The second of this four-part reflection series focuses on surveillance in public toilets, specifically Brighton Pier.
Following my experience at Wild Park, I wasn’t sure where this project would take me next. I felt unsure about my brief, my focus on latrinalia, nor my stomach’s ability to spend another four hours in pungent toilets. After a trek to the end of Brighton Pier and a lengthy queue, I entered the women’s facility and locked myself in a cubicle.
Once again, I found no evidence of latrinalia of any kind, which cemented my decision that a focus on toilet graffiti alone would not be appropriate. To uphold my integrity as a practitioner, I felt it would be wrong to actively seek out latrinalia for the sake of doing so. With a sigh, I sat on the toilet (fully clothed – the cubicle was far too small to do anything but) and stared at the door for any hint of inspiration.
The lock on the door caught my attention. With a missing screw and a wonky clasp, I got to thinking about the importance of being able to lock a cubicle stall. The ability to be completely alone and safe, to ensure the world is distinct and separate from oneself, is a privilege that I believe is taken for granted. This was especially relevant to my recent toilet experiences during my travels in Vietnam, where many facilities feel more like social spaces than places to defecate.
What happens, then, when a lock is broken or faulty? Or the stalls do not reach from ceiling to floor and offer the potential of prying eyes and ears? I became even more aware of this when I noticed the sounds made by my 700D when I took a picture – the shutter opening and an obnoxious beep. These sounds sent my anxiety rocketing. When alone in a toilet, this isn’t such an issue; when you are surrounded by occupied cubicles, you can’t help but wonder what the person next to you must be wondering. Do they think I’m taking a picture of them? Of myself? I became hyper-aware of this, and was forced to wait for the flush of a toilet or the slam of a door to capture an image. Luckily, the lighting wasn’t so much of an issue on the pier as it was in Wild Park, but I still stood for about ten minutes, waiting for right moment to open the shutter.
The practical challenges only exacerbated my thoughts on surveillance and privacy. The toilet, by nature, is an intimate and private place. However, by being in a public space, are we truly alone? What power dynamics operate within these spaces, and how does this impact on how we use them? According to Foucault, ‘in modern society, power is dispersed through social institutions…and exists in insidious ways in everyday practices’ (Wells, 2015: 197). Toilets seem to be a place to escape such dispersions of power; yet, anxious about the noises the camera made, I self-disciplined, feeling as though such sounds were wrong or unnatural. My modes of behaviour were indirectly influenced, my ‘freedom of movement and privacy’ infringed (Wells, 2015: 356). Locking the door, then, is not enough to escape power dynamics and feelings of discomfort or unease. I will continue to explore this notion throughout the project.