Best kept secret

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 7 August 2016

In preparation for my Friday morning conversation classes and in an ever valiant quest to bring order to the chaos that is our apartment I have stumbled upon an “old” article from the Independent.

And it has got my mind spinning in a variety of directions.

The article is about how scientific technique that is usually devoted to finding criminals was used to solve the mystery of the identity of the elusive graffiti artist Banksy.

The article has got me thinking about the dangers of too much information, the necessity at times for privacy, and the costs of fame.

First, the article:

“A technique used to catch serial criminals has proved that the elusive artist Banksy really is a man named Robin Gunningham, according to academic research that the artist hoped to keep under wraps.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London claim to have tagged Banksy using geographic profiling, by identifying a pattern between the locations where his graffiti artworks most frequently appear and addresses with a close association to Gunningham.

The secretive street artist was the unwilling subject of a statistical geoprofile.

The researchers said they wanted to demonstrate the broader potential of geographic profiling, a sophisticated analysis used in criminology to try and narrow down possible locations where a repeat offender might be living.

Setting themselves the challenge of establishing Banksy’s identity, the academics selected 140 suspected works by the artist in London and Bristol.

The locations suggested clusters of “hot spots” which could be narrowed down, with further investigation, to pinpoint an individual.

The “hot spot” peaks corresponded to a pub, playing fields, a residential address in Bristol and three addresses in London.

Using publicly available information, the researchers concluded that those locations were all places lived in or frequented by Gunningham.

The academics made the unflattering comparison between Banksy’s street artwork, which sells up to 50,000 pounds, and acts of criminal vandalism.

“The pseudonymous artist Banksy is one of the UK’s most successful contemporary artists, but his identity remains a mystery.

The model takes as input the locations of these artworks and calculates the probability of “offender” residence across the study area.

Our analysis highlights areas associated with one prominent candidate (for example, his home), supporting his identification as Banksy.

More broadly, these support previous suggestions that analysis of minor terrorism-related acts (for example, graffiti) could be used to help locate terrorist bases before more serious incidents occur, and provides a fascinating example of the application of the model to a complex real-world problem.

I would not be surprised if Banksy is Gunningham, even without our analysis, but it is interesting that the analysis offers additional support for it.” (Steve Le Comber, biologist, Queen Mary University of London)

(The Independent, 4 March 2016)

Does this article bother only me?

I am bothered by a number of things when I consider this article:

When did graffiti become a “terrorism-related act”?

Why was it so important to uncover this artist’s identity?

How much information is there “out there” about each and every one of us?

Has our privacy become less important than our security or our “right to know”?

What motivates a person to create street art / graffiti is not so clear to me for I have not felt this impulse myself, but should a public structure’s decorations be considered vandalism at best, terror-related at worst?

I think of the Sprayer of Zürich, Harald Naegeli.

(See The artistic criminal of this blog.)

His graffiti provoked heated controversy across Switzerland.

The Swiss authorities and the majority of the general public saw Nageli’s splindly black spray paint human figures as illegal defacement of property.

Intellectuals and artists saw value in them.

Nageli saw himself as a political artist, using graffiti as a means of opposing Zürich’s increasing anonymity.

At the time of his arrest Nageli was responsible for around 900 graffiti across Zürich.

He was sentenced to nine months in prison and a hefty fine.

If it is proven that Gunningham is Banksy, will he share a similar fate, or worse, to the Sprayer’s?

Gunningham was investigated without his consent, almost as if he were considered guilty before given the chance to be proven innocent.

I like Banksy.

Banksy’s impact lies in his anonymity, for an individual can be attacked, belittled, marginalised and shamed, but a message of dissent without its source vulnerable to consequence can be part of a vocalisation of reform and change for a populace desperately afraid of confronting the wrongs of the status quo system elites that govern it.

Now I am referring to street art, as opposed to teenage scrawlings of genitalia or obscenities, or messages like “I was here” or “Bobby loves Suzie” or “For a good time, call…”.

And I personally have no problem with street art on the side of an anonymous office block or alleyway in some huge metropolis like London or Manhattan, but I would consider it defacement to find these above-mentioned juvenile creations on the side of my apartment building here in the isolated rural village of Landschlacht.

It bothers me that criminologists could not rest until they found out Banksy’s identity, for it seems that dissent is a criminal act even if it is expressed in anonymous street artworks.

It bothers me that while criminology can be used to protect citizens from criminals it could also be used to change citizens into criminals.

I have no problem with advanced methodologies used to prevent the reoccurance of violent crimes but how far will this process extend?

If graffiti is considered terror-related, how close are we to the slippery slopes of our justice system declaring our phone conversations, our emails and text messages, our restaurant / bar discussions criminally liable and treasonous to the public interest?

Has George Orwell been proven psychic in his 1984 predictions of a dystopia where BIg Brother is watching and the Thought Police rule?

I wonder.

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