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Surveillance
Chris Petit, United Kingdom
Surveillance, 1993
Black and white video and sound
17 minutes
Selected by: ZKM_Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe
Visual Irony as Virus in Panoptic Structures: Logic of Fact and Anti-Truth in Chris Petit’s Surveillance

Created for the “BBC Late Show,” Surveillance is a ten-minute found–footage opera partly inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a kind of post-human involuntary thriller cinema. The film’s vocal commentary contains an emblematic Godard quotation, which explains the similarity between surveillance tapes and the silent movies of the Lumiére brothers, a cinema before stories or the industrial organization of shooting materials. It is a topographical record of time and casuality, where only the people, weather, and streets are acting.

Panoptism’s main obsession in the 21st century seems to be capturing fragments of truth in what is openly stated as an endless fiction. This tendency finds its expression, for example, in the soap-operatic “eavesdropping” of global television programs like Big Brother. In opposition to this, the entirety of Chris Petit’s television works is an attempt to reverse the same process, to mock a reality caught live and unaware, and to transform it into a sham for the unmasking in order to reveal the existence of a deeper level of deception within the apparently objective realm of images.

The main narrative adhesive of this fictionalized world, caught by hidden cameras, is found in the rhetorical use of the time of viewing as “real-time,” the officially recognized quality of “visual truth.” The ideology of surveillance only works in present tense, deleting any sense of criticizable or even interpretable history of past events. By shifting and assembling different times of the same event, or even different events in the presumed same time, Petit creates a sort of anti-truth in Surveillance, another dimension of the visual events analogous to what is called antimatter in physics. Petit breaks the panoptic illusion by inserting the possibility of doubt, multiplicity, and contradiction into the experience of real-time vision.


–Original text by Serafino Murri, freely abridged version
Chris Petit