The Space is the Thing (and White Cubes are Nothing)


Viewing through a home made camera obsucra.
From the Camera Obscured (2012)

One of the very few opinions I share in common with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones is a dislike of white cube galleries, spaces which he rightly describes as having ‘have all the joy of a cenotaph’. Like Jones I can see the purpose of them in the context of art’s evolution, it’s rejection of past orthodoxies, but like him I also distrust the way one convention seems to has been replaced by another which has come in time to be treated just as unquestioningly, and is now just as in need of breaking down. Jones describes the white space of a gallery as a sanctifying force, the equivalent of a frame on an oil painting designed to convey authority and value. I’d go further back in to the history of art, to it’s use as an object of religious veneration. If Kazimir Malevich’s ultra-abstract suprematist compositions like his 1915 painting Black Square are sometimes compared to Russian orthodox icons, the minimalist space of the modern art gallery maybe makes a fitting place of worship in which to commune with them. That’s precisely what these spaces often become, sick shrines, although it’s a matter of debate what exactly is being worshipped and I’m not unsympathetic with Jones for suggesting it’s often actually money, not art which is on the high altar. There have been some other fine critiques and contestations over the white cube, including the experimental website, which was ultimately shut down by lawyers acting on behalf of Jay Jopling, founder of the London gallery of the same name. This case also says much about the interactions and unease that exist between the art world and the internet.

One might say the pristine emptiness of a high end white cube gallery demonstrates a necessary level of respect for art, that it allows it be regarded in it’s wholeness, uninfluenced by external distractions. I would suggest it often demonstrates the opposite, it suggests work which needs to be imbued with an aura by the space because it lacks it in it’s own right, and has an effect which is so weak and pallid that it requires all other distractions to be closed off in order for it to effective. Indeed I often sense that some works actually suffer by being housed in such bland surrounds, precisely because the sort of cross pollination that white cubes seem designed specifically to avoid is often what activates art and makes it interesting in surprising ways unanticipated by the artist. That becomes particularly true when it comes to photography, because while fine art is a rarefied exception, photography is a mass medium. And when does photography really behave like this in the real world? Whether you view them in a book amongst the jostle of a train journey or the birdsong and breeze of a summer afternoon, or view on them on a website where they compete with text and adverts, the idea of the photograph displayed entirely on its own is an increasingly odd one. This all before one even considers the question of audience, and the reality that the space where work is shown necessarily prescribes who is able to see it.

In my practice I’ve found it far more interesting, challenging, and ultimately productive, to display work in spaces which bears a close relation to the subject matter. That’s included exhibiting my series on history and the European recession at the European Union’s permanent representation in London, which led to a series of fascinating conversations with workers at the representation including its head about the direction the European Union was heading in. Another example was showing my series on gentrification and redevelopment at an art school due to be demolished to make way for luxury flats. We printed the images in the architecture department on the large format plotters normally used to produce architectural plans, and this led to a series of really interesting conversations with architecture students about the new buildings of London and how they saw their profession. It was a relief to find many shared my feelings, and saw their practice as one which desperately needed to be more socially engaged.

I’m currently showing my 2012 series The Camera Obscured in one of the cells of a former police station in Deptford as part of the Urban Photo Fest exhibition [Taking] Control. The series examines the prohibitions on photography in certain areas of the City of London, by employing a series of rather ridiculous home-made camera obscuras. Using these I produced detailed drawings of sensitive locations, the intention being to entice police officers and security guards intent on stopping me into a discussion about the technical and philosophical dividing lines that separate a photograph taken with a modern digital camera from a painting by an artist like Canaletto, himself an avid employer of camerae obscurae. The space of the cell is apt (not least because I spent much of the project fearing I might end up in one) because it’s form is in effect the same as a simple camera obscura, it’s not for nothing that Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the panopticon and Michel Focault’s subsequent reimaginging of it have both been influential on photography studies. The space is also an interesting one to work in because it is so deeply uncompromising, with none of the usual methods used for hanging a show possible in an environment of concrete and tile walls and austere lighting. [Taking] Control is open each day from 10 am to 6pm and continues until November 8th at The Old Police Station. 114 Amersham Vale, London, SE14 6LG.

Welcome to Panoptica

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table
at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Photographs are just abstract marks, distortions of tone and colour. But our ability to recognise things in these patterns is remarkable, as is the ability these recognitions have to mould and shape the ways we think about certain things, and act on them. I’ve never been fully convinced by the idea of image fatigue or the dearth of compassion which is sometimes said to result from such images. I remain unconvinced by the popular claim that exposure to photographs can’t change us, and in process perhaps also change the world in however slight a way. In the context of Europe’s recent refugee crisis it seems that regardless of how many thousands of images I see I still find these events distressing, exhaustingly so, but not yet to the extent of fatigue, and not yet to the point that these images instead of fueling my sense of anger instead extinguish it. Something always gets me, there always remains that capacity for some small detail to penetrate whatever emotional or intellectual armour I might have constructed, and manages to stop me dead. When that happens the moment and source is always unexpected as it was last week when I saw the photography above by Muhammed Muheisen from a wider series which can be seen here.

