LOOK AT THE BIRDY!
On surveillance and being surveilled. A serious case.
„The absurd thing is that the minute I turn to the observer – in this case myself – I become my own observer, my own „Big Brother“.
Stylianos Schicho, 2005
The subject area of perception, surveillance, observation and observation of oneself has a key role in the work of the artist Stylianos Schicho, born in Vienna in 1977. He is concerned with exploring „observation and surveillance spaces“, especially those created by cameras. The graduate of the University of Applied Arts uses the classical perspective of the surveillance camera as a stylistic device in his monumental paintings. He poses the question as to the relationship between observer and observed. He also throws a critical glance at the discussion in the wake of 9/11, which has increasingly become the focus of public attention.
In 1785 the philosopher and lawyer Jeremy Bentham designed a prison that he termed panopticon. From a central tower all prisoners, whether in their cells or out of them, could be observed without those in the tower themselves being subject to scrutiny. Thus there was never certainty about the surveillance. Bentham hoped that alone the awareness of constant surveillance would deter the prisoners from committing further crimes. He thought of his „panopticum principle“ as being his contribution to the education of humanity, and as being very much within the tradition of the Enlightenment. Despite the fact that his ideas were put into practise in a whole series of prisons in England they have always been regarded as controversial. In 1975 Michel Foucault re-introduced the panopticon in the contemporary cultural-sociologcal debate, since he realised that Jeremy Bentham’s model best describes the modern surveillance society.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze more or less continued Foucault’s researchs. He describes in his essay: „Post-script to the control-societies“ the vision of a city „in which each and everyone can leave their flat, their street, their neighbourhood with the help of an electronic card, a card that opens certain gates. The card though might not be valid at certain hours. What is of importance is not the barriers themselves but rather the computers that register the position of each person, whether authorised or not.“ (2)
An appropriate example for the current reality of this frightening idea is the recent introduction of electronic tags in the Austrian prison system. In January 2006 the Justice Ministry began to monitor day release prisoners with the aid of electronicaly supervised house arrests (electronic monitoring, EM). A GPS location system defines exactly where an offender can go, where not and when.
Nevertheless we have long since ceased to fear state and privately organised surveillance. It has become fashionable, also in the mass media- especially on TV – to become „observed“. „Big Brother“ has become obligatory viewing in most western countries. The term is no longer used when referring to dictatorial regimes but rather for innovativion in the multi-facetted sector of entertainment. The outrage expected by the producers of these Reality-TV-Shows has long since evaporated. It has been replaced by boredom. The ratings have sunk to an all-time low. This collective tiredeness of the Orwellian principle of the control society, together with 9/11, have led to the almost unthinking cognizance, on the part of the European public, of the continual extension of comprehensive and manifold surveillance measures. Video surveillance has become commonplace and now belongs to the infrastructure of the city, rather like street-lights, traffic-lights or zebra crossings.
Almost five years ago the Centre for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe organised an inter-disciplanary exhibition: CTRL (Space): Rhetorics of Surveillance,
devoted to the disquieting and growing presence of control mechanisms in our every-day world (3). Apart from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s video „Film No.6, Rape“ (1969), one of the earliest works that anticipates the reality-TV aesthetic of today, there were works by roughly 50 established artists such as Sophie Calle, Harun Farocki, Dan Grahame, Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, or Peter Weibel. The exhibition showed that artists have, regardless of what was in the news, and in many different ways, long dealt critically with the theme of surveillance.
Stylianos Schicho is also aware that video surveillance represents a huge encroachment on our rights. The law permits citizens to learn where who records what personal information. The majority of figures in Schicho’s pictures convey an impression of insecurity, fear, pessimism or indifference. Do they know whether they are being „merely“ observed or actually recorded? Do they know how long the images are stored, who is „behind the camera“, or what the information will be subsequently used for? Do they want not be noticed by means of their (pretended?) indifference, in order to appear unsuspicious to the camera’s eye, or have they adapted themselves to being observed, in their social behaviour, to such an extent that their apathetic actions might be regarded as being within the norm?
Schicho’s protagonists aren’t only observed in public spaces such as casinos, airplanes, swimming pools or supermarkets, but also in the private sphere, such as while dancing, riding a Vespa, or chatting in a café. Resigned and with absent gazes the figures look past each other. Schicho Stylianos shows, by means of this lack of interaction, people in lonely and emotionally isolated situations. One is reminded of Orwell’s „1984“, and its protagonist Winston Smith, whose life is characterised by constant fear, surveillance, and a lack of personal relationships. In nearly all the works in Schicho’s series of pictures there is one person – often the artist himself- with direct eye-contact with the viewer.
Thus there is a build up of tension between viewer and viewed, between observing and being observed, that deliberately leaves the question unanswered as to „Who observes who?“. In a similar way to Winston Smith’s rebellion against „Big Brother“, while attempting to protect his privacy, the artist’s concentrated, mistrustful, at times aggressive „gazing at the camera“ is an exact inspection of developments in society. Other than in Orwell’s novel though, which reflected the fears of the post-war era, Schicho’s visual world doesn’t conjure up a negative utopia, doesn’t offer a vision of the future, but rather shows, from at one and the same time an unusual and a usual perspective, a differentiated picture of our contemporary surveillance society.
Curator Kunsthalle Krems
(1) Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir, 1975.
(2) Gilles Deleuze, L’autre journal, Nr. 1, Mai 1990.
(3) CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Thomas Y. Levin und Ursula Frohne, MIT Press