Spectacle of Surveillance

Jules Spinatsch. Vienna MMIX-10008/7000: Surveillance Panorama Project 4, The Vienna Opera Ball, 2014

‘Spectacle of Surveillance’, an essay by David Campany for Jules Spinatsch’s project book Vienna MMIX-10008/7000: Surveillance Panorama Project No. 4 – The Vienna Opera Ball. Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, Zürich, 2014.


Spinatsch Vienna MMIX grid


Spectacle of Surveillance

 by David Campany

The Vienna State Opera House. A state-of-the art surveillance camera system. The annual Vienna Opera Ball of 2009. Jules Spinatsch’s Vienna MMIX brings together three distinct structures of looking, three regimes of power, three orders of the modern image, three conceptions of spectacle, three philosophies of time and three registers of space. What follows is a consideration of an artwork that is emblematic of the perplexing and often fraught experience of images today.

The Opera House

The Vienna Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) was completed in 1869. While its style is typically neo-Renaissance, its form is an idealized expression of mid-nineteenth century spectacle and power. By that time, opera had become an integral part of the social calendar for Europe’s high society and political elites. The layout of the Vienna Opera House was modern not so much for the view of the stage offered to the audience but the view the audience was offered of itself. The plan optimizes the number of boxes viewable from each box and from the seats in the stalls. While not the grandest opera house, it was the most suited to its social purpose. In the Second World War aerial bombing by American planes destroyed it substantially, but by 1955 the opera house was rebuilt and in full use once more.

The Ball

Since 1935 the annual Vienna Opera Ball has had an international standing as a rather smug and self-congratulatory dressing-up party for the day’s dubious mix of politicians, businessmen, debutants and imported celebrities. In the long and luxurious evening, attendees prop up their reputations and grease the wheels of power with an appeal to “tradition”. At the Ball there is no need for the pretext of a performance on the stage: all the seats in the stalls are covered over by a ballroom floor, while tiers of extra boxes are erected on the stage to complete the narcissistic, self-gazing circuit. For decades the more easily pleased of the world’s media have routinely lapped up the glitz and publicized the evening with all the bogus bonhomie of the Ball itself. Back in 1968 British Pathé News filmed the event in color and provided this voice-over narration:

“Four hundred of Europe’s top debutants and their hand-picked escorts set the seal on the social season at the Opera Ball. Austrian President Franz Jonas arrives. Protocol is strictly observed. In the tiered boxes decorated with forty thousand carnations the elite of Europe await the President’s consent. To the strains of a Viennese waltz the biggest social event in Europe is launched. In fitting style to the glitter and glamour of the five star occasion the debs and their partners make way for the Ballets Corps: a high class interlude at a high society event.”[i]

You get the idea. Even in this short passage there is empty repetition and hyperbole, glossed up with the clichés of populist journalism. Given the spirit of 1968 it’s not surprising that the Ball was the subject of a protest that year. A hundred students accused the organizers of being elitist, conceited and reactionary. There were even clashes with police outside. Regular protests followed. In 2000 the actor Hubsi Kramar dressed as Adolf Hitler, arrived in a limo and walked into the opera house claiming to be back. It was a protest against the newly elected ultra right wing President Jörg Haider and his party. But the Ball still goes on.


In 2009 Jules Spinatsch suspended two interactive network digital cameras in the center of the Vienna Opera House. They were programmed to track incrementally, taking in the entire space, ceiling to floor. One image was recorded every 3 seconds between the start of the Ball at 8.32 pm and its conclusion at 5.17 am. 10,008 photographs in total. While doing so the cameras together completed two full rotations, so every spot in the opera house was covered exactly twice during the evening.

