Purple Art

[January 14 2015]

Nate Lowman & Keith Sonnier at the National Exemplar Gallery, New York

There is a YouTube channel titled “Racks, Pillories, and Interrogations” that reveals the pillory’s comfortable exile to fantasy. In a clip from the 1969 film “Starlet!,” a woman is dragged to a pillory by actors wearing puritan hats all under the gaze of a grim figure eager to deliver a whipping and a stern public proclamation. In B-movies the pillory exists in a stark ethical landscape where all fetishes are rising to the surface, awaiting appraisal.

The pillory was a device that was designed for the public humiliation of petty criminals. It was typically placed in the center of town and if occupied, was accompanied with a sign describing the subject’s crimes. In the age of this form of public humiliation it must have been a spectacle to come upon an occupied pillory. A central component to the pillory was a willing audience ready to supply the blunt moral thrills that come with mass ridicule. I imagine that the internal worlds of the audience bled into the collective content of the punishment. Very briefly lies are remembered with crystal clarity, the mind flirting with the possibilities of disclosure. Concerns about nagging curiosities waiting to flower into sinful activity are refreshed. Arrangements that stand on faulty moral ground are half re-examined in front of the fruit market beside the person whose hands and head locked into the jaws of a hinged board. I imagine the particulars of the criminal’s story manages to shrink all of these personal anxieties rather quickly. One can imagine the catharsis washing over the consumer of this theater of punishment when it is clear that someone else with some other problems is in the pillory.  All internal composure would be erased by seeing a magistrate whipping the criminal or watching a crowd throw garbage at the prisoner. The pillory would unite the mob and its bosses in their communal displeasure for a few hours in a masochistic free-for-all. Any dissenters would get the message. Unoccupied, the pillory retained the power of these carnivalistic events, a symbol of the severe consequences of disobedience.

The person in the pillory would have come with a story that mirrored the desires and fears of both the authorities and the public. Either that, or the crime would have been petty or obvious enough to keep the arrangement simple. Dissonance between the view of the crowds and the view of the authorities surely hastened the pillory’s disappearance. In the 20th Century the United States felt that the prison system better reflected its character in terms of punishment. The verdicts reached in courtrooms, the sentenced shipped out of town and schadenfreude sought on the internet.

The bullet proof window stands an immense achievement of industry, so ubiquitous it is made to be virtually ignored. There must be millions of bullet proof bank teller windows installed all over the United States yet only a tiny fraction of these windows have had bullets fulfill their most fundamental purpose. We have gangsters to thank for the fact that people hand currency to one another through bullet proof windows.

At some point in time it was reasonable for a consumer to walk into a bank and say: ‘yeah, this is the reliable place; they have the bullet proof windows.’ This customer is comforted by the idea that the barriers will protect his money from unruly customers who don’t follow the rules. The trust (a safe bank for capital) is reinforced by what is by most standards a sociopathic tendency of mistrust (this may finally be the customer that shoots this window). The light on either side of the window is even and professional. Bank staff is trained to have an even cheerful personality. Between the consuming public’s willingness to accept whatever safety arrangement that is asked of them and the ubiquity of these windows, the violent severity of these barrier’s purpose is rendered invisible. It is only mildly dehumanizing as it is merely a mundane precautionary measure.

The cosmic scale of the proliferation of bullet proof windows suggests it must have had a fantastic origin myth to hold up the immense girth of its reality. Around the bank teller’s window hover the ghosts of Dillinger and the Barrows. Bonnie and Clyde are the   Mother/Father Gods of bank security, birthing a industrial scale desire to have a means to protect money from armed robbery. Industry heroes in Security are those who stand firmly against it. John Dillinger challenged law enforcement to revolutionize itself. This leadership position earned him myth status, movie deals, reams of books, as well as delivering the birth of anational law enforcement agency. In this sense his contributions to law enforcement is more drastic than his many other achievements in retail security product sales. This national police force, The FBI, elected to step up to this opportunity, drastically expanding their law enforcement powers as well as their budget. When J. Edgar Hoover fantasized about red conspiracies and Martin Luther King’s suicide he took breaks to give thanks to John Dillinger.

The outlaws were worth far more than what ever it was that they stole. Like most other mythical creatures they must be destroyed and be made permanently visible in order to complete their function as sales associates. A new violent breach of security will surely change the shape of our arrangements with retail banking. Recent news stories suggest Vladimir Putin is pioneering new forms of   economic  warfare with a crack squad of cyber-warriors specializing in hacking bank’s databases. Casting directors of the future will imagine actors with the glamour of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty vamping at computer banks challenging the imagination of the security experts in the audience. Text Matt Kenny and photo Elise Gallant

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