Panoptic

Commissioned as part of platform79 - the Berlin Project
Former Women’s Prison, Berlin, Germany, 2012


The installation is an instrument for observation, a device through which the ocular perception of the prison is altered. The project explores the notion of panoptics, a term derived from the philosophical and architectural concept of the panopticon, first conceived by Jeremy Bentham during the Age of Enlightenment, a spatial paradigm through which society can be observed and controlled. The project investigates the correlation between voyeurism and architectural space and how panoptic-based architecture can influence our pathological state and consciousness. Michel Foucault’s mechanism of panopticism, takes the concept further as a symbol for modern disciplinary society:

“The Panopticon is an ideal architectural figure of modern disciplinary power. The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination any more.”  — Excerpt from Discipline & Punish; The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault

The disused prison is situated within the former incarcerated island of West Berlin, concealed behind the high Altbau facades of Kantstraße. The prison is hidden both physically and psychologically, away from the public consciousness. Passing the threshold from the familiar realm of the current to this secluded place, dilapidated, dormant and frozen in time, one is engulfed by the prison’s spirit. In the manner of inmates, the processional sequences of Höfe lead to the final grand courtyard where the installation is revealed. Pendant in mid-air, held tort between the high red brick planes of the prison, Panoptic demarcates the state of arrival. The installation establishes a vantage point from which the viewer observes an abstracted and constantly evolving image of the courtyard’s facade, peering into the prison cells.

The installation engages forms of expression, a critical and active dialogue between artist, artwork and the viewer. Open to interpretation, Panoptic’s veritable meaning and associations could be viewed as follows: on one hand, the installation could be seen as an optical experiment, an interface between the earth and sky. However, from a phenomenological standpoint and with a sensibility towards the historical mode and context of the prison in mind, the installation could be viewed as the representation of the hierarchical relationship between guard and prisoner, blurring the distinction between the detained and unbound.

The viewfinder, suspended over the bed, is evocative of a sarcophagus. The pyramidal faceted form rises to meet the vertical line of sight with an oculus, narrowing the field of vision and obscuring the peripheral. In plan, the viewfinder shares the exact footprint of a prison cell conveying its scale (L 3.45m x W 1.67m x H 3m). The volumetric juxtaposition of the bed and viewfinder further suggests the spatial configuration of a cell.

Suspended above the viewfinder, three reflective discs are scaled according to the vertical perspective of the viewer beneath. The overall image the viewer observes is conceived so that each reflected surface is equal in surface area, in spite of distance. The discs rotate independently on horizontal axes generating the impression of multiple directions of movement. The immateriality of mirror and its shifting reflections focus on effects rather than substance, collapsing the physical planes of the prison, dissolving from view.

The framed perspective encircled by the oculus mimics a cell window. The view could be representative not of hope or objective emancipation, but of hermetic entrapment. The kaleidoscopic image of the prison is in constant movement, providing no visual escape for the eye. The multiple reflections give a foreshortened flatness and illusionary perspective to the whole ocular view.

Made with Will Laslett


Specification

Dimensions: 3m L x 3m W x 15m H
Media: 3x variable sized reflective discs, heat shrink foil, custom aluminium frame, motors, tensile cable, suspended steel viewfinder, steel bed

Credits

Curator: platform79 group
Photography: Sebastian Kite, Will Laslett
Permissions: Berlin Council