On why I weep every time I visit Piccadilly Circus
The weeping usually starts at the end of the following scenario, one that I can not help but envision. Extra-terrestrial life lands its interstellar vehicle in the middle of Leicester Square. From here it walks (yes ‘walks’, my corporeal imagination is indeed rather human-centric) in the direction of a fully-packed square anticipating to witness one of the planet’s greatest achievements. On encountering flows of humans with strange devices on long sticks staring into the depths of some moving screens, the alien visitor shrugs a sign of profound disbelief and swiftly produces a U-turn; only to never look back and disappear once again into the pink-fumed night skies of London. However, due to the exposure to such high levels of non-ambient light, it loses control over its vehicle and dramatically crashes into the Shard, thereby bringing the sole remaining source of hope for external support to an abrupt ending.
One could say, through the lens of Baudrillard, my bloodshot eyes might see Piccadilly Circus as a symptom of the societal collapse of meaning through the ‘implosion of the medium and the real’. Similarly, through a Debordian lense, it could be I sense the screens as a superior world subsuming lived reality and throwing us into the abyss of the spectacle that encloses us. But of course, it is easy to fall into the potential trap of critical thought by rendering people into some massified object of naïve absorption, which, one could argue, both Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard are at least partially guilty of. My weeping, of a more critical nature I like to think, therefore finds its triggers in a slightly different space.
Rather, I wish to see the broadcasted messages of Piccadilly Circus, alongside an ever-increasing range of mediations, as adding to a narrowing, not a substitution as Debord would have it, of the everyday encounters that are deemed desirable or appropriate, a compressing of what it means to ‘Choose Happiness’ as Coca-Cola asks from us so ironically. It’s like when someone asks you: ‘who, of all of us, do you like the most?’. The desirable answer is already embedded into the source of question. In non-personal interactions, as at Piccadilly Circus, such irony is not as easily recognised. In presenting commercially viable words and images, these processes can be read as a subtle process of leaving aside ‘otherness’, thus restricting, rather indirectly, the diversity and vibrancy of what it means to think, feel, act, become in social life; while promoting short-cuts to the promised land of self-realisation. Along these lines, it is perhaps exactly the celebration of the theatre that is Piccadilly Circus that mainly constitutes my moaning. Visitors ironically celebrate external attempts at reducing their vibrancy and potential. While effectively shaped as entertainment, they delimit at exactly the same time, in the same space. Even though it would be easy to draw in conspiracy theories here, I rather like to think of the capacities of delimitation as an unintended side-effect of promotional cultures of consumerism, one limiting our capacities to engage meaningfully with pressing urgencies of our times by directing our attention elsewhere. And perhaps this is the crux: the realisation of the complexity of Piccadilly Circus’ ongoing constitution, attraction, millions of visitors and selfie re-productions. But perhaps I lack imagination and am therefore fully missing the point. Maybe it’s just about having a colourful background for a new profile picture and no one could care any less about the actual screens or their messages. I however, am still awaiting the moment subvertisers take over the screens, and, at least momentarily, re-direct our attention to the possibility less consumerist imaginations of being. Until then, my encounters with Piccadilly Circus will continue to stimulate the drowning of my eyes.