art projects
Waiting To Be Seen

by Johanna Gosse

Catalogue essay for the exhibition On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers
The Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin & Marshall College
Lancaster, PA
Jan 30 – April 7th, 2013

“…other people suffered as much from not being observed as he did, and […] they, too, felt meaningless unless they were being observed, and that this was the reason why they all observed and took snapshots and movies of each other, for fear of experiencing the meaninglessness of their existence in the face of a dispersing universe with billions of Milky Ways like our own, settled with countless of life-bearing but hopelessly remote and therefore isolated planets like our own, a cosmos filled with incessant pulsations of exploding and collapsing suns, leaving no one, except man himself, to pay any attention to man and thereby lend him meaning…”
– Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Assignment

Sit, and wait. Stand, and walk. Proceed down a corridor, and enter a room. Listen, and react. Watch, and be watched. These, and other, more and less subtle cues and directives provide the logic behind James Coupe’s On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers at The Phillips Museum of Art. Over the course of a six-week installation in winter 2012, the Rothman and Gibson Galleries were transformed into an enclosed theatre of observation, where anyone may enter and subsequently “become” the exhibition.

On the Observing is comprised of a network of rooms, some physical, some virtual, and many, somewhere in between. Certain rooms are located within the museum’s walls, while others are dispersed across the Franklin & Marshall campus, to be viewed remotely via multi-screen video feeds. Most rooms seem generic and interchangeable, yet each is assigned a specific function: the installation layout includes a waiting room, psychology testing room, director’s office, control room, screening room, chapel, classroom, and four corridors. Pre-recorded and live footage of locations from across the campus–a dining room, computer lab, holding cell, library reading area, and a dorm room—are also integrated into the ever-changing film that is shown at regular intervals in the screening room. This maze-like layering of real and virtual spaces creates a kind of visual echo chamber, where the events on-screen appear at once ordinary and routine, and yet uncanny, erratic, and modular: a seemingly infinite regress of people, places, and events.

Every room in the installation contains a curious feature: a ceiling-mounted steel pole hanging down to about shoulder-height, periscope-like. But, instead of offering a glimpse of what lies above the surface, these poles are actually watching you: affixed to the bottom of each is a cylindrical ring of high definition cameras that have been configured to perpetually monitor a 360-degree view of their surroundings. The captured footage is then shown on the adjoining five-panel screens, which display a panoramic yet spatially and temporally inconsistent video feed of each room and its visitors. Inconsistent, because computers process the video footage in real time, using facial recognition software to detect each visitor’s presence, and custom algorithms to determine the exact quantity of people and the duration for which their image will be visible on screen. Processed, recombined, displayed and then recycled, the video feeds exhibit a rotating circuit of selves, others, and vacant spaces—the effect is a paradoxical sense of delayed immediacy, oscillating between past and present, near and distant, familiar and strange.

By extending the scope of the observing gaze to the entire F&M campus, Coupe systematically blurs the distinction between the museum setting and the surrounding institutional spaces of the college, eroding the distinction between visitor and participant, viewer and viewed, voyeur and exhibitionist, ultimately rendering these categories ambiguous, if not totally obsolete. At first glance, the physical layout of the installation calls to mind Michel Foucault’s famous description of the panoptic penitentiary conceived by Enlightenment-era philosopher Jeremy Bentham, wherein the prisoner’s cells resembled “so many small theatres.” Yet, instead of erecting a centralized panoptic apparatus from which an all-seeing yet unseen eye can remotely survey a panoramic array of illuminated, stage-like compartments, the architectural and phenomenological experience of Coupe’s installation is de-centralized, dispersed, labyrinthine—more mise-en-abyme than mise-en-scène. Here, no one can remain “unseen,” including the artist himself, whose image often resurfaces in the video feeds: a reminder that despite his physical absence, in virtual space, the artist is always present.

This complex configuration of spaces, people, and screens is extended even further through its intensely self-reflexive and site-specific presentation. To begin, the museum setting is a space designed for looking—not strictly at art and artifacts, but often, at other people. Within Coupe’s installation, these dual attractions are fused into a total exhibitionist spectacle, wherein the viewer constitutes the viewed. And yet, just as often, this voyeuristic pleasure is denied: algorithmic code, rather than actual human presence, is what ultimately determines when people are shown on screen. Thus, occupied rooms will frequently appear unoccupied on-screen, and vice versa; such discrepancies threaten to foreclose the possibility of full narcissistic satisfaction via self-observation.

Furthermore, as a college museum, The Phillips’s institutional mission is part of the broader educational aims of the small liberal arts college that it calls home. Coupe reflects on this educational context by incorporating footage from remotely-monitored spaces across the campus; brought together, these videos comprise a panoramic portrait of everyday life on a campus that is itself monitored around-the-clock by an elaborate network of private, closed-circuit security cameras, just as most large institutions in the United States are today. Furthermore, he includes two rooms within the installation that directly invoke what he terms the “educational gaze”: the classroom and the psychology testing room, which features a sound and video recording of a basic psychological experiment, the Asch conformity test, administered by F&M Psychology professor, John Campbell. Finally, beyond its exhibitionary and pedagogical functions, the museum also functions as a sanctuary, reserved for quiet reflection and contemplation, a kind of temple to the wonders of human culture (rather than the mysterious workings of the divine). In a winking nod to the museum’s semi-sacral connotations, Coupe temporarily de-secularizes the galleries by transforming one room into a full-fledged chapel, outfitted with lectern, pews, and a looped recording of the college’s actual chaplain, Rev. Susan Minasian, delivering a non-denominational sermon to a gathering of seemingly rapt (and algorithmically variable) congregants.

