michael j. morris

L’A./Rachid Ouramdane “World Fair” and Staging Surveillance

How is one to demonstrate surveillance? How might the body be put on display in such a way as to bring attention to the attention in/for which it is situated? What are the conditions for and effects of bodies being examined, and how might such conditions and effects become inscribed in/as “the body” itself? L’A./Rachid Ouramdane’s World Fair offered an ardently focused and meticulously measured multi-media rumination on the theatrical situation as a space of surveillance, while positioning this function of performance in the larger anxious landscape of the surveillance, recording, exploiting, and conditioning of the body at the levels of the state and national(ist) identities/histories.

from World Fair, photo by Patrick Imbert

Being surveilled produces the subject/body in a specific sense: a sense of suspension, a sense of anxiety, a sense of anticipation that inscribes the constant observing other as not only a persistent condition of sociality, but—on a phenomenological level—possibly even a constituting condition for our existence. The perhaps uncomfortable reality is that we appear far more for others than we do for ourselves; those who see us see more of us—more of our bodies—than we can ever see of/for ourselves, making our appearance in the world inherently social, and our experience of sociality inherently about seeing and being seen. I found these facets of social existence to be central to World Fair. From “before” the performance began (I say “before” because in this vein of thought it seems important to acknowledge that “the performance” is more of a constant/persistent state of being than it is something that can be demarcated by theatrical spaces, tickets, audience seating, and a specified 8:00pm start time), as the audience was ushered into the performance space, we were directed (itself possibly worthy of comment) to only enter from one side of the audience seating, an entry that necessitated walking past Ouramdane, already displayed on stage. He stood stationary on a large turntable that rotated slowly, displaying the three-dimensionality of his body. His eyes were closed, and it seems to me that this in itself might have functioned as an initiation into the recurrent themes of the piece: we as viewers began in a more-or-less compulsory encounter with the performer, whose closed eyes reminded me that this performance situation (all stage performance situations?) was organized around the axis of our viewing, and his being viewed by us.

Yet Ouramdane’s performance did not situate himself/his body as a passive receptor of our gaze. Throughout the performance, he demonstrated his own complicity in this surveillance of his body: removing his shirt at the start of the performance, a gesture that seemed somehow both medical (“Go ahead and take your shirt off”) and criminal (think strip search), while also more subtly addressing gender itself as a form of surveillance (the removal of the shirt as a kind of confession or confirmation: “Yes, see here, I am indeed a man. Rest assured that there is no ambiguity about my gender/sex, and that, yes, this is an identification that can be made/affirmed by way of my own visibility”); pushing the large counter-weighted light/camera rig hanging center stage as if it were a millstone, contributing his own kinetic energy and strength to the circulation of illumination and recording, both of which at various points mediated his own visibility; the raising on the flat screen television high into the air as if hoisting the national flag, a “national symbol” that was ostentatiously alternatively recorded and live-feed images of the performer himself. In each instance, he revealed his own complicity in the formation of the ways in which he would/could be seen.

I could not help but feel further implicated in this power play of seeing and being seeing by virtue of my position as a member of the audience. Although there were several stage devices that seemed invented for this particular production (namely the large light/camera rig that hung ominously in the center of the stage), by and large, the materials through which this performance was conducted were those of the theater: the relatively intimate proscenium stage, the organization of the audience in relation to the performer, and—most notably—the stage lights. While it is certainly possible to consider this piece for its relationship to—and even commentary on—the world beyond the theater, it is important to recognize that any such relationship or commentary was carried out through these rarefied theatrical tropes. In this sense, although the politics of seeing and being seen that were addressed by the performance extend far beyond the context of the event itself, such extensions never fully evacuate the theater; the political and cultural history and tropes of the theater itself functioned in this piece as both the means of articulation and, to some degree, that which was itself articulated. Large grids of white theatrical lighting hung high above the four corners of the stage, and throughout the performance, their illumination suggested the possibility of visibility from all sides. Although my visual perspective was limited to my particular seat, the activation of these lights on all sides of the performer gave me sense of being able to see even that which was not visible from my point of view.

