Crime scene motel project

26 July 2023
New installation by criminologist and artist Carolyn McKay
Ordinary suburban motels, utterly banal and unremarkable to most. However, what goes on behind their closed doors intrigued Sydney Law School criminologist and artist, Carolyn McKay. Presenting a new art installation of neon signs based on her research into crimes in motel rooms.

Floating Between Couches & Motels responds to Dr Carolyn McKay’s criminal law research into crimes in motel rooms as featured in her authored piece Who’s been sleeping in my bed? Cheap motel rooms and transgression’

The art installation, on display at the University’s Herbert Smith Freehills Law Library, builds on Dr McKay’s 2022  Crime Scene Motel Project that explores the unique, but often overlooked, characteristics of motels that invite and enable transgression.

The Crime Scene Motel Project emerged from Dr McKay’s teaching of Criminal Law at the University of Sydney Law School. “I have attempted to theorise the motel room as a site chosen for criminal transgression, asking: What is it about these private-but-shared spaces that enables, perhaps beckons, criminal behavior? And what tangible and intangible traces remain?” explains Dr McKay.

Each neon sign presents a fractured narrative or snippet of forensic evidence taken from criminal case law regarding motels. The narratives derived from Dr McKay’s extensive online research of criminal case law of hundreds of cases from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US regarding motel crime. 

I commenced a search for criminal cases set in hotels, motels, and motor inns. And what began as a mere curiosity, with the aid of an online legal database search, was soon transformed into a flight of dark tourism.
Dr Carolyn McKay, Sydney Law School

One of the cases she taught made her aware that a series of strange, supernaturally-inspired assaults had been committed in nearby cheap motel rooms.

While the judge described the motels rooms as “…hardly suites in a five-star hotel”, Dr McKay was intrigued about the factual circumstances that included black magic, fetishistic, voodoo-like objects and small bones covered in fine writing. This case, Dr McKay’s first encounter with motel crimes, involved the offender repeatedly telling the victims that they were in a dream – ‘in the dream test’ is one of the phrases used in the case law and one of the neon signs in the exhibition.

The research revealed motels as scenes for murder, assault, sexual violence, child abuse, clandestine drug labs, robbery and as hideouts for fugitives from the law – knowledge suppressed by motel operators. 

With intriguing back stories, the installation draws attention to how motels combine intimacy, privacy, and anonymity with a world of transience, motor vehicles, strangers, lawlessness, sex and the uncanny.

The neon sign evokes a lost optimism of the mid-century motels McKay visited during her research, the party lights suggesting good times gone bad and enhancing the ghostly white glow of the room.

Dr McKay explains: “These selected phrases seemed to be particularly evocative and almost poetic; together they are suggestive of a unique crime scene. Motels are supposed to be places of restful stay or holiday, but these phrases subvert that concept.”

The lead sign, Floating between Couches & Motels was inspired by a case concerning someone experiencing housing instability due to his life spiralling out of control and his involvement in criminal offending.

Other works including Haven of Human Misery and Synonymous with Crime, are Dr McKay’s response to how motels are an attractive site for a range of criminal activity - from the petty to the degraded – as they offer privacy and anonymity on the cheap.

Dr McKay’s Crime Scene Motel Project exhibition recently received the 2023 ‘Non-Traditional Research Output Award’ from the Australian Legal Research Awards, a prestigious national scheme funded by the Council of Australian Law Deans.

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