Project Looking, observation and surveillance?

This project involved reading a passage entitled Panopticism by Michel Foucault, which came from his book Discipline and Punishment. The essay is a reflection on Jeremy Bentham’s architectural design for the perfect building to keep people under surveillance – the Panopticon.

The design of the Panopticon comprised of an outer building shaped like a hoop. All of the rooms/cells in the hoop  have windows at both ends so that an unobstructed view into all of the rooms is possible when looking from the centre. At the centre there is round watch tower with subdued lighting and screens which mean that it is not possible to see into the tower from the rooms in the outer hoop.

Panopticon design by Bentham

The result is that those incarcerated in the cells are visible at all times. The inmates know that they can be seen at all times, but they do not know whether they are being surveilled at a particular moment in time. The structure works as a system of control. Those in the cells come to behave at all times as if they are under surveillance. From the perspective of those in a position of power this is  a very efficient means of keeping large numbers of people effectively under surveillance by a small number of ‘guards’.

My sense is that Foucault uses the Panopticon as a metaphor for similar systems of control which are becoming more common in today’s society. Consider for example speed cameras on British roads. We all know that they are there – they are big and yellow and well signposted. We all know that they may or may not have a camera in them. So we do not know if we are being surveilled. Yet generally we behave as if we are – we slow down. There are increasing numbers of physical control systems in our society and indeed yet more when one considers the policing and surveillance of the myriad forms of communication, telephone calls, emails, internet usage etc.

The course notes indicate that a major contribution of Foucault’s thinking is that we are all now very much aware of the differences between looking, observing and surveilling. I thought I would just set out my own interpretation of these three words. For me…

  • looking implies that we are holding something or someone in our vision but with no particular intention in mind, at least to begin with
  • observing implies that we are paying particular interest in the subject under our gaze with a view to interpreting or analysing what we are seeing
  • surveillance implies that we are looking at something with a view to controlling it in some way, as is the case in Foucault’s notion of Panopticism

The projects asks the question as to whether Foucault’s ideas shed any light on the dichotomy of the contemporary desire to be seen (e.g. reality TV, celebrity, social networks etc) and the desire for privacy (laws which ban photography, curbs on the media, injunctions by members of the Royal Family etc.).

Looking for example at social networks such as Facebook. They act just like a Panopticon. We place our thoughts,  photographs, details of relationships and such like on a public website available for all to see. We know that our pages may be being studied at any time but we do not know if they are under surveillance at a particular moment of time. For all we know we may be being stalked by unsavoury characters. So why do people do this? Why do we willingly subject ourselves voluntarily to a system of surveillance. My guess is that it is our way of achieving fame just like our celebrity heros and heroins. These well known (or even less well known) personalities serve as role models. They too have Facebook sites. They too are surveilled by the media. So we follow their lead and place ourselves in the public domain. This boosts our self esteem. We feel like celebrities ourselves.

With regards to the growing desire for privacy, I think that this is a reaction against the undoubted fact that there is more and more surveillance of our lives and that we are being controlled by ‘Big Brother’. We want to see ourselves as free agents and so rid ourselves of unwanted systems of control.

The next task involves looking at the work of some video artists and to think about why many use themselves as the subject in their videos. I found some interesting content by an Austrian artist Pipilotti Rist. In her early work she featured as the subject in many of her video installations. Here is a Youtube link to one of her videos here

To be honest listening to interviews with the artist I believe that her appearance in her own work was for practical and economic reasons. Setting this aside thought I think there is another issue to consider. Placing someone in a video which will be shown in a gallery, is tantamount to placing the person under surveillance. The subject is under the control of the video producer and the controlling gaze of the viewer. One way to avoid this association is for the video producer to become the subject also.

The final task involved sourcing photographs which have come about as a result of looking at, observing and placing under surveillance.

First two which result from looking are from Garry Winogrand’s somewhat controversial book Women are Beautiful (Winogrand).  These are quickly taken photographs snapped by Winogrand in the street. They reflect the male gaze and objectify the women pictured. However, as they represent a fleeting moment on the street I feel they could only have come about as a result of a quick look.

From Women are Beautiful 1965 by Garry Winogrand

From Women are Beautiful 1965 by Garry Winogrand

Turning now to photographs which arose out of observing. The first of these is from Walker Evan’s Subway Photographs, in which Evans secretly photographed fellow passengers on the New York subway. This photograph was shown in the 2010 Tate Modern Exhibition  Exposed  voyeurism, surveillance and the camera” (Phillips). Evans would have been sitting opposite his subjects on the train observing them and in his own time decided who might be his best subject for the photograph.

Walker Evans Subway Portrait

The second photograph is a Brassai portrait of Picasso. Portraits by their nature seem to me to be a situation where the photographer has the time to observe and click the shutter at the moment of his/her choice.

