An unmoved eye
About Panopticum Berlin

by Jurriaan Benschop




“In our drawings we want to come to grips with the psychology of the panopticon.” This is what the artists told me in an email when we got in touch to discuss their project Panopticum Berlin, on which they have been working since 2006. Panopticum Berlin, it emerged, refers to a collection of drawings. A steadily expanding collection, that is: not only does the title accommodate their existing work, it also alludes to work that hasn’t yet materialized. It is evident that the artists feel they are mining a theme that is not going to be exhausted for some time to come. The drawings in Panopticum Berlin are figurative and meticulously crafted, and each drawing falls into one of two categories. One category shows only buildings; the second portrays only people. A drawing from one category is always paired with one from the other category, which leaves viewers with a distinct impression that the buildings and the people are somehow linked.

The concept of the “panopticon” dates from the 18th century. A panopticon is a sophisticated piece of architecture, consisting of a circle or semi-circle of chambers, with a central observation point from which all chambers can be watched by a single observer. Most notoriously applied to jails, a large, empty concourse surrounding the lookout post provides the necessary lines of sight. Thus, control is achieved through permanent observation, or more precisely, through the threat of permanent observation. The inmates never actually know whether they are being watched or not.
The controlling gaze – that is what the 21st-century panopticon of Wim Hardeman and Onno Schilstra is all about. It is about how people observe other people in public places. The drawings suggest that the “panoptic gaze” is not limited to prisons, but is indeed present in all sorts of places, from factories to shops to laboratories: settings in which people are put into groups, counted, checked, and normalized, and where the buildings suit this purpose. The panopticon symbolizes how power that is wielded through observation is anchored in architecture. The mechanism has been described in detail by Michel Foucault in Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison (Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison). This book is of great significance to the two creators of Panopticum Berlin, and, to an extent, their work is a reflection of what the book conveys. However, Panopticum Berlin is also an expression of the panoptic gaze in past and present times as observed by the artists themselves. This is their panopticon – and beneath it lurks the question: is this our panopticon as well? It is not by chance that the artists make part of their work in Berlin – a city that offers them countless panoptic opportunities.

The drawings show, besides prisons, interrogation rooms, public shower rooms, town squares, and laboratories – all sorts of sites where the panoptic gaze is being, as it were, “perpetrated”. The creators do not per se act as ambassadors of the panoptic gaze, nor do they pass judgement; instead, they present themselves as passionate inquisitors. They scrutinize the panoptic gaze, to learn which variations exist, how floor plans determine the flow of gazes, and try to establish how this flow affects those subjected to it. How does it feel, being part of a panopticon?
Each individual work is composed of two types of drawings, created by two pairs of hands. Duets, so to speak, that show the hard structures that enable the panoptic gaze, and contrast these with the “sufferers”, the people who are being observed and exposed. The drawings that show the buildings and the locations are executed in thin black pen on white paper, and have a graphical, documentary quality. They look as if they are historical records, images from another era – even if this is not actually the case. The second type of drawings, the ones that show people, are implemented in white crayon on paper that has been coated with black gesso. These drawings are closer to the skin, even if they share some of the documentary detachment that pervades the other drawings. However, the style is more vivid, and gives the people who are portrayed an almost tangible texture. Texture may be a term not normally applied to humans; it befits these drawings. The drawings seem to suggest that these people are matter, with a texture that can be investigated further under a microscope.

What, then, about the psychology of the panopticon? The psychology appears in the way the artists render the panoptic world. If I were to sum up the atmosphere in a few words, it would be: attractive but uncomfortable. Beautiful but menacing. The people in these pictures never appear completely at ease, they never seem entirely comfortable. They stand in line, to be inspected, or their peculiarities are being examined, from close up. They are exemplars: the ailing, the freakish, and the crooked. But the tender, probing drawing style ameliorates their predicament, it softens the hard, clinical assessment that they are being subjected to. These people are, almost literally, being drawn back into life, as the artist paints them as individuals, providing each one with a degree of depth and fragility. One could see these drawings as a theatre, where one is able to examine how people are affected when they are viewed as objects. How being observed marks their expression and posture. Of course, some people are robust, not easily unnerved. But most people are feeble: they get tarnished by the panoptic gaze. And that, of course, is the intention. The gaze keeps them suppressed.
The opposite of the hard, objectifying gaze, the gaze that rules the panopticum, is a look that is concerned with people themselves, with what is inside them, their character. A look that expresses compassion. Obviously, such an empathic eye does not suit the panoptic prison: it would upset the system. The system functions when humans are pawns, silhouets in the light that falls through their cell window, and visible only when they move. Guards must restrict their view in order to be loyal to the system. Think of the nazis, who could implement their “programme” only by the grace of such a systematic view of mankind. As soon as the other one becomes a real person, with a past, a scent, a character that could in any way rouse compassion, the existing order is under threat. The system needs an unmoved eye.
In Panopticum Berlin, the dispassionate gaze of the system blends with the viewpoint of the individual. This is not only visible in the way in which the people are drawn. It also shows in the rendering of the sites and the buildings – idealized, in a way, but desolate. Edifices from a bygone era, in which one would want to wander around, because they have been built with such beauty and ingenuity, even if the ingenuity were evil. The drawings stir up a bizarre blend of feelings of detachment and fascination. Panopticum Berlin, I suspect, has its roots in an interest in the reign of the gaze. Such an interest would suit artists, whose “core business” is, after all, seeing; who may well be expected to have developed an insight in observing, and who should, perhaps, have an eye for manipulation.
By simply following in the artists’ tracks, by asking how observation is being arranged in public spaces, the study is easily extrapolated to other situations, other buildings. Which lines of sight, for example, are being provided in shopping malls, car parks, airports; places where, in addition to the planning of the physical paths, a lot of thought has gone into the placement of the close-circuit camera systems through which we, the visitors, are being observed. What about the views that are served up by the media: images of disturbed or sick people, of suspects or criminals? People who, via photography, are being presented – one could say, stigmatized – as instances? As perpetrators or victims, as being out of action or out of order. One feels the public gaze resting on them, the public eye marking them out. People may be typecast and condemned by the unmoved eye of the media long before they have seen a judge, simply because they have been displayed to the public. Such is the power of the gaze.

Back to the panopticum. Slowly, meticulously, admiringly, inquisitively, the artists achieve a polyphonic interpretation of their motif. We cannot unambiguously establish which era they are depicting – but this indeterminacy is an asset. The work is a mirror that reflects through historical imagery the question of what has become of the panoptic view.

Jurriaan Benschop, 2011