Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 22, 2002
Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel, eds. CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother MIT Press, 2002. 655 pp.; 350 color ills.; 600 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95
ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany, October 12, 2001–February 24, 2002.

Ever since Michel Foucault reintroduced Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century panopticon into contemporary philosophical discussion in 1975, the project has served as the prototypical example of surveillance and social control in the modern world. The panopticon is both an architectural model—a circular prison engineered to create the semblance of constant prisoner surveillance—and an example of rationalist philosophy—Bentham rejoiced in the belief that prisoners under the potentially omnipotent surveillance of prison guards would learn to self-censor their behavior, or, in more Foucauldian terms, to internalize the disciplinary gaze. As suggested by its title, CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother is deeply concerned to trace the legacy of Bentham’s panopticon design and philosophy from its Enlightenment roots to the present.

Edited by Thomas Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel, the catalogue summarizes and augments the ambitious exhibition of the same name organized by Levin at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The catalogue is couched in a rhetoric that speaks to a post-September 11 world; the editors’ introductory essay foregrounds the obligation to protect civil liberties alongside the need to provide increased security. Throughout the catalogue, the editors hope to develop what they call a “surveillant literacy,” or “a critical, differentiated analysis of the pros and cons of surveillance” (11).

The ambition of CTRL [SPACE] is to trace the history and politics of surveillance from Bentham to the present day, but also to show artistic responses to, and complications of, these conditions. Divided into eight chapters, the catalogue reproduces approximately thirty essays and seventy art projects. The genealogical goal is met excellently, but the criteria employed for selecting artworks appear to have been quite literal, making the selection of artists’ projects somewhat less satisfactory. Too often, the inclusion of a video surveillance camera in an artwork appears to have been the only standard for determining whether the work engages the rhetorics of surveillance. When compared to video, photography is short-changed, as are nontechnological forms of surveillance.

The range and scope of this catalogue is nonetheless extraordinary. Writers and artists engage media as diverse as architecture, video, painting, photography, cinema, television, installation, robotics, and satellite imaging. Although there are works from each decade since the 1960s, the art tends to be either German or American, from either the late 1960s or from the 1990s to the present. (An interesting essay could have been written on why this is the case—one might ask what conditions are operative in these periods such that surveillance emerges as a major theme.) While most of the writings are contemporary, the catalogue is enriched by reprinted texts by Foucault (“The Eye of Power,” an interview from 1977 where the philosopher discusses the research that led him to the panopticon model) and Gilles Deleuze (“Postscript on Control Societies,” from 1990). The 1791 drawings for Bentham’s Penitentiary Panopticon or Inspection House are presented as an artist’s project. Because nearly every essay or artwork references these three thinkers in some way, their influence cannot be overestimated.

Both the carefully selected essays and the projects are great contributions to the discourse surrounding art and surveillance, especially since there are no other major publications entirely devoted to such issues. Read collectively, the only shortcoming of the assembled essays is that they are repetitive. Almost every text refers to Bentham’s panopticon (or, more precisely, Foucault’s treatment of it) and/or Deleuze’s concept of the society of control. Observations regarding the film The Truman Show and the television program Big Brother are equally pervasive. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this consistency, it does make for tedious reading if one reads the catalogue straight through, since each writer tends to review the basics of each of these texts or cultural phenomenon every time they are cited.

In general, the most provocative essays are the historical or contextual treatments. Among these are critical histories of surveillance machines (Lev Manovich), audio surveillance (Dorte Zbikowski), early photographic surveillance (Geoffrey Batchen), and government surveillance, including the United States National Security Agency’s global spy system Echelon (Duncan Campbell) and East Germany’s Stasi (Robert Darnton). In addition to these excellent histories, Levin’s essay, “Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of ‘Real Time,’” considers the significance of surveillant narration and “real time” in cinema. Levin offers the disturbing observation that surveillance images tend to be the only images not routinely questioned for their veracity. Further, he notes that the “harnessing of surveillance as compelling narrational rhetoric is an important and sociologically symptomatic part of its appeal” (590). By examining movies such as The Truman Show, Wag the Dog, Snake Eyes, and Time Code, Levin persuasively concludes that many of the films that ostensibly criticize techniques of surveillance actually locate the spectator in the masterful and satisfying position of the surveillance operator.

