IN THE SUSPECTING EYES OF THE AGENT / UDI EDELMAN
*This text was originally published in Citizens exhibition catalog, Petach Tikva Museum. 2017.
Gian Maria Tosatti's HomeLand (2014) takes place in a space designed as a nondescript room with white walls and objects. At first sight it may be construed as a waiting room in a clinic or perhaps an office, furnished as usual with such items as a chair, a cabinet, a wall clock, a sink, and a mirror. But what else do we have here? The viewer is invited to wander around and experiment in the space. Will he muster up the courage? Will he dare sit on the chair for a moment and look around leisurely, or perhaps test the faucet and feel the water streaming? Because this place looks like an office which is not your own, all the more so as this is a quasi-office space inside an artistic institution, and the viewer knows better than to touch works of art on display in a museum. Is he being watched by a guard, who will soon appear and give a warning? What if something in the work breaks? In other words, it is a space which demands overcoming at least one convention to begin with. Only then will one be able to experience the work in full and reveal, as in a room of secrets, the possibility of another gaze at the very same space.
For the viewer who dares, this point of reversal in Tosatti's work generates the gaze of the investigating agent—which is also the examining oversight of governmental authority—as we imagine it through countless American police and detective series. According to the situation recurring in these televised series, the person in the room is a suspect withholding information. The suspect wishes to hide and cover, whereas the agent wishes to uncover. Usually, a young investigator is first sent into the room, while the agent (the real authority here, as it is soon made clear) observes the events in the room through a window, which is, in fact, a one-way mirror. He hears, watches, and examines the suspect's movements and responses, whether defying the young investigator or avoiding the questions. Only then does he go in and get a confession, sometimes by force, sometimes by cunning. Either way, his preliminary gaze lays the foundation for solving the crime: he already knows what must be done to expose a hidden answer.
This vantage point echoes the structure of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, on which Michel Foucault based the logic of the disciplining gaze in his book Discipline and Punish.1 It is a structure of domination allowing one to sort and classify the various subjects, a structure whose entire purpose is the governing-disciplining gaze—a gaze of which the citizen is aware, but cannot return.
The Panopticon was devised by Bentham in 1791 as a centralist incarceration structure with a control post at its heart, enabling guards to observe the events in the cells at any given moment; the prisoners, on the other hand, due to the architectural regulation of the light beams bathing the structure, cannot see the warden or even know whether and when he is watching them. The potential power generated by this architecture is at once concrete and unsubstantiable. According to the panoptic logic, the chaotic yet homogenous mob is replaced by a cluster of discrete, numbered individuals under surveillance, and this relation in itself establishes power in practice. The surveillance effect in such a structure is maintained constantly, without requiring the live and direct gaze of the supervisor himself. In fact, the power does not have to be exercised at all to take its effect. It is the prisoner who carries and activates the power on himself, lest the gaze catch him.
For Foucault, the Panopticon—as a power reduced to and implemented in an ideal basic form—is a broad metaphor for the means of production of the modern subject, an apparatus dominating entire populations everywhere, present in the daily life of every citizen in his relation to every regime. In this sense, when the viewer of Tosatti's work assumes the presence of the overseeing viewpoint—it is not surprising; we know of its presence in every facet of our lives, even before we identify it in the work.
Still, there is another essential element in Tosatti's work. Not only is the latent vantage point revealed to us, but we are also invited to take its place, to step into the agent's shoes and observe through his inspecting, disciplining eyes. It is a rare opportunity to experience, with body and senses, a position usually inaccessible to us. Whom do we observe through the mirror? On the one hand, the object of the gaze is precisely Foucault's self-monitoring modern subject; on the other hand, however, there is a physical presence here that surpasses the image: since only a moment ago we stood in that room. Such a viewpoint of us at ourselves, through the mirror, calls to mind Spike Jonze's film Being John Malkovich (1999), in which the figures enter a portal that leads into actor John Malkovich's mind and experience mundane moments in his life through his own eyes. That which was odd and phantasmic to begin with, however, grows ever more extreme, even horrifying, when at some point in the film Malkovich himself discovers the portal into his own consciousness and decides to crawl through it. In the indrawn loop of the gaze inside itself, all he sees around him are other Malkoviches embodied in every figure he encounters. This cinematic moment highlights the point where the gaze can no longer see anything but itself, as the point of view of the one who sees oneself in everything.
