On the Spectacle and Power within (media) performance


On the Spectacle and Power within (media) performance

This paper ties theory of Society of the Spectacle and The Eye of Power in a Panopticon like society, in relation to surveillance, media and performativity. To do so it looks at a performance art piece by American artist Jill Magid.

Bilyana Avtova
It's an understatement to say that the world we live in now is more fast-paced and image centered than ever before. In an article by Forbes magazine from 2017 it was estimated the average American sees between 4,000 to 10,000 ads a day, a number we can only assume has raised since [13]. Of course, advertisement, whilst a big donor of images, is far from the only one. There is constant bombardment from all sides, social media being one of the most dominant and never-ending sources.

One of the most central and talked about pieces of literature when reflecting upon the cultural state of our society and the basis of its exchange and connectedness (or lack thereof), even if published some thirty three years ago is Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1967) – a work of philosophy even more true and relevant today than at the time it was published. Another stream of thought which has been dominant in the discourse of our society, especially in the past decades, is surveillance. Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1967) frames our society as obsessed with appearances and images, explaining the spectacle as "a social relationship between people that is mediated by images" [1, p. 4].

This paper will use Debord's Society of the Spectacle [1] and Michel Foucault's The Eye of Power, [2] which re-examines Betham's 18th century prison concept of the Panopticon, as its philosophical basis and a prism through which to examine today's fast-paced, image driven society, as well as the role that the individual plays in it. It will raise the question of what does it mean for one to know they are being constantly watched and not only be aware of that but actively participate in it, and take that as an opportunity to perform their own individual spectacle?

The Panopticon itself, presents the design of a prison building in which it is possible to see each cell from a tower in the center of the building. It replaces the shadow and darkness of prison cells with light and visibility, making it so that at any given moment prisoners know that they might be watched, even if they're not. Thus, this creates a feeling of constant visibility with the idea that prisoners will then self regulate, knowing they could be being watched at any point. The Panopticon, of course, is not the first nor last embodiment of this philosophy. A well known version of this is the Big Brother model, Orwell's 1984. The idea that we are being constantly watched, kept tabs on and surveilled is a popular one in dystopian literature and film. In a similar train of thought, Dave Eggers" The Circle (2013) which proposes a dystopian future where an internet company monopolizes society, pushing for maximum visibility with the same philosophy that visibility leads to self-regulation and better behaviour. These are of course matters which have only become more prominent over the years, but for the body of this paper when discussing surveillance and Panopticism I won't be focusing on the collection of data or ethical questions. This paper will focus on a more individual approach to the Society of the Spectacle, questioning the role of performance in an image driven society. For this I will look at performance theory and the work of American conceptual artists Jill Magid, specifically her project/piece Evidence Locker (2004) [11]. Hence, there are, so to speak, three lines of theory which all converge here – panopticism, an image driven, viewer society and the individual in that society who willingly partakes in performance. If the spectacle itself has been turned into a source of power as well as a tool of it, how can we gain agency through performance?

For one, the individual in today's society is hyper aware they are being watched as well as that they are partaking in a viewer society. In reality, there has been a significant body of images ("memes", for one) which has been generated to poke fun at advertisements popping up "coincidentally" after one has spoken of a product, of FBI agents behind laptop cameras or how performative social media sites such as instagram (arguably the most image driven one) are. There has been more and more acknowledgment of the selectiveness of the images we portray online and how these are, in fact, a carefully curated series of portraits of our lives, which may or may not be in accordance with the actual reality. An entire "job" has been born out of the image fueled lives that are being led online – namely being an "influencer". building, curating a desirable enough image of yourself and maintaining that image has become a skill for profit of its own. So much so that it is backed by corporations, fueled by advertisements, and has, all in all, been turned into a business of its own. If anything but this is proof of not only how much we enjoy watching somebody else's image, something that used to be reserved for celebrities and famous people, but has since been so desired that anybody now can become a celebrity – as long as they know how to curate an image interesting enough, desirable enough. Once more, social media will not be the central study of this paper, but it is important to understand its relation to performance. Generations which have grown up with it already present have learned to perform, curate and mediate their "look" early on. In Bo Burnham's 2016 Netflix comedy special "Make Happy" he finishes his performance by a monologue, ironically, about performance, where he states, "They say it's like the "me" generation. It's not. The arrogance is taught, or it was cultivated. It's self conscious. That's what it is. It's conscious of the self. Social media – it's just the market's answer to a generation that demanded to perform so the market said, here – perform. Perform everything to each other, all the time for no reason. It's prison – it's horrific. It's performer and audience melted together" [12].

