Jan 19, 2023 Art
Close your eyes. Imagine a tower with a 360-degree view. Now imagine a circle of multi-storey prison cells in a ring around the tower, positioned so the guard up in the tower can see the prisoners and their cells at any time, but the prisoners in their cells can’t see the guard, so never know when they’re being watched. This structure, conceived by 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is called the panopticon.
The power of the panopticon relies not on constant surveillance by many guards, but on the potential surveillance by one. The prisoners, the theory goes, will follow the rules not because they are definitely being watched at all times, but because they might be at any time. Through constant potential surveillance, Bentham believed, the behaviours of all groups of society could change — whether towards preserving health, invigorating industry or creating a moral society.
French philosopher Michel Foucault drew on the panopticon for his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, describing the construct as a “laboratory of power”. Foucault removed the metaphor from its prison context, expanding it to become a “model of functioning” in the world at large, which can be used to define everyday power relations. Being conscious of one’s permanent visibility “assures the automatic functioning of power”.
There is no truer contemporary realisation of Foucault’s panopticon than the UK reality show Love Island. After enduring a rant from me about why there is currently an air of boredom in Auckland’s visual arts (which was not a critique of any artist or exhibition, but a read of the vibe, which from my perspective includes a minimised appetite for risk, a culture of caution and the irrelevance of our city’s galleries in wider cultural terms), friend and curator Ioana Gordon-Smith referred me to Love Island: A Flirtation with Surveillance, a lecture by YouTube essayist Broey Deschanel. By the end of the lecture I was convinced that Love Island and the panopticon can shed a lot of light on our current arts moment.
The premise of Love Island is simple: a bunch of incredibly good-looking people (who are called “Islanders”) enter a villa in Mallorca, Spain, and between lounging around in their swimwear they complete tasks and couple up with each other in the hopes of finding a “genuine connection”. Each week, one or more of the Islanders gets voted off the show, until one couple remains at the end and leaves £50,000 richer.
The public observes the Islanders through more than 70 cameras and innumerable microphones. Every move is captured, but we see only a small portion of what is filmed. As in the panopticon, it is not that the contestants (the prisoners) think that we (the guard in the tower) will see everything that happens, but that they know we might see anything that happens, which, over time, has resulted in increased self-discipline and paranoia.
In earlier seasons, contestants had fewer inhibitions. They engaged more openly in sex, fighting and strategising — all behaviours that were condemned by viewers. This behaviour led to participants being less popular, and therefore less likely to win, but it also had real-world consequences after they left. Those consequences have included intense social media scrutiny (more notably for women), revenge porn attacks, and ensuing mental health issues. Second-season contestant Zara Holland was ‘decrowned’ and stripped of her Miss Great Britain title after scenes of her having sex with another Islander (under the covers) were aired. Even more concerning are the three suicides connected to the show, including two contestants — season two’s Sophie Gradon and season three’s Mike Thalassitis — and the host of the first five seasons, Caroline Flack. The most recent season of Love Island drew more than 781 complaints in a space of four weeks, which included concerns about bullying and contestants’ wellbeing and mental health. Two contestants let the season voluntarily, saying that they just weren’t feeling themselves.
Other contestants, as Deschanel argues, attempt to evade the public disapproval that previous contestants suffered by regulating their behaviour in advance. In the language of the panopticon: self-regulation is the disciplinary power of surveillance at work. I suggest that ‘self-regulation’ here is self-preservation — possibly even an act of self-care — which will minimise further social disciplining after contestants leave for the ‘outside world’. Unfortunately for viewers, however, self-regulation as a way of minimising risk creates boring TV. Deschanel concludes that this “blandness” is the result of “greater self-care”.
So, what does Love Island — a show which pulls on the narcissistic tendencies of the UK’s beautiful and fame-hungry young — have to do with art in Auckland? Those of us who exist far outside the villa may feel we don’t need to enter a prison of surveillance by way of a Mallorca mansion lined with cameras, because we already live in one. Love Island offers a tidy illustration of the surveillance society we already exist within. Social media is a digital panopticon wherein we are both watched and watching all the time — both the surveillance guards and the surveilled prisoners. As journalist and author Natasha Lennard contends, “surveillance is a condition of social life”.
