The artist and technologist's latest work is a digital tour of the secret spaces that make up the British asylum and immigration system
Artist and technologist James Bridle has created a digital project that aims to shed light on corners of the British immigration system that are usually hidden from public view.
Seamless Transitions, at the Photographers' Gallery, is a computer-generated tour of three locations that play a central role in UK asylum and immigration process, which are difficult or impossible to photograph: the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in the City of London, whose design is informed by the need to present evidence in secret; Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre at Heathrow Airport; and the Inflite Jet Centre, a private terminal at Stansted Airport that the Home Office uses to deport rejected asylum-seekers.
Bridle's walk-through of these spaces was compiled by examining planning documents and images and gathering eyewitness accounts. He hopes the project will generate discussion about the legal procedures of immigration and detention – often invisible to the public and shrouded in secrecy – and the ethics of using new imaging practices as a form of investigation.
Icon met Bridle at the Photographers' Gallery in the lead-up to its re-opening on Friday to discuss the project.
ICON: How did you become interested in the subject of immigration and what does Seamless Transitions add to the conversation?
James Bridle: Some months ago, I read about a Nigerian man who was being deported on a private jet – the kind of planes celebrities and businesspeople fly on. Such people used to be put on regular flights, but after several unpleasant incidents – for example, a man dying on a plane after being restrained by G4S guards – airlines such as British Airways won't carry deportees any more. The government now charters these plush jets to fly people out of the country, which means information about deportations is no longer public.
In an effort to find out more, I ended up at a private jet terminal at Stansted Airport at 2am watching deportees being offloaded from buses. There's something visceral about seeing this happen – in a way that's designed not to be seen. I wanted to find ways of showing these secret events, whether they happen in the middle of the night in private airfields or in courtrooms with restrictions on photography or in detention centres, which are hard to access.
ICON: A lot of your work focuses on the role of technology. Could you tell me a bit more about its significance in this project?
JB: I've been fascinated for a while by architectural visualisation. So much of the built environment is the result of images produced during the design process – architects sketch out a masterplan and the visualisers put elements such as benches and trees around it, and these elements end up becoming reality, because that's what people become accustomed to.
Such images create a one-sided view of the actual impact of a building. In the past, when people were planning tall buildings, the council would fly a blimp up to the height of the building to get a sense of sight-lines. Those decisions now are made on the basis of CGI images supplied by developers, who choose the perspectives you see – for example, none of the CGIs of Rafael Vinoly's Walkie-Talkie would have included the view everyone now complains about: the building behind Tower Bridge. CGI can be manipulated more than photography. And, because there's a skills gap in this area, their creation is restricted.
But can you intervene in the image-making process? And can you use those tools to make visible places that people can't get access to? Every new technology opens up the possibility to break the stranglehold on the narrative that traditional modes of power have. That's what we've done in this project. We collated information using architectural plans, council records, satellite photos and images, text and eyewitness accounts, then architectural visualisers made these visible.
ICON: How is the architectural language of these spaces related to their purpose? Is there anything they have in common?
JB: They are all fairly bland and institutional. The detention centre in particular was quite easy to model, as it's such a modular space. It's designed to be prison-like – flat angles, allegedly easy to keep clean, although in reality it's quite filthy.
The most interesting use of architecture is in the court, which is designed for the presentation of secret evidence involving the intelligence services or terrorism. There's a public area on one side and another seating area beyond a divider, which the public can't see. The dock has been designed with curtains and glass around it so evidence can be given anonymously. This is an architecture that is the direct result of non-physical structures and legal concepts.
ICON: How close to reality are your portrayals of these spaces?
JB: We do know quite a lot about the spaces, because I've either been inside or seen a lot of pictures of them. But this is not the first time these places have ever been made visible. This isn't about releasing new information; it's about stitching them together as a coherent whole.
We are also conscious that you can't fully represent the experience of being in one of these places through images. That's fine as long as you acknowledge these limits – we haven't tried to fill in gaps where we don't know something. Early on, we thought we'd probably have these black sections for areas we didn't have information about. As it turned out, we didn't have to, but in the court building for example, I don't know what happens on other floors and if you open any of those doors, it would be blank.
ICON: What should the viewer to take away from this?
JB: Hopefully, there will now be a wider debate about the immigration system. I hope that, having seen it, you might have a bit more of an understanding about the detention estate – a large system outside the mainstream court system in which these processes and abuses occur. Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it. Physical representations make more tangible the kind of things people find it difficult to talk about because they are non-physical, digital or complex.
This approach could be useful for activism and to help validate the experiences of people who have been through the process. I also hope people will find other uses for this technique and use it to explore other places.
Beyond that, I hope people will think about the increasing prevalence of CGI imagery – it is important to start discussing the use of computer-generated images rather than photography.
Seamless Transitions is on display at the Photographers' Gallery until 15 April. Watch Bridle discuss the projects and see extracts from it in the video below