The sixth entry in our coronacrisis series, an exhibition commentary at a distance from Charlotte Epstein. Charlotte is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where her work straddles surveillance studies, international relations and political theory. Her latest book is entitled Birth of the State: The Place of the Body in Crafting Modern Politics will be coming out later this year with Oxford University Press. All photos included below were taken by Mark Pokorny.
In early 2020, I was commissioned to write a text for a forthcoming exhibition Cinopticon by a Sydney-based performance artist, Giselle Stanborough. The exhibition was just about to open, and then from one day in March to the next, along with the rest of the globe, Sydney woke to a world that was retreating into itself under the onslaught of a virus. As I watched the cultural life of my city shrivel, I realised that, while the exhibition could no longer happen, the conversation that it had opened up must, since the profound intensification of surveillance is one of the effects of the fight against the pandemic.
What does it mean to be subjects under a constant, unrelenting surveillance, one to which we also, however, seem to willingly contribute? This is the contemporary paradox Giselle Stanborough wrestles with, in ways that only an artist knows to, by joining dots we had not thought to connect; yet a joining that resonates somewhere deep in our minds and our beings. Before considering how Stanborough invites us to join her in grappling with this tension, let us take a step back and consider where we have gotten to, in our states of surveillance.
When Michel Foucault first identified ‘surveillance’ as a historically distinctive and highly efficient mode of social and political control that works from within, by the quasi-magical effect of someone knowing that they are being watched, the phenomenon was still limited to closed spaces: the prison, the school, the factory, or the army barracks. ‘Discipline’ is how he termed this social power that makes someone toe the line under the gaze. He defined the kind of space where it is deployed as ‘the panopticon’, borrowing the term from Jeremy Bentham, who invented the model of the prison organised around a central watchtower that offers an all-seeing (‘pan-optic’) vantage point from which to see without being seen. In Foucault’s time, however, the surveilled subject was the prisoner, the student, the factory worker, the army recruit, or the office clerk. Today it is every one of us. The panopticon is no longer confined to bounded or, for that matter, to physical spaces. It has become digitised and diffused throughout the virtual spaces that we (or our data doubles) now inhabit and where we (or they, rather) meet others. The use of the fingerprint for identification has been transformed from a repressive prison technology to the key that unlocks our phones. This little object we carry around in our pockets and to which we have become so attached is also the most effective of disciplinary devices. It monitors our every step, and how long we sleep or peer at the screen for. Through it, we put our lives, our tastes, our thoughts, and our moods on display for all our friends, and those who are not our friends, to see. By it, we are constantly solicited to react and to emote via ever more ‘applications’ in order to generate very personal information about us that is relentlessly beamed off to the Googles, Apples, Facebooks, and Amazons of this world, or ‘GAFAs’, as the French term them.
Who, then, has the prison guard in the watchtower become? Ourselves, first and perhaps foremost. We check the number of the steps we have taken today; chide ourselves more often than not for not having taken enough—or for not having slept enough, or for having stared at our screens too much, and promise ourselves we’ll do better tomorrow. There’s today’s discipline for you, and perhaps it is a good thing. It’ll keep me (or you?) healthy. The phone has become the inner parent keeping watch. But that parent is not always a clement one, as many of us know all too well. It can be a ferocious policing instance; and it is now equipped to turn our cardiac and our circadian rhythms into performances to measure against a standard of good health (the dreaded ten thousand steps or the seven hours of sleep recommended per day). Any deviation from the norm becomes a(nother) reason to worry. Secondly, the gazing guards are the multiple others to whose view we regularly offer up, wittingly or unwittingly, the most intimate details of our lives, in a never-ending quest for their approval, or ‘likes’. The model of surveillance has now evolved from a vertical to a horizontal one, in which everyone is watching everyone.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Egregious police brutalities have been brought to the public eye by the victim or a witness capturing them on their phones, where they may well have remained hidden from scrutiny in an earlier age. Social media platforms, however, are also echo-chambers of sameness. They are spaces of normalisation that breed conformity (‘liking’ the same photos) far more than they encourage the genuine exploration of differences (we want these ‘likes’). Thence the inexhaustible popularity of cute cuddly animal photos. Third, the guard in your pocket is also the government, who now has the capability to turn on your phone’s microphone at any time and to track all your movements. Big Brother is now equipped in ways that far exceed Orwell’s wildest dreams. At the time of writing, as Australia is going into lockdown to fend off a global pandemic, the government is considering using this capability, ready to lock step with the authoritarian governments that have paved this path. What was once but the dystopic scenario of a few disillusioned surveillance scholars or novelists is about to pan out. Fourth, it is also these multinational surveillance corporations (the GAFAs) spearheading the accelerated deployment of a new form of ‘surveillance capitalism’, and for whom the data we are constantly coughing up to their algorithms constitutes the new black gold. Tracking our reactions and our emotions serves to influence us into buying, about what to buy and, now increasingly (since the Brexit and Trump elections) about how to vote.
Stanborough’s Diffracted Panopticon
The political economy of surveillance is at the heart of Giselle Stanborough’s work. She draws on the power of the signifier to catalyse connections that tap deep into the collective unconscious of the global consumer. In this way ‘Hayek’ links the free market ideologue and proponent of an unbridled globalisation (Fredrich) to an American actress of global fame (Selma).
