In 1785, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), began working on a plan for a model prison called the panopticon. The signature feature of this design was that every one of the individual jail cells could be seen from a central observation tower which, however, remained visually inscrutable to the prisoners. Since they could thus never know for sure whether they were being watched, but had to assume that they were, the fact of actual observation was replaced by the possibility of being watched. Bentham assumed that this would lead the delinquents to refrain from misbehaving, since in order to avoid punishment, they would effectively internalize the disciplinary gaze. This model was long to be the subject of theoretical and political debate. In the meanwhile, the controlled space of the panopticon has become synonymous with the cultures and practices of surveillance that have so profoundly marked the modern world. When we hesitate to race through a red light at an intersection where we see a black box, not knowing whether it contains a working camera or not, we are acting today according to the very same logic.
On the Internet, the recent discussion on surveillance after facts about Echelon and other such systems have been published show that the general public has become well aware of the subject.
In Germany last month a much noticed exhibition has opened its doors. Karlsruhe’s ZKM (Center for Art and Media), is staging ” Ctrl Space“, the first large scale event on the rhetorics of surveillance, including 59 artists in one huge show.
Wandering through ZKM’s atriums, one discovers various ways the artists approach the topic of surveillance.
iSee by the Institute for Applied Autonomy is a web-based application that helps individuals avoid closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras in public space. Visitors to the iSee website are presented a map of New York City, with the locations of all known CCTV cameras as documented by the NYC Surveillance Camera Project. By clicking on this map, a user indicates points of origin and destination. Route-planning software developed by the Institute if Applied Autonomy then displays a “path of least surveillance” between the two points. By following this path, individuals may safely navigate around the city without fear of unwanted monitoring. The IAA describes their objects as a means to counterbalance private interests that cynically exploit public fears to undermine civil liberties in the name of social control and corporate profits. They see a growing need for dissidents to raise public awareness and to directly undermine the capabilities of these interests.
The Pentitentiary or Inspection House, 1791
© University College London Library, Bentham Papers 119a/120
A highly original concept pointing in the same direction was developed by the New York Surveillance Camera Players, performing plays like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi or an adaption of George Orwell’s 1984 in front of surveillance cameras on the streets of New York. In a general way, the SCP are inspired by the Situationist International, a group of artists with a cultural revolutionary background active in Europe and America between 1957 and 1971. Like the Situationists, the SCP are interested in public disturbance and scandals, and the positive things one can accomplish by causing them.
Equally disturbing, but on a different level, are the works of Denis Beaubois. He was trained in Butoh performance techniques and is thus able to stand virtually motionless for hours on end, holding up signs to the cameras that stated sentences like “May I get the tape afterwards?” or “Caution, reading this sign you may be photographed!” Often, this stoic performance would trigger some sort of response, having him taken away by the police on reasons symptomatic for bureaucratic banality. Yet like this the performances posed a series of questions which explored the dynamic between what Beaubois calls the “primary” and the “secondary” audience. In the context of the performances, this primary audience was, as Beaubois put it, “the surveillance camera.” In provoking the system to focus its attention on oneself, however, the apparatus could also be said to become part of the performance. It is this confusion resulting from the exchanges between watching object and watched subject or vice versa that make his work so highly interesting.
In the event of Amnesia the city will recall… part I, Sydney Australia Performance, 1996-1997
Denis Beaubois, Photo: David Rogers
SWR Radio and Television station cooperated with ZKM to donate the International Media Art Award. The first price, handed out in course of the exhibition, went to the Bureau of Inverse Technology that build a little spy plane to investigate into the most secret realms of California’s Silicon Valley. It is a pet aerial observation unit, developed by bureau engineers from the generous residues of coldwar precision. The device consists of a radio-controlled model aircraft, instrumented with an onboard miniature b&w video camera and transmitter, which sends continuous in-flight digital video to a ground video receiver. The video signal, in combination with a joy stick controller, provides the navigational system for the plane. Results were as mindnumbingly monotonous as mysterious, bringing to light the utter normality of the world’s most secretive and sophisticated computer manufacturers.
Biological System: Vilno, 1997
© Harco Haagsma
Dutch-born artist Harco Haagsma in his own words examines the interplay between “looking and being looked at.” He employs video and sensor technologies in order to allow people to experience “looking at each other as a game”. The installation Biological System: Vilno centers on a flexible mechanical arm that Haagsma has given the name of Vilno. Suspended from the ceiling, Vilno has on its lower end sensors and a camera. The scene of the action is marked out by four monitors located in the corners. Everyone who enters the room is perceived by the sensors. Vilno turns towards them and follows their movements. Though in purely practical terms it consists of undisguised technology, this ability lends Vilno the traits of a living creature. It seeks the closeness to visitors, seeks contact, seeks dialogue. At the same time, Vilno films the unsuspecting person immediately opposite. The image appears on all four monitors. The camera observes us and simultaneously has the task of moving us to responses, interactions, actions without which its functions would be useless or at least boring. Ultimately, the camera becomes a counterpart that cannot exist without our attention.
