In 2007 I obtained access to the file, which was assembled by the security police in the former GDR because of a failed escape attempt my parents had prepared in 1982-83. My intention was to find out what was recorded there about myself, as a seven-year-old child. The file consisted visual records of our earlier apartment, recorded in a documentary aesthetic, searching for evidence: the panoptical eye, an intimate view into a family’s privacy, identifying and individualising the political enemy it saw.
The panoptical view refers to the architectural concept of the Panopticon, formulated in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham as a proposal for the ideal shape of a prison. In its principle the Panopticon is a circular building with a central tower as its focal point. From the top of the tower one has a 360 degree view of the tiers of cell units which line the inner walls of the building. This allows the controlling powers in the tower to see without being seen, and their awareness of being seen instills constant fear into the inmates. The cell unit itself is transformed into a small theater, with the inmate as protagonist of his own play and power as its spectator. 1
Elaborating on Bentham’s technical concept, Michel Foucault developed the concept of the Panopticon by scrutinizing and emphasizing its consequences, relating them to the functions and principles of education (Erziehungsmaßnahmen) in the hands of repressive powers in the 20th century. 2
The situation in the GDR was related, indeed almost the same. A wall divided the inside from the outside, defining space. Like a machine, impersonal and automated, the eyes and ears of power stood in the middle of a society under general suspicion, gathering information. With its ability to break up the mass, singling out individuals and defining them for separate monitoring, it created a repressive monitored loneliness. In knowing one’s own visibility to the eye and submitting oneself, the power relation became internalised, and the seen became his own gaoler, playing roles democratically, the inmate and the warder. 3
The panopticon principle implies discipline, with the ambition to control an entire society in a network, consistently. It is promotes elementary functioning through imposing a simple and easy transferable mechanism on a society, which is totally penetrated by the mechanism of discipline. The discipline gets divided in two different functions, the function of blockage, and the function of panoptical establishment.
The blockade is intended to exclude evil from the outside, protecting the inside in its defined space. The panoptical establishment is set up to support the exercise of power with subtle coercion, promoting Advance and Efficiency, construed towards a future society. The discipline itself can be seen as a technology of power, its embodiment, and its manipulation of regulations to achieve compliance and the subservience of all elements. As a consequence, the society is controlled by the society itself, joining in the spiral of power and its mechanism of self-protection, suppressing individuality, with no escape.
My installation The Protagonist refers to the political situation in the German Democratic Republic and its panoptical system of power, surveillance and control. The work questions photographs and its usage as evidence and remembrance in relation of the author. It displays a persons conflict being the inmate and warder, due to the thin line between what you thought and what you said in a suppressive, totalitarian regime. The work combines personal found footage off the record, cinematic found footage off the record, and a personal photographic archive from the GDR.
1. Bentham, J., Panopticon Letters, Edition Bozovic, Miran (London: Verso, 1995)
2. Foucault, M., Surveiller et punir. La naissance de la prison, Editon Gallimard, Paris, 1975
3. Anhalt, M., Thesis: The space of borders, Rotterdam, 2008