Muheisen’s photograph shows an asylum seeker named Reda Ehsan recumbent on a table in the middle of a cavernous space. His pose is one I’ve seen a thousand times before in western paintings, where it most often used with a nude female subject to transmits an air of exotic passivity and it seems apt that Ehsan is from Iran, source of many an orientalist fantasy. The tone here is quite a different one though, although related. Muheisen’s photograph has an air of exhausted lethargy, of inertia and uncertanity, the same feelings conveyed in many of the massive number of press photographs taken of the recent European refugee crisis. An air of profound exhaustion is evident for example in this year’s World Press Photo winning image by Warren Richardson even at the same time as being a dramatically dynamic image. The repetition of this set of emotional tropes in the context of the crisis and whether it is intended to speak to the physical exhaustion of refugees or the alleged psychic exhaustion of European audiences could be the subject of an article in its own right, but that is not my focus here (and I think it is important to note that other images in Muheisen’s series do not play to these tendencies). No, what hit me about this particular image though was less the subject and his pose and the messages those things are calculated to send but rather the distinctive space that Ehsan occupies. The tiered walkways and identical doorways behind him makes clear this is an institution, specifically a prison and by no means a modern one. The photograph it transpires is part of a series on asylum seekers housed in prisons which thanks to Holland’s falling crime rate are no longer needed for their original purpose. Twelve institutions in the country have reportedly been turned to this purpose, and according to the article which accompanies the photographs they are ‘so transformed that they are barely recognizable as former places of involuntary detention’.

But this is not just any prison. For anyone even moderately versed in the architecture of incarceration or theories of surveillance the gently curving walls behind Ehsan’s recumbent form speak deafeningly of an architectural technology which continues to loom large, two centuries after it’s rather stuttering entry into the world. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or ‘Inspection House’ was a concieved as a radical new model of control, a building constructed with total surveillance in mind, and which employed the unique sensation of being surveiled to modify behaviour in ways which only violence and physical restraint had previously seemed able to. The Pantopticon didn’t see realisation in the English philosopher’s lifetime despite Bentham’s considerable efforts, and no true Panopticon was ever built in Britain, but in the two centuries since his death Bentham’s notion of an architectural technology which permits total observation of it’s occupants has come (usefully and not) to inform almost all conversations about surveillance and control. The prison pictured in Muheisen’s photographs is Koepel in Harlem, designed by the prison architect WC Metzelaar and constructed from 1899 to 1901, it was the final of three such Koepelgevangenis or ‘dome prisons’ built in Holland during the period and was clearly inspired by some of Bentham’s ideas. Today the prison is no longer a true Panopticon, if indeed it ever was by Bentham’s quite specific definition of the term. The inspection tower shown in early photographs standing in the centre of the space is gone, although the red inner circle of the sports court directly above Ehsan’s recumbent form mark the spot where it might well have stood, an unintended architectural fingerprint lingering in the present. In any case, and as many post-Panopticonism have argued, the moderating sight of the inspection tower is no longer needed by many of us in the societies and spaces for which it was originally conceived. It has been internalised and replaced as it has been by persistent and pervasive forms of social and electronic surveillance, forms of observation which far better meet Bentham’s original description of the Panopticon as way ‘of obtaining power of mind over mind’.

The act of housing asylum seekers in a disused Panopticon is undoubtedly a pragmatic one by the Dutch government, with different accommodations reportedly being made for anyone who might find it traumatic to have escaped one set of cells in their homeland only to find themselves housed in another set in Europe. But the unintended, unspoken message of employing such a building for such a purpose also seems inescapable, as much a gesture of European feeling towards refugees as the sight of Germans cheering their arrival. In so much recent discourse Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, and in some cases Muslim communities as a whole, are described in terms which characterise them as potential fifth columns of extremist ideology and violence. Even moderate commentators across the continent are buying into these troublesome notions of guilt by association, with the logic that however innocent most in these communities might be, hidden amongst their number might lurk infiltrators from ISIS or other groups, intent on carrying out attacks like those in Paris and Brussels (it is perhaps here worth reminding ourselves that both attacks were perpetrated in the most by EU citizens and long term residents of the continent, not newly arrived refugees). One of the many arguments in the British debate about whether to leave the EU stems from whether European rules on immigration make us vulnerable to such attacks, and in recent months the British government has also ramped up it’s ridiculous Prevent program, which asks teachers and others to report on students they suspect of harbouring radical sympathies in what which some academics have compared to the enforced collaborations between East German university lecturers and the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. Housing asylum seekers in a structure like this seems to me like a form of atmospheric acclimatisation or adjustment for these new arrivals, a setting of the tone for things to come. The message it seems so perfectly to send is that we think we know what you are, or what you might be. Know that you are suspected, that you are being watched, and should we allow you to stay here, and however well you integrate, so it will remain. Welcome to free Europe, welcome to Panoptica.

