heterotopic panopticon

2018 Eastern State Penitentiary Proposal

“The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”  -Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias

I enter the typical cell at Eastern Penitentiary.  In front of me is a long, elevated walkway, and at the end of this walkway appears to be a cubic chamber constructed completely out of glass.  I immediately realized there is another visitor to the show in this box, but he doesn’t seem to realize I have entered the cell.  He is sitting on a somewhat rudimentary stool staring at what appears to be a video monitor.  After a few moments of watching him sit there staring at the monitor, he casually gets up and walks out of the door of the chamber and out of the cell.  He acknowledges me on the way out but doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that I have been there for at least 5 minutes.  

After he leaves the cell, I proceed to walk into the chamber.  To my surprise, the chamber is not standard glass, but actually a series of one-way mirrors.  As the door shuts behind me, the walls transform into a series of infinite reflections, and the only respite is the skylight above.  It’s a surreal experience, and then I realize that I can no longer see outside of this small chamber – the cell I was just in is no longer there and has been replaced with the reflective landscape of the mirrors.  I proceed to sit down on the stool and turn my attention to the monitor the man was so intently watching.  It’s a closed-circuit feed of the cell I was just standing in, the cell I had just stood watching the man inside this chamber, thinking he had not seen me enter the cell, blissfully unaware that he was monitoring me the entire time.

Where once I was observing the man in the glass chamber, now I am being observed by a woman who has entered the space; yet now I have the ability to observe her without her knowledge; she’s blissfully unaware that she’s being observed.

Our proposal for the Eastern State Penitentiary relies on the observations by Michel Foucault on both the Panopticon and the Heterotopia, particularly as they relate to control and observation of society through history.  Eastern State is modeled somewhat off of Bentham’s original Panopticon which Foucault analyzes in his book Discipline and Punishment.  The idea being that the Panopticon is the ideal prison because it allows for complete observation efficiently throughout the prison, but more so that the prisoners do not have the ability to know when they are being monitored.  This idea of complete and total observation, both real and preserved is the basis for his theory on control.  To that end, that theory is not unique to panopticon designs or prisons - the security camera, a sort of modern day panopticon relies on the assumed observation as a form of control so well that one can purchase fake ‘dummy’ cameras to deter crime.

It should also be noted that while Foucault directly refers to prisons as a Heterotopia of Deviance – in so much as criminals are placed in a prison to exist in no space, or an ‘other’ space, contemporary prisons both continue that trend, but prisoners themselves in a sense become heterotopic – existing in an in between state.  Our current judicial system could be compared to the prisons of the past as on the one hand, these establishments still seek to place prisons and prisoners away from civilization in a sort of other space.  But at the same time this proposal seeks to address the heterotopic legal limbo which many people who interact with the judicial system face.  Cases drag on, leaving individuals to languish in locations like Rikers Island for years just waiting to face trial for minor offenses.

Eastern State straddles those two worlds – obviously the prison is a Panopticon in form and intent, and heterotopic in its original function; however, in its current state, the prison is clearly in plain view, existing in the world, yet having its place as a historical marker of the world, not unlike the museum.  Even the fact that the annual haunted house occurs in the prison further emphasizes this notion that Eastern State is a heterotopia – an event happening in both a real and perceived place, juxtaposed with one another in time and space.  Eastern Space Penitentiary presents an ideal testing ground for an intervention of Foucault’s theories.

This intervention will allow visitors to understand the ideas of constant surveillance and how that can potentially be a vehicle for control, but also some of the principals that the original prison was designed upon, specifically Bentham’s Panopticon.  On some level too, visitors will have the opportunity to experience a small fraction of what an inmate