It is not enough to say that as modern subjects we discipline ourselves to death, because our becoming our own overseeing agent produces surveillance capabilities vis-à-vis other citizens too. Our civilian point of view is modeled principally as observing and monitoring. This is the very logic that facilitated the informing mechanism prevalent throughout the Communist bloc until the 1990s. Perhaps the most striking datum in this context is the ratio between the number of citizens and the number of reporting agents of the Stasi, the East-German secret police, which engaged in constant gathering of intelligence: the common estimate is one informer per 6.5 citizens, namely: in every building, in every office, sometimes even in every room there was an agent present who followed and reported "undesirable" activity.
In 1989, the year which heralded the downfall of the Communist regime, there was a hasty and rather failed attempt to destroy the Stasi files. Similar attempts were made throughout the Communist bloc. Over the years, however, the giant archives gathered by the authorities in that period were reconstructed and released for public viewing. Scrutiny of these files is fascinating. Let me linger here on the Polish instance. In 1989 the Polish SB (Security Service) surveillance files were transferred to the IPN (the Institute of National Remembrance), which became entrusted with preservation and declassification of the archives since the late 1990s, and is now in charge of hundreds of thousands of files in countless filing cabinets, extending over some 90 km of archive space. Virtually anyone who was involved, even briefly, in some public activity will find himself in a personal file "custom-built" at the time.
A search for materials on Polish groups of artists, who in the 1970s and 1980s engaged in defiant and transgressive transient acts in the public sphere, reveals the surprising scope of such art events—surprising since the public sphere in the countries of the Communist bloc was overcrowded and over-supervised to minimize any possibility of contrarian-oppositional discourse. On the other hand, it is not surprising to discover that these artists were subject to constant surveillance, and that all of their actions were documented. Opening the archives to the public also revealed the presence of the probing, overseeing gaze in the form of a bureaucratic documentation of art.
Artist and activist Waldemar Fydrych (also known as "Major"), one of the leaders of the "Orange Alternative" movement active in Poland in the early 1980s, discovered a heavy file of reports about his actions in the IPN archive.2 The group's activity was characterized by quick sorties to urban spaces—demonstrations of defiant laughter at the authorities, which concluded with celebration of their police arrest by vehemently cheering the cops. Interestingly, beyond technical reports regarding his actions, the file also contained a document dated 1988 by a top agent, analyzing the logic of the group's activity in great detail—an accurate, specified report which Fydrych deems the most interesting text ever written about the group. After exposing the file, Fydrych contacted the agent, who became a close friend over the years.3
The change of government provided a rare opportunity to get behind the scenes of government surveillance and into the depths of the "agent's" mind—the point of view to which Tosatti invites us. Here, however, exposure of this vantage point is surprisingly intricate, specifically as it turns out to deviate from the one-dimensional, solid image of governmental authority. While we tend to ascribe harsh rigidity to government acts and juxtapose it with the elusive movement of art and activism, the moment of the files' exposure affords Fydrych and us a dual gaze, both at the art documented in the agent's records (sometimes its exclusive documentation) and at the agency itself. While the government agency does not reveal itself as forgiving toward artistic acts and activism, in some instances it succeeds in containing and neutralizing their transgressive quality.
The Communist regimes indeed perfected the disciplining gaze radically and systematically, but in many respects there is no essential difference between the logic of supervision employed in these systems, and the one with which we are familiar in today's democratic regimes. The apparatus underlying the regimented gaze is preserved and even refined and made more efficient today, so that it no longer requires wasting unnecessary energy on setting up large-scale archives on every citizen and resident. Tosatti thus creates an old image of control, which still needs the presence of a flesh-and-blood agent. This old image outlines a historical point of departure for contemplation of the mechanisms of surveillance and control active today, when the agent and archive have been replaced by the economic logic of profiling and the permanent threat in rights deprivation, while the status of the artist and the activist has shrunk, as well as their ability to threaten the government and its superhuman touch. In the neo-liberal democratic regimes in which we live today, agents do not waste time on direct gaze; they activate sophisticated apparatuses of classification, screening, and threat.
1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison , trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977).
2. Parts of Fydrych's file are available in translation at: http://orangealternativemuseum.pl/#secret-services-files.
3. The quotes from Fydrych are based on a meeting with Omer Krieger and the undersigned as part of the "Action PRL" (Akcja PRL) project held in Warsaw in September 2015.