Beyond The Panopticon


Plan of Millbank Prison,
Constructed 1812, on land originally purchased by Bentham for the construction of his Panopticon.

In a series of letters written in 1787 Jeremy Bentham outlined his concept of the Panopticon or ‘inspection house’. It was to be a structure designed to create the illusion in the minds of its inmates of continual observation by an invisible warden. Bentham considered it ideal for prisons, factories, hospitals, insane asylums, and ‘any sort of establishment in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection’.

Two centuries later his ideas have been only sporadically implemented, but the Pantopticon has become a central model and metaphor for many of our darker conceptions of what it means to look and survey in an ever more intensely imaged world. In large part due to it’s reinterpretation but Michel Foucault, the Panopticon remains one of the most frequently cited models for explaining how our behaviour is shaped and moderated by practices of looking, and the sensation of being observed.

The façade of the Panopticon looms particularly large in media theory, where it continues to inform conversations about the way photography (particularly state and institutionally operated forms of photography) shape our behaviour. That a more or less unrealised architectural technology, envisaged before the era of daguerreotype continues to be deployed to explain our behaviour in the era of the near ubiquitous digital camera seems to me to be very strange.

A number of writers have argued that Bentham’s model no longer makes sense, with varying degrees of convincingness and in the field of surveillance studies there have been attempts to move beyond the model of the Panopticon, giving rise to a number of ‘post-Panopticon’ models of surveillance. These arguments and alternatives have ranged from pointing out changes in the way control is exerted, to arguments that the original model has proved itself to be fundamentally flawed and ineffective. Others have pointed to the way we increasingly auto-surveil or expose ourselves to collective surveillance, for example by publishing every more intimate information about ourselves in the public domain.

I have a slightly different feeling, tied to some of my recent writings on surveillance and image aware algorithms. I sense that the Panopticon is still yet to attain the logical end form which Bentham’s ideas demand, but which would have been impossible to envisage in his time, or even in Foucault’s. What the Panopticon always depended on was the availability of a guard or watcher, present at least some of the time to detect transgressions and punish wrongdoers. In effect what this meant was that Panopticon’s name was a misnomer. Bentham’s conception of Panopticon was not ‘all seeing’ at all, it merely hinged on the idea that at any moment one might be observed.

A true Panopticon would demand an equal number of guards to inmates, each guard constantly observing. The impossibility of that is also the weakness of the system, that provided an inmate can control the sense of doubt the Panopticon is designed to cultivate, they can assume that most of the time they are in fact not being observed, and can get away with things they might be prohibited from doing. Any transgressions which go unpunished progressively weaken the observed person’s belief that they are subject to a near omnipotent gaze. This maybe in part explains the ineffectiveness of many cited examples of the media Panopticon, for example the United Kingdom’s vast number of CCTV cameras. We know from experience that most are unmonitored, and many don’t even work.

What I think we’re approaching now is a time when the human element of the Panopticon can be more or less dispensed with. The result is a system which no longer rests on the possibility that someone might be watching us at any given time, but by the more disturbing certainty that something definitely is. A combination of the massive proliferation of networked cameras into almost every arena of life, alongside the growing capacity of governments and other organisations to automatically harvest, store and process vast amounts of information in near real time suggests frightening possibilities for future surveillance. The growing sophistication of software designed to detect subtle behaviours completes a terrifying trinity.

A huge networked panopticon, algorithmically detecting or perhaps even pre-empting transgressive or subversive behaviour sounds like dystopian science fiction, but the pieces that could make it reality seem to be falling into place. Given a choice, would people agree to being monitored by such a disturbing system? The National Security Agency surveillance revelations reveal the problem of assuming that our assent would even be sought. More troublingly though, these revelations have perhaps laid the groundwork for the collective psychological change needed to accept the idea of a truly omnipotent form of surveillance. For all the outrage we might feel we more or less now accept that we live in a state of pervasive surveillance.

We understand information in fundamentally different ways to previous generations, as a commodity which we generate like heat, with almost with every movement, every keystroke. The NSA revelations have established as fact the previously radical idea that very few of our communications are safe from interception. The virtual world increasingly mirrors the real, physical world, and as we accept the idea that one of these worlds is prone to such all seeing surveillance, that reality is sure to follow in the other.