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October 13, 2004

A More Virtuous Circle

One glance last Tuesday at the layout of Fiona Tan's Correction at the MCA turned my thoughts immediately to Jeremy Bentham and his notorious model of surveillance and control, the all-seeing Panopticon:

The essence of it consists, then, in the centrality of the inspector's situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen. As to the general form of the building, the most commodious for most purposes seems to be the circular: but this is not an absolutely essential circumstance. Of all figures, however, this, you will observe, is the only one that affords a perfect view, and the same view, of an indefinite number of apartments of the same dimensions: that affords a spot from which, without any change of situation, a man may survey, in the same perfection, the whole number, and without so much as a change of posture, the half of the whole number, at the same time...

Correction is installed as a circle, with six rear-projection screens positioned around a central group of viewing benches. Projected on each screen are a series of brief video portraits featuring inmates and guards from four prisons in Illinois and California shot in their institutional environs. As the portrait subjects stare stiffly out at us, in static poses recalling the long exposures of early portrait photography, we also hear the ambient din of their surroundings through a small speaker above each screen.

As with the Panopticon, this setup offers a "perfect view" from which one may efficiently survey the scene from one's seat with little more than a turn of the head. And, considering the subject matter, Bentham's prototype penitentiary certainly suggests itself as an appropriate point of reference, if not properly a model (while none of the statements or written materials make mention of Bentham, I notice that according to the MCA press release the exhibition catalogue contains, among other things, "historical prison photographs, early drawings of the panopticon, and examples of prison architecture"). Might it be said that Tan's project further echoes Bentham's in its coercive structure, intrusively subjecting these people, as it does, to the camera's eye?

I find this particular parallel unconvincing beyond casual comparison. Leaving aside the fact that the work does not come off as exploitative in the least, we'd still have to acknowledge that these individuals are not being surveilled in any real sense. The "eye" that captured them was neither invisible nor ubiquitous but a merely temporary and rather conspicuous intrusion, and so the form of control that it embodies differs dramatically from that of Bentham's inspector's lodge, which depends for its power on, above all, a perceived sense of the inspector's perpetual presence:

It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose X of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.
You will please to observe, that though perhaps it is the most important point, that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so, yet it is not by any means the only one. If it were, the same advantage might be given to buildings of almost any form. What is also of importance is, that for the greatest proportion of time possible, each man should actually be under inspection. This is material in all cases, that the inspector may have the satisfaction of knowing, that the discipline actually has the effect which it is designed to have: and it is more particularly material in such cases where the inspector, besides seeing that they conform to such standing rules as are prescribed, has more or less frequent occasion to give them such transient and incidental directions as will require to be given and enforced, at the commencement at least of every course of industry. And I think, it needs not much argument to prove, that the business of inspection, like every other, will be performed to a greater degree of perfection, the less trouble the performance of it requires.
Not only so, but the greater chance there is, of a given person's being at a given time actually under inspection, the more strong will be the persuasion—the more intense, if I may say so, the feeling, he has of his being so.

Absent this consistent, watchful presence, and with the subjects of these portraits captured only within the bounds of a clearly delimited window of attention, what is achieved is a representation almost precisely opposed to the apparently candid reality rendered through surveillance. As they blink, flinch or struggle to hold back laughter, these individuals' various self-conscious poses reveal themselves as such, frustrating any desire for authentic engagement. In a certain sense Tan turns the Panopticon inside out, reversing the dynamic of inspection and leaving us, the viewers, the objects of an opaque gaze that confronts while offering little more than a staid mask in return. Of course this is to exaggerate somewhat, but it gets at an essential point: the peculiarly reserved visibility Tan's work offers her subjects.

* * *

Concerned though he is with systems of seeing and being seen, something Bentham only briefly addresses is the enforced social invisibility imposed by the correctional system. Offenders are isolated and hidden from the view of healthy society, literally behind the walls of the institution and figuratively behind a screen of social stigma. In Bentham we find them hidden from one another:

In the condition of our prisoners (for so I will call them for shortness sake) you may see the student's paradox, nunquam minus solus quam cum solus, realized in a new way: to the keeper, a multitude, though not a crowd; to themselves, they are solitary and sequestered individuals.

