the aesthetics of voyeurism Essay example

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The Aesthetics of Voyeurism Antoine Thélamon
Societal control and surveillance have always been critical themes in art and popular culture. The eye, for example, a symbol of such ideas, has undergone tremendous iconographic transformations and interpretations from a theological representation of the All-Seeing- Eye to heterogeneous appropriations by mass media that create derivatives of the film noir tradition in series such as the Twilight Zone (1964) and The Prisoner (1967).1 In The Prisoner, the All-Seeing Eye is depicted as an icon of malevolent control in the Village council chamber. In the Village, everything happens as if the eye functions as the theoretical locus of a whole drama. The formal characteristics of the series orchestrate a paranoid fictional artifact. The space-frame of the plot (supposedly an island), the oppressive surveillance of close-circuit television cameras located throughout the Village, and observers, who continually spy on villagers and foil Number 6‘s attempts to escape, create a class language of what we assume to be a life-ordeath and self-interrogation situation for Number 6 in his quest for freedom. The Village becomes a closed system and the eye the core narrative structure of the irreversible repressive nature of a society of interchangeable and anonymous inmates.

Although this series is a fictionalizing enterprise, it finds a thematic variation in todayÂ’s reality where the possibilities of computer surveillance seem to be technically unlimited. Everyday life is continuously fast forwarded and digitized with parasitic and invasive technologies. Communications are intercepted, information is streamlined and stored and the cult of celebrity is commoditized and erected as a collective value through popular entertainment like reality TV shows. As the Web 2.0 phenomenon expanded, self-exposure through video-sharing websites and social networks exploded, generating real images and films from millions of extroverted strangers who broadcast the minutiae of their lives.

When the net.art movement duo Eva and Franco Mattes conceived a self-surveillance system for complete digital transparency2 they undeniably pushed the panopticon scheme rationale into the territory of pervasive absurdity. Their works Vopos and Life-sharing (anagram of file-sharing) are parts of Glasnost a project they initiated in 2000 that consists of monitoring and making public, in real time, the biggest quantity of data concerning an individual in actual society.3 In Vopos and Life-sharing, data was uploaded from a GPS transmitter worn by the artists so that anyone could precisely map their whereabouts. Moreover, internet users had access to the MattesÂ’ computer including their private emails. In another project, the Matteses gave their audience real-time access to all of their phone conversations for one month. Such interactive performances abruptly conflate the distinction between private and public spheres into one straight line. While the MattesÂ’ works are simple in their construction, they unleash powerful effects as they make us contemplate the guilt and morality of monitoring someone elseÂ’s life. The viewer intervenes decisively in the MattesÂ’ moral trap but might not consider his viewing in moral terms beforehand, if ever.

The MattesÂ’ tech-based interactivity in Vopos and Life Sharing is utterly based on a remote interaction that abstracts the viewer from the morally problematic act of viewing. The formal characteristics of this contact abolish all sense of guilt hic et nunc. It is as if the distance between the observer and the subject (the docile body,4 to speak like Foucault, in this particular context) could suspend the potentially sinful act and redefine the core nature of what is at stake in the interactivity.

Yet, looking is implicating, as clicking bears in it the performative effects of the intention behind it. The viewerÂ’s distant location, however, almost intrinsically, makes this…