this now, that I neither condone nor encourage the actual blowing up of actual public buildings, and will not be sharing my research with anyone who does in an encouraging way. I will be continuing the project, thoroughly aware of the ambiguities, contradictions and politicised strangenesses of it all. I’ll be expanding it into an installation project where audiences build cardboard cities with me of buildings they hate and we’ll jump up and down on them together. I’m getting less interested in the meaning of my own rage, and more interested in shared and unshared experiences of the city, in how other people cope with an environment that reminds them constantly of their oppression, in cathartic collective actions of childish model destruction, in ideas of building something better. I suspect that I’ll never be quite sure whether or not I’m doing the right thing

At the end of the meeting, just as I thought they were leaving, DS C___ asked something:

“I’ve just got one last thing, Harry. Are you affiliated to any groups?”
“What do you mean, am I affiliated?”
“Do you actively support or participate with any groups at all. Anything at all.”
“Groups, I mean, no, what, er…”
“Protest groups, anything like that?”
“Look, I know that there’s a file on protest activities that I’ve been involved in in the past. I know that there is somewhere. So you can look at all of that.””I’ll be honest, we didn’t know that.”
“Ok, ha.”
“What is that? Do you want to talk about that, or do you want me to go and dig it out and I’ll have a read through?”
“You can have a read if you like, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve been involved in a number of different protests and activist groups in the past. So. But I haven’t got a criminal record. No intention of criminal activity.”
“So all you’ve done has been legal, basically.”
“Within the boundaries of the law.”
“That’s just something we ask.”
“Many people in similar situations.”
“OK, thanks for your time.”

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