A man stepping out of a lift in a bustling hotel shouldn’t be one of the most iconic – or troubling – images in the recent history of Dubai. But when Dubai’s police force released CCTV footage on YouTube of the Hamas militant Mahmoud Al Mabhouh walking towards his hotel room in 2010, they made the extraordinary story of his assassination – he was trailed by 11 men who police maintain were Mossad agents – irrevocably public.
No wonder, then, that when The National printed its choice of 20 stories that have shaped the UAE earlier this year, Al Mabhouh’s shocking execution ranked high among them.
The 27 minutes of edited footage of Al Mabhouh’s final day – and the killers who trailed him – now has hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube and has become the inspiration for an absorbing art installation by the former Turner Prize nominees Jane and Louise Wilson.
Initially commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial in 2011, it’s now the centrepiece of a new exhibition of their work in London, called False Positives and False Negatives.
“I just think the release of this footage by Dubai Police was completely extraordinary,” says Louise Wilson. “If you look at it again, it’s edited like a short film and became an incredible event in itself. How it was put together became the starting point for us.”
The YouTube footage, which tracks the operatives from the time they arrive at Dubai International Airport to the moment the assassins enter Al Mabhouh’s room, with and without their disguises, is just a constituent part of Face Scripting: What Did The Building See? In a gauze box, the sisters’ own 11-minute film is projected opposite a monitor running the CCTV images, with mirrors on either side enveloping the viewer.
“We really wanted to make people feel they’re in a unique moment,” says Louise Wilson. “We spoke to Dr Susan Schuppli, who has written an essay on tracking digital footprints, and she said that the release of the footage made any viewers of it investigators themselves, able to piece together similar conclusions that the police in Dubai did. We found that really compelling.”
Their response was to create a film which looks at the politics and mechanics of surveillance. The sisters wear blocks of black and white camouflage paint on their faces, lending them an eerie, almost tribal quality. But it has a point.
“What we found is that face recognition technology – also known as intelligent CCTV – can detect, record and therefore ‘recognise’ people in a crowd who might be of interest,” she says. “What the camouflaging does is confuse the camera so it can’t calculate the biometrics of the face. But yes, it does make us look strange, almost spectre like. And even though our faces are the same, they do appear to change and take on new forms as we use different blocks of black and white. It’s fascinating.”
All of which would seem to suggest Jane and Louise Wilson are uneasy with the pervasive role that CCTV already has. “We are – but it’s really interesting that the UK is one of the biggest users of CCTV cameras. Mostly that came about because of two high-profile cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the murder of 2-year-old James Bulger and the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in Sheffield. There was this genuine sense that people actually felt safer because of CCTV.”
Face Scripting is an interesting development in the Wilsons’ career. The installation is about a very public event – and yet they have become synonymous with documenting forgotten, inaccessible places. Elsewhere in False Positives and False Negatives, there are two prints from their Atomgrad series, in which they visit Pripyat, an abandoned workers town near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power disaster. “Streets that were once concrete are now covered in greenery – it felt like you were entering this lost civilisation somehow,” she explains. “Although of course, it’s not a romantic place – it’s still highly radioactive.”
Like all of their work, Atomgrad worked on many other levels, too. “You can now take coach tours from Kiev to have a look at Chernobyl, so it’s completely saturated photographically,” she admits. “But we were very keen to think about the politics around this dark tourism. Why do we actually want to see this place which was a disaster in all of our lives?”
An intriguing question of voyeurism, then, which can just as easily be applied to the YouTube footage of Al Mabhouh. “For us at least”, explains Wilson, “recent history is always a compelling starting point.”