Prison Presidio Modelo, inside one of the buildings, 2005

Prison Presidio Modelo, inside one of the buildings, 2005

In the 17th Century, Descartes once used “I think, therefore I am” to express the affirmation of the self subject, while in current modern society which is dominated by visual images, “I think, therefore I am” seems to be a better reflection of the self subjectivity. As individuals, we are both the subject to be seen, and the object to be seen. The depth of our thinking depends on the perspective or vision.

I am seen – panopticon

The awakening of self-consciousness is an important symbol for people in modern society. As modern society becomes more and more standardized, people are aware of their social role which is not only as an observer but also the object to be seen, and even the object being monitored. The standardized monitoring mode is reflected in the “panopticon” mode. In 1789, Jeremy Bentham, pragmatist philosopher, social theorist in the age of enlightenment, invented a model of the organizational building, in the concept it allows an observer to monitor all people in the organization from top to bottom, while the people being followed can’t see the top, neither knowing whether they are monitored or not. Bentham’s design can be used in hospitals, schools, factories, nursing homes, especially the places that need supervision such as a prison, therefore, this perfect monitoring mode is usually referred to as the panopticon. Specifically speaking, the blueprint of this new prison is: a rotunda building with a central tower, all convicts are constantly observed and monitored. As the top of the tower emits a bright dazzling light, monitoring is hidden, while the imprisoned people have to stay and move under the tower and between the wards, failing to see guard observing them from the upper level. Even if no one is in the tower, prisoners would never know whether they are watched or not, they will sooner or later get used to this surveillance, so that suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, even if left unattended, they would have introspections from time to time. [ M. Quinn ed., Writings on the Poor Laws: Volume II, Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2010, pp. 98-9, 105-6, 112-3, 352-3, 502-3. ] Bentham himself described the panopticon as “a new mental mode that gains psychological control”. [Bentham, Jeremy, The Panopticon Writings. Ed. Miran Bozovic, Verso,London, 1995, pp. 29-95]

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

It is transparent, tight and impeccable, so that the people inside it have no way to escape from it, nothing but “a mill where the credit is squeezed out from a liar. [Semple, Janet (1993). Bentham’s Prison: a Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.p152.] Although Bentham’s “panopticon” mode is widespread in concept, and has a wide-ranging implication in the design of the modern, “panopticon” which has never been realized in reality as an architectural design, due to the technical difficulty and non-humane rigours of monitoring. Since the 20th century, the closed circuit television is considered to be the closest to the monitoring mode of panopticon, but it has never appeared as any architectural structure.

In fact, Bentham’s architectural design of panopticon is not only an effective panoramic monitoring mode, but also a symbol of standardized modern society. Michel Foucault initially linked this monitoring mode and power structure together, and he thought that panopticon model was the metaphor of the modern social norms and system of operating power. [See Michel Foucault (translated by Alan Sheridan), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. ]

The formation of social norms usually relies on the monitoring force. To some extent, all the standardized communities are more or less in a panopticon mode, which is like panoramic surveillance. Compared with the violent monitoring systems, panopticon is a perfect, transparent power mode. There might be no wall, shackle and chain. All levels of organizations, such as: government, army, school, hospital, and factory, have a monitoring system which is similar to the panoramic prison. People who stay in the institution, whether prisoners, soldiers or workers, students, intellectuals and office workers, may be trapped in the surveillance of this panopticon mode. If losing the freedom to watch for a long time, the people who are monitored would lose the ability to watch, only looking at the surrounded things within their observation as a way of monitoring, and self-monitoring, therefore, they’re both the subject and object to gaze, as Foucault said, these people “eventually conquered themselves with the conqueror rules”. [Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, New York, 1995, pp.195-210.]

Established on the basis of Foucault’s studies, social scientists often warn us that it’s possible that the panopticon model exists in contemporary society, but technology makes the social monitoring mode become more hidden. [See Thomas Allmer, Towards a Critical Theory of Surveillance in Informational Capitalism, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 2012.]

For example: surveillance videos, equipped in public places, have invaded into people’s daily lives. Internet is a new observation way, to monitor people’s thought and speech. Computer terminals are able to detect the user’s actions, and records, checks theft and monitors the stored content and information of the users. In these digital times visual images dominate the world, whether we fall into the mode of panopticon but we don’t know or whether it is possible to escape the tight surveillance of the panopticon mode with the means of high tech, to avoid a variety of visual traps, to resist being monitored? How to escape the shielding barrier, to see a broader and clearer social picture, to attain a greater visual autonomy, and a greater right to know? This an objective of the study of visual culture, but also the issues constantly put forward by sensitive artists.

