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Almost every day I walk my puppy in the local park. Most days I go around 6-7am when there’s barely anyone around. He’s made a couple of dog friends and we often stop for a chat. It’s tranquil and calm. I’ll listen to an audio book or the birds. The dog mother of Hazel the Italian greyhound tells me which birds are calling.
Usually in the evening we go to a huge field so he can quite literally run rings around me. A few weeks ago, we broke tradition and went to the local park in the late afternoon. I had spent the entire day in front of a screen and needed a break. We got to the park and it was different – it looked different, sounded different, and felt different. The sun was out so of course it was busier, and as you’d expect after school there were children playing on the skate park and the playground. There were about a dozen dogs in the dog park (it’s not as fancy as it sounds – just a patch of grass where the dogs dig holes and fetch sticks). Prince was a bit overwhelmed and so was I – at this point I hadn’t seen so many people in one place since pre-covid!
I soon learned that I couldn’t let Prince off his lead on a Monday because the mess from the weekend (even before the outdoor rule of six) would not yet be cleaned and he would eat everything. One Monday he walked an entire lap of the park with a croissant in his mouth that was bigger than his head. Another day he picked up half a joint of cooked meat. I noticed the signs of people having good (and not so good) times, particularly after sunny weekends. Sometimes when it’s warm there’s groups of men fishing, pulling all-nighters, smoking cannabis and drinking. Once, we followed a trail of blood around the path and although it could just as easily come from a child after a fall, the empty, broken alcohol bottles led me to imagine scenarios of violence.
During my visits to the park over the last few months I have seen evidence of alcohol and drug use, and possible violence. In May last year, there were reports of gunshots fired, leading to a man being arrested on suspicion of possessing a firearm. Quite worrying considering I live only a couple of hundred metres away. There have also been incidents involving youths wielding baseball bats and setting fires before attacking firefighters. I had a look at the crime data for the area but Greater Manchester Police have had some IT issues affecting data from 2019 onwards (that’s another story…), however older data showed a pattern of anti-social behavior, arson and a few violent offences as well. This is all very different to the place of tranquility I visit daily with the puppy.
The next day we returned for our early morning walk and I reflected upon the changes in the character of the park and the actors and events that create this. I started thinking about criminology and the environment around us, about how places can change so much throughout the day and across the seasons. I thought about situational crime prevention. My work brain truly switched on and I stopped hearing the birds and started seeing the CCTV and the lighting. I thought to myself that I would not go to the park when it gets dark but if I did, I would stay in the lit areas where the cameras could see me. I would stay away from the groups of fishermen because they were sure to be drunk and stoned by nightfall. I haven’t seen them behave in a threatening manner although I have overheard verbal threats. They are usually asleep when I walk by but as a single woman I’d think twice about walking past a group of lively, drunk men at night.
This local park is just one example based on my observations, but the question is, is it a criminogenic space? Or am I criminologist who sees things of criminological interest in everything, everywhere? Or a woman who constantly assesses personal safety? Luckily I haven’t had enough thinking time and space to ponder these questions otherwise this would have been a long read.
Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.
Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.
I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.
Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.
Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!