One place this control can be seen is in the collective accountability of those under surveillance (i.e., all of us). Collective accountability has been an increasingly important social mechanism for the past 10 years or so. With the help of social media and increased online publishing, we all now have platforms inbuilt to our phones and laptops. Gendered violence was called out through MeToo. Our awareness of racial violence has also increased — largely thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and the increased ability of the citizenry to surveil police. Social media platforms were claimed by those who had long gone without, and embedded within those platforms were instantaneous audiences. Abuses of power and cultural offences which previously would have gone untouched and undiscussed were called out and acknowledged. Suddenly, we were all very aware of power — who had it, who didn’t and who deserved it.
The power of the social media panopticon and its surveillance meant that social power was deregulated; it is held now by the collective rather than by certain individuals born into various privileges. This ability to hold each other to account has been important in restoring power imbalances. When an individual does something to upset the collective, or create collective upset, they can be disciplined. Basically, people get called out (or sometimes even ‘cancelled’, a longer-term rebuke) by the always-watching collective. As a consequence, to avoid the discipline and social regulation of the collective we have, like the prisoners in the panopticon and the contestants in the villa, also become experts in self-regulation. This protects us from social buffeting and makes us think more about the feelings, rights and perspectives of others before we speak, allowing the previously marginalised a less-unpleasant time in the public sphere. But does it also make us blander, both captured and policing? As Rob Horning wrote for The New Inquiry, “We become complicit in surveillance’s productivity, tracking ourselves and others, recognizing each other within spaces of capture. We want to be seen and want to control how we are seen, but we accept that one can come only at the expense of the other.”
In art criticism, these digital forces created a deregulation of the role of the critic. The power of the individual critic was shaken. Instead, there was a collective force at play, with priorities different to the traditional ones espoused by the critical lone ranger — moralistic rather than aesthetic. Not only that, but there was less reliance on traditional publishing pathways; you didn’t need editors’ approval or institutional support, especially not when you could just fi re out some tweets or start a blog.
It was a time of righting many historical and systemic wrongs; getting around critical gatekeeping was part of that. We were all the richer for it, too — finally there seemed to be a plethora of perspectives in public forums. You knew social media critics had become important when tweets and Facebook posts were cited in news articles and more traditional reviews, and when Twitter was the first port of call for news and responses to it.
I thrived in this environment. Twitter in the mid2010s was a way to find my people, sink my teeth into critical discourse, and have my say. I jumped at the opportunity to critique work by white dudes, serial appropriators, people whose politics were, at best, rocky. Anyone who had more social power than I had was fair game. The very necessary acknowledgement of various power structures created a particular culture of critique, which focused more on the social context and the social power of the individual than on the work itself. And that act of critique through social media was often a collective act.
But at some stage we found ourselves in the situation we are now, where no critique is possible without entering some kind of Oppression Olympics, where the only people able to critique any given artwork are those with less systemic power. That’s because those who face more oppression are safer from accusations that they’re punching down, that a work is not ‘for’ them, or that they’re perpetuating an -ism of some kind. I get the logic. Some things are just too important to society at large, and to the righting of longstanding wrongs, to be critiqued by mere individuals. As New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris notes, some things feel too rare to dislike. “Being morally good superseded any imperative for it to be creatively better”, he commented in 2018 about a TV comedy by a Black woman creator. “This shit in priorities”, Morris went on, “comes with moral side effects, and the side effects are scaring people — smart, opinionated people; not just white men — from saying the wrong thing.” As he points out, in some instances — namely when the artist belongs to an underrepresented identity — who and what a work represents is more important than whether a work is successful for the individual viewer; that argument becomes a “luxury”.
