A Web of Shadows

As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences – and with the support of our partner organisations SASO and Vox Liminis, the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research ran a somewhat unusual public event at St George’s Tron Church on Thursday.

The event drew on the work of a European research network that I had the privilege to lead between 2012 and 2016: The COST Action on Offender Supervision in Europe. The network existed to find new ways to study the emergence and significance of what we term ‘mass supervision’. We argue that both social science and public debate have become preoccupied with ‘mass incarceration’, but have (mostly) failed to notice how forms of punishment in the community have proliferated, diversified and intensified in recent decades. A similar pattern exists across many Western countries, but the following infographic illustrates (hopefully in a dramatic way) the situation in Scotland:


The event was focused not on these sorts of numbers, but rather on the lived experience of ‘mass supervision’ – both for those who deliver it and for those on the receiving end of it. In the COST network, two of our working groups had developed pilot studies using visual methods to capture these experiences. In the ‘Supervisible’ project, we asked supervisees in England, Germany and Scotland to take pictures that reflected and represented their experiences. In the ‘Visualising Practice’ pilot, we asked probation officers or social workers to do likewise.

At the event, an exhibition of about 60 (of about 700) pictures was curated and installed by the artist Carolyne Kardia. You can access some of these images (and a booklet about the exhibition) here:  http://www.offendersupervision.eu/supervisible. We hope that the images succeed in making supervision visible in new and challenging ways that might unsettle the tendency to regard community sanctions and measures (like probation, community service or parole) as non-punitive in their effects.

Not content with making supervision visible, we also worked with Vox Liminis to make it audible. Back in February, Vox organised a workshop led by Louis Abbott (of Scottish indie band Admiral Fallow) in which supervisees, supervisors, criminologists and a few others worked together to write songs in response to some of the pictures from the exhibition, and drawing on our own experiences of supervision. Louis has recently recorded an EP including beautiful versions of 4 of these songs which can be streamed or downloaded here:  https://voxliminis.bandcamp.com/. All 12 songs from workshop (in a much more rough and ready form!) and an audio documentary about the process can be found here: http://www.offendersupervision.eu/supervisible

Louis and Donna Maciocia performed 6 of the songs live on Thursday night. That performance, set alongside the exhibition and my sharing of some of the commentary on the photos from those who created them, succeeded, I think, in challenging an audience of about 100 people to see, hear — and feel – some of mass supervision’s impacts and effects. Both the photographs and the songs reveal the complexity and ambiguity of supervision as (1) a form and site of constraint (which can nonetheless sometimes be welcome); as (2) an experience of time lost or suspended or re-ordered (for better or worse); as (3) invoking a sense of waste and loss; as (4) a visitation of judgment or misrecognition; and as (5) an opportunity for growth or an incubator of hope. Some of these themes are summed up in one of the songs in this way:

Tick by tick and line by line

You weave yours and I’ll weave mine

A web of shadows, a silk-spun tomb

A windowless room: Windowless room.

[The lead writer of that song, a man now subject to life-long supervision, had considered using a different and more hopeful last line ‘Or my cocoon: Or my cocoon?’ before settling on the ending above.]

I hope this brief account of the event does enough to stimulate your curiosity and to tempt you to view the images and listen to the songs. If you’d like to know more or to offer a response, please email me at Fergus.McNeill@glasgow.ac.uk

(photo credits: Neal Gruer)


This post was published in 2016.