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[text] Frank Thiel [e]


Frank Thiel

by Sabine Himmelsbach

»Our society is not one of theater, but a surveillance society [...] We are not on a stage and in the seats in the auditorium. Instead, we are trapped in the cogs of the panoptic machine which we ourselves keep going.« [1]

»The language of power is in itself ‘urbanizing’, but the city is left prey to contradictory movements that counterbalance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power. The city becomes the dominant theme in political legends, but it is no longer a field of programmed and regulated operations.« [2]

The city and urban space are of central importance in Frank Thiel's photographs. He grew up in eastern Berlin, and immediately after the Wall came down busied himself photographing political monuments: »I thought they will be the first to vanish as soon as the system changes.« [3] He also took pictures of the changes in the Berlin Wall in the structure of the city's fabric. The photos tend to blur toward the edges. They are broken up by a grid structure that leaves black bars in the center and edged. Owing to the strong contrast of bright and dark, the motif behind them has a strange luminescence. The Wall photos are usually devoid of people and present the misery of a »non-location« in an urban context as well as its gradual change.

There followed series of prison gates and watch towers, whereby Thiel concentrates on the motif and allows it to fill the picture. The size and sectioning of the photos gives them a monumental character, alluding to the control function of the buildings portrayed and emphasizing the threatening character of the views of these surveillance centers. Thiel is interested in the power apparatuses that lurk behind the buildings and architectures, their symbolic character as »instruments of power«. [4]

In his series City TV (1999) he presented 101 photos of surveillance cameras, attesting to the incredible presence of video control in public spaces. The sections usually highlight a close-up of the surveillance cameras without specifying the particular part of the city. Only rarely does a larger section detail the entire building. This focus on the cameras themselves imparts a notion of totality. The repetition of the pictorial motif intensifies the statement. The cameras are found everywhere – on unspectacular concrete walls, on the mirrored fronts of modern sky-rises and even on old »dignified« buildings. The large number of silent observers conveys a sense of total surveillance.

England is the country in which surveillance has already been taken to the extreme. By way of protection and to combat criminality, even the smaller cities are now fully outfitted with surveillance cameras. The small town of King’s Lynn in Norfork, for example, has opted for blanket video surveillance coverage of the town following repeated thefts and break-ins; the system networks direct with the local police station. Not unlike the structure of Bentham's panopticon, the round prison building that enables a view into each and every cell, but protects the central cabin of the warder from sight by the prisoners, here, too, the presence of the camera likewise guarantees the desired behavioral norm, as no one can exclude there being an observer behind the rigid camera eye. No one can be sure whether someone is really watching the screen, but no one can exclude this, either.

Instead of encountering the omnipresent eye of Big Brother, in City TV we are confronted by any number of anonymous check points. Innumerable camera eyes follows us around the city. The omnipresent surveillance cameras is something with which we are so familiar that we hardly notice them any longer during our everyday travels. Thiel shows how cleverly cameras are in part positioned – hardly perceptible to the casual passer-by. Surveillance has long since ceased to be the privilege of the state and countless observers have taken the place of Big Brother – companies and private individuals, who use the cameras for personal protection or simply for the joy of watching others – voyeurism for everybody. [5]

Translated from German by Jeremy Gaines

1 Michel Foucault, »Überwachen und Strafen. Die Geburt des Gefängnisses«, Frankfurt/Main 1977, pp. 278-279 ^

2 Michel de Certeau, »Walking in the city«, in The Cultural Studies Reader, Simon During (ed.), London/New York 1993, pp. 155-156. ^

3 Frank Thiel in: Ingeborg Wiensowski, »Frank Thiel«, Spiegel Online, Oct. 30, 2000,,1518,99953,00.html ^

4 Michel Foucault, op. cit. ^

5 »[...] the postmodern panopticon moves beyond Bentham’s model [...] to a postmodern model, in which individuals enjoy the possibility of becoming the owners and operators of the personal and professional seeing machines [...].« Lili Berko, »Surveying the Surveilled: Video, Space, and Subjectivity«, in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 14, 1992, pp. 61-91. ^



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