In transforming not just the museum, but the entire F&M campus into an installation site, Coupe takes advantage of an enclosed “set” and captive population of actors and viewers, observers and observed. The project assumes broader site-specific implications due to the fact that Lancaster, Pennsylvania has recently garnered national attention as the most “surveilled” city in the United States. With a network of over 165 CCTV cameras and about 54,000 residents, Lancaster City has earned the dubious distinction of having more cameras per capita than any other city in the nation. Coupe’s installation thus contains multiple, interlocking levels of site-specificity—engaging the museum, the college campus, and the urban environment—each of which are routinely surveilled by a network of closed circuit security cameras. By raising questions about the ubiquity of surveillance in our private and public lives, as well as the paradoxes of living and working in a “surveillance society,” Coupe’s installation uses its platform within the “closed set” of the college campus in order to launch a larger, more public, and essentially open system—incorporating not only museum visitors, but indirectly, the entire campus population, and the surrounding urban environment.

The exhibition’s title, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, is taken from the subtitle of Der Auftrag or The Assignment, a German-language mystery novella written by the Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1986. Dürrenmatt’s story is a “surveillance thriller” about a filmmaker who is hired to make a documentary about the mysterious circumstances surrounding a woman’s gruesome murder in an unnamed North African country. Before long, the filmmaker realizes that she, too, is under constant surveillance, just like the murdered woman was before her death. Although it is ostensibly framed as a murder mystery, the subject of The Assignment is, in fact, the problem of constant observation, the hazards and pleasures of watching and being watched, or, to modify a phrase of Freud’s, what we might call “the gaze and its vicissitudes.”

To visit On the Observing is to the assume the role of a character in Dürrenmatt’s story: the obsessive voyeur, psychiatrist Otto von Lambert, and the unintentional exhibitionist, his wife, Tina, who flees to North Africa to escape her husband’s analytical gaze; the ambitious filmmaker, F., who yearns to make a film of the entire world “by combining random scenes into a whole;” Polypheme, the deranged inhabitant of an abandoned underground surveillance bunker where all human personnel have long been replaced by computers; and finally, the philosopher, through whom Dürrenmatt proposes a series of logical hypotheses on the central role of surveillance in religion, war, modernity, and all human relationships. Coupe borrowed the philosopher’s musings, and converted them into imperative directions, such as “Feel disrespected,” or “Be tormented by the need to be seen;” he then used the text as subtitles in the algorithmic film shown in the screening room. On the soundtrack, a woman’s voice recites the subtitles in the gentle yet authoritative tone of a self-help manual or an automated recording; her recurrent acoustic presence in the galleries is at once soothing and eerie, a warm bath of sound that threatens to overtake.

As the first in a four-part series of works called Surveillance Suite, which Coupe will exhibit throughout 2013, On the Observing questions the commonly held view that surveillance operates strictly as a mechanism of social control. Without minimizing the repressive and often pernicious effects of surveillance, Coupe challenges us to consider the ways that we actually invite and desire observation as a means to social recognition, validation, and basic human connection. Coupe is thus less interested in the disciplinary effects of surveillance than with how these technologies of observation have become a kind of second nature, and how we, as both subjects and objects of surveillance, have become virtuosic practitioners of those same techniques and technologies that monitor and regulate our everyday lives.

Here, and in previous projects, Coupe reflects on the role of observation in the digital age, by considering how new technologies might both respond to and produce certain social behaviors and desires. In Coupe’s own words: “In order to make art that can reveal new aspects of ourselves, we cannot continue to paint pictures of reality, or simply appropriate its existing signifiers. Rather, we must start authoring the real, working directly with our society’s vast data-driven systems rather than simply representing them via inferior media.” Preferring direct “authorship” of the real to a critical representation of it, Coupe distinguishes himself from other contemporary artists who regard surveillance as a remote, disembodied “eye-of-power” that monitors us from above, or, put simply, as a disciplinary apparatus.

Situated at the intersection of the virtual, the fictional, and the real, Coupe’s practice examines the ways that contemporary modes of surveillance mobilize both self-observation and mutual observation, making voyeur-exhibitionists of us all, a breakdown in the classic scopophiliac dialectic. But, rather than subjecting surveillance to a systematic ideological critique in the manner of tactical media activists, Coupe’s interests lie in exploring how surveillance provides a metaphor for the conditions of everyday life in the digital age.

Coupe’s work affirms the literary insights of Dürrenmatt, who regarded surveillance not just as a threat to privacy, but as constitutive of the modern human condition, writing that: “A very suitable definition of contemporary man might be that he is man under observation.” In as much as surveillance inspires anxiety and paranoia, it is also utterly routine, and an increasingly popular strategy for lending meaning to our daily lives—with each status update, selfie, check-in, “like,” and tweet we project into the digital ether. Observation, Dürrenmatt argues, lends meaning and purpose to our activities; and in turn, to be completely unobserved would make one feel insignificant, alone, adrift, “staggering along in the mad hope of somehow finding someone to be observed by somewhere.” Dürrenmatt went so far as to suggest that all the major geopolitical conflicts of his day—the nuclear arms race, clashes of religious fundamentalisms, terrorist violence—could be traced back to the intrinsic human desire to be watched by a higher power—whether the nation-state, a rival global superpower, or God himself. Although The Assignment was written in 1986, at the dawn of the so-called digital age, Dürrenmatt’s book anticipated many of the ethical, political, and philosophical challenges that accompany our own increasingly mediated and monitored lives, while also diagnosing the mix of paranoia and dependency that exemplifies contemporary attitudes to what we call “surveillance society.” Coupe’s surveillant art works recuperate Dürrenmatt’s theories for today’s digital era, one characterized by scandalous “leaks” and viral videos, perpetual monitoring and constant over-sharing, a time when the world is watching like never before.