Perhaps because the hybrid architectural and philosophical model of the panopticon informs them, the essays and projects in CTRL [SPACE] are generally methodologically sophisticated as they consider the vital relationships between design and power, and between representation and subjectivity. Although the catalogue is organized under eight themes (“Phenomenologies of Surveillance,” “Surveillance and Punishment,” “Surveillant Subversions,” and so on), other salient themes emerge that override these rather uninspired divisions. Issues of spatiality are central to Beatriz Colomina’s essay, “Enclosed by Images: Architecture in the Post-Sputnik Age” and Rem Koolhaas’s “Project for the Renovation of a Panopticon Prison.” Colomina’s noteworthy essay is an attempt to historicize the condition of being surrounded by multiple, simultaneous images, which she considers to be our contemporary condition of perception. Examining the architectural practice of Charles and Ray Eames, Colomina proposes that their project for the 1958 World’s Fair signaled “an entirely new spatial system—a system that was the product of esoteric scientific-military research but had entered the everyday public imagination with the launching of the Sputnik in 1957…. The Eameses’s innovative technique [overlapping images on multiple screens] did not simply present the audience with a new way of seeing things. Instead it gave form to the new mode of perception that was already in everybody’s mind” (328). Colomina’s salient argument could profitably be extended to consider our “digital everyday”—a world where we are indeed surrounded and defined by screens and their immersive, multiple images.

Like Colomina, Koolhaas too focuses on the relationship between space and control. In 1979, his firm, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), was asked to plan the renovation of a panopticon-style Dutch prison by bringing it in line with “present-day insights into the treatment of prisoners” (120). OMA prepared a text and assorted drawings in response. With a relativist, postmodern outlook, Koolhaas acknowledged that the qualities of the panopticon (solitary confinement, centralized monitoring by “invisible” guards) had indeed become unacceptable by contemporary standards, yet the architect remained unconvinced that the more modern “pavilion” style prisons were in reality more humane. Koolhaas’s elegant solution was a proposal to work with the spontaneous spatial, architectural changes that had arisen at the prison during its one-hundred-year history. Recognizing the social and political implications of prison architecture and its spatial dynamics, yet at the same time unwilling to make an authoritative value judgment about them, OMA proposed, in the architect’s words, to add a “layer of modernity without claiming to be definitive” (127).

Most of the writers in CTRL [SPACE] share the conviction that privacy is now a luxury. Frohne writes: “Precisely because today everyone has access to the existence-generating medialization of one’s person, privacy has become the new new privilege in post-capitalist society” (272). Curiously, many writers in this catalogue, including Frohne, posit that privacy is an ambiguous objective at best. Continuing, she suggests that “this privilege exerts, in turn, the pressure for the underprivileged to expose themselves to the public opinion of an omnipresent tele-community as their last chance to regain a sense of self-esteem” (272). Aside from the obvious pitfalls of writers who would predicate a sort of universal subject who either “does” or “does not” seek out privacy, the question is engaging and is central to the essays in Chapter 4, “Surveillant Pleasures.” Largely informed by a psychoanalytic approach, these writers ask: In our era of “reality” television, “voluntary” security surveillance measures, webcams, and the like, what do we really want? Could surveillance actually be pleasurable? An outstanding essay in this vein is Brandon Joseph’s outline of the profound pleasures and anxieties generated by Andy Warhol’s idiosyncratic use of surveillance technologies in both his film and video production.

If the lack of something could be said to constitute a theme, then the absence of essays concerned with the role of the material body also ties this collection together. Theorizing about bodies particularized by gender, class, or race (as opposed to examining some universalized “subject”) is rare in this collection of essays. In addition to overlooking the role of the body in surveillance society, the number of female contributors to the catalogue reads like a Guerilla Girls statistic: a mere 14 percent of the writers and only 15 percent of the artists in this catalogue are women. Unsurprisingly, the feminist implications of surveillance technologies, not to mention considerations of the gaze and conditions of voyeurism, are likewise absent (aside from a few footnote references to Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” essay). This is particularly egregious as feminist theories and practices relevant to the “rhetorics of surveillance”" are plentiful throughout the history of contemporary art.

Beyond the catalogue’s content, the book’s overall design is also worth mentioning. The richly illustrated catalogue generously reproduces almost a thousand images, 350 of which are in color and many of which are extremely hard to find elsewhere. Other design elements, however, are less pleasing. First, each page has a fine red cross in the center (rifle tracking? cursor?), and second, the catalogue designers tightly wove the gray footnote text between the lines of the main black text. One eventually gets accustomed to the red cross, but as clever as the footnotes may be in theory, with their references to surveillant technologies and overlapping computer windows, this typesetting is almost guaranteed to give the reader a headache, whether one tries diligently to discern the footnotes or simply to ignore them while reading the main text.

In its entirety, CTRL [SPACE] is an intellectually stimulating and visually engaging publication; its utility as both reference tool and teaching resource far outweighs the discomforts of eye strain. This outstanding catalogue is required reading for anyone concerned with the history of surveillance and with the striking correlation between such techniques and aesthetic practice.

Katie Mondloch
Ph.D, candidate in art history, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles