By Richard Haden
The concept of the Panopticon was first developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), as an attempt to develop and build universal models for prisons, workhouses, mental asylums and schools based on the design of Russian factories that would minimize the number of supervisors required. Michel Foucault (1926-1984), later developed Panopticon theory as an ideal architectural metaphor for defining power relations in the everyday life of its citizens.
Modern social control underlies the principle of Panopticon order–through the surveillance of inmates, workers, patients, pupils, shoppers, students, tourists, culture producers and practitioners, academics, or any individual within view of the panoptic eye. Unlike total Orwellian surveillance, modern surveillance is moderated. The key to its effectiveness is the uncertainty of surveillance leading each individual to conform, thus causing each individual to become their own overseer. The constant existential threat of an all seeing eye would psychologically become an internalized inner reality of self policing.
This evening began by parking several blocks away from the Design District to avoid sparse parking and valet issues. We then walked toward the Design District through an amicable working class neighborhood awash with shades of colorful grey. Then the three of us crossed the commercial district running north and south on NW 2nd Ave in front of a used tire shop where its owner greeted us with a friendly nod. Then after accelerating our step, to cross Miami Ave, between passing cars, I stumbled into dérive* mode, (*a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences). The mood quickly changed–for we had arrived at the less than amicable, Miami’s “Design District,” a wannabe east coast simulacrum of Rodeo Drive.
Strolling down NE 41st street without the pretension of a boutique-savoring dandy, I quickly became aware of the ubiquitous nature of power precipitating in proximity before my destination. We are a couple of blocks short of arriving at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA) when an uncanny presence of police, private security and suits, and their surveilling gazes, makes little effort to actually guard the surrounding streets and alleyways. This brazen sign of such ubiquitous disciplining power, on stage here in the Design District (certainly not limited to this District, but perhaps better dressed), illuminates the obvious: So many people today, who frequent such luxuriant urban abundance seem not to be just oblivious to being under surveillance but take it for granted–desire it even. For this socialized docility gazes back no longer at its real observer, but gazes inwards, towards the self, and towards others as if in a perpetual state of solipsism, soliloquizing,“I am the only mind which exists.” From whence came the formation of an expanding disciplinary society–from which emerged and expanded ad nauseam from enclosed institutional disciplines, beyond walls to an infinite manifestation of “panopticism” [or if you prefer an alternative narrative, this evening’s mass surveillance was performed as an obvious public display of elite aestheticized paranoia...]
(Most images courtesy of ICA Miami).
The point of my trip to the ICA is to bear witness and take in the vibe of GUCCIVUITTON’s opening retrospective/ survey/ temporary “Grand Opening” art sale at its temporary, relocated/dislocated destination, just 2.6 miles away from its brick and mortar address, in uptown Little Haiti. Once we arrived at the official gate to the ICA, I am greeted by evermore ginned up security farce, dressed in black and fenced off by a black velvet rope, through which no one can pass until passing the entry list test (contradicting the press announcement that “opening night” is open to the public). Ah, but what am I thinking, such a poignant black clad suit and velvet rope thing, must have been part of a performative ruse–a wily subterfuge that precedes the wry witted irony unfolding inside this club, while cheeky winking undertones, inspired by portmanteau re-branding bathed the affair in a pretentious milieu, challenges the authenticity of authorship. Which means: GUCCIVUITTON has a sale going down.
Prior to arriving, I read GUCCIVUITTON’s press release, it states: “for the past two years, the artist run space has staked out a unique position that meditates on the rich history of artist-run galleries while presenting content that reflects authentic regional material and vernacular culture. The exhibition at ICA Miami demonstrates the collective’s interests in challenging notions of authorship, the traditional role of the artist and the value accorded to institutional structures.”
“Within ICA Miami’s Atrium Gallery, the artists are creating a four-story salesroom with customized storage racks, designed in collaboration with Jonathan Gonzalez, principal of the design firm Office GA. These racks are the primary aesthetic feature of the installation and speak to the artists’ ongoing interest in equalizing fine art, folk art, and design. Within the racks, unsold works are hung and arranged by scale and medium to emphasize their commodity status, and to suggest questions of value inherent to a gallery or museum. Works are available until sold, and any visitor can additionally function as a dealer, selling inventory to a collector.”
I enter, with a bleached out yellow arm band fastened to my right wrist signifying I passed security. I start wandering about while looking for the correlation between the press release and the site to where the retrospective is situated—I want to get at the heart of this exhibition, to see if this installation, by extension, at its temporary annexed relocation is ill-fated, futile, faltering, pointless, fallen short, a cliche, so ten years ago, successful in intent, or by critical subterfuge rebrands the ICA, or operates as a clever fifth column jab, ridiculing power from within its own institution? (Personally, I am hoping for the latter two.)
So to begin, I have the press filter loaded and firing in my synapses–for both paragraphs of the press release are quite a lot to think about. As well, the first half is the galleries mission. And since I have already seen the artist run gallery at its Little Haiti address succeed in its mission, more or less, many times, I will ignore the first half of the press release. Because the historicity of GUCCIVUITTON is not the point of my interrogation/ investigation here.
