Things that I think and do
In case you weren’t aware (perhaps you don’t read the Guardian much, or you’ve been living in a forest for the last few weeks), Women Who Eat on Tubes (WWEOT) is a Facebook group set up by artist and filmmaker Tony Burke, and the basic premise is that photographs are taken of women eating food across London’s underground rail system.
The women in question are generally unaware that this is being done, and the photographs are captioned with the accompanying “TFL” – Time, Food, and Line – so viewers (presumably the audience, in fact) get some lovely contextual knowledge behind the photo.
Apparently this all started when Tony Burke noticed that more women than men were eating on the tube. Instead of filing this away under ‘useless observations’ and perhaps having a chuckle to himself, he decided it would be a better plan to photograph someone and post it on Facebook. The more I write about this, the more idiotic this man sounds.
If Burke had just taken a few discreet shots of commuters eating on a tube – perhaps made them arty, and black and white, and a bit blurry – and whacked them in any modern art gallery, they would get nothing like the amount of criticism. People might even enjoy them.
Yes, taking pictures of people without them knowing is definitely weird and ‘creepy’, to quote a variety of journalists. Yes, photographing such people eating is also bizarre and potentially fetishist (if you’re into grainy photos of Tesco meal deal sandwiches).
But conceptually, the aptly-named Burke’s idea isn’t revolutionary, ground-breaking or otherwise particularly interesting. He has, however, made a number of monumental cock-ups which undermines any artistic merit it might have had, the first of which being that he opened it up to Facebook.
Allowing the social media-ists of the country to participate in this concept was a spectacularly badly-thought through idea. It all but invites the knobwits on Facebook to start posting sexual comments, comments about appearance or other such derogatory outbursts.
Quite why he thought this might be a good idea is a mystery. Perhaps he thought it would be nice for everyone to get involved. Oh wait…except not everyone is involved. It’s called women who eat on tubes.
This was another huge error: using only women. Not only does that get the feminists really angry, but it contributes to this ‘lad’ culture of everyday sexism and general misogyny. Judging by the comments on some of the pictures, the community Burke has allowed to take part in his project is made up largely of sexually frustrated cretins with limited vocabulary who leap at the chance to judge pictures of women. He’s excluded and objectified women and enabled men to comment on said women in one ingeniously idiotic stroke.
The thing is, if Burke had made it “Commuters Who Eat on Tubes”, or perhaps “People Who Eat on Tubes”, or, just to avoid any controversy, “Eating on Tubes”, and not made it a page on Facebook, it could almost certainly pass for modern art. I’ve seen blank canvasses and sculptures created from human poo in modern art galleries, so this wouldn’t be especially controversial in that context.
Artists take photos of unsuspecting people all the time – go to any photography exhibition in a gallery and you’ll struggle to find an entire set of photos with posed subjects.
And to those claiming that photographing someone eating on the tube is a gross invasion of privacy, I say ‘bollocks’. If you want eating to be private, don’t get on one of the busiest underground systems in the world and start munching on your tuna sweetcorn roll. People are going to see you. Far more intrusive are photographs of people grieving or breaking down after tragedies, such as we’ve been seeing with the news coverage of the South Korean ferry disaster recently.
Personally I wouldn’t find an exhibition of people eating food on a train especially appealing anyway. But Tony Burke has buggered up any chance of an artistic idea he might have had by making it exclusively about women and by allowing any idiot with an internet connection to contribute in some way.
I agree that it is intrusive and upsetting for those photographed, because their face is suddenly plastered over the internet for yobbos to jeer at. I’d be a bit miffed if a picture of me enjoying my all-day breakfast sandwich was posted on the interweb. But if Burke hadn’t opened it up to Facebook and it was solely for an art exhibition, I’d be prepared to bet a small sum of money that the women would accept it much quicker.
I agree that it victimises women, because it is only women who are the subject of this ‘art’. If Burke made the project about all genders, there wouldn’t be such a huge outcry. His rationale behind this, by the way is that “If it was called ‘people who eat on Tubes’, it wouldn’t be the same…I thought I might as well call it something, so I called it women eating on the Tube. It was what it is and it’s utterly pointless.”
Except it’s no longer pointless Tony, because you’ve made a massive and embarrassing balls-up of it.