Assistant Professor of History
University of Delaware
On the occasion of British artist Gillian Wearing’s opening at Penn's ICA on September 4, 2003, Stuart Semmel proposes an interpretation of her work through the lens of the exhibition’s title, “Gillian Wearing: Mass Observation.” Though Wearing presents herself as a plastic and visual artist with no overt claim to being a social scientist, Semmel argues that her work poses questions similar to those that arose in the 30s in relation to the eponymous British organization, Mass Observation, a commonplace referent in British cultural discourse.
To plumb the significance of Wearing’s exhibition title, Semmel provides a historical overview of Mass Observation as both idea and movement. Arising in a cultural climate in which the public opinion poll and the documentary were becoming powerful mechanisms comprehension of the otherwise enigmatic masses, Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by three British social scientists who proposed to undertake an “anthropology of our own people and of ourselves.”
Two main sites of Mass Observation activity emerged. In London, volunteers were recruited to record the minutiae of their daily lives and to turn in these “day surveys” on a monthly basis; in Bolton, volunteers arrived as surreptitious observers of “Worktown” life, reporting on everything from how many lumps of sugar laborers used in their coffee to the details of their romantic liaisons. Collagist Julian Trevelyan and photographer Humphrey Spender, artists retained as Worktown reporters, were among the first to vocalize a discomfort with the idea of observing the working-class community as outsiders marked by socio-cultural and linguistic differences from their subjects.
Did their work constitute observation by the masses, or observation of the masses? Although Mass Observation responded by declaring that the organiza-tion’s activity was to be understood as the observation “of everyone, by every-one, including themselves,” tensions around the questions of agency and locus of observation were never resolved.
Semmel notes this tension between the conditions of observer and observed— now divergent, now convergent—as a point of departure for the analysis of Gillian Wearing’s work. Like Mass Observation, Wearing’s role as commissioner or administrator of narrative is immediately evident.
Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-93) is a series of photographs taken by Wearing of passersby whom she has invited to pose with a hand-written message of their own creation: a businessman poses with a sign that reads, “I’m desperate;” a policeman holds up “Help!” In Confess all on video. Don’t worry you’ll be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (1994), Wearing films the confessions of ten masked people who have responded to her ad in the personal section of the newspaper. In her video Dancing in Peckham (1994), on the other hand, Wearing renounces the exploitive position of the artist, instead assuming the discomfiting vulnerability of the observed as she dances in public to sound that only she hears in her head, oblivious to the reactions of those around her.
Wearing’s work, Semmel concludes, unsettles the foundational assumptions of Mass Observation: that there exists not only a simple relationship between observer and masses, but also, more importantly, the possibility of a spontaneous, unorganized act of mass observation.
Can there be a Mass Observation for our time, in the age of reality-televised Western culture? If it can be said that a spontaneous and unorganized act of mass observation was ever possible, is it possible any longer? By playing with the boundaries, conditions, and agency of observation, Wearing provokes such questions as these, at once disquieting and intriguing.