Circularity was a theme throughout the performance: Ouramdane circled on a turntable at the start of the performance; a small siren-shape sound amplifier circled; the large rig suspended center stage circled; the performer himself circled the space over and again; finally, at various points, the light itself circled, moving from grid to grid in a way that for me evoked a prison yard. But what could possibly be the connection between this theatrical space and a prison yard?

Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish that, “Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere,” (195). He proceeds to discuss Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison designed to heighten the visibility of the prisoners in such a way that the experience of constant surveillance becomes internalized, a perceptual prison that forms from an internalized sense of being seen.

Foucault writes that the principles of the panopticon are opposite those of the dungeon. “In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap,” (200). He continues: “… Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,” (201). The last point I would like to borrow from Foucault follows: “The heaviness of the old ‘houses of security,’ with their fortress-like architecture, could be replaced by the simple, economic geometry of a ‘house of certainty’. The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side – to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection,” (202-203). What Foucault suggests is that the effect of the panopticon, the prison in which the prisoner is fully visible at all times, and in which the prisoner can never fully verify whether or not he is being watched, becomes internalized by the prisoner. The constant awareness of the possibility of being seen restrains him; this sense of internalized anxiety becomes his prison.

This model of the panopticon is pervasive in our modern world. We live in an age of constant surveillance, of our bodies, of our borders, of our information, of others, and of ourselves. We police our own behaviors, our social selves, our gender, etc., always with the anxiety of being seen and the consequences of being seen. Because of its formal properties—the light, open space in which three-dimensional visibility was emphasized time and again, the repetition of the circular form through which such visibility was both evoked and achieved, the circulation of static and moving recorded and live-feed images—themselves demonstrating either their own histories as sites of inspecting/recording the body or the very instance of inspecting a re-presenting the body, the suggestion of the racialized history of minstrelsy and the expropriation/exploitation of bodies encompassed by that history through the brief and unexpected tap dance wearing white face, etc.—World Fair operated in logics similar to those of the panopticon. And it was not only the performer who was enacted through these logics: throughout the performance, Ouramdane’s musical collaborator Jean-Baptiste Julien entered the space and looked directly into the audience, a reminder of our own visibility, our own implication in these regimes of surveillance and regulation.

I have heard several of my colleagues and my students say that World Fair felt incomplete, unfinished, or unresolved. I would like to suggest that this is perhaps the nature of power as it operates through visibility and surveillance: its efficacy is not purely in its ability to follow through, to exact punishment for the transgressions that it observes. Rather, its true power is in the constant state of anticipating such consequences, the internalized apprehension of what might happen, what could happen. By never fully delivering a satiating climax or resolution, Ouramdane’s performance effected a sense of anticipation that I then carried with(in) myself, unfulfilled and unresolved. Like the performance itself, I can never fully predict the consequences of my own visibility, and thus I live with a constant uncertainty and anticipation of how I might be seen. As disorienting as this might seem, the anxiety of visibility, the constant state of uncertain anticipation, and one’s implication in vast systems of seeing and being seen, may in fact be formative of who and what we are. These effects of power are inherent in sociality, and—in ways I will not attempt to explicate here—being itself depends on sociality. Thus, it seems, Ouramdane’s performance of the situation of surveillance is not limited to a commentary on the theater or even the political sphere. To address surveillance seems to address the conditions of ontology itself.

[I had the opportunity to see World Fair on 22 October 2011, at the Wexner Center for the Arts]

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

1 Comment so far
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hi Michael! I found your blog the other day searching some combination of dance, deleuze, schizoanalysis and 1000 plateaus….I made a mental note to ask a friend who studied dance at osu recently (Mara), only to discover that you two are buddies! I am very jealous that you saw the wexner exhibit because a)i didn’t know about it and b)i’ve been in nm for the last three months and it will probably be gone before i get back in a couple of weeks and c)they fascinate me and i would’ve given a leg to go to the recent wf in china. ok, that is all for now! lets talk in person soon 🙂

Comment by Arglooblahaah

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