[-empyre-] Week two: our guests on empyre

Jon Thomson j.thomson at ucl.ac.uk
Mon Jan 17 10:09:30 EST 2011

Dear Empyre,

Thank you Marc, Christina and everyone for a wonderfully wide-ranging stomp around the topics laid out by Simon a week ago, and to Simon for inviting us to contribute to this discussion.  In the light of the last few posts, we'll begin at least, by trying to say something about our own engagement with the Netopticon, or rather on what basis it connects to and recurs in our art work --often indirectly so, but often by considering the Netopticon as an environmental factor we inhabit and deal with everyday, as supposed to a system we can scrutinise entirely objectively.

What strikes us about the enduring power of the Panopticon as conceived by Bentham is how an architectural design for a prison building reaches so far into our own individual and collective imaginations.  Bentham's concepts and ideas embodied in the Panopticon's design seem made all the more powerful and concrete by their architectural manifestation, and when identified or enacted in the physical or virtual world, it is the effects these kinds of structures, systems and architectures have on our behaviour, that so interests us as artists, not least because of the insidious and often invisible power they can exert on us all.  

So to refer to Simon's introduction a week ago, we would echo Shoshan when he describes, "how the social technologies that characterise Web 2.0 facilitate the emergence of the internet as a Panoptic space, where individuals are complicit in their own surveillance." But rather than it being the technologies at large, we tend to think of it being more of a design issue: for us, it's the nature of the template structures prevalent in web 2.0 platforms, and the intentions they might often belie, that quietly habituate users into complicity.  

This kind of manipulation, whatever its exact provenance, may seem pretty clear and obvious to some, but there are so many online users, producers and prosumers now, who see the internet itself as synonymous with Facebook, twitter, YouTube and some shopping opportunities (whether paying for the goods or not) and, who barely contemplate space beyond the confines of this restrictive network inside the network.  The limits of this particular network inside the network may be blurred and elastic, but as more and more people operate more and more exclusively within its confines, they build their own prison walls, made all the more poignant right now, because they are almost exclusively self-imposed.

A few weeks ago we watched the very excellent film, 'The Lives of Others' (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405094/) and were amazed how similar the minutely detailed surveillance logs written by the Stazi officers in former East Germany are to a succession of voluntarily made tweets or fb status updates about catching a bus, going to the theatre or eating pasta for dinner etc., reminding us that we're not just complicit in our own surveillance online, but that we're actually self-surveilling unbidden, as if in a constant parade around Bruce Nauman's,  'Going around the corner piece' (http://www.acmi.net.au/pompidou_bruce_nauman.htm).

As artists we are certainly not immune to these architectures and we've already tentatively suggested no-one is  --to borrow from anthropology, we think of ourselves more as participant observers inhabiting and exploring the terrain and trying to reveal it to ourselves or report back what we find.  As Heidi May kindly mentioned last week, it might simply be the physical manifestation of social networking traffic in our, 'London Wall' (http://www.thomson-craighead.net/docs/londonwall.html), where we manually typeset hundreds of geo-tagged tweets and fly post them into a nearby public space.  Or our misuse of pre-existing (surveillance) webcams to make a global sundial called Horizon (http://www.thomson-craighead.net/docs/horizon.html).  We've also been exploring the treacherous Panoptic illusion of interfaces like Google Earth in our desktop documentary called A short film about War (http://www.thomson-craighead.net/docs/warfilm.html) where we try and look at how information is distorted by the very act of online mediation.  In all of these cases and more, we are trying to work with what's out there already (tools, content, contexts) and to try and figure out what it means to have access to and inhabit this relatively new globally networked virtual public space (Netopticon and all), where every networked computer screen is in part, a one way mirror onto the lingering traces and mediations of you, us, and them.

thanks and best wishes,

Jon & Alison

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