Below is my foreword for the exhibition Panopticon: Standing in the Pandemic, which was curated by the students in my Introduction to Curatorial Studies course at the Edna Manley College. The exhibition is on view until May 10 and consists of work by School of Visual Arts students at the College.
The last year has been unusually tough on art students, generally and here in Jamaica, at the Edna Manley College. The pandemic, among many other things, resulted in unforeseen economic challenges for many, to the point where some had to put their studies on hold, and the full or partial switch to Zoom classes changed the teaching and learning dynamic in ways for which none of us were quite prepared. A lot of projects had to be placed on hold or had to be re-conceived altogether. Last year’s final year Visual Arts cohort at the Edna Manley College did not have the customary, curated graduation exhibition, which is normally an important rite of passage which marks these young artists’ formal entry into the art world. There was also no School of Visual Arts Student exhibition, which is another annual exhibition at the College, of work by students who are in the programme, and which is normally curated by the Introduction to Curatorial Studies class.
This year the Curatorial Studies class decided to go ahead with the Student exhibition. While the Zoom-based course delivery imposed some challenges on the exhibition planning and implementation, it also presented an interesting angle to engage, artistically and curatorially, with the many implications of the present cultural moment. The students decided that the experience of “standing in the pandemic” had to be the exhibition theme but as we brainstormed, we looked at further implications and, inevitably, the related concepts of the Panopticon and its counterpart, the Synopticon came up.
The Panopticon, originally a circular prison design whereby prisoners were observed from a central tower by a person or persons they could not see, stands for a disciplinary system whereby the expectation of unseen surveillance, by the few of the many, is internalized, socially and individually, resulting in compliant behaviour. Its opposite, the Synopticon, is a system whereby the many observe the few – a potentially equally repressive form of social control and intense social judgement but also a way to resist and challenge panoptic power.
There is nothing new about living in a surveillance society but recent developments have intensified its impact. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, might not have happened without the synoptic power of mobile phone cameras and social media. Now that much of our social, professional and academic interactions are via Zoom, with many participants opting to remain off-camera, the panoptic-synoptic dynamics are in unprecedented play in our daily lives, in ways that take the place of face-to-face interaction. It was thus decided to focus the exhibition accordingly, on the lived experience of the present moment, particularly the pandemic, and on the politics and dynamics of seeing and being seen, as mediated by the virtual realm.
The students decided, from early on, that there should be an actual exhibition, at the College’s CAG[e] Gallery, but that there should also be opportunity for virtual engagement. Conventional virtual exhibitions, whether in virtual spaces or using 3D photography, can be very unsatisfactory to the viewer and the exhibitors alike, as the engagement it allows is very stilted and artificial and second-rate to actual, physical exhibitions. It was decided not to go that route but instead, to bring the concept of “surveillance” into the exhibition installation itself and to allow viewers to engage via a live feed of the camera surveillance footage, along with live sessions and special events hosted by the curators and artists. A special YouTube Channel (“Panopticon Exhibition”) has been set up for that purpose. Along with that interested persons can also visit the actual exhibition by appointment, and with covid protocols observed (mask, sanitation and physical distancing – for appointments please message the Panopticon Exhibition on Instagram). There will also be a fully illustrated virtual catalogue (which can be accessed at canva.com and will be available on Friday).
The exhibition was based on an open call, to which SVA and other Edna Manley College students could submit work, and selected by a faculty panel, consisting of Dean Miriam Hinds, Director of Studies Susan Lee Quee, and Adjunct Lecturer Petrona Morrison. The submissions were very competitive. The result is an energetic and ambitious exhibition that speaks, with diverse voices and movingly, to the present experience. There is a dystopian, Jamaican-inflected “cyber punk” quality to some of the work but there is also play and humour (albeit some of it sardonic); there is poignant social criticism as well as ironic escapism; but perhaps most importantly, there are also signs of hope, inadvertent beauty, and resilience – a sense that our futures can in fact be shaped and reinvented by us, individually and collectively, if only we put our minds and creativity to it. The presence of the “poppy” motif in two of the works (by Brad Pinnock and Kaela Sudeall), while informed by different intent (mordant in the case of Pinnock and hopeful in the case of Sudeall) alludes to that resilience. Inadvertently it also reminds us of another historical moment of crisis and resilience – the period of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic – that resonates with our own complicated and uncertain times.
Panopticon: Standing in the Pandemic is indeed an exhibition of our time, and for our time, with a strong sense of place, with several references to the College experience. I wish to congratulate the Introduction to Curatorial Studies students for having displayed the resilience and determination to present us with an exhibition of this calibrate, and in the imaginative way it is curated. Despite the challenge we all face, it appears that the future of art in Jamaica is in solid hands.