APOMONOPTICON - by Christiana Galanopoulou
Let us seek the other end of the thread at the gaze of the power. Or at the watching and observing wakeful gaze. How far behind do we have to go? How old can the surveillance mechanisms be? Let us go far behind in time, to reach the first king, the first tyrant and his need to remain in power - therefore to see and hear everything in order to avoid subversion. Let us follow the thread from the moment when the deity is not a relative of the human any more and at his measures, but a relative of those in power; from the eye which saw Adam biting the apple; or even further behind. Let us remember that one of the cornerstones of Christianity (the prevailing religion of the western world) is “the eye of justice observing everything” – besides, the eye of the Almighty God is watching us from the dome of every church. Let us go so far behind to reach the first incarcerated human being, the first who was imprisoned for punishment, or the first who had to watch a captive. The common secret of the empowered has always been that it is not so important if you really watch the imprisoned but if you have made them think they are being watched. The common secret of the adversaries of the empowered ones has always been that if you slip out of the gaze of the power even for a minute, in this minute you can do everything - even subvert the regime.
In 1975, in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (Random House, New York, 1977 / Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison, Gallimard, Paris, 1975) in order to investigate the roots of the system of surveillance Michel Foucault returns to the declaration of the human rights and liberty by the 18th century Enlightenment, to find out that liberty is only possible within a system of strict discipline. Without this, the western world’s social system is impossible to function. The gradual transition from the public execution to the imprisonment and surveillance characterizes the transition from the pre-capitalist to the capitalist social structure. The socio-political system of Capitalism trains the bodies in being watched, it imposes itself through the omnipresent gaze of power and their voluntary submission to it. “Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance” Foucault states, commenting on Guy Debord’s recent at that time theory on the “Society of the Spectacle” (1967). And he continues (p. 217): “Under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange there continues the meticulous, concrete training of useful forces; the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorage of power; it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies”, which makes use of the idea of the continual surveillance in order to create obedient citizens.
The term used by Foucault to describe this situation of continual surveillance is “Panoptisme” in French. This term was coined by Foucault, not accidentally of course, but on a term invented during the 18th century, the same century during which the form of prisons as we know them until today was conceived: Foucault comments “Panopticon”, the proposal of the British philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham on prison building, conceived in 1785. The concept of the circular design of the cells building allows an observer to observe all prisoners from a central tower, without the incarcerated being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience”. It is obvious that Bentham used two Greek words to fabricate the name of “Panopticon”: “pan”, which means “everything” and “opticon”, which is a derivative from the word “optiki” (=sight, view), making his word to mean “I have a view of everything” or “everything is visible”.
As the multiple cells are entirely transparent, light from the rear windows makes the incarcerated look like shadows in the inside dark court from which they are being watched. As he is hid in the darkness of the little room on the top of the inner tower, they cannot tell when exactly they are watched. But as they constantly feel watched, they avoid harmful acts.
With Bentham’s proposal, the idea of the constant surveillance replaced the gaze of the power itself, identifying it with the omnipresent and implicating gaze of the Christian deity. Bentham himself described “Panopticon” as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”. And though he never persuaded the authorities to build a prison of this kind in his time, his ideas were adopted later on and Foucault found in them a metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalize. Besides, the idea of self-submission to the empowered thanks to the potential constant surveillance is not something we ignore: the informers of the dictatorships, the nightmarish atmosphere in 1984 by Orwell, the CCTV, the surveillance cameras and the recent discussion on their use by the anti-terrorist laws, Big Brother, the surveillance satellites, tracing via mobile telephone device frequencies, the constant intrusion of the public to the private (p.e. facebook) are only a few of what reminds us today of Bentham, his “Panopticon” and its applications.
Reality is of course very complex. We are probably living in an era of convergence of theories and philosophical approaches. For example, the Big Brother phenomenon justifies Foucault, but it also justifies Guy Debord, since surveillance itself has become a spectacle.
Back to Foucault, let us also remark that he connects “Panoptism” with Capitalism which, according to him, makes use of this weapon in order to produce more productivity and thus reproduce the power of the economic elite, which has the possibility of using it. And lastly that the scariest –of Orwellian nature– bit of the discussion about the panoptic gaze, is that most people do not even realize they take part in its existence: we are all mindlessly complicit in it through socialization. As a result, the system perpetuates itself through us.
Eleni Panouklia started her research from her motivation to investigate this double sided phenomenon of contemporary life: the fact that on one side we remain enclosed, almost incarcerated in our limited space with little possibilities of real communication, and on the other we are constantly connected to information sources, more likely to confuse us with over-information than to reveal the truth to us. In our initial discussions, the idea of the Platonian Cave prisoners was returning: the misfortune of knowing that the truth is just there, so close to you, but you can only perceive its shadow. A huge rage for the impotence of humanity to decode History and learn from it was also part of our discussions. As well as the irrationality of the fact that the more we submit ourselves to surveillance, the more we willingly consent to the exposure of our private lives. APOMONOPTICON is an installation Eleni Panouklia conceived in order to speak of all the above. And although at the origin of her research was the feeling of enclosure, the outcome of the installation goes far beyond it.
APOMONOPTICON draws elements on Bentham’s “Panopticon”, but everything here is reversed: the surveillance tower is in the centre again, but the cells radiate adjacent to it, open to the visitor’s view on the outside. The abundant light has been replaced by the abundant darkness. The access to the light -that is to the lit cells- is impossible: this metaphor of the impossibility of access to the information is pivotal in the work of Eleni Panouklia, returning almost every time. Inaccessibility of information is also part of the interactive dimension of the work: although the presence of the visitor has consequences on the lighting, the visitor himself/herself has no access to these alterations but only as a remote sensation. The omnipresent gaze of the power has been replaced by the sound: it is from something you hear you would like to escape, not of something that watches you. The artist experiments with the influence of a series of frequencies transmitted to the visitor’s body through the sound. An indescribable repulsion, a sentiment nearly uncomfortable is in the centre of the experience of the cell. Enclosure itself has been reversed, since the viewer can enter the cells on his/her own will. The tower represents the gaze of the power as an idea, however the real supervisor is another visitor every time, someone who can be out of the cell watching the visitor inside it. The ultimate lack of privacy here has been turned into isolation. Even the title, although it is a pun we invented on “Panopticon”, it is itself reversed: “pan-” stating the entirety and wholeness has been substituted by “apomon-“, meaning fragmentation and isolation.
Eleni Panouklia constructs a simulator, a machine reproducing the experience of being isolated, of being part of the power game, of having no access to the complete image of reality. It lies with the visitor to turn this experience into advantage: will the visitor realize his/her own role in the game between the empowered and the dominated? Will the visitor realize to what extent he submits himself to the power? Will the visitor move towards the light?
In your little cell, dear visitor, you will get to know that this simulator is no more than a mirror.