Visual Irony as Virus in Panoptic Structures: Logic of Fact and Anti-Truth in Chris Petit’s “Surveillance”
by Serafino Murri
Panopticsm's main obsession in the 21st century seems to be capturing fragments of truth in what is openly stated as an endless fiction. The voyeur's self-referential structure reinforces the dictatorship of entertainment [or, better, the news-system as the perfect form of entertainment in a wholly monitorized, plotted and a-historical reality]. In other words, to evoke residual reality caged to the semi-aware status of everyman-as-a-possible-actor, to make inner sense come out and be visible, to spy and digest the truth of feelings and emotions beyond the conditioned behaviors of the panoptic world's model citizen. In the reification of an everyday life addicted to viewing, one discovers a further form of surveillance and “dataveillance” with the same old aim of keeping alive the fragmented voyeur-army’s attention. This tendency can easily explain the planetary success of the soap-operatic "eavesdropping" of global TV programs like “Big Brother." Instead of all this, the entirety of Christ Petit's TV works is an attempt to reverse the same process, to mock a reality caught alive and unaware, and to transform it into a sham for the unmasking: revealing the existence of a deeper level of deception within the apparently objective realm of images itself. The challenge is not to demonstrate through images, but in spite of them. The principal means of this mutiny of images in Petit’s short video Surveillance [19939 is a viral form of visual irony, a result of a detournement of several spy-camera recordings of un-scheduled events: a forerunner of “elusive zapping” through the so called “Reality TV” form.
As a matter of fact, the main narrative adhesive of this fictionalized world, caught by hidden cameras, is found in the rhetorical use of the time of viewing as “Real Time”: an illusory reflection of the ubiquity of the unicentrical spectator who is allowed to witness events unilaterally as they take place elsewhere, without the need of his presence on location and with the illusion of being protected from any consequence of participation: a limbo of total comprehension but no possible feedback. In other words, real time is the officially recognized quality of “visual truth” in the surveying ideology. To internalize the sense of real time is to be definitively locked into the logic of disciplinary society, which works only in the present tense, moment-by-moment, deleting—in its endlessly describing self—any sense of a criticizable or even interpretable history of past events. Multiplying the points of view of a single event and assembling them into a unique, splitted and fragmented space of vision, is the last step of real-time panopticism [as in “Big Brother”]. Through the skill of shifting and assembling different times of the same event, or even different events in the presumed same time, Petit creates a sort of anti-truth in Surveillance, another dimension of the visual events analogous to what is called antimatter in physics. Petit breaks the panoptic illusion by inserting the possibility of doubt, multiplicity and contradiction into the experience of real-time vision: thus, he denies the insignificance of the presumed-casual events and makes perceptible a sort of negative strength of the vision.
Born for the “BBC Late Show”, Surveillance is a ten minutes found-footage opera, partly inspired by Chris Marker’s La jetee, a kind of post-human involuntary thriller cinema. The film’s vocal commentary contains an emblematic Godard quotation, which explains the similarity between surveillance tapes and the silent movies of the Lumière brothers, a cinema before stories or the industrial organization of shooting materials: a topographical record of time and casualty, where only the people, weather and streets are acting. Even the low definition [one of the stylistic ciphers of Petit’s videos] brings one back to the time of pre-globalized and fully surveyed reality, whose opposite is localized, void, unrecognizable space, a sort of desert landscape inside a civilized world. In Surveillance, events are no longer captions of explanations given by someone else as they usually are in TV: the logic of representation is overwhelmed by the logic of arbitrariness. The complete emptiness reached by the surveillance camera’s involuntary cinema makes those void fields become, as in a detective story, full of mystery and suspense by their lack of events. In this total absence of the logic of factual evidence, the viewer has to speculate to understand what he sees, forcing him to find clues of reality amongst nothingness. This becomes the most ironic way of setting free his passive and chained-up visual imagination.