Moving away from direct interaction with cameras, one comes across French artist Sophie Calle. Throughout her career, she continuously has investigated into the topic of voyeurism brought to an extreme. Her early famous actions include following passers-by in the streets of Paris, France (one even going on to Venice, Italy) or to get a job as a housemaid in a hotel to investigate secretly into the guest’s private lives. The work in the exhibition, The Shadow, turns herself into the object of investigation: “In April 1981, at my request, my mother went to a detective agency. She hired them to follow me, to report on my daily activities, and to provide photographic evidence of my existence.” These laconic words introduce a strange double game: although the artist carefully plans her day, the deeper meaning of her undertakings remains a mystery to the detective. The layers of viewer and object fade away, as Sophie Calle takes the unaware detective to places that have a meaning only to her, like the Jardin de Luxembourg, where as a child she exchanged her first kisses, or the Louvre, where she tarries a while in front of a painting by Titian. Ultimately, the artist visualizes the failure of information transfer here: Despite all his professional routine, from his distanced perspective the detective gains no insight into the artist’s personality, not even when she deliberately organizes her day to include meaningful encounters. Only to the spectator in the later exhibiton, who is being offered help from Sophie Calle by her supplying personal information and comments, is able to let the riddle fall into place, linking the different layers of perception and observation, yet never able to gain a clear impression of these unknown persons.
The Shadow, 1981 (Detail) (English Edition, 1985)
© Courtesy Sophie Calle und Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2001
Photo: Tom Powell
Working also with in medium of photography, Thomas Ruff first exhibited the large-sized photographs of his Night series in 1992 at documenta IX. The deserted night scenes resemble one another: an empty back yard, a canal with a railway bridge made of steel, the illuminated entrance to a house, the tracks in front of a station and so on. All these pictures have a disturbing quality about them. By using an optical infra-red low-level light device which became known through its use in the Gulf War, Ruff stirs memories of the green pictures shown in news reports – not only evoking the military context and the specific historical event, but also the special media dimension particular to this war. But this is not its only level these green large-scale photographs have: They lie beyond the conceptual, both beyond what can be captured photographically but also beyond what natural sight can record. Ruff reflects on the effectiveness and perception of images.
Nacht 1, II, 1992 Leihgabe der Stadt Nuernberg, Erworben 1993
© Thomas Ruff and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2001 Photo: Neues Museum in Nuernberg
Architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio have worked in many media using the built environment and the visual arts, thus broadening the traditional aspects of architecture. Their last renowned architectural project was the Blur Building, a media pavilion for Swiss Expo 2002. For their first project for the web, entitled Refresh, Diller + Scofidio have taken office webcams as their point of departure, with the intention of examining the role of live video technologies in everyday life. For each of the dozen sites located in the US, Europe and Australia that Diller + Scofidio selected for this project, they have constructed fictional narratives using text and fabricated images. For every site there is a grid of twelve images, one of which is live and refreshes when clicked; the other eleven have been constructed for this project with the aid of hired actors and Photoshop. The images therefore loose their original context, even if this is not obvious at first. They develop a cunning afterlife that ironically plays with the possibilities of surveillance, the possibilities of technical tricks available and the insatiable desire of voyeurism.
Using original police photographs, the young German artists Korpys/Loeffler made their ways into a very special research on the terroristic camouflage technique, displayed in the furniture of conspirative appartments of the german RAF. What on the first glance might look like an apparently trivial scyscraper apartment of the seventies turns out to be a fictitious attempt of giving life back a subversive quality long since lost. The text to their artwork is not be missed, too: A wonderful piece of absurd poetics.
Safe zones, no. 7 (The toilets at Kunstverein Hannover), 1999
© Jonas Dahlberg
Last but not least Jonas Dahlberg’s inventive installation Safe zones, no. 7 (The toilets at ZKM) deserves to be mentioned. He has placed a monitor outside a toilet at the ZKM: the monitor makes people imagine that the toilet space is being monitored by a camera, that anyone who intends to pay it a visit has to resign himself to answering the call of nature in a very public convenience. It is not until the visitor makes up his mind, despite this, to make use of it and steps in, that he realizes what was really being monitored in there: a minutely detailed model of a toilet, placed in the same space, turning this everyday environment into a small, exquisite Chinese box.
This cunning experiment on the panoptic environment, placed outside the actual exhibition halls, gives a good ending point to our visit to this highly interesting lookout on the topic. The exhibition in Karlsruhe will go on until 24th of February, 2002. A catalogue will be published by MIT Press.
CTRL Space Exhibiton
Date: October 13th, 2001 – February 21st, 2002
Place: ZKM | Zentrum fuer Kunst und Medientechnologie
Address: Lorenzstr. 19, 76135 Karlsruhe, Germany