The relevance of this is twofold; for one, it makes the important statement of a developed consciousness of the self in a culturally speaking prison state much like the Panopticon in which we voluntarily enter, to a degree, and in which knowing that we are being watched we choose to perform. Secondly, it bridges the way to Magid's work.

Panopticism and the viewed society

Jill Magid is an American conceptual artist, writer and filmmaker. An important focus of her work and performances as an artist is to explore the relationship between the individual and the power structure in society, as well as the tensions between said individual and the institutions which uphold said power structure. She has explored different interactions with physical representations of that power, such as CCTV cameras. "I seek intimate relationships with impersonal structures. The systems I choose to work with function at a distance […] equalizing everyone and erasing the individual" [8, p. 2]. She has bedazzled them, drawing attention to them, questioned their personality and attempted to humanize them, a project made possible by working with the Amsterdam Police Department. She has also worked with the Dutch secret services for a project called "I can burn your face", one she was commissioned by the secret services themselves to do in an attempt to find a human face of the organization and yet ended up being confiscated by that same organization for being too revealing. In a way it could be said that Magid's work tries to humanize the "Eye of Power", to find its face.

The work of hers which will be explored in this paper is her 2004 project titled "Evidence Locker" in which she receives cooperation from the Liverpool Police Department. Upon finding out that, at the time, Liverpool was the city with the highest number of CCTV cameras, Magid was intrigued. She found out that the footage of said cameras can be saved up to 31 days in what is called an "evidence locker" if it is considered to be footage of an "incident" – a broad definition. She then contacted the Liverpool Police Department and they agreed to cooperate with her on her project – for 31 days Magid walked the city of Liverpool. She knew where the surveillance cameras were placed and she wore a signature bright, red coat to make herself more easily noticeable. Throughout the experience she developed a close relationship with Citywatch, the actual, lived bodies behind the surveillance cameras. She often spoke to these men through an earpiece. For example, as part of her project can be found a video titled Trust in which for 3 to 5 minutes she walks through Liverpool with her eyes closed, only navigated by those watching through the CCTV camera and speaking into her earpiece.

But the communication all along was an exchange. Every day Magid would send the Liverpool Police Department letters; almost love letters, with detailed accounts of where she was and at what time, what she wore and what she thought of, how she felt that day. Here can be seen an example of one such letter.
"Dear Observer,
I met you today. I came to your office. You had been informed of my arrival. All your windows were installed and open. When I had visited this summer, there had been only one; it faced the Pierhead, before the Shanghai Palace.

You marked a path on my map. I followed it. I got tea at Cafe Nero and wrote a postcard. You watched me, from two angles, when I did this.

You followed me through the center of town, on the streets without the cars. I walked in circles around your feet and your neck got stuck. It was funny to see you following me. You constantly moved to meet me.

After taking a night walk from my house, around the city and through Chinatown, I arrived again at 10:30 pm before my place on Rodney Street. I stood in the street and stretched. I walked into the light of the traffic signal on the opposite corner. I became red, orange-yellow, and green. I was wearing red track pants with white stripes down the side, a dark brown zip up sweatshirt and a black hat. I removed the hat while stretching."

(Sunday, February 1, 2004, Day 4)
"Dear Observer,
I met you today. I came to your office. You had been informed of my arrival. All your windows were installed and open. When I had visited this summer, there had been only one; it faced the Pierhead, before the Shanghai Palace.

You marked a path on my map. I followed it. I got a tea at Cafe Nero and wrote a postcard. You watched me, from two angles, when I did this.

You followed me through the center of town, on the streets without the cars. I walked in circles around your feet and your neck got stuck. It was funny to see you following me. You constantly moved to meet me.

After taking a night walk from my house, around the city and through Chinatown, I arrived again at 10:30 pm before my place on Rodney Street. I stood in the street and stretched. I walked into the light of the traffic signal on the opposite corner. I became red, orange-yellow, and green. I was wearing red track pants with white stripes down the side, a dark brown zip up sweatshirt and a black hat. I removed the hat while stretching."

