Friday, 5 April 2013

Sixty-six Seconds of Criminological Video Art in Meymac (France): A Short Note on Cameras, Discipline and Resistance

By Ronnie Lippens, Professor of Criminology

Meymac is a small town in the Limousin region of France. The Limousin region is about the size of Yorkshire. Throughout the ages it has witnessed its fair share of war, atrocity, and hardship. ‘History’ we call these things. Do Google ‘Limousin’, or ‘Oradour-sur-Glane’, for example, and you’ll know what I mean. Wherever you go in the Limousin you are very likely to stumble across sleepy villages and small towns full of ancient buildings, either ruined or restored, that seem to be whispering something like this: ‘Yes we’ve seen it all, we’ve gone through everything, but look, we’re still here, but would you believe, we ain’t giving up just yet’. So yes, there is this massive weight of the past that seems to be dragging the landscape down into the stones and mortar of its ancient architecture. But you also have, in the Limousin, this spark of stubborn resistance against this very being dragged down that is almost palpable even in the tiniest of Limousin towns. It should be noted in passing that during the Second World War the Limousin was the heartland of the French resistance (La Resistance) against the Nazi occupying forces. Resistance is the Limousin’s middle name.

No, giving up is not the Limousin way. In a bid to revive the economic fortunes of the region the Limousin authorities have made serious attempts to encourage the arts and culture. Modern art (painting and sculpture in particular) were at the heart of their endeavours. Let us face the facts though: there isn’t a lot of sunshine around in the Limousin (you’d have to travel further south for that), and so the type of tourist that the Limousin authorities must have had in mind when they went all ‘modern art’, some 20 or so years ago, is bound to have been of the slightly cultured, slightly discerning, but not too wealthy variety (those who like the sunshine go elsewhere, and so do those who can afford it). Not that I myself am even remotely cultured or discerning (I hasten to add though that I think I can tell a Rembrandt from a Vermeer) but one thing that I can say is that my wife and I tend to spend time in the Limousin whenever we can. When we do we always make an effort to visit one of the region’s very many centres of modern art. They are everywhere. A short while ago we went to the “Centre d’Art Contemporain” in Meymac, another small Limousin town. The centre is housed in the nicely restored 11th century abbey of Saint André (now what did I tell you about the weight of the past and the spark of the new?). One of the installations drew my attention –as it would have any criminologist’s, it should be said. The installation I’m referring to here is a very short video (it lasts only 66 seconds) by the French artist Jacques Lisène who shot it in 1971. Remember that date. The title of the video is “Tentative de Dressage d’une Caméra” (in English: “An Attempt to Train (or Discipline) a Camera”). To be honest, video isn’t my medium. I’m much more a painting kind of person. But let me say a few words about the video regardless of my incompetence in all matters video art.

There isn’t much to be seen or heard in the video, to be frank. The frame is taken up by a man (I take it the artist himself) who simply but joyfully announces that the video is about an attempt to train (the word is used here in the sense of ‘discipline’) a camera. He quickly adds (in French of course) “in the twentieth century”). The rest of the video shows him looking straight into the lens of the camera (i.e. straight at us) whilst simultaneously commanding the camera (or us?) to first “look up, go upwards” (which the camera, or we ourselves, then do: the camera follows the artist’s hands upwards), then to “lay down” and “lay down, camera”. The camera dutifully follows the command and the hand downwards and, like a good dog, finally rests on the ground at the feet of the artist, to hear the latter murmuring, contentedly, “well done, well done”. And that’s it, that’s the 66 seconds gone. So then, what’s criminological about this video?

Well there is a lot that can be said about this short video. Let me just say a couple of things. The video is about discipline “in the twentieth century”. Whoever says “discipline”, says “Michel Foucault”. All sociologists and all criminologists of course know about the importance of Foucault’s work. One of his well known insights is the one into the crucial role and place of Panopticism in modern “disciplinary” societies. Modern industrial societies, claimed Foucault, have tended to discipline and indeed normalise whole populations according to principles that were already discernible in Jeremy Bentham’s plans (1787) for a circular prison, the Panopticon. Do have another look at your textbook on this point! As the word Panopticon suggests, the visual sphere is very important, indeed key, when modern discipline is concerned. It is the gaze of the controllers that is supposed to be doing a lot, if not most of the work of discipline. In late modern societies there is still some of that around e.g. in the massive deployment of CCTV cameras. Not that in late modern societies disciplined normalisation is still the ultimate goal of this Panoptic deployment, or, if it is, not that it will always be effective (on the contrary, one should think). But the link between the visual (the camera) and discipline can be made and it is this link that the artist Jacques Lisène was able to grasp and exploit in his short video, years before Foucault got down to work on his book about “discipline and punish”, and ages before anything even remotely resembling a CCTV culture was able to get a foothold, however feeble, in a place like France. Sometimes artists simply are ahead of the pack.

But the video tells us something more than just the above. In the video the work of discipline is not done by or through the camera. It is the camera itself that is being disciplined, or “trained”! That, the artist tells us, should be the nature of “dressage” in what remains of the twentieth century. In other words: it is not the gaze of those that hold cameras (or who watch and analyse what happens on monitors) that should discipline us; on the contrary, it is us who should discipline all those who hold cameras. We should gaze back at them. We should discipline them back. We should discipline back all those that wield disciplinary power. We should actually treat them like dogs; make them perform all kinds of tricks for us; make them kneel at our feet; give them treats, but only when we feel like it. I suppose that “resistance” is a word that could be used to describe what goes on in this video. It’s a word that is not all that much out of place in the Limousin. Now remember: Jacques Lisène shot his “resistance” video in 1971, at about the time when Foucault was getting involved himself with an activist group of academics and prisoners who were beginning to critically “gaze back” at the gazers. So here again: it seems the artist was slightly ahead of the activist pack.

The camera in Lisène’s video could also stand for “Hollywood”, i.e. the dream factory that, from the early “twentieth century” onwards, has been spouting images that have if not disciplined then certainly controlled, or at least pre-occupied the minds of billions of people. It could also stand for what has come to be known as consumer culture, i.e. the endless stream of mediatised images of “things to have” and “things to be” which so few are able to ...... resist. This is the kind of resistance that authors and philosophers such as Guy Debord were (and are) writing about. This is about resistance against the deep, tremendously deep ocean of consumer items and images that seems to structure, if not determine our desires, our thoughts, our actions, and our many, very many frustrations. Debord wrote his famous book “The Society of the Spectacle” on precisely this topic. It got published in 1967. In the book Debord asked himself the question about how one could possibly resist this consumerist tsunami. Four years later the artist Jacques Lisène seems to have come up with his own artful answer: treat this tsunami like a dog. Look it squarely in the eye. Make it kneel at your feet. Then give it a small treat. Whether or not Lisène’s answer is the right one, I leave open for now. Counter-discipline is still ...discipline. I’m not sure if real resistance should itself be built on discipline. Well I have a few ideas on this topic (and critics such as Debord had many more!), but those are for another contribution to this blog.

Let me conclude on a slightly different note: criminology is everywhere. You can find it in the shortest of video-installations in the tiniest of towns in the remotest of places. You can find it in art. Anywhere. Everywhere.

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