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.01 theory   .02 fiction



by razvan_ion

For me the camera and the digital media function is a kind of self-reversing/reflexing apparatus. I anonymously put the apparatus indoors or outdoors, just like a web cam or a surveillance camera. In the hyper-simulated situation where everything could be reproduced and one can be satisfied with every artifice, I intentionally ‘simulate’ the images such as web cams or surveillance cameras, unconsciously created.

Our society has become more surveillance-oriented. One will have more cameras and sensors on the street and in the house. Again, the point is not the practical aim of social control. Of course such a device is repressive. But the fact is that the way of our perception has been changing before the spreading of such a technical system. This change rather introduced surveillance technology. So the surveillance camera is now providing us with a standard model of our image perception. My images foresaw such a future where we have to perceive our world by such a standard.

Dataveillance, as I prefer to allude to surveillance, is in a new era starting with Echelon, the most advanced system, which can survey any data transmissions (from emails to cameras in the streets, from credit cards to DNA analysis). We are in a transition from the state of privacy (as was understood in Greek antic town where the public and private space where clearly separated) to a state of transparency where nothing is really private. The walls become more and more transparent.

We can talk about a dystopia, an account whose intent is the opposite of utopia. Whereas a utopia is an imaginary perfect place, a dystopia is a literary depiction of an undesirable, avoidable but feasible future state of society. This dystopic paradigm is indeed very illuminating. It serves the purpose of alerting us of significant social trends.

David Lyon, who uses the word Panopticon, a Greek-based neologism that means "all-seeing place", as a powerful metaphor for understanding electronic surveillance, says: "A prison-like society, where invisible observers track our digital footprints". All is about vision and transparency, but vision and transparency operating one-way only… in the service of power. Do we feel powerful when we watch someone on a web camera without that person being aware of that?
In 1785, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham [1748-1832], founder of the doctrine of Utilitarianism, began working on a plan for a model prison called the panopticon. The signature feature of this design was that each 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. As a rationalist, 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. Indeed, Bentham considered the panoptic arrangement, whereby power operates by means of the spatial design itself, as a real contribution to the education of man, in the spirit of the Enlightenment.
While long the subject of theoretical and political debate, the panopticon was reintroduced into contemporary philosophical discussion in 1975 by the French philosopher Michel Foucault who insisted on its exemplary role as a model for the construction of power in what he called a »disciplinary society.« Ever since, 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 but having to suppose that it might, we are acting today according to the very same panoptic logic.
From more traditional imaging and tracking technologies to the largely invisible but infinitely more powerful practices of what is referred to as »dataveillance« — that today constitutes the extensive arsenal of social control. However, taking its cue from the central role in the genealogy of surveillance played by an architectural model, the focus will be on the complex relationships between design and power, between representation and subjectivity, between archives and oppression. If a drawing could become the model for an entire social regime of power in the 18th century, to what extent does that regime change [if at all] along with shifts in dominant representational practices? What happens, in other words, when we reconceived the panopticon in terms of new infrared, thermal or satellite imaging practices? Indeed, what are the sociological and political consequences of a surveillant culture based increasingly on entirely non-phenomenal logics of data gathering and aggregation? Is there a history of surveillance and, if so, how have contemporary practices of, and attitudes toward, surveillance changed?

Television is a new form of surveillance. Reality shows where the viewer is under surveillance through determination and breaks the line between the private and public life. It is another type of exhibitionism in the same area with the web cameras.

Recording our own experiences is a form of surveillance as well. Could be a form of self-analysis through the perspective of the viewer. It could also be a form to attract the public: the exhibited one is nobody in real life, and by exposing himself, he/she becomes a desired multimedia product. On the other hand, it could be “I am alone without a camera”.

This tendency reached its peak in the popular TV shows ironically called Big Brother. Now there is already a tell-telling term established for it: “reality soap”, a kind of soap opera counterpart to the amateur porn. The show goes further than “The Truman Show”. Truman is still believing he is living in a real community. In contrast to Big Brother the subjects/actors act their roles in an artificially secluded space, so fiction becomes indistinguishable from reality. Also the spectator is under surveillance. They are involved in the show from time to time to co-determine what will happen next. The distinction between real life and acted life is thus “deconstructed”: in a way, the two coincide, since people act their “real life” itself, i.e., they literally play themselves in their screen-roles (here, the Benthamian paradox of self-icon is finally realized: the actors “look like themselves”).

Internet has been recently flooded by the “-cam” web sites which realize the logic of Peter Weir’s Truman Show. In these sites, we are able continuously to follow some event or place: the life of a person in his/her apartment, the view on a street, etc. Does this trend not display the same urgent need for phantasmatic Other’s Gaze serving as the guarantee of the subject being: “I exist insofar as I am looked all the time”? (Similar with the phenomenon, noted by Claude Lefort, of the TV set which is always turned on, even on no one effectively watches it – it serves as the minimum guarantee of the existence of a social link.) What we obtain here is the tragi-comic reversal of the Bentham-Orwellian notion of the panopticon-society in which we are (potentially) “observed always” and have no place to hide from the omnipresent gaze of the Power: today, anxiety seems to arise from the prospect of NOT being exposed to the Other’s gaze all time, so that the subject needs the ca, era’s gaze as a kind of ontological guarantee of his/her being.

Virtual sex is on trend now intermediated by the web cameras. The common notion of masturbation is that of the “sexual intercourse with an imagined partner”: I do it to myself, while I imagine doing it with another. What if “real sex” is nothing but masturbation with a real partner?

What if Big Brother shows in fact a universal structure? What if is a reproduction of a real universe in a mineralized form just to give us a clue which we ignore consciously? What if in the real life we are not we imagine we are and play the role of ourself?

What does this finally got to do with art? It is not true that art is a private thing becoming public? Inspired from our phantasm, imagination and private thoughts? This I believe is the connection between surveillance and the art. Art could be a very good medium for exposing ourselves without fear of consequences. Art is the mean to show us in public. In a way is our means of surveillance on the society and reveal society to itself from a subjective point of view. And here is the difference between cctv, echelon etc. surveillance and art surveillance. We are not objective. But is technical surveillance objective? Cannot be modified?

Lecture presented at University of California, Berkeley, November 2004


David Lyon, “Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination”, Routledge, 2002

Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, Peter Weibel, “ctrl [space] Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother”, The MIT Press Cambridge, 2002

Christian Parenti, “The Soft Cage”, Basic Books, New York, 2003





© razvan ion