(Sunday, February 1, 2004, Day 4)
In her paper "Performativity" [6] Kita Hall references J.L. Austin's concept of performative utterances and speech-act theory. When observing these letters through the prism of said theory one could argue that through the process of writing these letters in such a personal way, through the mere utterances Magid transforms a typically unilateral relationship (that of viewer and subject) into a two-way street. The words "Dear Observer" by themselves breach an important barrier, a feeling almost similar to that of breaking the fourth wall.

When discussing speech-act theory in this context, there is another detail I would like to underline. Typically, when describing speech acts there is always a reference "to THE speaker and THE hearer, and questions of intention and interference are always formulated in terms of only these two presences" [9, p. 61]. The same goes for writer/reader. In this case, however, Magid is not writing these letters to the specific individual person who is receiving and reading them. If she were, they would start with "Dear [insert name]" instead of "Dear Observer". However, she is writing them to an individual. Here, already touching upon an important detail. A truth Krzystof Wodicko [4], Professor in residence art, design and public domain at the University of Harvard presents in a conference with Magid in 2011 – that in the process of her art she "realized there is no Eye of Power to be found in there. The system is made to be operated by humans". What is meant to bring with this statement is that in and throughout the project that is "Evidence Locker" Magid forms a personal relationship with this imaginary "Eye of Power". The impersonal and technical CCTV camera on the street is in fact operated by someone, a person. The footage reviewed by a human. It is not an invisible power. The Panopticon has guards. And when they look at Magid, she looks back.

In her projects she asks herself, "Are CCTV cameras" tools to observe and survey, or are they images: representations of an authority" [8, p. 3]? The answer is most likely that they are both, in different ways. But what's important and crucial about the relationship that she forms is that she forms it with the individual behind the tool as well as behind the image. She decomposes the structure of power by peeling back the distance between the viewer and the viewed. In a way the individual operating behind the surveillance camera is a middle man between the civilian and "authority" – he merely represents it. When she was walking with her eyes closed down a crowded street it was a human being on the other end of her earpiece directing her, calculating how much space she has to move freely, making a decision where to direct her to. It wasn't the camera itself and it wasn't the "Liverpool Police Department" directing her, because that is a concept. The mechanism is not living and breathing, with a mind of its own – it's made up of human particles.

Here I would like to make my way to another aspect of this relationship. Whilst "the individual in a panoptic society incorporates the mechanics of control, modifying their behaviour as if they were being watched, regardless of whether they actually are" [3, p. 296], here Magid takes that awareness one step further. She willingly enters on "stage", so to speak. She knows where the cameras are, she knows where the searchlight of the Panapticon hits brightest and not only does she place herself right at its center but she does something else entirely; she turns it into a spotlight.
Evidence Locker, Jill Magid, 2004
"Evidence Locker", Jill Magid, 2004
The Gaze of the Eye of Power // The city as a stage, Magid as a performer

As it has already been mentioned, during the 31 period in which "Evidence Locker" was executed as a project, Magid wore a bright red raincoat. Whilst, partly the reason behind that was to facilitate the police department in spotting her on the surveillance footage, that wasn't the sole intent. Throughout her written communication with the police department the artist revealed most of her days and most of her feelings in detail; including events that would occur in places which were not surveilled, such as her own home. She spoke of her thoughts and her interests, one of which was French New Wave cinema. She told the policemen about Godard's films, teaching them about the artistic movement, and she extended both a plea and an invitation: to be filmed, when possible, in the style of the French New Wave. To be framed the way Godard would frame Brigitte Bradot.

This is where the Spectacle takes place. Magid takes the practice of surveillance and questions the practice of watching and being watched.
I will discuss this in two parts; the first will preoccupy itself with the theory of the visual pleasure male gaze as introduced by Laura Mulvey (1975) and how through her manipulation of her own image Magid gains agency. The second part will briefly discuss the self-consciousness we, as a society of the spectacle, have about the spectacle itself, the willingness we have in participating in it and the obsession with being seen and creating images that only grows with each new generation since the dawn of the internet.