This camera system was developed in 2003, as part of Temporary Discomfort, Spinatsch’s remarkable extended study of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and G8 summits. Security at such events is intense: dissent is minimized and exposure of the powerful coterie of politicians and business leaders is strictly controlled. Press coverage is confined to staged “photo opportunities”. Working with Reto Diethelm, an engineer with expertise in the programming of network cameras, Spinatsch planned to record a time-lapse panorama of one of the protests in Davos. He explains:

“I wanted to work on par with the security forces and to subversively turn their technology against themselves. Just like in a high–tech war I wanted to create images without being physically present by using remote–controlled cameras […] Our goal was to condense as much information, spatial as well as temporal, in a high–resolution panorama. Our headquarters was the library, closed for security reasons, at the border of the cordoned-off area – seven days of lonely programming and data evaluation. The precisely calculated arbitrariness of the surveillance cameras turned into a high–tech farce on the day of the protest. We had to start the camera without exactly knowing when and from where the protest would start. The cameras recorded the entire time frame, yet only one protester is there to be seen, since the movement of camera B and the protest were off–synch.”

Nevertheless the results spoke powerfully, if indirectly, about the contemporary relation between visual surveillance, knowledge and the orchestration of power today. What might those cameras have possibly recorded? And what would be the status of those images? While the protest might constitute some kind of theater of civic opposition, the summit meetings themselves (men and women sitting at tables or milling in corridors) would most likely have offered only distraction to the mute camera. After all, it is what is said at these summits that matters, and this may have little or no visual register at all. But photography was borne of a nineteenth century idea that vision is the sense connected most intimately and most nobly with knowledge and truth. The assumption, or more exactly the desire was that the meaning of the world could be found inscribed and legible upon its surface, and thus freely available to photography. Today we are less inclined to think that way, partly because we are skeptical about vision and images, partly because so many of the forces that now shape our world are electronic and thus invisible. Could Spinatsch’s imaging only ever aspire to dramatize the inadequacies of contemporary sight?

Since Temporary Discomfort Spinatsch’s subsequent Surveillance Panorama Projects have been further explorations of this question. The results exist somewhere between evidence and metaphor. In 2005 he recorded the duration of a Switzerland vs. France football world championship qualifier, at the Stade de Suisse. In 2006, he documented a municipal meeting in the grand council chambers in Toulouse. In June 2012 he documented twenty-four hours of the new Frankfurt Stock Exchange (while deals are entirely computerized, the design of this new building mimics an old-fashioned “trading floor”, complete with a visitor gallery to view this faux-spectacle). The images were relayed in real time to the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and mounted on the walls throughout the opening day of an exhibition. Also in 2012, he documented a day of the operations of the Traffic Control Center in Flüelen, Switzerland. Produced in 2009 the Vienna MMIX project sits in the middle of this series but it is the one that best expresses the complex interplay of historical and contemporary models of spectacle and surveillance.

Optics, Panoptics, Oligoptics

Before this line of thinking gets too convoluted let us return to what has become the locus classicus for the study power and surveillance in the nineteenth century. The panopticon was a radically new design for a penitentiary conceived by the social reformer Jeremy Bentham in 1791. It is known to present day audiences largely through the writings of Michel Foucault. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), Foucault famously describes it thus:

“The plan is circular: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre a tower pierced with many windows. The building consists of cells; each has two windows: one in the outer wall of the cell allows daylight to pass into it; another in the inner wall looks onto the tower, or rather is looked upon by the tower, for the windows of the tower are dark and the occupants of the cell cannot know who watches, or if anyone watches.”[ii]

The parallels and differences between the panopticon and the opera house are clear enough. Spinatsch’s camera confirms them and makes them thinkable. The panopticon was motivated by two factors. Firstly, a rationalizing of the exercise of power and punishment: in principle only one “all seeing eye” would be required to survey the many inmates. Secondly, subjecting inmates to this omniscient, God-like supervision might lead to the internalizing of this gaze and thus to a kind of docile self-regulation before the law. Power administered through coercion morphs into power administered by consent. This was the idea, although as Foucault was at pains to point out, no system of power is ever total.

At a more general level the psycho-spatial principles of the panopticon extended beyond the penal system to the architecture of modern city planning, factories, hospitals, schools and out into the precincts of spectacle and leisure: the shopping arcades, theaters and opera houses. The culture of consumption and the consumption of culture became expressions of social hierarchy.

