Art

A 1960s Sci-Fi Series Takes on Renewed Relevance

A group show featuring the likes of Jenny Holzer and Harun Farocki frames the dystopian world of 1960s British TV show The Prisoner as a harbinger of 21st-century surveillance capitalism.

Jorge Rigamonti, "Nueva York Sigue Creciendo (New York Continues to Grow)"(1967), exhibition reproduction of paper on cardboard collage, 8 3/16 x 11 1/8 inches (image courtesy Helena Correa Rigamonti and carriage trade)
Jorge Rigamonti, “Nueva York Sigue Creciendo (New York Continues to Grow)” (1967), exhibition reproduction of paper on cardboard collage, 8 3/16 x 11 1/8 inches (image courtesy Helena Correa Rigamonti and carriage trade)

Many of the exhibitions at Lower East Side gallery carriage trade are conceived as case studies for analyzing the complex intersections between luxury urbanism, the attention economy, and the built environment. The Village, which features work by nine artists from various disciplines, is no exception. A central element here is the 1960s sci-fi television show The Prisoner, a slightly less pedantic predecessor to the dystopianism of recent shows like Black Mirror. Set in a postmodern cosmopolitan community known as “The Village” — which also serves as a prison — The Prisoner channeled Cold War anxieties to proffer critiques of state surveillance and the manufacture of consent. Furthermore, it questions the “freedoms” of the individualistic hero — in this case, a detained British spy indexed  as Number 6, who shouts in the show’s intro: “I am not a number. I am a free man!”

The four episodes of The Prisoner screening in the exhibition all deal with forms of control and incarceration that can be mapped onto the present. In episode one, “Arrival,” we’re introduced to the Village and its processes of surveillance and Disneyesque beautification. “Free for All” demonstrates the failures of liberal democratic electoral politics, while “Change of Mind” depicts harrowing social control via brainwashing, secretly administered sedatives, and cultivated mobs, which prefigure budding economies of affect structuring consumer identity-formation. Sharing the gallery’s back room is Harun Farocki’s “Prison Images” (2000), a video comprised of scenes from fiction and documentary films, as well as prison surveillance footage. Farocki narrates: “The camera before which the inmates pass has taken the place of God and king and commander-in-chief.”

Installation view, left to right: David Deutsch, Julia Scher, Jenny Holzer, Margia Kramer, Julia Scher (photo by Nicholas Knight, image courtesy carriage trade)
Installation view, left to right: David Deutsch, Julia Scher, Jenny Holzer, Margia Kramer, Julia Scher (photo by Nicholas Knight, image courtesy carriage trade)

When considered alongside the exhibition’s featured prints, videos, sculptures, collages, and archival material, The Village is presented as clearly analogous to our hyper-surveilled metropoles, alongside other architectural configurations, from the suburban single-family prefab home to the voyeuristic fixtures of the prison. Hudson Yards — the 26-acre apotheosis of astronomical real estate speculation and value production, enabled by the profitability of eviction and displacement, and enforced by racist policing at the behest of the “livable city” — is the explicit ghost haunting the space. The gargantuan gated community acting as data-collection mine has already begun accumulating the emotions, faces, and personal info of passerby to predict and inspire future consumption, an invisibilized corollary to the big brother biopolitics of The Village.

Seven collages by Venezuelan artist Jorge Rigamonti, dating from the 1960s and ‘70s, superimpose out-of-scale tech components onto postwar urban landscapes. They evoke the era’s idealistic tune of urban and suburban expansion in lockstep with information technologies on both sides of the iron curtain. Facing the collages is a large print of Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin” (1922–1925), his infamous proposal to overhaul Paris’ Marais into a sprawling orgy of mixed-use blocks. In the words of carriage trade director Peter Scott, the plan isolates Corbusier’s “disgust for the street.” The implicit and extrapolated horror of this planned growth creeps out from Rigamonti’s collages, if inadvertently. In “Fluidica Urbana 3” (“Urban Fluidity 3,” 1971), an early computer chip looms large over a mildly developed island — an army base, perhaps. “Ciudad Radical” (“Radical City,” 1966) places a bustling eight-lane freeway amidst chaotic wiring. The eeriest work, anticipating the development of the urban environment as playground and well of extraction for a techno-financial elite, is “Nueva York Sigue Creciendo” (“New York Continues to Grow,” 1967), in which huge electric towers dwarf the surrounding midtown skyline.

Harun Farocki, still from <em>Prison Images</em> (2000), video collage, b&w, 60 min. (Copyright Harun Farocki GbR, Berlin)
Harun Farocki, still from Prison Images (2000), video collage, b&w, 60 min. (Copyright Harun Farocki GbR, Berlin)

In the next room, one wall is occupied by black-and-white images of single-family suburban homes taken at night by David Deutsch from a helicopter or from a car. The homes are lit with a spotlight, recalling the spectacle aesthetics of crime shows. Across from Deutsch’s photographs, which mimic the techniques of surveillance “from above” (think analog Google Earth), is Margia Kramer’s 1979 “Essential Documents: The F.B.I. File on Jean Seberg: Part I.” The prints come from Kramer’s book, which reproduces redacted files from an abhorrent smear campaign against Seberg, the New Wave cinema icon of Breathless fame. The FBI meticulously fabricated a story that Seberg was having a child with a Black Panther Party member, branded her a “sex pervert,” and leaked it to tabloids. The violent surveillance and subsequent media firestorm turned Seberg’s life into a nightmare, leading to her suicide in 1979.

This room is patrolled on either side by two marble sculptures by Julia Scher, “Girl Dog (hybrid)” (2005). These muscular guards, attentively staring, materialize the typically hidden sense of pervasive observation. The state watches and interrogates, imprisons and kills, facilitated by an omnipresent gaze in the way of Deutsch’s peering spotlight, or by the violent entrance into private zones of intimacy as performed by the FBI onto countless victims of a self-protecting carceral system. The shift of this gaze to the private sector, from Amazon’s sale of facial recognition tech to ICE to social media data mining, brings to mind scholar Shoshana Zuboff’s characterization of surveillance capitalism as “a market-driven coup from above.” It’s not particularly clear, however, where exactly this above lies.

“The Chimes of Big Ben,” another episode of The Prisoner screening at carriage trade, follows Number 6’s well-orchestrated attempt to escape The Village by sea, air, and rail. After all this, he ends up back in The Village, suggesting that there is no outside, no exit. When Number 6 asks his captors which side they are on, he is told: “Both sides are becoming identical. One, in fact, has been creating an international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they’re looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern for the future.” In the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s become similarly clear that both projects of late neoliberal multiculturalism or forced nationalist integration foster segregated and inequitable regimes via the coordination of the architectures of surveillance, incarceration, and distribution.

Meanwhile, in the gallery’s back room, Farocki narrates cinematic portrayals of inmates as they are released from jail: “If we could see all the scenes in which someone was released from prison, we could put together an image of liberation.”

The Village, curated by Peter Scott, is on view at carriage trade (277 Grand St, 2nd Floor, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 12. 

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