One of the central concepts[10] Mulvey introduces is that of scopophilia. Of course, her central theory surrounding the male gaze is intertwined with the concept of scopophilia. She denotes in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" [10] two "contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking" [10, p. 61] – scopophilia and narcissism. These are points brought up both by Magid herself, who asks "Was the camera a fetish standing in for the system as a whole (that we imagine is there)?" [8, p. 3] and Finn [7] who talks about how "Magid's project brings the embodied visual pleasure of surveillance to light in two main ways" [7, p. 142] and both of these will be discussed, as they also come from the two sides of a relationship of watching – that of being the subject that is being viewed, and that of being the one who views.
Evidence Locker, Jill Magid, 2004
"Evidence Locker", Jill Magid, 2004
A very focal point of the entire experiment and a psychological tendency that was already introduced through Burnham's monologue [12] is the desire to constantly be performing, to be seen, to be noticed. It's a desire that arises naturally in a society such as that of the spectacle. When everything is mediated by images, when so many things are a representation of the thing rather than the thing itself, the individual that participates in this current starts to reflect on the image they themselves are emitting which is often coded and loaded with meaning, as any image is.

"Unlike the fear that someone is always watching (the big brother model) perhaps there is also a fear that no one is watching" [8, p. 5] It's a sentiment at the root of the project itself. When it comes to surveillance, when it comes to being seen, it is not longer as much of a debate – we, as a society, especially those that partake in the stream of social medias, are aware that our steps are traced, we see the images of others and thus in response are preoccupied with our own image. Magid not only executes the project in order to bring attention to the surveillance cameras that are all over the city of Liverpool or to create an intimate relationship with objects that are themselves images of power and authority (although that surely is part of it), but her approach to it is notable. "In Evidence Locker" the city becomes an enormous stage set with the city's police department as potential filmmakers and cameramen" [8, p. 5]. This is all the more evident through the act of dressing up in a red trench coat, of asking to be captured similarly to Bardot in "Contempt" (1963). Magid doesn't just appear in front of the cameras and she doesn't just communicate with the police department. She makes the conscious choice of playing a part of sorts, or conveying an image. Simply put, she makes the choice to not just exist in front of the camera, but to perform.
Furthermore, she employs the police sitting behind the screens of the CCTV cameras in the spectacle as well. The previously seen image of Magid smoking, for example, was somewhat directed so to speak by the police watch, who would instruct her which way to turn so that they could "get the shot".
Evidence Locker, Jill Magid, 2004
"Evidence Locker", Jill Magid, 2004
The relationship of watching and being watched, of course, presupposes two parties. Hence, another set of questions arise. "And if someone is there, is he or she observing in a deliberate, engaged manner, or through a passive, unaffected gaze?" [8, p. 5].
Let's say that earlier was discussed the narcissistic side of the structure of watching – the desire that the society of the spectacle has birthed to participate in it, to shine a light of one's own, to create one's own image. This still leaves us with the other side of the camera. We might want to be watched but we also enjoy watching others, and one doesn't need to look far in order to find proof. Just as much as we participate in the spectacle, just as much as we curate our image in social media, we spend an equal amount of time observing that of others. The big brother model, after all, resulted in the live television format of "Big Brother" a franchise that has existed within 54 different countries and is far from the only one. The dawn of reality television and its many, many faces is proof enough to show the irony of a society preoccupied with being watched and surveilled but also obsessed with watching strangers in their most intimate moments. And of course, one could argue to what degree reality television is truly reality, but in truth that does not matter much. Debord himself writes about a decrease of truth and increase of illusion that in itself creates sacredness [1, p. 5].

Through her questioning of the emotional agency of the viewer, Magid touches upon a very human question of, when we are mere observants to the image of someone else, do we engage with them? Do we see them as human beings or do we see them as just that, images of beings?

Finn [7], as mentioned earlier, makes a note of two types of embodied visual pleasure in Magid's project. The first is, as he calls it, "the pleasure derived by Magid and her camera operator as she tracked through Liverpool" [7, p. 143].

Here is received an answer to the question how impartial the camera operator remains, and that answer is not very. In his essay Finn [7, p. 169] highlights how Magid's project makes evident the shortages of CCTV cameras, which are "fragmented and incomplete" [7, p. 141] and leave the watchmen somewhat helpless themselves. Naturally, in this case it's different as they are in contact with Magid and yet it seems to succeed at humanizing the Panopticonic eye of power. Here is an excerpt of a transcript of a call between Magid and the cameraman, as found in Finn's essay [7, p. 142–143].
I called you before I left Rodney, at 6:34 pm, and told you that I was going out.
You asked where.
Water Street.
Should I follow you?
You can. I just wanted to let you know I was going out.
How long should I follow you?
Just as far as you want to.
I would follow you to the end of the world.
Motorcycle and all?
Would you like that?
Then I will. Don't talk to any strange men.
(Monday, February 2, 2004, Day 5)
Evidence Locker, Jill Magid, 2004
"Evidence Locker", Jill Magid, 2004
"Finally, on the last day of the project, Day 31, Magid and the camera operator literally ride off into the sunset on his motorcycle" [7, p. 143], as can be seen in the footage above. So by the end of the project the camera man, as Finn calls him, the representation of the Panopticon guards, participates in the spectacle as much as Magid does. Their riding off into the sunset can only be seen as one final performance.

