By Katažyna Jankovska
The power of the gaze manifests itself through surveillance. However, this type of power has its ground not so much in an observer, but rather in certain tools of observation that establish hierarchical divisions and become the most effective form of discipline and control. In his photography project “Surveillance” (2016–2018), Valentyn Odnoviun refers to the notion of the gaze as a method of empowering and disempowering through one aptly chosen, universal architectural detail — the observation hole. This tool — which redistributes power by drawing that divisive line between the observer and the observed — turns one side into an object of observation, and provides power and supremacy to the other. But here, it no longer works for its original purpose — no one looks through these spyholes anymore, and even if one were to, it is impossible to see anything. While looking at photographs of observation holes magnified against a solid background, a variety of interpretations and images come to mind. One can surrender to the romantic idea of looking through the glass of a telescope or microscope, observing distant planets, a window overgrown with frost or mold, cluttered cobwebs or the otherworldliness of humble cell culture samples.
To comprehend the actual power of surveillance, the artist transforms this tool of observation into an object of observation itself and, in doing this, questions the controlling gaze and oppression forces which take on ever new meanings and forms.
Michel Foucault, in his seminal work "Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of Prison" (1975), discusses how disciplinary power stems from hierarchical observation. In earlier days, enclosure and confinement were the main methods of surveillance; Foucault calls the prison the most striking artifact of a disciplinary society, a system-operation perfected for surveillance and control. As such, when Odnoviun presents a collection of enlarged and uniformly framed photographs of spyholes in former Eastern European political prisons, we adopt the very lens through which repressive KGB and Stasi prison supervisors spied upon political prisoners in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland and Germany.
The close-ups of the prison cell door spyholes reminisce the universal symbol of an omnipotent all-seeing eye, becoming a leftover trace of repressive supervision.
However, the reliance on this architectural detail complicates the possibility of constant control. And further to separating the observer from the observed, the spyhole creates a connection between the two: a visual channel of communication. This small thoroughfare forces the viewer to get closer to what he is observing. It would seem that to observe is not without proximate risk — to learn the object of observation begets the very real danger of identifying with it.
To prevent against this problem, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century created a prototype of an ideal prison, a prescient work of architecture called the panopticon. Central to it is an observation tower placed within a ring-shaped building of prison cells, which allows all prisoners to be observed by a single security guard, yet unseen by the prisoners. But more than just an architectural structure, Foucault suggests that the genius of the panopticon is vested in its self-surveilling effects.
The haunting by an invisible supervisor renders physical coercion and overt observation or communication meaningless, for as the gaze of surveillance is turned in upon oneself, its ultimate results are self-regulation and self-discipline.
Emergence of new technologies would later alter the nature of surveillance, but still resound the same principles. In George’s Orwell dystopian novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949), the city of London uncannily resembles the architecture of Bentham’s panopticon. In it, the citizens are presided over by a watchful government; telescreens installed in every apartment function as an extension of the panoptic mechanism, which enables the government to extend its reach into their homes.
Odnoviun’s photographs remind us that we do not have to be imprisoned in order to be observed and controlled. We are coerced by means of observation. Today, the panopticon has moved beyond the prisons and takes on a more decentralized and less tangible form. It is no longer the watchtower in the center of a circular prison that observes but a complex modern digital surveillance system comprising CCTV surveillance cameras and algorithms. Physical surveillance has been replaced with personal data harvesting — every human step, every button pressed, is tracked. With the deconstruction of the watchtower, it grows easier to forget (or deny) that we are under observation. The all-seeing eye of the system has now permeated every aspect of our everyday life, with striking likeness to Orwell’s dystopian scenario.
The novel’s famed slogan "Big Brother is watching you" may appear more like "Big Brother is watching out for you", but irrespective of this softened mandate, the fact stands that he is still watching.
The Big Brothers became law enforcement agencies, telecom and commercial companies licensed by the state to track and monitor citizens, establishing full, global oversight.
To describe this state of affairs, American sociologist Shoshana Zuboff has recently coined the term "surveillance capitalism" to refer to a profit-generating economic model in which consumer data becomes free, raw material to be milked for market value. Importantly, this is a mechanism through which power is deindividualized — we are monitored, but we do not know by whom. We are controlled, but we do not experience direct violence. The totalitarian Big Brother mutates into The Big Other; the ubiquitous anonymous power that transforms the gaze mode into a new form of oppression is the realization of a digital panopticon.
The main difference between the traditional panopticon and the modern panoptic society, is that in Bentham’s vision, subjects do not know when they are being watched, but in the modern panopticon, the subjects are not even aware of it. The self-surveilling habit may ease, but this gives way to an insidious purpose: to allow subjects to forget that they are under surveillance at all. The experience of self-awareness that the watchful eye arouses is taken away, but it must be emphasized that the personal liberty afforded in turn is nothing more than a persuasive fiction.
Today we bear witness to an extraordinary situation. The pandemic that has shaken the world has highlighted, in part, the mass surveillance system which justifies its existence by promising a solution, or at least an aid, to an equally invisible threat.
The cooperation between government and corporations allow for an unprecedented access to data under the guise of virus control, which goes under-questioned in spite of its violation to fundamental civil human rights. To these ends, taking a plague-stricken town as his example, Michel Foucault wrote: "The Plague gave rise to disciplinary projects. Rather than a massive, binary division between one set of people and another, it called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and ramification of power". Today’s world becomes the totalitarian utopia of flawless, airtight governance — "this enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place."
The screen we look at every day operates just like the cell door spyhole, which remains the prisoner's only way to glean a seemingly free world beyond — one which is, in fact, just as restricted, dictated by the authoritative power. The abstract quality of Valentyn’s body of work creates an illusion, deceiving the viewer about what is actually seen, or can be seen.
The illusion of free thought supported by persuasive imagery reflects the paradox of our relationship with the screen.
Visuality is a trap. In tracking our digital devices, not only is our data collected, but by its very analysis, it is re-deployed to shape what we see and edit out what we don’t see. We are exposed to content generated by algorithms that cultivate our desires before we even come to be aware of them. In this way, we are doubly isolated — both physically and, at the same time, enclosed in microcosms of generated social networks. While looking at Valentyn’s photographs, one might similarly succumb to the illusion that obscures the narrowness of the visible perspective: for a moment you forget that you see only a small part of an area, a limited opening in the door, only as much space as is left for your gaze.
While at this moment looking through your screen at the rhythmically repeating round shapes of the spyholes, your gaze bounces back and forth with each photo, never quite penetrating the glass. The gaze is returned to its observer, an unsettling situation of "seeing oneself seeing oneself". It upsets the illusion that the viewer's gaze holds the power. This self-reflexive look does not allow us to comfortably define our position: which side one is on — the observer or the observed? How can we be sure that we are not the object of surveillance ourselves?