Panopticon style surveillance at Latitude

At Latitude festival this weekend the unrelenting heat was broken only by electric storms – a fitting backdrop to some powerful performances.

Panopticon by Steve Macleod

Source: Steve Macleod

The relative contemplative Faraway Forest was a place for shelter and reflection and home to a series of commissioned artworks.

The pick of the bunch was Panopticon by RPM Productions – a playful installation which explores the nature of surveillance, what it feels like to be an observer and what it feels like to be watched.

Over the course of the weekend the weary and unwashed would approach the apparently innocuous mirrored cube, some boldly and some with cautious curiosity.

Panopticon by Steve Macleod

Source: Steve Macleod

It would be the first mirrored surface many of them had seen for days and so a chance to preen, pout and in some cases squeeze spots.

Some thought the slightly rippled surface was an inert hall-of-mirrors style piece, while the more introverted standoffish could also be seen looking on from a distance.

Panopticon by Steve Macleod

Source: Steve Macleod

One side of the cube gave way to an open doorway and walking in the first thing you set eyes on is the back of your own head. A camera trained on the door sends video to a projector which beams images on to an inside wall of the cube.

As the screen changes it transpires there are cameras in the trees all over the woods watching the cube. This means that inside we can watch people watching themselves in the reflective surface, and then watch their reaction as they enter the cube as the penny drops.

Panopticon by Steve Macleod

Source: Steve Macleod

While it is on an immediate level a playful and engaging piece pitched at the broad demographic of the festival there’s a bit more to it.

RPM Productions founder Steve Macleod says, ‘It’s about the relationship of surveillance and CCTV and privacy and people’s right to it.’

The piece takes its title Panopticon from a prison system of the same name designed by philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century.

Panopticon by Steve Macleod

Source: Steve Macleod

A central surveillance tower in Bentham’s design meant that a single watchman could observe all inmates in cells surrounding the tower without the inmates knowing if they’re being watched.

Meanwhile Macleod says that he is ‘neither for or against surveillance’ but wants to ‘get people to debate and discuss the matter’ of civil liberties versus security.

He says the piece is particularly poignant as the Government has just fast tracked its Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill.

Panopticon by Steve Macleod

Source: Steve Macleod

Macleod says the piece ‘engages people in a serious debate in a fun way’ and forces people to ask ‘Who’s watching who? Who has ultimate control? Is CCTV a modern day metaphor for the Panopticon – do we behave differently if we know we care being monitored?’

Inside the cube there is also a timeline, which Macleod says offers ‘an educational snapshot of the journey of surveillance and intelligence gathering throughout history.’ 

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