May 31st marks the opening of the 50JPG Triennial, an event set out to examine contemporary society through the lens of photography, during 50 days of exhibitions and events in Geneva. At the core of this year's edition is the “Camera (Auto)Controlé” exhibition, which explores surveillance and monitoring of individuals in public spaces, with a critical take on the implication new regimes of control and scrutiny have on the contemporary person.
The triennial has been assigned a digital space, prophetically marked Site Temporaire – “temporary website” – both as a self-ironic acknowledgement of the predictable life-span of any effort to denounce intrusive inescapable surveillance, and as a commentary on the fleeting nature of reality in a digitized world.
At the heart of this concept lies a dramatic recognition of the emergence of a mutation of social (and mental) space, with regards to individuals' relation to mechanisms of surveillance. Often, the presence of, say, a documentary filmmaker or of a street photographer prompts complaints from people who would bravely assert their right to privacy in public spaces. Drones, surveillance cameras, or CCTV devices do not however spur an equal level of protest. Surely, many people voice on occasion some form of objection, but ultimately, there is no actual rejection of the constant monitoring and control they are subjected to.
If control over one's own recorded presence is renounced in highly monitored public spaces, it would be safe to assume that resistance is manifested through those channels people have the power to control. Social media is one example of how the same abdication of agency takes place, as citizens become users, and their identity splits between being both the subject and the object of their own self-surveillance.
The willingness to indiscriminately forego the control over the boundaries of privacy in contemporary societies marks a shift from the necessity of a top-down structure of control to a bottom-up direction, which the curators of 50JPG call “schizophrenic.” The constant self-exploitation we all undergo gives rise to a new currency in relation to data collection. A new form of capital is set in motion, with the value of information being at risk of inflation, since so many of us give our privacy away, for so little in return.
I often look back at CCTV cameras, and sometimes I wave at the (imaginary) people watching me, only to realise that my looking back has no value, it affects no one, but only has the effect to enhance my recorded presence, to prolong temporary entrapment. This powerlessness has been rebranded and redefined as a desirable prerequisite for belonging to addictive digital spaces, extended into a voyeuristic lifestyle. The shift towards a post-privacy world has been done silently, as our identities are carefully curated to correspond to repetitive, predictable content, form, colours, concepts.
As agents of self-surveillance, we have moved way past Jeremy Bentham's infamous “panopticon,” breaking the bars of our own little cell, and escaping the oppressive optical control of those in charge. Ironically enough, this empowerment leads only to a decrease in a much desired privacy. We now offer our lives, or create avatars of ourselves, and make them visible to all, as a deranged expression of short-lived freedom.
Somehow romantically, our language cannot follow, it is not fully aware that we have succumbed to new dynamics of power, unbalanced and restrictive. Our language holds on desperately to obsolete mechanisms of relating to our own reflections: we still say “I take a selfie” or “my selfie,” in a subliminal attempt to assert long-lost agency and ownership.
50JPG engages in commenting on these shifting paradigms of visibility and control, both through art projects included in the triennial, and through a blog associated to the “Camera (Auto)Controlé” exhibition, an online think tank hosting essays, interventions and opinion pieces from artists, theorists and journalists who approach issues of surveillance, transparency, optical social control.
50JPG runs from June 1st until July 31st at Centre de la Photographie, Geneva.
Words: Elena Stanciu