Over time, the marginalised voices rebalancing previous landscapes and fighting previous censorships became the ones in charge. As Morris says, “for very different reasons, the kinds of people who used to be subject to censorship are now the purveyors of a not-dissimilar silencing. Something generational has shifted, even among the cool kids and artsy-fartsies. Members of the old anti-censorship brigades now feel they have to censor themselves.” This is the panopticon at work. The result, according to Morris, is safer art (and a tepid surrounding discourse) that no longer provokes, disturbs or shocks. “It gives us culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism. This might indeed be a kind of social justice. But it also robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art. It validates life while making work and conversations about that work kind of dull.” In this instance, critical conversations prioritise acknowledging representation over craft, rather than holding them in tandem, to the detriment of art itself.
Morris’s conclusions on the dullness of art conversations in the United States mirror Deschanel’s analysis of the blandness in Love Island. The scrutiny and surveillance made possible by increased visibility — whether that’s willingly walking into a reality show, or being on social media, or merely existing in public — have created a culture of caution. We all willingly self-regulate our ideas, our speech, our art and our public criticism of that art.
The shift from criticism as an exercise of sovereign power to critique as a collective and moralistic act now often includes collective critique of any criticism and its individual critic. So not only are artists and curators self-regulating to minimise fallout from possible ‘missteps’ in their work, but critics are self-regulating to minimise potential fallout from their criticism — if they’re doing any criticism at all. This regulation hasn’t always been a bad thing, to the extent that hushing up loud and established voices allows space for new voices and perspectives, but has it dried up too many public critical conversations? We are now so disciplined by surveillance of our words (and our surveillance of others’) that we feel we can’t say anything if it is not celebratory, unless it is explicitly about the work of those with more power than we have. There seems to be no space for work or for thinking which exists in between, which basks in its own complexity and unassuredness.
I’ve personally felt the force of this surveillance. As someone who started out believing intrinsically in the purpose of criticism and the value of difficult conversations, I’ve become safer in my writing. When I talk to other critics and reviewers in this city, we oten note a shared consideration about whether certain critical discussions are worth the potential emotional fallout. These decisions can be understood as a mode both of self-regulation, which results in less criticism (and less feedback for the artists), and of self-care, perhaps offering a better mental state to critic and artists.
This new culture of caution — or, more bluntly, sense of fear — is not just limited to critics writing criticism. There is a pervasive fear in the art world of getting things wrong, of speaking or moving outside of one’s lane, of getting called out or even cancelled. And the result of this fear is a hesitancy that makes society safer but also makes it more boring. In Auckland, I think about the white fragility that rendered spaces like Artspace Aotearoa so caught up in their own angst and decolonising missions that they became culturally irrelevant. I think about the landmark shows, plays and films by Māori, Pacifi c, Asian and Black creatives that will receive only empty praise and not substantial critical attention, because they are the ‘first’ shows of their kind and thus un-critique-able. Most of all, I think of the artists who are hungry for challenging conversations about their work, because they want to get better, but who won’t receive a response other than descriptive summaries or personal essays using their work as a starting point. Rather than remaining here, starved of critical conversation, people leave the country to find it.
The result is an arts sector that repeats itself over and over again, retracing tired conversations around institutional racism, appropriation and representation in which some people get slapped on the wrists and others become exhausted, only for the conversation to happen all over again later. Those conversations are of course important, but being stuck in this cycle has let a collective sense of excitement out of the balloon. Instead, we have siloed making practices that are just a bit tepid. I’m not suggesting we return to the tired model of provocation vis-à-vis the current Gilbert & George exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery. But I’d like to see us hop off the merry-go-round and push forward towards something harder, newer, more challenging and regenerative. As usual, I have aspirations but few solutions.
We are all complicit in the pressure of the panopticon, regulating ourselves and helping to ensure the regulation of others. But here is where I get unstuck. If the panopticon gaze is the watchful eye of the collective, and we are all complicit in propping up its power, is that a bad thing? Self-regulation of behaviour seems to slowly make us less racist, less homophobic, less sexist, less ableist, and certainly improves life for those previously subjected to these and other -isms. The collective attempt that lies beneath this culture of caution is a good thing. A culture which forces us to self-educate and think before we speak, a culture which is conscious of mental health and burnout, is also a culture that makes for better people. But it doesn’t make us better artists. It doesn’t make us better critics. If the critical conversation is dead, and replaced by self-regulation and safety, are we better or worse off?