Pablo Picasso by Brassai

The next photograph, which I feel arose from surveillance, is also from the Exposed exhibition. It is by a Japanese photographer Shizuka Yokomizo. She created a series of voyeuristic images. The approach was to send a stranger a letter asking them to stand at a window of their house at a prearranged date and time. She then took the photograph of them and disappeared without contact with the subject. There is clearly an element of surveillance in these photographs.

Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 1 1998

The final image is a collage of photographs from Sophie Calle. Calle is fascinated by the interface between our public lives and our private selves. This has led her to investigate patterns of behaviour the techniques of a private investigator, a psychologist, or a forensic scientist. Calle’s very first work involved following strangers around Paris (Calle).

Sophie Calle early work – surveillance of strangers in Paris

Winogrand G. (1975) Women are Beautiful  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Phillips S. (Ed.) (2010) “Exposed voyeurism, surveillance and the camera” London: Tate Publishing

Calle S. (2003)  Sophie Calle: M’as tu vue? – Did you see me? London: Prestel


Project The mirror phase

This project involves reviewing an essay by Jacquest Lacan on the ‘Mirror Phase’ and then:

  1. finding two surrealist paintings which might have echoes of the ‘Mirror Phase’ and
  2. two examples of how the contemporary media makes use of the idea.

Lacan and the Mirror Phase

Lacan is notoriously difficult to understand. Bur his work is highly influential. He was a follower of Freud and his work was originally founded on reinterpretation of Freud. Indeed his approach overcomes two key criticisms of Freud. One is that it is sexist: male centred. The other is that it is sexual: as if the unconscious centre of all we are is our sexuality, and only that. By re-framing Freud’s Oedipus story, Lacan addresses these two problems.

Lacan retains the idea that we are driven subconsciously by desire but in his terms this is a desire to experience what he calls La Reelle, raw reality. Lacan believed that we cannot experience reality directly. We perceive the world around us through language and images and all the limitations that this imposes. Lacan believed  that although we cannot know la réelle, in any way whatsoever, we have an obscure sense of it and its richness. We desire it. It is La desir.

Looking again at the Oedipal Complex, Freud represents it as a conflict, centred on sexuality, between mother and father. In Lacan, it is a conflict, located in désir, between the two things that we use to  describe the world: images (associated with the mother) and language (associated with the father).

For Lacan, we are “who we are” only in relation to other people. Our aims and desires are shaped by the desires of others, in interpersonal terms and in terms of social expectations and prohibitions. Our knowledge of the world comes to us by way of other people; the language we learn to speak prexists us, and to a great degree our thoughts conform to preestablished concepts and linguistic structures.

The ‘Mirror Phase’ is concerned with the formative exposure of the child to the images from the outside  world. These are characterised as the child seeing an image of itself in a mirror and recognising it as an image of itself, as a cohesive whole. Although the child recognises itself it also perceives the image as other, a form of idealised self or as Lacan puts it an Ideal-I. This is the beginning of what becomes a lifelong preoccupation with the idealised self image.

Surrealism and the Mirror Phase

This painting by Belgian painter Rene Magritte has echoes of the Mirror Phase for me.

Dangerous Liaisons René Magritte

A naked woman is holding a mirror which faces away from her. Her legs, hands and the top of her head are visible around the mirror. The mirror is reflecting the back of a women, which I assume to be the same woman. The parts of the woman’s body visible in the mirror image are the same as the parts of the woman holding the mirror which are obscured by the mirror. We would have course expected to see ourselves in the mirror. Is this painting suggesting that when we hold a mirror up to ourselves what we see is not ourselves but rather an idealised image…

The second painting is by Paul Delvaux and is called Mirror.

Mirror 1939 by Paul Delvaux

This shows a woman dressed in a long gown sitting on a stool looking into  a mirror. The room has a bare wooden floor and peeling wall paper. The mirror in contrast has a gilt frame and a crown on the top. In the mirror we see an image of a naked woman sitting on a stool with an idealised renaissance landscape in the background. This seems to me to be a clear reference to Lacan. Whilst the figure in the mirror is the same woman it is an idealised unattainable image of her. The contrast between clothed appearance in the room and her nakedness in the mirror might be a reference to unfulfilled sexual desire and the contrast between the bare room and the idealised garden a reference to a desire for a grander, richer life.

Contemporary Media

This is typical of what I was expecting to find in the advertising media.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall… 2009 Lanvin Ad Campaign

It shows a beautiful woman dressed in glamorous and expensive clothing, complete with the full range of accessories. She is looking into a mirror. She is sitting on an expensive looking chair and has her legs resting on a matching cushioned stool. Her bag is thrown carelessly on the stool. We only see the back of the real woman, so in a sense the real woman could represent anyone, and in particular the viewer of the ad. The vision in the mirror is one of great beauty, and I believe is intended to be a vision of what the viewer might expect to look like were she to buy and wear Lanvin clothing….

Mirrors also feature widely in album covers for popular music. The cover for the Ja Rule album The Mirror is typical.

Album Cover Ja Rule The Mirror

What you see is a representation of a mirror image of the artist/rapper. For the viewer it is intended to represent what they might see if they looked into a mirror, viz a rap star. Again it is appealing to the notion of the Ideal-I, someone we aspire to be.

