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On the Observing of the Observers of the Observed (Observed)
February 8, 2013
By Steve Carlson

Lancaster, PA will never again see an exhibit like the one currently in the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin and Marshall College. Well, the folks at the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition get to see one like it all of the time, but as for the general public, our options to spy on people are somewhat limited. This show not only gives us that opportunity but also the opportunity be a part of a complex narrative.

Set within a purpose-built collection of rooms and hallways on the ground floor of the Museum (see this map for location on campus), On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, which runs through April 7 (artist reception Feb. 9 at 3:30 pm), is the work of British artist James Coupe and asks the viewer to see and be seen. Visitors don’t really have a choice, however, as 50 video cameras watch and record nearly every corner of the space.

Each room in the exhibit has five cameras that are suspended in a ring from the ceiling and capture a 360-degree panorama. Cameras are also present in the hallways. Banks of five monitors in each room play short clips – some of these are pre-recorded while others are taken as visitors move about the gallery. What the cameras record and what appears on the monitors is determined by algorithms unique to each room and designed to create different versions of the same event in an non-repetitive loop.

The rooms are configured to mimic those found in institutional settings and include a waiting room, a psychologist’s testing lab, a monitor-rich control room, a chapel and a screening room. Rings of cameras are also present in the museum director’s office and in a gallery classroom. Pre-recorded images from various locations on campus such as the dining hall and a dorm room have been integrated into the work. “Each of these spaces implies a different form of surveillance: psychological monitoring, faith in a God that watches us, cinema, waiting to be ‘seen,’ professional supervision, dining etiquette, etc.,” writes Coupe in his artist statement.

In the waiting room, visitors must wait to be “buzzed” into the space. After your entry (controlled and monitored), the choice is yours – you are free to move about the gallery and can take a test in the psychologist’s office (monitored), sit in a pew and enjoy a taped sermon by college chaplain Susan Minasian (monitored), get an overview of the space in the control room (monitored) or watch a film created from clips from all 50 cameras and set to text from Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1986 novella The Assignment (also monitored). The narrator of the film tells the viewer to “try not to be observed.” You can try, but it just isn’t possible.

In her sermon, Reverend Minasian explores the idea of a deity that is omniscient and omnipresent and asks her viewer, “How will surveillance of our lives, minds and hearts, make a difference?”

Maybe the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition and the folks in the “nation’s most closely watched small city” have an answer.

On the Observing the Observers of the Observers appears at the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin and Marshall College through April 7. The Museum is in the Steinman Campus Center just off of College Avenue in Lancaster, PA.