However the second paragraph of the press release has more to do with the point of this article. And from my visit, it appears to me and a few others, that the artist run gallery / GUCCIVUITTON has succeeded in turning the ICA into nothing less than a temporary contemporary version of a Panopticon, whether they know it or not. This exhibition succeeds to serve as a metaphor for a contemporary disciplinary society, in whose control power no longer needs to be secured by physical dominance over the body, for it is maintained though a process of alienation or marketed isolation. This is achieved by the organization of our private time and space into essential mechanisms for maintaining sustainable power relations. This exhibition creates so many open cages, so many small galleries, into which each viewer is alone, while constantly being visible. Like the prisoner in a penitentiary, the body “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.” This is an architectural machine where surveillance is the source of knowledge.
Based on that Panoptic realization I congratulate GUCCIVUITTON (Loriel Beltran, Domingo Castillo and Aramis Gutierrez) for their success at re-contextualizing the ICA as the seat of Panopticism (I will include excerpts and links from other articles describing the Panopticon / Panopticism at the end of this article).
The second paragraph, of the press release, is loaded with textual memes and subtext, that, with artistic license, I have edited to support the visual memes in the exhibition. Humor me with this Panoptic revelation:
Within the ICA atrium, an experimental prison Atrium has been erected, the artists created a four-story salesroom, supported by customized steel cage storage racks, designed in collaboration with Jonathan Gonzalez, principal of the design firm Office GA. These racks are the primary aesthetic feature of the mock prison atrium installation that supports and speaks to the artists’ ongoing interest in equalizing fine art, folk art, and design. The purpose of this mashup is an experiment that hopes to improve the quality of life in a disciplining correctional institution by therapeutically improving life inside by rendering the instrumental activation of anesthetized and democratized aesthetic artifice. The goal is to activate the positive anesthetizing potential of art works, hopefully leading to docile conformity. Within the racks, unsold works made by prisoners, rehabilitated parolees or trusted artist activist living at large are hung and arranged by scale and medium to emphasize their commodity fetish status, and to suggest questions of value inherent to a prison gallery setting. Works are available until sold, and any visitor who visits an inmate or the prison galleries or staff, can additionally function as a dealer, selling inventory to an outside collector, inmate or self.
Starting on the first floor we see a single large colorful rock Hugo Montoya mounted on a steel pike illustrating the metaphorical weight of previous institutions such as the rock upon which Alcatraz was built. In turn we can imagine this rock as an ancient archived cornerstone, removed from its original site. Or appreciate that which is “Built on the rock, the church doth stand.” Or, “be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” In addition, the rock alludes to the Greek myth of Sisyphus “who was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating this action forever.” Or the rock might signify the object that prison work gangs must break into pieces with a sledge.
From behind the rock radiates the “White Power” of steel cages that allude to white privilege, the industrial prison complex, or to surveillance behind the cage. As well, the steel cages speak to the spectacle of gladiator culture, i.e. pro-wrestling “steel cage” matches where all participants win or lose trying to escape the brutality of social confinement by attempting to climb out into freedom or better yet, global mobility.
Additional visual memes, referring to surveillance, are revealed by ascending to the other levels surrounding the atrium. On each and every level, starting at the ground floor, there is an over abundant number of male and female security dressed in black semi-formal or sport street attire (I presume for opening night only). Then arriving on each level, the walkways surrounding the atrium iterate overcrowded prison walkways leveraged between glass, concrete and inmate cells. The presence of so many bodies on these walkways resembled the general overpopulation whose self-alienation haunts panopticon(ism)–all bumping elbows yet awkwardly inept at communicating with each other.
From each of the three walkways we can look out through shatter resistant glass that wraps the four story atrium into one huge vitrine. Inside this behemoth container are meticulously installed caged floors and walls that make up the atrium gallery racks. Inside this vitrine artfully produced objects [GUCCIVUITTON’s unsold inventory] rest on pedestals, hang on a clothes rack, a table, or are anchored to caged walls that speak a silent resonant message about ontological inequality, the lack of rank or substantive value.
Perched before a perfectly clear fluorescent rain past the fetishized works, I can look across the expanse of the atrium, to the other side, to see through the opposing glass vitrine, on multiple levels, containing other isolated intimate bodies, peering back at me through the obscure clarity from inside their own glass wall, that objectifies and alienates at a disturbingly safe distance. We look at each other, while everyone looks elsewhere for something that never arrives, then back at each other again, while self-reflecting the vacuous nature of being here in the first place. Then back into ourselves and back at each other over and over again with a gaze always diverting into our projected space behind, to either side above or below us, simultaneously returning inside.
The disconcerting strangeness of this aesthetic experiment succeeds in its clarifying mission to construct the means by which abstract space of the architectural machine reconciles with the social space of the prison atrium to unify the theme of a internalizing utopian spatial construct. This is achieved by a a strict spatial partitioning by creating distance between us and the once tangible art and the humanity that produced it by isolating one from the other and so forth. The strategy of this installation isolates and commodifies every living and nonliving thing into its conforming architecture by forcing us to be on one side of the glass or the other–while the opening expanse of the first floor draws our gaze skyward through angling girders–the intransigent nature of the machine lowers our horizon below what hangs just out of reach.