In recent decades it has often been argued that those older dynamics of power have been superseded by implicit, electronic and invisible methods. Mark Poster expressed this particularly clearly:

“The techniques of discipline no longer need rely on the methods of regulating bodies in space as Foucault thinks. In the electronic age, spatial limitations are bypassed as restraints on the controlling hierarchies. All that is needed are traces of behavior; credit card activity, traffic tickets, telephone bills, loan applications, welfare files, fingerprints, income transactions, library records, and so on. On the basis of these traces, a computer can gather information that yields a surprisingly full picture of an individual’s life. As a consequence, panopticon monitoring extends not simply to massed groups but to the isolated individual.”[iii]

This is what has come to be called “oligoptics”, the dispersed regime lacking a dominant, central vantage point. Poster was writing in 1984, at the onset of a range of now very familiar practices: electronic banking, telesales, virtual networking, and new digital archives of the police, medicine, education and so forth. These practices have led directly to the mass harvesting of data and the construction of citizen profiles that now characterize contemporary life. It’s a familiar argument. The password replaces the signature, SMS and email replace letter writing, and abstract data replaces the analogue photograph.

In his short but influential essay Postscript on Control Societies (1990), Gilles Deleuze also called for an urgent consideration of this new order. But he also realized it would never entirely replace the old one. “It may be”, he wrote, “that the older means of control, borrowed from the old sovereign societies, will come back into play, adapted as necessary.”[iv] He was quite right. The shift from a spatialized order to virtualized order cannot be total. Indeed, globally speaking most people’s working lives and leisure lives are no less institutionalized, rationalized and surveyed today than they were a hundred years ago. Migrant labor washes about the globe on a vast scale in pursuit of factory and office employment – the concrete consequence of abstracted international markets. Prison populations in many industrial and so-called post-industrial countries are increasing. The years of education and sheltered old age are extending. Our main streets and squares are occupied by citizens demanding change in the ways political and economic power is exercised. Cinemas, theaters, and sports arenas have not closed. And neither have opera houses. The Ball at the Vienna Opera lives on as a nostalgic evocation of the panoptic epoch, while affirming the fact that power and spectacle still operates in some way at the level of face-to-face encounter.

No doubt the sheer physicality of attending a social congregation, be it a riot or an opera ball is itself redefined by a life also lived electronically. And this may account for the vaguely “retro” feeling that such events evoke. But this does not make them any less “contemporary”. They are, to put it bluntly, a consequence of the fact humans are unavoidably physical and mobile beings, with a sensorium fit for three dimensions. Our structures of sociability and power (we cannot separate them) will always be at least in part spatial and geographic.

Look at the individual images captured by Spinatsch’s cameras at the Vienna Opera Ball. So many of the participants seeming bored, vague, distracted, nervous, even anxious. Many are holding their mobile phones. But they hold them not to their ears but to their eyes. They photograph each other, to remind themselves that this dream world, this orgy of power bonding, is happening and they are part of it. Perhaps there’s nothing entirely new there: the mobile phone camera is the logical extension of opera glasses. But what is extended is the symbolic reach of the event, out beyond the physical walls of the opera house and into the virtualized space of telecommunication and the internet. The Ball is nothing without its travelling image proxies. A nineteenth century opera house attended by twenty-first century people, trying to enjoy not knowing quite where or when they are.

Panoramic, Photographic, Cinematic

Once Spinatsch’s apparatus is set in motion there is no predicting precisely what human activity will be captured or how it will be framed. The scene is trawled systematically but indiscriminately. It records gestures, forms compositions and proposes information, all without intention. In this we can draw a line from Spinatsch’s projects back through the “time and motion” photographic studies of the early twentieth century all the way to the pioneers of “chronophotography”, Edward Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1870s and 1880s. And the same ambiguity is present: is the enactment of an imaging system the guarantee of some kind of objectivity, or is it a new technologically determined aesthetic that is compelling?