Project Freud, Oedipus and castration

This project involves reading Freud’s passage The Dissolution of the Oedipal Complex and then using the arguments it presents

  1. to help understand Edvard Munch’s painting Ashes and,
  2. to seek out some images or picture postcards which show a dominatrix or simply a large woman and to annotate these with regard to Freud’s castration complex.

In summary, Freud’s work maintains that both men and women go through a formative period as very young children when they are attracted to their parent of the opposite sex and perceive the same sex parent as a rival – the so-called Oedipal Complex. This is named after the character in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex  who kills his father and marries his mother. For most children this phase is ‘dissolved’ or is put aside. Freud suggests that resolution of this complex is fundamental to our development and if it remains unresolved can result in various neuroses. At the heart of the motivation of a male child to give up their Oedipal Complex is the idea of Castration Anxiety. The boy gives up his desire for his mother because of the fear that were he not to do so the consequences would be his castration. This fear surfaces when a boy first becomes aware that women do not have a penis and assumes that a parent has been responsible for its removal. Freud also suggested that women also go through an Oedipal Complex phase and that it is generally discarded because  “…In her, far more than in the boy, these changes seem to be the result of upbringing and of intimidation from outside which threatens her with a loss of love.”  It is worth noting that Freud’s contention that because of her lack of a penis, the female “…feels this as a wrong done to her and as a ground for inferiority.” is highly controversial!

Munch – Ashes

Ashes. 1894. Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas. 120.5 x 141 cm.

Ashes  deals with a recurrant theme for Munch –  the problematic relationship between men and  women and the mysteries of  sexuality. It is a visual depiction of emotions with representational content secondary concern. The detail of the figures and landscape are suppressed. It shows a man and a woman in a barren landscape, with trees in the background and rocks, including one which look like a skull on the ground.

The woman is standing and stares out at the viewer. She is clutching her hair which cascades down over the man who is crouched at the bottom left of the painting. She has sad and despondent eyes. Her expression is empty, vacant. Despite this her complexion is colourful, almost bright.

The man is turned away from her with his head bowed. One of his hands rests on his head. His complexion is deadly pale. He appears powerless, without hope, downtrodden.

To the left smoke rises from  a tree. This is said to be symbolic of Munch’s pessimistic view of the relationship between the sexes.

The the woman’s white chemise is wide open revealing a red bodice suggesting that her innocence has been lost.  In contrast the man is dressed in dark clothing suggesting gloom and despondency. The painting uses colour symbolically – black for sorrow, white for innocence and red for passion.

The smoke seems to suggest that all that is left of the relationship between the man and the woman is ashes. Despite this the woman still exudes sexuality.

The work could be interpreted as a visual representation of the Oedipal Complex with the man’s sorrow representing the recognition of that the man’s desire for the woman (his mother) can never be fulfilled.

Munch lost his mother at a young age. It is said that he could not free himself from the association of sexual relationships with death. Perhaps the death occurred before Munch’s dissolution of the Oedipal Complex, leaving him unable  ever to set aside his desire for his mother. Her death meant that this desire could never be fulfilled, leaving him in an unresolved state of hopelessness and pessimism about relationships with the opposite sex.

The woman’s frontal stance, her open chemise showing her bare breast and her red bodice signifying passion suggest to me that the woman in the painting may have been unfaithful – perhaps this is a reference to his mother’s relationship with his father. The idea of a male child’s rivalry with his father for his mother’s attentions is a key aspect of the Oedipal Complex. The woman is depicted as open to sexual advances but not for those of the man crouching in the corner.

Postcards Annotation

I expected it to be easy to find relevant postcards through searching the internet. In fact I have found it quite difficult. I have resorted to using characters from comic books. My first character is a mysterious woman calling herself the “Red Queen” who appears in Marvel comic books.

Red Queen – dominatrix in X Men comic books by Marvel

She is simultaneously available, (scantily clad, volumptuous figure, open red lips,posed with hand on hip, red hair flowing onto her shoulders), and at the same time unattainable (mask, bodice clamped shut with buckles, whip in hand). This symbolism all points to the dilemma of the Oedipal Complex. The woman (mother) is loves me and appears available but in truth is not. The whip coloured in red is the threat which prohibits such a relationship. It symbolises the threat of castration. In case we are in any doubt about her intentions the words  ‘That’s right me….now scream worm!’ make her intentions absolutely clear.

The Black Widow is a character from the Ironman comic book series. This is a contemporary image of movie star Eliza Dushku playing the role.

Eliza Dushku as the Black Widow

This image is completely festooned with phallic symbols – the gun and numerous the towers,  which appear to come from the Kremlin. The Russian theme adds a cold war sense of menace to the scene. As does the Black Widow’s black costume and her enormous gun. The image has the same available/yet not available tension of the previous image. On balance though I read her pose to be threatening and again the symbolism seems to suggest that castration (or  loss of phallus) might be the nature of the threat.