Screens That Mimic the Panoptic Surveillance of Prisons


A kind of quasi-ethnographic study, Fiona Tan’s video project “Correction” shows a penal culture at odds with the Oz-like dramas that masquerade as reality. There are no sweaty, hard bodies pumping iron or wielding shanks here, and even gangbangers are stripped of their collective threat. Instead, Tan surrounds viewers with 300 images of silent inmates and officers, each shot for 50 seconds, standing motionless before the viewer. The first in a series of works commissioned by the Three M Project—a consortium of American museums that includes L.A.’s Hammer Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and the New
Museum—Tan’s quietly provocative work has an archival quality reminiscent of August Sander.

The circular installation features six projection screens arranged to mimic the panoptic surveillance of prison architecture, where, as Foucault famously observed, “visibility is a trap.” Placing us in the center, the traditional position of the incarcerated, Tan turns the viewer into both the watcher and the watched, confronting us with faces that alternately smile, stare, glower, and flinch. Only the distant echoes of clanking cages, footsteps, or the occasional burst of laughter puncture their awkward silence, and Tan makes sure we feel the dehumanizing atmosphere they inhabit, framing their stillness under jarring fluorescent lights in narrow hallways, offices, and cells, where furniture is either absent or welded to the floors and walls. In a mere 50 seconds, any sense of personal identity her subjects manage to convey appears to drain away, statue-like patience becoming stoic resignation. Even the guards seem sucked into this vacuum of anonymity and institutional constraint. The cumulative effect is of a slow death, a smothering of individual expression by a system as culpable, in Tan’s view, as the criminals it aims to “correct.”