Vienna MMIX, 360° Circular Panorama, Resselpark, Karlsplatz Vienna, 2011

The collected results can either be left to stand unedited or choices can be made using criteria that come after the fact. Spinatsch has pursued both approaches. In 2011 Vienna MMIX was installed as a 360° panorama in Resselpark, Karlsplatz Vienna, 2011. (Since the images were captures panoramically, it is a least logical to present them this way.) The 10,008 images were arranged as a chronological grid, the beginning of the evening at the Ball wrapping around to meet its end. But instead of placing the spectator at the center surrounded by the view, Spinatsch put the panorama on the outside, inverting the space of the Opera House to allow viewers to encircle it. The socially exclusive interior is exposed to a democratic exterior. Subversively then, the cavorting elite at the Ball is put on display for all of Vienna’s citizens to see.

Historically the panorama was always an ambiguous form. On one level it could foster a gaze that was grounded and surveying, with a certain mastery of the world it depicted. The wide expanse of the panorama, coupled with its tendency toward epic spectacle, could lend a representation an air of confidence and stability. It could allow space and time to be brought under one system of vision and one symbolic order. It also dramatized that space, presenting it as a heroic stage for future action. The viewer was centered and lucid, imbued with power and promise. Used in this way the panorama played an important part in the establishment of the bold self-image of modernity.

At the same time however, the panorama retains the potential to offer more than any viewer can really cope with, more than they can encompass or understand. Literally, the viewer may not be able to “take it all in”. The panorama might aspire to a mastery of the scene but viewers can easily lose their sense of control in the unbounded scope. The panorama always threatens to rob us of our safe co-ordinates. Its rational intention can have the inverse effect of unsettling us. Spinatsch seems to understand this double character. His panoramas are made with the sobriety of a scientific study but the results are wild, unpredictable, full of chance, vast and beyond comprehension.

In other contexts the project has been exhibited as VIENNA MMIX– Plan B, a series of thematic grids of between 24 and 120 selected blow-ups, along with a timeline and the program of the evening at the Ball. To select any image from a flow recorded systematically is to introduce new modes of attention. Think of the way the pause button can liberate a single frame from the continuum of a movie. Roland Barthes called this the “Third Meaning”: beyond the narrative structure, beyond the intended connotations the acts of arrest and selection let loose the wild and anarchic possibilities that lurk in every optical image.[v] Spinatsch selects frames to show how the camera picks up inexplicable but loaded glances between people, abstract patterns of light, fabric and architecture, and even atmospheric dust glowing in the beams of colored light. Are those particles traces of previous Opera Balls?

But these images are never entirely independent. While each frame may be unique and autonomous, it also belongs to the set and system that brought it into being. With this in mind Vienna MMIX now culminates in a book that explores both of these aspects. Volume I comprises double spreads each showing in grid form a recorded column of thirty-six consecutive images, from ceiling to floor. Each spread presents approximately a minute at the Ball. Something of the panoramic structure remains but the sequential architecture of book pages brings the experience much closer to something cinematic. Not quite a flip-book, not quite a picture-story but something in-between. Volume II presents a selection of frames without order. No chronology, no system. Here the experience is more pictorial, each tableau offered up for consideration in terms of its intrinsic qualities. Jules Spinatsch has arrived at an elegant form that admits all the resonances and potential readings of his project.


As I write these words various stories and scandals of surveillance are international news. The Edward Snowden, who comprehensively exposed the workings of the American spy program PRISM, is in limbo in Russia. The Guardian newspaper has mockingly published an image of the smashed hard drives that contained Snowden’s data (clearly it is impossible to prove one does not possess electronic information).

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Google, Apple and Facebook are in tailspins, watching their global reputations flip from hippy liberationists of the information age into sinister corporations. Meanwhile much of the most significant art of recent years, including Jules Spinatsch’s projects, is urgently trying to find new strategies that will express something of this new situation. How do we give form to the widespread tensions between the concrete and the abstract, locality and dispersal, privacy and publicity, exhibitionism and voyeurism, leisure and control, history and the present, data and images, frames and sequences, vision and knowledge, surveillance and spectacle?

[i] http://www.britishpathe.com/video/opera-ball

[ii] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books 1977/1995, p. 200.

[iii] Mark Poster, Foucault, Marxism, History, Polity Press, 1984, p.103

[iv] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies’ (1990), Negotiations 1972-1990, Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 177-182.

[v] Roland Barthes, ‘The Third Meaning’ (1970), Image-Music-Text, Fontana Press, 1977.