“Surveillance” by Richard Proffitt. University of the West of England. BA Art & Social Context
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Surveillance. Developing Artwork, part 1

Contextualised Practice: Evaluation Report. Module: A842S3

by Richard Proffitt September 1997.
Updated in May-July 2015

Mandala

Theory
  • structures of viewing
  • advertising
  • the mandala
  • panopticism
  • Working primarily with video and photography, I’ve produced a body of work intending to engage with some of the issues around surveillance which I’ve outlined in the previous chapters. The main characteristics of any surveillance system are those of Paranoia and Voyeurism; but I have also considered ways of manipulating and interrupting the power-structures within such systems in order to dispel the paranoia and reveal the voyeur.

    The installation ‘Video Mandala’ is an interactive work which has not, to date, been placed in its most ideal site. It has, however, been fixed in a precursory public site, where it received some feedback. A documentary style video was made with the assistance of three people who expressed an interest in the work (also title ‘Video Mandala’). This documentary serves to explain the powers involved in the installation work.

    Two other videos were created to further examine the issues raised by theoretical inquiry and group discussion. The first, shorter video called ‘Wax TV’ was made in collaboration with Simon Bibble and is a play on the paranoia of being without a TV licence, with the consequent fear of being spied upon by the television licensing authority.

    The second video ‘The Innocenthave Nothing to Fear’ is a dark, paranoid journey moving though the narrative of a CCTV operator. The piece was made with several people who identify as being both artists and non-artists.

    Theoretical Framework

    Whilst observing the theories of Panopticism and considering the problems of representation; I’ve also called upon some ides within traditional feminist theory and Jungian psychology.

    Regarding structures of viewing, much of art history and popular culture formats (such as film) are argued by feminist theorists to exist for the promotion of privileged status of (white heterosexual) men. It’s a problematic critique which I don’t feel is viable to all cultural formats. Simply because, by emphasising the negative sexual politic of the ’look’, many women find creative activity within this area to be foreclosed. A structure of viewing certainly has an inherent imbalance of power - but that does not necessarily have to be a patriarchal, oppressive, voyeuristic one. In the area of state surveillance, however, I feel that that the feminist critique holds a great more authenticity. By its operation, surveillance systems are very real technologies of ‘male’ power. They serve the interests of corporate business and the state, which are (when you see the nature of promotion within these groups) still fundamentally patriarchal.

    Ideally, I’d choose a shopping centre within a central commercial district to install ‘Video Mandala’ - and this calls for a need to examine theories of consumerism and advertising. The work isn’t intended to directly reflect on consumerism. More truthfully, it’s the simple fact that television monitors and video cameras - whether as part of a CCTV system or a publicity system - are already placed in these environments. This dictated the location and necessitated turning to advertising theory.

    For a piece of art work to be placed within such an environment as a shopping centre it would mean that it’s processes of meaning would be competing with those offered by the huge array of advertisements. With regard to Judith Williamson’s work on decoding advertising, it is seen that products are not being sold simply on there own merits or qualities, but that they are presented in such a way as to become currency for more intangible concepts. Products are made interchangeable with these ideas that can be similarly ‘bought’ with the product itself. Love, Wealth, Status, Popularity and Sex Appeal are all typical concepts that are exchanged in this way - promoted by advertisers through a complex system of visual codes and symbol systems. Against this backdrop of glib meanings offered by advertisers, I sought to present an image, or collection of images that would offer meanings that were, somehow, more real and empowering.

    It took some time to locate such an image, and it came from a synergy of my work on panopticism and from a parallel area of research that was initially unrelated to my surveillance work. This area was that of sacred geometry and spiritual meaning traditionally associated with the mandala symbol. How this metaphysical enquiry led to the genesis of the project is explained below.

    The mandala is a particular symbol held in spiritual reverence and found cross-culturally in the symbol-systems of all human societies. The mandala embodies a kind of metaphysical structuring principle, and is found to be central to religious art and liturgical practices of the East. For the psychologist Jung, the mandala provided ‘...a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.’

    The artist Sozo Hashimoto regards the mandala as being relevant for the modern world as it has the ability to help the evolution of consciousness. Hashimoto outlines three traditional rules of which the mandala is composed:

    1. A central focus
    2. Circular in its arrangement of elements
    3. Elements are arranged symmetrically
    Digital Mandala, CS 1 6
    Sozo Hashimoto, CS 1 6
    Digital Mandala, LP 1 55
    Sozo Hashimoto, LP 1 55
    Digital Mandala, EL 1 59
    Sozo Hashimoto, EL 1 59

     

    In contemplation, the circle serves to exclude mental obstacles, the central focus is an aid to concentration and the symmetrical elements serve to stabilise the mind.

    Mandalas are often perceived as fixed symbols to contemplate, but this is to deny their more dynamic aspects. The mandala is more than a meditative tool - it is a holistic symbol representing metaphysical structuring principles with the body, the social body, the city and the universe.

    As mentioned above, the genesis of this project was also sparked by a application of panopticism; specifically, the subject becomes ultimately self surveying within the panoptic system - there is a feedback loop of information. Through experimentation with the idea of feeding-back information, I decided to transfer the feed-back loop to the mechanisms of CCTV surveillance itself, ie. to a video camera and monitor. This was done by filming a television screen that was connected to the camera. With some interesting initial chaotic and fractal like results, a mandala structure can be stabilised.

    The development of the video mandala included a certain amount of serendipity and experimentation, but I sought the image with a great sense that there was ‘something there to be found’. When the mandala first appeared from the feed-back loop, I was greatly excited to find two areas of research begin to merge. I began to see other connections; for example, a diagram of the panoptic system resembles the traditional outline for a mandala diagram.

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    NEXT: Developing Artwork//part 2: Video Mandala Context