Tino Sehgal, This Variation, 2012; Grand City Hotel Hessenland at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel , Germany. Photo Emmy Skensved

Tino Sehgal, This Variation, 2012; Grand City Hotel Hessenland at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel , Germany. Photo Emmy Skensved

I see that I am seen – Sehgal’s Construction of Scene

There was an impressive work in the 13th Kassel Documenta in Germany in 2012. Walking into a room, which was dark and seeing nothing inside, but some strange sound attracted people going into it. At the beginning, the sound was as low as the sound of doves’ cooing, which seemed to say, “Come now. Where are you? Where are the people coming into the room together with you? You saw nothing. At that time the darkness had swallowed you, then you felt that it seemed as if something was moving. Could someone be watching me? It is the “This Variation”, a works choreographed by Tino Sehgal (born in 1976), missed in the exhibition catalog, there is not even a picture, which, however, became one of the most popular works in the Documenta. There are many exhibition comments: If you want to see “This Variation”, you should be prepared to see nothing and to be frightened.

Yes, when you walked into that room, you would be fearful because of the darkness. You had no idea that when you stepped into the room, you were watched by many pairs of eyes. In facing the darkness you would be a coward, nervous and helpless, which was clearly seen by them. They started to play a game with you, but you were unaware. You had fallen into the darkness, gradually seeing shadows, surrounded by shadows, and surrounded by the shadows of the shadows. You would also hear the sound, which became louder and louder, seemed to be the sound of a gasp. At this time, your eyes finally began to adapt to the room without any windows, and finally you saw them, those who stood still, which were previously thought to be pillars, or audio equipment, however, they suddenly moved, some of which came to you; some climbed on you, some gave you a hand … Once again you would feel nervous and helpless, and even threatened. At this time, you would see that most of the people, coming towards you, had fled, only a few people were left.

Moving forward, you would see someone dancing, someone singing, and someone speaking to you in English: “How did you come here?” When you get used to all the things, being integrated into this situation, you would find that this was actually a liberating party. The mixture of the sound of people’s gasp and movements, as well as the acoustics, composed of a moving melody. Thinking about it: in such a situation, are we the audience or actors? Are we spectators? Or watched by the spectator? What role do we play in here in the end?

At this time, there was a flashing glimmer, when a performer adjusts to the microphone in his/ her hand, the sound of the music was lower. Someone began to speak in English: “Our incomes are a small result caused by the big product behavior.” Someone disagreed: “It’s a big result.” Following that someone said something in German, while some people spoke in French, Spanish, as if it was in a bar. Someone was lying on the ground, someone was close to the wall and muttering something, as if doing penance. When you went back to the door, you would see the newcomers, who were hesitant, groping and coming inside like you had previously done…

“This Variation” firmly grasped the audience’s nerves, however, in the thick Kassel brochure, it is filled with abundant of introductions and commentary works on pages, except for Sehgal. The artist offered neither an explanation for his works, nor a record of anything. The mysterious Tino Sehgal is of mixed blood and diverse cultural background, his father is Indian and his mother is German, while he was born in London, educated mainly in Germany, now living in Berlin. He studied dance and political economy. The multi-level cultural educational background gives his works an appealing composite mutative tone.

Different from common artworks, Sehgal uses sound, language, movement and reaction, instead of materials to produce his works. His works are similar to theater, but usually on display at a museum or gallery. They exist in a particular time and space, to constitute a common memory which is shared together by recipients, spectators and participants. As the artist said, he a “constructed situation” with the use of works. [Anne Midgette, “You Can’t Hold it, but you can own it”, The New York Times, Nov 25, 2007.] “This Variation” constructed such a situation: in an almost dark space, the audience gradually adapted to the relationships between the indoor environment, atmosphere, sound, and scene, finally integrated into it, participating into the game where 20 actors/actresses jointly sung, danced, clapped, jumped and spoke, in a context of pure sound and space, experiencing various changes, from being seen to seeing others, from seeing nothing to seeing something, from being unaware to awareness, experiencing various psychological emotions, fear, exploration, discovery, relief, happy, excited, etc., as if to concentrate on a variety of perceptions of a person who is located in a social environment.

Sehgal called the actors/actresses in his works “interpreters”. [Arthur Lubow, “Making Art Out of an Encounter New York Times”, January 15, 2010.] These interpreters were of different ages, educational and social backgrounds. Artworks constructed situations in between the audience and interpreters. The audience was capable to participate in it, while their reactions and feedback constantly brought the works new possibilities. In a situation which was carefully constructed by the artist, people constantly changed their identities of an actor and an audience, establishing close relationships but different from daily social activities, it didn’t generate any interest, so that there was neither any pressure, nor any disguise or affectation. Sehgal’s works couldn’t be photographed, recorded or copied, it didn’t exist in any text or image, but lived in a particular time and space, and the memory of the participants, allowing people to focus on the feelings present in that place.

To be continued…

Translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

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