Denis Beaubois and the Performative Politics of Panoptical Détournement
by Thomas Y. Levin
In June 1996 the Australian artist Denis Beaubois embarked on a series of performances which took place throughout the city of Sidney in public spaces marked by the more or less visible presence of the increasingly ubiquitous surveillance camera. Arriving on the scene three days in a row unannounced and without having solicited or received permission to do so, Beaubois simply positioned himself in direct view of the camera whose impassive gaze he returned in kind. Armed with an unusual capacity for willed immobility [thanks to training in Bodyweather performance technique a form Butoh], his ostentatious stasis and ocular fixity sooner or later provoked some sort of response. Sometimes it was so swift that Beaubois was »escorted« off the »public« premises only minutes after his arrival, the »explanation« being that he was disturbing the peace, or lacked a permit, or some equally inconsequential - and symptomatic - bureaucratic banality. On other occasions, where his stoic performances were graciously [even if often uncomprehendingly] tolerated by the authorities, it was the passersby who became engaged by his presence, interrupting their purposive passage to stare and inquire in an attempt to establish what exactly was going on.
What exactly was going on here? According to Beaubois, these performances - entitled In the event of Amnesia, the city will recall ... - posed a series of questions to the site which explored the dynamic between what he calls the »primary« and the »secondary« audience. The primary audience, as in the classical performance situation, is the »targeted« collective who is both willing and eager to watch and interpret. In the context of the Amnesia performances, this primary audience was, as Beaubois put it, »the surveillance camera [or those who monitor them].» The character of this particular »audience’s« spectatorship is highly teleological: scanning the scene with a »watchdog consciousness«, it measures all behaviors against a template of norms and responds pre-emptively against any violations. For someone in its field of vision this means that by »citing« any of the profiles in its database [by means of one’s appearance - race, fashion, etc. - or behavior] one can readily »become« a suspect and provoke the system to focus its attention on oneself. In so doing, however, the apparatus could also be said to become part of the performance. For Beaubois the consequence of this proleptic character of surveillant observation [i.e. the fact that it already knows what it is going to see] is a mutually ideal condition: from the perspective of the camera, it effectively ensures that he will be read and attended to as suspicious; and from the point of view of the performer/suspect, it guarantees that he will be accorded an attentive and vigilant audience.
Texts also play a role in the Amnesia performances, albeit in a slightly different manner. Having captured the attention of both the »primary« and »secondary« audiences [i.e. the surveillance apparatus and the bystanders] by means of his interrogative corporeal fixity, on Day Two [indicatively titled »the introduction«] Beaubois begins holding up in front of his stomach a series of white sheets with printed texts, starting with one that contains only his name. Willingly proffering to the system information which it is meant to establish against one’s will is, as such, already deeply suspicious, which in turn only makes the performer/suspect of greater »interest«. Having thereby further riveted the attention of one [if not both] of his audiences, the silent Beaubois then suddenly shifts registers. On day three of this silent performance [entitled »the dialogue and the response«] the text sheets begin to invoke their media-historical antecedents - the intertitles of early cinema - not only formally qua text frames that interrupt the "action" of the performance, but also functionally in that like these the texts now also begin conveying crucial narrative information. »May I have a copy of the video footage?« the next card inquires, indicating, through instructions spelled out on the two that follow, that a positive answer is to be indicated by moving the camera up and down, while a negative response is to be conveyed by moving the camera side to side.
Beaubois’s request for a copy of the »footage« points not only to the fact - and general unavailability - of surveillance as taped record, but also to the concomitant and uncomfortable panoptic possibility which always haunts surveillance systems based on taping: that the camera may not even be manned, i.e. that it simply may be recording without anyone watching in so-called »real« time. Since one cannot know for sure we must assume there is, but a response to such a query would nevertheless be an ambivalently welcome corroboration that our »performance« does indeed have an »audience«.
The phantasmatic possibility of a dialogic relation with the surveillant apparatus that it invokes, however, is precisely what is staged in the Amnesia performance through what one could call the semanticization of the PTZ [Pan, Tilt and Zoom] camera. Ingeniously recasting the mechanics of the apparatus as a semantics, i.e. as a meaning-bearing economy, we see the camera pan from side to side »in response« to Beaubois’ request. The hilarious anthropomorphisation which is the condition of possibility of reading this »denial« of his request would seem to quell all panoptical doubts [and in this case also thespian anxiety]: if I was concerned before that nobody was actually watching me, I can rest assured since the discursive character of the camera movement, the semantics of the mechanics, clearly confirms that we are dealing with some form of agency. But does it really? Given the irreducible dimension of projection involved in such a dynamic, how can we deny the possibility that the seemingly so expressive PTZ movement was in fact totally random and [in this case] fortuitous? If this were so, then we would still not know for sure whether there was someone in the tower, as it were [even as we would have to assume that there was]. The foregrounding of this undecidability is one of the key elements of Beaubois’s Amnesia performance.
In response to the »refusal« of the request for a copy of the video tape - which at first glance would seem only to confirm the imbalance of power characteristic of the surveillant dispositif - the final text frame retrospectively reveals that this was, in fact, a strictly rhetorical question. »Warning«, it reads, »you may be photographed reading this sign.« Indeed, Beaubois is not really asking since he is not according the apparatus the meek acquiescence it assumes [and all-too-often gets]. On the contrary, Beaubois has instead answered the question in advance and in the affirmative: he has no need to wait to be given a copy of the surveillant video footage because he himself is taking that footage himself, »shooting back« as it were, to use the phrase so aptly invoked by the Toronto-based digital media activist Steve Mann to describe his counter-surveillance practices. In fact Beaubois’ video records of his Amnesia performances in Sidney involve quite a lot of shooting, a three-camera set-up which includes one behind and on the same plane as Beaubois that provides many of the »establishing« shots, one located above the surveillance camera [thus able to invoke, even if it cannot exactly reproduce, the latter’s high-angle optical vector], and one wide-angle camera attached to the performer’s chest. The carefully edited and elegantly structured video that serves as the record of this performative détournement of the panopticon - and circulates in an art-world economy - reveals that both Beaubois’ primary and secondary audiences must in fact be understood as components of a performance which is staged, one could say, for the tertiary audiences in galleries, museums, and at film- and video-festivals. Here, at least from time to time, there is actually somebody watching.
[Long version published in:
CTRL [SPACE] die wachsame Gesellschaft, \\international media art\award 2001, Südwestrundfunk Baden-Baden, ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe 2001.]