Getting away with it – pvi collective’s adventures on the dark side of technology

'David goes to work' from pvi collective's panopticon: Sydney (MCA, 2004)

photo credit: tamera dean, from pvi collective's website

In order to celebrate the current production in Perth of pvi collective's latest work 'inform', here's some notes about their ongoing series of works titled 'panopticon'.

Perth-based media arts group pvi collective describe themselves in the following terms:

"responding to sociological, psychological, technological and legal perspectives on the relationship between risk and freedom. pvi often engage the public within their artworks - offering up survival tactics for living in the 21st century and activating viewers through eccentric acts of intervention, on the streets, on-screen and in any other spaces they can get away with..." (pvi collective website)

While they continually push the legal and logistical envelope, they don’t always ‘get away with it’, with these failures becoming a key part of meaning generation of the artworks. In other words, pvi’s work continually risks failure, and the failures this produces through the intervention of State agents (security guards, police, etc) or technological breakdown (exposing the limits of the technological investigated and/or deployed) make the subject of the work abrasively visible.


The panopticon project investigates personal privacy in an ever-increasingly monitored and surveilled public space. Referencing of course Michel Foucault's take on Jeremy Bentham's notion of the panopticon as a perfect prison in which the inmates would be able to be continually surveilled without being able to see their oversee-er, pvi collective's panopticon is an ongoing series of artworks responding most particularly to CCTV surveillance of public space. This surveillance is enacted in the name of public safety but has worrying implications for the privacy of citizens. While John E McGrath does usefully question the underpinning of many of the privacy-based objections to video surveillance in his excellent book Loving Big Brother (2004), in the panopticon project pvi collective nonetheless engage in a fascinating series of artistic interventions into public spaces and their control by surveillance, engaging in their own, often extremely eccentric acts of what McGrath describes as "counter-surveillance".

There have been several distinct outcomes of this project between 2002 and 2004 (subsequent to these there's also been panopticon: brisbane in 2007). The first stage was titled panopticon: scanning the big slab, and was performed in the company's home town of Perth. The performance recruited a number of volunteer informants to gather information on the movements of citizens through the city. Trained as 'operatives', each was given a codename inspired by the film Reservoir dogs, Mr Brown, Mr Pink etc, and costumed as what the company described as various "low level authority figures". These included, bizarrely enough, nurses, parking police, and Santa Claus.

Kate Neylon, the controller and narrator of the performance roamed the streets dressed as Santa Claus. She directs the performance by reporting into cameras hidden inside teddy bears around the city, including several in phone boxes surrounding the building in which the performance takes place (PICA, in James St, Northbridge). This could be seen as just plain silly, or perhaps as a tangential reference to the Soviet practice of hiding explosives in toys left on the side of the road that would be picked up by Mujahideen children during the 1980s war in Afghanistan (as far as I know the Coalithion of the Willing hasn't tried that yet). Perhaps this use of the 'teddy cam' anticipated the recent release of Microsoft's teddy bear that can maintain video surveillance of young children by their parents, and even, if deemed necessary, speak to the child through in-built speakers in the voice of the parents. It's clear that even the more ridiculous elements of pvi's work often have more disturbing undertones.

The action inside the theatre is a more of a gameshow, in which contestants also known by colour, in this case red and blue, struggle to retain their privacy. The loser at the conclusion of the performance has his home are raided by one of the anonymous members of the public, known only to the performers by their codename. This staged struggle to attempt to preserve privacy, and yet being unable to effectively do so informs the investigation of future stages of the panopticon project.

A residency in Taipei in 2003 saw pvi collective experiment with strategies to circumvent the extremely high number of security cameras around the city, cameras that continually monitored the movements of civilians in this highly militarised society (Taiwan is of course under continual threat of invasion from the People's Republic of China, at least psychologically). In the end they settled on something they saw on street every day, the humble umbrella. Using standard and modified umbrellas, the company provided what they described as a 'privacy protection service' with which they offered to escort members of public on their daily journey through public space. The final setup was an wearable bubble made from umbrellas which was designed to completely encase the torso of the member of the public in order to protect their privacy. Their identity is protected from the surveilling eye, but in order to achieve this they must sacrifice their ability to see for themselves, relying on the eyes of the artists to guide them on their way.

This setup was replicated in panopticon: Sydney, a project hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art for their Primavera exhibition in 2004. Five members of the public were invited to use the service to undertake journeys around Circular Quay area, possibly the most highly regulated and surveilled section of Sydney. The journey is ranged from visiting the local market, to posting a letter, taking a ferry ride, and attending a bar. I participated in the project by undertaking a journey to work, travelling the seemingly simple route from the Museum of contemporary Art to the Sydney Opera house, a trip that took over an hour (for context, its about a ten minute walk normally), and was ultimately terminated as the number of security personnel trying to order a halt to proceedings began to outnumber the artists and documenters. It seems that even threatening to interrupt the smooth flow of surveillance space is a problem for those who watch over us. Authority, it seems, must also be allowed to see all, but their agents do not understand jokes about transparency.

Documentation of these journeys, audio and video, as well as other ephemera from the performance actions, including the umbrella bubble itself, was displayed at the MCA. The curator of the exhibition, Vivienne Webb, described the work in the following terms:

“The lateral, even dysfunctional re-use of the ubiquitous umbrella in the panopticon series posits old technology against new, as well as the individual against the system. Instead of protection from natural elements, the umbrella is utilised as a barrier against invasive technology. Patently inadequate to the task, its very failure poetically highlights the extensive use of technologies of control within our public spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating both the vulnerability of the individual and their capacity for resistance.” (Primavera 2004 catalogue, p 21)

It is the failure of this home-made technology to effectively challenge the technological power it engages that provides the power of these works. It is only in the artwork's failure to enact social change, and to make this failure public, that the technological paradigm it critiques can be made visible - no longer part of the background of everyday life, but rather an abrasively visible problem that must be dealt with in the domain of everyday life. As Webb suggests, it is the very inadequacy of the artwork's materials and strategies that open up possibilities for everyday civic interventions into the systems that monitor and attempt to control the lives of citizens. The very ridiculousness of these methods - the teddy camera, the Santa suits, and the bubble of umbrellas - foreground the human scale of the pvi collective project. The fact of the human scale of these acts of ridiculous resistance makes the project endearing. That it can continue to be so given the seriousness of their political project makes the artwork even more special.

pvi collective's current work inform is playing throughout the suburbs of Perth until June 30. More details of this and other work by the company can be found online.

version 1.0 were guest artists on pvi collective's TTS: Australia in 2005.


Popular Posts