Conceptual artist, Giselle Stanborough considers the boundary between the public and private spheres in the context of online life. 

Elizabeth Harris  |  Ed Francesca Gransden  |  28 July 2020

Is TikTok the modern panopticon? In her first major solo exhibition, Cinopticon, Australian intermedia artist Giselle Stanborough examines social media voyeurism and digital narcissism in a new performance-installation. On display online and at Carriageworks (Sydney), Cinopticon encourages us to look beyond the glassy surface of our iPhones and consider the nature of digital interaction.

© Courtesy of the artist.

Cinopticon takes its name from the concept of the panopticon. First developed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham as an architectural structure comprised of a central watchtower surrounded by cells, the panopticon was conceived as a method of allowing a single watchperson to surveil numerous inmates at once. The development of self-regulating behaviours and adherence to authority caused by the structure was applied by Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, as a metaphor for modern disciplinary society. In Cinopticon, the disciplinary society has developed into a viewer society – technology and mass media allow the many to observe the few.

© Courtesy of the artist.

Stanborough provides an opportunity for the performed selves we present on platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat to be physically replicated: their invasive presence made tangible. At the centre of the dimly lit exhibition space is an installation of two-way mirrors, interspersed with mirrors and windows. As the viewer walks among the panes, they alternately see themselves, others, or nothing at all. Constantly watching and being watched, visitors physically play out their impulse for digital narcissism – the black, glassy surface of our phones and our cyber-spectators are magnified, confronting us in real life. Around the gallery space, the black walls are painted with manic, scrawled diagrams, analysing online surveillance practices and user-generated content through a psychoanalytic lens. 

© Courtesy of the artist.

A roving searchlight constantly scans the gallery space, symbolising the ‘eye of surveillance’. Stanborough’s 21st century Big Brother is not a government, but mass online corporate surveillance at one end of the scale, and at the other, anyone who can monitor your life through social media. The intent of the sweeping light is uncertain: it is not only the searchlight of the panopticon watchman, but also the spotlight of a stage. There is a tension within us – the watched – between wanting to evade constant surveillance and the desire to perform for our inevitable online audience. In the digital era, our fates are increasingly being manipulated by algorithms and unknown forces; it’s unclear whether we should avoid or seek the spotlight. 

Stanborough has been active on TikTok throughout the pandemic, engaging directly with the technologies she examines in Cinopticon. Sharing 15-second TikTok videos on her account, @ThirstyTheory, Stanborough melds philosophy with pop culture soundbites. In one clip, Stanborough primps and preens to a song by Doja Cat with the caption ‘Me becoming a beauty blogger because Danto says beauty transforms raw grief into tranquil sadness’. In the exhibition space, Stanborough extends this fragmentation, voicing a soundscape of comments, texts, iPhone notes and ads from her own internet browsing, emphasising the simultaneous fracturing and merging of information in our online lives. 

©  Giselle Stanborough, Cinopticon, 2020, Carriageworks.

Cinopticon is digital art without the ‘digital’ being present. By stripping away the digitised elements of her subject matter, Stanborough forces us to see technology as a  ‘real’ force in our lives, rather than an ethereal presence which merely facilitates interaction and information sharing. Foucault once asked ‘[C]ouldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?’ To say every TikTok video is a work of art may be a stretch, but Stanborough illustrates how they can express the decontextualizing and recontextualising of media content to serve creative impulses.  

About the Artist

© Courtesy of the artist.

Sydney-based, Giselle Stanborough (@gisellestanborough) holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts (now UNSW Art & Design). Using apps such as TikTok, she questions who our ‘real’ and digital selves are, and whether they can ever be fully reconciled with each other. Engaging deeply with continental philosophy, her work is recognisable for its deft blending of high and pop culture. Stanborough’s multi-platform artwork Lozein: Find the lover you deserve (2016) was shown in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2016 exhibition, New Romance: art and the posthuman. Cinopticon at Carriageworks is her first major solo exhibition. Cinopticon is funded by The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, which awards $100,000 each to three women artists, honouring Cavaliere’s performance-installation practice. 

  • Exhibition: Cinopticon

  • Date: 07.08-27.09.2020 – The show can also be viewed online.

  • Location: Carriageworks, Sydney, and online.

  • Media: Video, soundscape, installation, wall painting.

  • Curator: Daniel Mundie Cunningham

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