The former prescribed keeping the state at bay and letting the market rule. Today the GAFAs are his most ardent messengers, who are working very hard to forestall the introduction of any regulations of the new market for big data that they dominate, or any restrictions on the practices by which they are voraciously hoovering up its primary resource off as many people around the world as possible. Witness the ferocious lobbying and scare-mongering public campaigns they ran when the European Union dared to introduce the first comprehensive legal framework to regulate the collection and commercialisation of personal data. What do people have to complain about, really? Just let the global market do its (hear: their) thing. Don’t we all get enough free goodies out of this after all; per the email accounts, search engines, and online platforms to connect with each other (or not) that we are readily plied with, while our role in producing this data for them is always carefully concealed.
Stanborough’s Cinopticon is a lived critique of our surveillance consumer cultures. She uses the closed space-time of the exhibition to recreate a diffracted, ironic or reverse panopticon that draws our attention to the structures underwriting the world of twenty-four-hour surveillance that we tend to blindly move through in our everyday lives. Walking through the vast space of the installation, we tune into our own embodied experiences as surveilled subjects.
The artist watches us from behind a mirror that reflects our own image back to us. The experience is then reversed; the artist submits to our gaze and turns herself into a surveilled object. The watchtower is exploded into as many pairs of eyes and observation points that all conjoin upon the artist.
Through this playful self-objectification, the artist blurs the boundaries between the subject and the object of surveillance, between seer and seen. We become the performance’s co-creators as we alternate between either position. We rediscover our own ability to see, to locate the gaze behind the mirror that we don’t initially see, trapped as we are at first in the seductions of our own images. Our moving through the exhibition space is what creates the moving images of this private drama of everyday surveillance. Welcome to the Cinopticon.
Stanborough’s work poses the question: what does having become self-surveilling data subjects actually do to us? It enables ever more fine-grained measurements of our bodies and of our emotions, but what, in fact, does it do to us, deep down in the less visible, less measurable—less data-fiable— parts of our beings, in each one of our unconscious? The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has shown that the unconscious operates like a language. It speaks through us and often at our expense, through slips of the tongue or the things that we do without understanding why we do them. Might the algorithms ‘understand’ these better than we do? Stanborough takes another route. She has mapped out, in giant format on the walls around Cinopticon, the language of the unconscious of the surveilled subject. This is why, as we walk through the space and follow the strange connections around us, something stirs.
There is an additional complication, from a psychoanalytic perspective: the gaze of the (m)other is the means by which the child, who first experiences herself as a fragmented being, literally puts herself together and constitutes her self in the first place. Through this caring (m)other celebrating her and calling her by her name (‘well done, Giselle!’), she learns to gain control over her limbs and her movements. Lacan termed this stage of childhood development the ‘mirror stage’. The carer is like the mirror that sends back to the child her image of herself as a unified, capacious being, and thereby enables her to become one. Lacan’s other insight is that we are never entirely constituted, as unified beings, fully in control. Even as adults, the experience of fragmentation is never far. What happens, then, when in lieu of the caring mirror stands the cold stare of the algorithm?
Embodied Objects of Surveillance
The flattening out of the subject/object distinction that Stanborough playfully weaves into her invitation to experience this lived critique goes, in fact, to the heart of the surveillance dispositif. Our minutely monitored bodies have become highly coveted sites for collecting increasingly intimate information about our behaviours and, increasingly, for attempting to shape it. We are the embodied subjects-objects of late modern surveillance. Our body parts (our irises, fingerprints, the shapes of our faces) serve to identify us, to confirm that we are who we say we are. In fact, never mind what we say. Here too our electronic devices have played a key role in normalising the use of these biometric technologies in our everyday routines. In Italy, mannequins in shop windows have been equipped with iris scanners that track where shoppers look so as to better capture their attention. This attention span is the primary battleground of surveillance capitalism. The ultimate prize is the dopamine-firing neurons in our brains. Every ‘like’ scored on social media is known to trigger a surge of the hormone. This dopamine rush accounts for our attachment, indeed our ‘addiction’, to our phones. This is not lost on the suite of highly lucrative industries that have rapidly developed to exploit this addictive capability. Consider Dopamine Labs, a Los Angeles start-up set up by two neuroscientists in 2015 to help App developers ‘make you even more addicted to your phone’, as one of the founders quite candidly put it. ‘We give you a little dopamine hit’, a Facebook founder confirmed. Especially interesting are the assumptions about the human being underwriting these industries. The fields of neuromarketing and neuroeconomics, for example, were both spawned out of the notion that we are nothing but a set of buttons to push. With just the right amount of data about how a person is wired, they can be directed to buy, and now, vote, in pre-designed ways.
Stanborough responds to the arrogance of this cold, now algorithmically enhanced, scientist stare with art’s unique power to restore the point of view, experiences, and freedom of the subject. The profound sense of disempowerment of she or he who knows, not only that she is being ceaselessly watched, but that she is a target to be influenced in her every decision, or non-decision, looms large in her work. ‘Skinner’s box’, ‘Pavlov’s puppies’: Stanborough fetches the origins of these deeply objectifying castings of the human being. She turns the scientific experiments that locked them into place into another set of playful signifiers we encounter on her/our experiential map.
She interrupts the smooth workings of surveillance and causes us to stop in our tracks to question the dispositif. At last. Hopefully not too late. Let’s all take up her invitation.
Giselle Stanborough’s exhibition Cinopticon was curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham and is presented as part of Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, a suite of three unique commissions to support Australian women artists working at the nexus of performance and installation. The series is a partnership between the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; Carriageworks, Sydney; and the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.
The General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, adopted in 2016, is in place since 2018. This hard-won law is still considered woefully insufficient by many privacy advocates, including myself. That it has adopted the industry’s language (it protects the ‘data subject’) testifies to the latter’s ideological hold over how the issue is framed. Still, it is the best legislation we have.