Repertoire for a Keyhole

The following short text was written for -[relay]- society for contemporary art’s publication LL Brown (2012). I was briefed to respond to paintings by Marcus Sandeman, Peeping Tom and Watching the Watcher, and include a reference to ordinance surveys.

Marcus Sandeman, Peeping Tom and Watching the Watcher.
Images used with permission of the artist.

The keyhole has always been a bastard-scope, a perverto-scope, a sweaty- titillate-you- scope. It was designed to act as a secure channel for a key to turn a lock, but its size and placement between public and private domains have seen it appropriated for unsanctioned acts of looking. Unlike legitimate scopes – the telescope, endoscope or microscope, to give some examples – the keyhole was not designed for the eye to undertake a clear objective task. So the ‘miscreant’ eye of the keyhole user, or even just their pupil, which is all that is visible from the other side, takes on lurid affect. If caught in the act the keyhole user is twice branded: once for their misuse of the keyhole as a voyeur and a second time for being but an eye, or pupil, terrifying because of ‘its’ lack of further identity: Is ‘it’ even attached to anything at all or does the little shiny ball of fluid crawling its way through your translucent skin do nothing but look?


This vivid account serves to introduce a psycho-dynamic (mis)understanding of the keyhole; a more social account is now required. For the truth is that the keyhole user is really a scapegoat for a greater scopic regime. Pornography, surveillance, medical observation and cartography, to choose arbitrary examples, are much more powerful and therefore much more potentially damaging ways of ‘looking’. The ordnance survey is one of the clearest examples of looking in the service of power; ‘Ordnance’ derives from “canon, artillery”. The Ordnance Survey was originally suggested by Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson in the 18 th Century to help subjugate clans in the Scottish Highlands.  This later led to triangulation and the development of other scientific methods for more accurately being able to ‘look’ at land mass. These ways of looking create abstract representations, expunging diversity under a systematic series of signs. The Ordnance Survey was of benefit to those wishing to extend ownership and control over space.


The Ordnance Survey is strategic: in Michel De Certeau’s sense something strategic brings about a change in the structuring of reality. Peeping through a keyhole is by contrast, tactical; it comes from seizing a brief opportunity to undertake a clandestine act. The strategic universalises while the tactical remains connected ‘on the ground’ to things as they happen. The keyhole user is ever ready to run away. Like Andy Warhol’s early Screen Test films with people sitting in front of a camera wondering who might later scrutinise them for such a long time, looking through a keyhole involves a 1: 1 correspondence of looking and being without editing or narrative. Isn’t Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ as much about the anxiety of how the killer records things in real-time than the horror of the murders themselves?


Looking through a keyhole is therefore more and less than perhaps you thought. As you stand there looking, remember that your act is wonderfully subversive. Develop a repertoire; indulge the nuances of the activity, peep, creep and glare.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi James, thanks for following my blog. Yours look fascinating. Very much look forward to following you. All best wishes, Michele

    1. Thanks Michele. I look forward to seeing more of your images and thoughts too!

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