INPUT

The Aesthetics of Voyeurism

 

Antoine Thélamon

Societal control and surveillance have always been critical themes in art and popular culture. The eye, for example, a symbol of such ideas, has undergone tremendous iconographic transformations and interpretations from a theological representation of the All-Seeing- Eye to heterogeneous appropriations by mass media that create derivatives of the film noir tradition in series such as the Twilight Zone (1964) and The Prisoner (1967).1 In The Prisoner, the All-Seeing Eye is depicted as an icon of malevolent control in the Village council chamber. In the Village, everything happens as if the eye functions as the theoretical locus of a whole drama. The formal characteristics of the series orchestrate a paranoid fictional artifact. The space-frame of the plot (supposedly an island), the oppressive surveillance of close-circuit television cameras located throughout the Village, and observers, who continually spy on villagers and foil Number 6‘s attempts to escape, create a class language of what we assume to be a life-ordeath and self-interrogation situation for Number 6 in his quest for freedom. The Village becomes a closed system and the eye the core narrative structure of the irreversible repressive nature of a society of interchangeable and anonymous inmates.


Although this series is a fictionalizing enterprise, it finds a thematic variation in today’s reality where the possibilities of computer surveillance seem to be technically unlimited. Everyday life is continuously fast forwarded and digitized with parasitic and invasive technologies. Communications are intercepted, information is streamlined and stored and the cult of celebrity is commoditized and erected as a collective value through popular entertainment like reality TV shows. As the Web 2.0 phenomenon expanded, self-exposure through video-sharing websites and social networks exploded, generating real images and films from millions of extroverted strangers who broadcast the minutiae of their lives.


When the net.art movement duo Eva and Franco Mattes conceived a self-surveillance system for complete digital transparency2 they undeniably pushed the panopticon scheme rationale into the territory of pervasive absurdity. Their works Vopos and Life-sharing (anagram of file-sharing) are parts of Glasnost a project they initiated in 2000 that consists of monitoring and making public, in real time, the biggest quantity of data concerning an individual in actual society.3 In Vopos and Life-sharing, data was uploaded from a GPS transmitter worn by the artists so that anyone could precisely map their whereabouts. Moreover, internet users had access to the Mattes’ computer including their private emails. In another project, the Matteses gave their audience real-time access to all of their phone conversations for one month. Such interactive performances abruptly conflate the distinction between private and public spheres into one straight line. While the Mattes’ works are simple in their construction, they unleash powerful effects as they make us contemplate the guilt and morality of monitoring someone else’s life. The viewer intervenes decisively in the Mattes’ moral trap but might not consider his viewing in moral terms beforehand, if ever.


The Mattes’ tech-based interactivity in Vopos and Life Sharing is utterly based on a remote interaction that abstracts the viewer from the morally problematic act of viewing. The formal characteristics of this contact abolish all sense of guilt hic et nunc. It is as if the distance between the observer and the subject (the docile body,4 to speak like Foucault, in this particular context) could suspend the potentially sinful act and redefine the core nature of what is at stake in the interactivity.


Yet, looking is implicating, as clicking bears in it the performative effects of the intention behind it. The viewer’s distant location, however, almost intrinsically, makes this type of act morally acceptable. Both the viewer (in the double role of voyeur and witness) and the subject under scrutiny are dupes and accomplices in this tacit relation. In this ambiguous play between public and private spheres, the voyeur is indulged and physically freed of the constraints of his moral crime while the viewer is not viewed in return. This mismatch indisputably raises issues about the capacity of such simulacra not to be selfentrapped by the situation it originally intended to critique. If we accept that the viewer is determinant in the efficiency of the Mattes’ voyeuristic scenario, the spatial disjunction the work imposes radically modifies the viewer’s self-conscious perception of what is morally acceptable. This dissociation flaws the attempt to denounce the immorality of the sinful act by precisely limiting the viewer’s physical entry into the sordid voyeuristic scene. His identity is protected and nullified through the absence of any direct social control.


The most powerful critiques against surveillance systems seem to reside in what I call the moral effects of context. This notion refers to the capacity of a place (public or private) to function as a moral trap for the viewer because the context prefigures not only viewer participation (obviously guilty) but also his moral acceptance (or repulsion) of such complicity. Everything happens as if the viewer was engaged in a social dilemma and was abruptly hastened to clarify his moral position in the presence of others, themselves entrapped in the same moral prison as witnesses and ambiguous accomplices. The others, as mechanisms of moral reference and social pressure, hang more heavily on the viewer the sense of guilt as they intensify the dilemma by their physical presence.5

In Julia Scher’s installation The Surveillance Bed III (mixed-media, 2000), there is no physical body to watch, only the crumpled bed sheets reveal the viewer as voyeur. This breach in the rhetoric representation6 of the body accelerates the viewer’s psychological disturbance, which is, in return, exaggerated by another artifact, the threateningly engaging presence of close circuit-television cameras. The presence of this collective potentially amplifies the discomfort the viewer may experience in a context that literally requires his physical participation. The viewer is entangled in an ethical dilemma and is asked to take a position. Will he stop and watch or, will he walk away conflicted by what he considers as a sinful behavior?


Scher’s The Surveillance Bed III obliquely intersects with Jonas Dahlberg’s Safe Zone N°9 (2004, mixed media) through its formal characteristics. Here again the viewer of Safe Zone N°9 confronts confused curiosity as he is privy to a video monitor broadcasting the private and intimate space of public lavatories. As the viewer can hardly determine whether the monitor he is watching is an illusion or reality, this subterfuge seals his moral and guilty complicity to the temporal dilation on what he suspects might happen. The question of the viewer’s morality intensifies as he remains by his crime scene, staring continuously at the monitors. If the absence of movement diverts the viewer from the scene, the time he spent waiting for something to happen still serves as a guilty sentence through the complex play of anticipation whether he witnesses the climax or not, whether something happens or not. Since he was free to walk away, his continuous presence brands him as a voyeur. Time and context split the viewer’s self into a guilty voyeur.


Truth and falsity. The question of surveillance and control closely intersects with the narrative structure of duplicity. The ambiguity of what is moral and what is not. The fluid boundary between the viewer as voyeur or witness of others’ intentions makes visible the moral fracture of the self. The hypnotizing experience of suspended time coupled with the abstraction of distance sequentially exaggerates the moral dilemma in the viewer’s mind. The three-fold relationship of viewer, viewed and artist (through his/her work) unleashes its most powerful moral effects when the physical context of fateful interaction makes you already guilty.


Antoine Thélamon is a Paris-based independent curator and scholar. During his doctoral studies in political science, he taught advanced seminars in sociology as a lecturer at Paris X-Nanterre University. His current research focuses on the theory and practice of exhibitions in contemporary museums. His interests also include popular culture, new media and aesthetic strategies and innovation in periods of social turmoil.


Endnotes

The All-Seeing-Eye represents an omniscient and omnipresent God. From Egyptian mythology to the U.S. one dollar bill, the All-Seeing-Eye has taken on a myriad of forms but is perhaps best recognized in the form of radiating light from the crown of a pyramid.
http://www.0100101110101101.org/home/vopos/ concept.html
Ibid
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, [trans. from the French], (New York: Vintage Book, 1995).
From a pure theoretical point of view, the absence of the subject raises the issue of the performative effects of figuration over abstraction in such aesthetic practices and the weight such strategies carry in the critique of surveillance behaviors in modern society.
Theodor W. Adorno, The Authoritarian (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950); Erving Goffman The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959).

 

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