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On 23rd March Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a Covid-19 lockdown across the UK. At once, London became a city with no people - a ruin in reverse - heavily policed and surveilled. Against the backdrop of this empty chaos, the government rushed through the Coronavirus Act 2020, a bill that introduced emergency powers - a radical suspension of the basic rights of the citizen, including the right to protest. After almost 100 days of lockdown the Black Lives Matter protests erupted onto the streets, an outpouring of humanity, solidarity, and emotion, banned by the Home Secretary. The surveillant gaze of the police helicopter logged all of this, the empty and the full.


2020: State of Exception charts a journey through the dystopic landscape of lockdown London and proposes a new form of engagement with the online audience.

Central to the work is a figure portrayed through the machine vision of a thermal imaging camera, similar to those used aboard the police helicopter. The heat of our bodies is now a key indicator of viral infection, the surveillant gaze inextricably bound to the heat sensor. A woman glows white with the warmth of her body, trapped within her domestic environment, she issues a set of instructions to encourage the viewer to join with others, across digital space.


This is not passive, but active viewing, the audience experience together apart. The instructions connect the viewer’s sense of their own corporeality to the landscape of documentary footage portraying a city in lockdown, and as it emerges in protest in the final moments. Masked faces. Warm bodies moving together.


A hyper-real sonic landscape intensifies the effect and should be listened to with headphones. The birdsong of a never-ending Sunday morning echoes through deserted streets, but the continuous waves of distant sirens and the incessant drone of circling helicopters tell a different story of curtailed freedoms and watchful eyes. This din of police helicopters has been sampled, de-constructed and reconstructed. The resulting output envelopes the audience in the defining sounds of London’s lockdown.

2020: State of Exception, Henrietta Williams and Merijn Royaards

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