A Dangerous Figure
All images: Alexander Augustus and Seung Youn Lee, 'A Dangerous Figure', installation view at Somerset House, London, 2013; photographs: Samuel Bradley
In the crypt beneath Somerset House’s piazza lurks ‘A Dangerous Figure’, artist Alexander Augustus’ latest project that aims to put pressure on the UK government concerning rising national unemployment figures. ‘Figure’s centrepiece is a projection of a human face, broodily shifting in colour and dimension and shown at the end of a low-lit tunnel.
Twenty-five-year-old Augustus started the project with fellow Central Saint Martins Narrative Environments graduate Seung Youn Lee back in early 2012 – their first as a creative partnership called The Bite Back Movement. They printed and stuck about London thousands of QR codes which, when scanned, asked the unemployed to fill in basic details on a webpage (scholarly background, age, employment history and so on), as well as send in a picture of their face. People scanned in the tens of thousands – 7,000 one week was the peak. Once the selfies were submitted and the data retrieved, Augustus commissioned a projection that shows a digitized face that gradually morphs between the various entries’ features.
‘We want to re-brand the young unemployed’, says Augustus, who was awarded a grant from O2 for the project. ‘Last year, the figure for young unemployment in the UK reached the million mark [the statistic concerns 16-24 year olds, and was found by the Institute For Public Policy Research in August 2012]. Often the young – these people pushed to the edges of society – are the ones with the most valuable perspective on how it is run. I want to give a face to the statistics.’
Walking through the labyrinthine archways that promise a towering, Dickensian forward glare, you get a sense of the bristling tension at the heart of Augustus’s work. ‘The show can be a seen as a hopeful message, it can also be seen as a threatening message. We tend to discuss this huge mass of people as victims – but they’re angry, they’re young.’
‘I wanted to make a form which was like a job application, mimicking all of the details and personal information employers usually ask for.’ Many of the completed applications now hang from the ceiling and either side of the projection. ‘Instead of meeting with silence, this form would breathe life into a human being with the power to represent all those who put effort into it.’
Known widely as ‘The People’s Palace’ and, until 2009, home of HMRC’s public records archive, Somerset House was Augustus’s first choice spot for the installation. So too was _A Dangerous Figure_’s emblem, a CNC milled wood structure he had made, hung flush against the fettered brick walls that entail the cavern. The symbol – a numerical one running down the middle of an ‘M’ shape, which stands for ‘one of one million unemployed’ – completes a show as harrowing as it is pensive.
Jack Mills is the deputy editor at Wonderland. His writing has been published in The Independent, The Guardian and Dazed and Confused.