Sarah Pickering and Public Order

The British Army Training Village at Imber, Salisbury Plain - Steve Middlehurst 2016 [see note i}

The British Army Training Village at Imber, Salisbury Plain – Steve Middlehurst 2016 [see note i}

Between 2003 and 2008 Sarah Pickering engaged in a series of projects that explored surreal places where the emergency and armed services prepare for their roles. At one level she simply documents training facilities but the very real and tangible structures she explores are theatres of disaster, rehearsal rooms for civil unrest, fire and warfare whose very existence questions the state of modern Britain.

In the context of this course Pickering’s photographs are examples of lifeless landscapes, man-made but uninhabited and deserted. Their emptiness evokes a post-armagenden landscape where only the traces of people are the bizarre structures they have left behind. Beyond this they are paradoxical structures, the underground railway station with no track or trains, the night club with no music, the traffic lights that never change; a non-functional urban environment whose real purpose is hidden behind superficial architectural details that suggest something different.

The atmosphere of many of the images, especially in her Public Order series remind me of Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary and as I believe this will be an interesting comparison to explore I will look at his book in a later essay.

I reviewed Public Order as part of Context and Narrative. At time my comments were:

“Public Order follows on seamlessly from looking at Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder in the sense that it is another piece of work that sets out to photograph the invisible; the viewer simultaneously reacts to factual and visible photographs of a place and the invisible events that have happened there, or in this case the implication of events that might subsequently occur but whose roots lie partly in this place.

Public Order is a series of photographs that maps the British Police riot training facilities which comprise a replica of an urban environment complete with streets, shops and even a night club. In many of the pictures we are only offered very subtle clues that this place is a set, the traffic lights are not working and there is a sense of complete emptiness, no litter, no trace of humans existing. Other images reveal the truth that the shops are wooden facades.

My emotional response evolved as I viewed the series. Initially there is a reassuring familiarity that suggests this is part of a road trip series about Britain but there is also a sense of these places being alien, not quite right, slightly off key. There are traces of violent events, burnt walls, damaged items, wrecked cars, a token barricade  which draw us into imagining the training exercises and overlaying mental pictures of real events in Brixton and Tottenham.

This leads to questioning why such places exist, how and why has British society developed to such a point that the authorities build permanent civil disorder training facilities. My parents used to live near to the villages built by the British Army in Norfolk where soldiers were training for European conflicts in the days of the cold war and subsequently modified for Middle Eastern conflicts. Somehow, this seems normal or obvious, a need to train the military to survive and succeed in the places politicians might send them. Regardless of whether we agree with the reasons our troops are sent to war we want them prepared and trained in the best possible way. However, Pickering, takes us to a place that represents something very different, this is a location where police men and women train to deal with conflict on our “normal” streets, and that clearly means it is conflict involving us, the inhabitants of those “normal” streets. ”

Notes on Text

(i) Imber is a ghostly village hidden in the middle of Salisbury Plain. It was commandeered  by the War Office during WWII and initially used to train troops for the invasion of continental Europe. After the war it was retained by the military who have built new structures as training areas for initially the cold war, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan. 



Pickering, Sarah (accessed 24.1.15) Artist’s website –

Aperture Foundation Sarah Pickering on Public Order and Explosion (accessed at Vimeo 24.1.15) –

Aperture Foundation Sarah Pickering and Susan Bright on Public Order and Explosion (accessed at Vimeo 24.1.15) –

The Telegraph (accessed 24.1.15) Sarah Pickering –

This entry was posted in 1 - Absence and Signs of Life, Research & Reflection and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sarah Pickering and Public Order

  1. Interesting blog, Steve. I wonder if you have seen Kate Ashton’s student assignment on Imber? There’s a lot of background stuff there too.

  2. Yes, I have Holly, Kate and I exchanged comments on Imber at the time as we were both there on the same weekend, although she got the sun and I got the rain. It’s been in my mind for some time to do a series on lost villages in battle areas – Imber, The Thetford battle area (which I believe is three or four villages) and Tyneham – each has an interesting history of displaced populations but only Tyneham is easily accessible.

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