The second type of visual pleasure derived from the project that Finn mentions, is his own. Thus, leading into the scopophilia introduced by Mulvey. It's interesting to, in the first place, question what kind of observer Finn is? What kind of observers are we? Are we like the guards of the Panopticon, simply reviewing surveillance footage? Are we the audience of a conceptual art piece, hence Magid's audience? Or are we viewing in a disconnected manner, the way we view reality television? Finn addresses his own surprise at his own interest and pleasure in watching Magid walk the streets of Liverpool, turn here and sit there, wearing her red trench coat[7]. He outlines the main contribution of her project as being "the way in which it compels a critical, self-reflexive examination of one's own engagement with and role in a surveillance society" [7, p. 145]. Perhaps the scopophilia like feeling the audience of Magid's artwork experiences is tightly related to the narcissism previously mentioned. One watches her cruise the streets in her red coat the one imagines being watched themselves, imagining a spotlight even as we're just walking to a bus stop, entering a grocery shop.


The truth is we cannot view Magid's 31 days walking around Liverpool as a simple documentation of real life. In a conference where she speaks about her work, called the "Art of surveillance" [5] she says that in order to finalize and create a single project by all the footage taken during Evidence Locker, at the end she is the one who selected the final footage to be used and edited it. In his paper Finn [7] references McGrath (2004) who "positions surveillance not as a unilateral or fixed activity – but as performative, as something that "comes about in the moment that we experience it" [7, p. 146].

Whilst Magid's project is conscious of surveillance, whilst she positions herself in front of the camera, and has chosen her signature look and is told which way to turn or blow her cigarette smoke, that kind of performativity is not limited to her nor to this project. It is a known saying that we act differently once we know we are being watched. That when suddenly the camera turns to us, regardless of what we do, it becomes performative.

If one were to browse through social media, it would be easy to find a large amount of photos people have taken of themselves on the screen of a surveillance camera at the entrance of a shop or building. There is agency to be found in staring back at the Eye of Power and saying "Well, if you're looking then I'm performing".

When asking ourselves how can we regain control of our image in a society that utilizes it, perhaps the answer is to simply be aware of that. Refusing to participate in the Spectacle doesn't need to be the only way we have agency of our image. Instead, perhaps to enjoy the act of performance can be a tool. Or perhaps a main lesson from Magid's work is to simply know where the cameras are and when they're on – and then make a personal choice what to do with that information.


1. Guy Debord. "Separation Perfected" (§1–34). Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1995. 12–24.
2. Michel Foucault, "The Eye of Power", CTRL Space: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Exh. Cat. Karlsruhe: ZKM, 2002. 94–101.
3. Sweeny, Robert W. "Visual Culture of Control", Studies in Art Education, vol. 47, no. 4, 2006, pp. 294–307. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Oct. 2020.
4. Harvard GSD. "Embedded: Jill Magid", uploaded by Harvard GSD. Oct 25, 2011
5. Magid, Jill. "Art of Surveillance", uploaded by poptech. Nov 6, 2015
6. Hall, Kita. "Performativity", Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 9, no. 1/2, 1999, pp. 184–187. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Dec. 2020.
7. Finn, Jonathan, "Surveillance Studies And Visual Art: An Examination Of Jill Magid' S Evidence Locker", Academia.Edu, 2012
8. Magid, Jill & Perier, Miriam, "Look!", About Jill Magid's work on surveillance and security tools, Cultures & Conflits [En ligne], Inédits de Regards sur l'entre deux, mis en ligne le 27 mars 2008
9. Pratt, Mary Louise, "Ideology and Speech-Act Theory", Poetics Today, vol. 7, no. 1, 1986, pp. 59–72. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Dec. 2020.
10. Mulvey, Laura, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Screen 16, no. 4 (1975)
11. Magid, Jill. Evidence Locker. 2004
12. Burnham, Bo. Make Happy. (Netflix) 2017
13. Simpson, Jon. Forbes. August 25, 2017 []


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