Many of us rarely question the roles that govern our actions. The unspoken conditions that we work and live under have become practically automated according to a shared system of values. In her video works and interventions, Pilvi Takala crosses these invisible lines of ‘tolerable’ conduct – codes, hierarchies – in public and private spheres ranging from private offices and public administration buildings to shopping centres and amusement parks. Throughout she trains her focus on how the neoliberal conflation of civic spaces and commerce have created a nebulous boundary that privileges consumer over citizen. Most recently Takala takes this interrogation of power dynamics to the private security industry, in the new commission Close Watch, which comprises a multi-channel video installation, website and publication for the Pavilion of Finland at the 59th Venice Biennale.
Close Watch extends from Takala’s consistent highlighting of how definitions of security and acceptable behaviour are perpetually produced through negotiation. Her interactions with security guards in past work inspired her interest related to this current project, in the underpaid and less visible labour force of individuals who influence how we ought to act in society. Much of state-held law enforcement is relegated to the private sector, representing a thriving and largely underregulated global industry. The artist queries what kind of ethical dilemmas guard staff must undergo to work responsibly, especially amid public outcry over excessive use of violence by law enforcement. For Close Watch, Takala spent six months in the field as a fully qualified security guard for Securitas, with the support of its CEO and in understanding that her final outcome might expose findings not in the company’s interest. This period of research as an undercover artist in one of the largest shopping malls in Finland is the departure point for the artist’s multi-channel film installation.
The project veers away from her previous interventions, in which she subverts stereotypes and explores conventional behaviour by adopting specific roles. This time Takala undergoes the required education for the job. After completing compulsory training between October and December 2019, she obtains her Security Officer license in January 2020, and commences work in a Finnish mall. Using her middle and last names, she assumes the role of paid employee alongside colleagues unaware of her identity, her true reason for being there known only to a few in management. The daily workplace is not the site of her artistic intervention – rather, Takala’s attempts as a security guard to carry out tasks in line with work protocols, while grappling with the ethical challenges of the profession, is grounds for her artistic research.
Due to the short training period, most practical know-how is passed on from senior guards with little leeway for newer guards to improvise or deviate from accepted practices in the hierarchical and high-stress work culture. Takala quickly notices that individual political, racial and gender biases can often lead to tasks being performed in a questionable or even criminal manner. The fast-paced tempo of the workplace means this is often ignored. Although her employment ends around the time her identity is discovered, she continues her investigation by inviting her ex-colleagues for interviews to unpack these issues and what is considered tolerable behaviour. In these anonymous discussions there is a desire expressed for open dialogue to address microaggressions or violent conduct from peers, something that appears to be discouraged in their workplace, eliciting broader questions like: If collegial support is a given, what if your colleague is the aggressor? When is it necessary to break rank and how?
Later, together with theatre pedagogue Annukka Valo, Takala develops a three-day filmed workshop in the summer of 2021 using the technique of Forum Theatre: participatory theatre created by theatre director Augusto Boal centred on power dynamics and social injustice that allow participants – often stakeholders in these real-life issues – the power to change the course of events during the performance. Facilitated by Valo, three external actors, the artist and five of her ex-colleagues act out case studies distilled from Takala’s field notes and interviews regarding abuse of force, racist humour and toxic masculinity. Participants step in and re-enact each conflict, testing out strategies that diverge from the approaches taken to diffuse the impasse. In this deferred moment of revision, Takala’s former co-workers can reflect on their accountability to their peers and responsibility as security personnel who exert power over others to maintain order. The guards scrutinise each element and their individual agency to see how these scenarios play out in practice. By using verbal techniques such as diplomacy and wit, they can address or de-escalate situations without defaulting to use of force. However, the guards are also quick to express sympathy for or doubt over seemingly inappropriate behaviour. Ultimately, they tend to rationalise some of these behaviours as inoffensive stress relief due to the tense work environment – even if hesitance to intervene due to not having all the facts can result in a colleague’s potentially harmful action.
Takala chooses the format of the workshop to discuss the uncomfortable realities and deep-seated issues with which private security employees contend. Even though a resolution is not achieved, through conversation in these safe spaces the power mechanisms behind otherwise unaddressed transgressions begin to appear, a dynamic echoed in Studio L A’s architecture for the biennale presentation of Close Watch. Two interrelated presentations within the Aalto Pavilion are separated by a one-way police mirror that divides the interior. Each environment is only accessible through corresponding doors at either end, and each frame distinct contexts for the corresponding videos shown within them. Together the sites become one active field of spatial politics, calling to mind how society is a place where watcher and watched must constantly negotiate who holds power.
The work culture Takala portrays in Close Watch mirrors those of . Her dual position as artist and guard engenders moments of critical deliberation and discomfort in bearing witness to – and navigating – dangerous conduct in the field. While Takala retains her artistic autonomy throughout the three-year project, she also maintains a cordial relationship with her colleagues and Securitas through to the final outcome, such that work can be done to overcome professional struggles and dialogue can be advocated and advanced among diverse groups. The artist as insider and outsider is uniquely positioned to be able to point out problems related to accepted conventions. Further, Takala injects intention and empathy into transformative models for how one can respond to peers and to the public. While focusing on security as concept and industry, the artist lays bare the incongruencies that underpin a flawed infrastructure devised to preserve public order. These frontline staff are individuals whose roles are not limited to following orders or using learned techniques – they are stakeholders with agency in their own authority over and next to the public. By making visible the power apparatuses in the private security industry, Takala reflects on how control is enforced and shows that it is we, and no one else, who govern each other’s behaviour.