Corridors of Power
Jörg M. Colberg
If Wikipedia is to be believed, the term “corridors of power” may refer to either an album by rock musician Gary Moore, a novel by C.P. Snow, or “an Australian television mockumentary comedy series”. Since knowledge is said to be power, further surfing of the web reveals that – as usual – Wikipedia mixes the useful with that which is utterly useless: According to IdiomDictionary.com, “the phrase is a quotation from C P Snow’s political novel Homecomings (1956, chapter 22): ‘The official world, the corridors of power…’
Mixing the useful with that which is utterly useless – isn’t that a very basic characteristic of power itself? Doesn’t power have the tendency to move towards such a state, all the while making every possible effort to project an image that will keep us in awe? What good is power if we are not in awe? The answer seems obvious: Not very good at all.
If we think of power in political terms, the European Union could serve as a perfect example of widely ridiculed power. The EU has been instrumental in moving all of its current member countries – and many other still aspiring members – to a state where laws conform to widely accepted standards (including, let’s not forget this, the various very basic and important European laws about human rights), yet when people talk about the EU it will not take long for someone to bring up regulations of the sizes of sausages or other such absurdities.
Unlike Wikipedia, the EU has actual corridors of power, corridors where laws and regulations are produced, such as the EU’s parliament, portrayed by Adrian Tyler. They look like what we would expect them to look like: Almost uniform, with a lot of artificial light, monochrome carpets or gray tiles… because, let’s face it, power is mostly produced by mostly very mundane, banal people.
There is more power than just political power. There’s the actual thing, without which, it is worthwhile to point out, most of what we take for granted – our civilization, our lifestyle – would disappear in no time. It’s not really a thing, we can’t or actually we better not touch it – it will shock, if not kill us. It’s the power that drives our lives, the energy that keeps our (external) lives going, in the form of electricity, for example. Adrian took pictures of the corridors of that power, too, going to nuclear power plants. Everything is very clean and functional – just as we had expected it to be.
We wouldn’t want to see a gigantic mess in a nuclear power plant – just like we wouldn’t want to see a gigantic mess in the EU parliament. We like our power to be useful, we want it anonymous, and we like it to be clean – regardless of what kind of power we are actually dealing with.
The same is also true for how we like the places where we buy things, our supermarkets and shopping centers, another source of power. Here, we really want to be and expect to be awed by what we see, even if at first glance, there is very little to be in awe of: The visual experience of the huge, industrial shelves filled with goods, portrayed by Adrian, is just repelling. But the experience of going to these places is overwhelming in more ways that just that one: We could – if we had the money – buy all that stuff. Just imagine: There is a place where anything you could think of you can buy. It’s not as if we had to imagine that, it’s a reality. We rarely think of it as power, but it is yet another form of power, a power that we think of as shared. It’s the power of our free markets that bring us anything we desire!
Being able to participate in having power feels so good!
Occasionally, power cannot rely on itself, especially if the corridors are exposed. Governments occasionally like to put up a fancy building (even if the insides invariably gravitate to the shiny, yet drab, grayish anonymity seen in the EU parliament). Hiring a “starchitect” brings prestige. Technical power, which can easily deny access (and often does, for obvious reasons), does not have to worry about appearances too much. Commercial power doesn’t either, since we don’t think of it as power (and, after all, we’re much more worried about getting “a good deal,” regardless of how hideous our experience might end up being).
Cultural power, however, requires keeping up appearances. Cultural power to a large extent is appearances, lives from appearances. Cultural power needs to hire well-known architects (even if this results in many cultural centers having the same uniformity than government buildings). As an example, Adrian shows us corridors designed by Frank Gehry, the only ones to rely on natural light. Slanted and crooked as the beams might be – aren’t we looking at just another form of window dressing?
Adrian Tyler’s Corridors of Power shows us all the different aspects of power by exposing its shells – the buildings within which power is generated or maintained. It might be a bit surprising to see so much by showing so – seemingly – little, especially by not showing the people we all expect to be instrumental in the power business. But that is the power of photography: By showing less than we think we need to see, it shows us more than we might realize: Power works in ways that photography has a hard time showing (and we have a hard time understanding). But power is almost meaningless without the spectacle of power. As these photographs show, in our “modern” societies we’ve come a long way from the Roman spectacles. Things have become very mundane and banal. But it’s a spectacle, projecting meaning, nevertheless.