This is where Fiona Tan might offer her own correction (so to speak). Exhibition materials inform us of her interest "in making visible a distinct segment of society that becomes invisible within the walls of correctional facilities." Elsewhere we are further told that she feels that "with a filmed image, we 'become less aware of the image and more aware of the person as an image, the person within, or even behind, the image.'" But this awareness of the person "behind the image" is achieved not by a penetration below the surface of the image, but by that surface's very resistance to our efforts at breaching it. If we are made aware of such a presence it is not to say we know or understand it, but rather that we are haunted by a presence we are obliged to acknowledge but cannot apprehend.

These men and women remain at a disinterested arm's length, resistant to our every interrogation. If we come to Tan's work wishing to peer into their souls, this deliberately restrained presentation urges us to temper such expectations. However, this aloofness is less a matter of their disposition than of Tan's approach to them. Engaging in specific pictorial conventions and devices in terms of framing and pose, with expressed reference to historical aesthetic forms, she seems to deliberately foreground the image as an image (despite claims to the contrary). The images appear, if not mannered, then at least formally well-considered. And so we find the wall of the prison replaced by that of aesthetic mediation.

Such aesthetic distancing often gets a bad rap in the corridors of Theory (where some may call it "violence"), perhaps on account of its core of moderation. It does, after all, express a liberal agnosticism that renounces immediate passions for the apparently secondary appeal of remote impartiality. Yet, while it might be argued that in imposing her own aesthetic prescriptions upon her subjects Tan betrays their existence for a contrivance, I think her approach is ultimately (maybe ironically) fostered by a deep respect. Though she has no doubt applied a mask of her own making to those she represents, I would call it one of epistemic modesty: it's a mask that in its visibility both attests to the presence of its wearer and reveals the limits of our vision, offering in its recognition of this fundamental ignorance a deference to the unknowable depths behind it.

It bears forth the basic proposition that, though we may read their badges or count their tattoos, we cannot know these people in themselves. Filmed just as and where they live, yet divested of their customary social identifications, these individuals appear to us neither saddled with the labels of their institutional status nor simply ripped from their realities to play the empty avatars of artifice. And, notably, they are not marshaled expediently towards any explicit proposition or ideological conviction. These portraits simply bear witness to their humanity, with a respect for their individual sovereignty and a check on the arrogance that desires to lay its claims to them.

It is invisibility transformed—a monumental silence that speaks to a most human dignity.

* * *

The question of who these men and women are, in themselves, excedes the horizons of any understanding. The dispassionate surfaces of the images bear this fact out in their very omissions. And yet the possibility of visibility rests on a convergence of horizons, where the surface of the image intersects with the surface of our vision. Such a convergence without domination carries with it a renewed sense of the reciprocity of vision, that conjunction of seeing and being seen that Jeremy Bentham sought to undermine for the sake of "obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example," through an architectural partition that relegates the seen to the periphery and the seeing to the center. As we jetison such hubris and reunite these mutual bases of vision, center and periphery collapse and a more modest vision of the circle prevails.

The first of three commissioned works created through The Three M Project, a joint venture of the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), the New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York) and the UCLA Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), Fiona Tan's Correction is on display at the MCA from October 2, 2004–January 23, 2005.

"A More Virtuous Circle"
Posted by Dan at 03:58 AM


Referenced in this post:

Cartome: The Panopticon Writings—Jeremy Bentham
Fiona Tan: Correction—Fiona Tan, Robert Fitzpatrick, Francesco Bonami
Museum of Contemporary Art
Museum of Contemporary Art: Press Release—Fiona Tan: Correction
New Museum of Contemporary Art
UCLA Hammer Museum
UCLA Hammer Museum: Press Releases 2004—Three Leading Art Museums Form the 'Three M Project'