Making the Invisible Visible: Echoes of Surveillance in Art, Science, Architecture and Technology

Vera Kumer


Abteilung: Medientheorie

Beginn: 2015

Betreuerin: Prof. Gabriele Jutz


The PhD thesis “Making the Invisible Visible: Echoes of Surveillance in Art, Science, Architecture and Technology” discusses scientific visualization techniques of control that render the invisible visible, and based on this, considers artistic practices that use as a form of critique scientific image production and viewing dispositives in a deviant, dissident manner (cf. Harrasser, 2004). These relational assemblages (DeLanda, 2016) of vision machine, observing subject and observed object constitute a “control gaze” by high-tech machine vision as an institutionally, technically, and spatially constituted realm. The image production technologies of surveillance I discuss encompass X-ray, Backscatter X-Ray, Millimeter Wave Technology (MMW), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Computer Tomography (CT), Infrared (IR), CCTV technology, and drone vision. The “territory of observation” is either the body, in medical applications, or the land and the city, in military applications. The dissertation is mainly structured on spaces. I consider specific places – the airport, the clinic, the city as well as foreign territories – as zones where distinct imaging technologies and surveillance tactics are deployed. I examine the operations of surveillance in these specific locations based on the scientific image production and viewing dispositive. Based on all of this, I also discuss artworks (by, for example, such artists as James Bridle, Marc Didou, Harun Farocki, Travor Paglen, Evan Roth, and Hito Steyerl) that appropriate the underlying technologies and spaces, and argue that there are clearly identifiable “echoes” of the media-specificities of these visualization techniques and of the gaze of control in contemporary, as well as earlier artistic practices.

If we accept the notion that visualization techniques such as photography, the X-ray, MRI, drone vision, CCTV cameras etc. can be considered not as media, but as systems that involves technological, institutional, temporal and spatial aspects, then the effects of these “systems” on the body and on space need to be considered. The ability of the X-ray, for example, to render the hidden structures of the inside visible not only profoundly influenced how the human body, as well as illness and disease were perceived and understood, but also led to new conceptions in art and architecture (cf. Colomina, X-Ray Architecture, 2019). The X-ray is widely considered an essentially modernist paradigm of visuality and deeply affected the culture and ideas of perception at the turn of the last century (cf. Colomina, Cartwright, Reichert, Pasveer) and supports modernist notions of structure, visibility and truth. How can this idea be further developed in regards to contemporary visualization techniques of the human body? I argue that modernism’s conception of cultural differentiation (Lash, 1990) is continually dissolved into a liquefaction of hitherto clear distinctions – inside/outside, surface/depth, private/public – by these advanced imaging technologies. Clinical spaces and the medical gaze have been extended to a monitoring of entire healthy populations by means of digital optimization tools. Our smart phones, smart watches, smart homes and smart cities enable a consistent monitoring of data based on bodily functions. Media specificities of image production have gone from penetration and projection (X-ray) to slicing and layering (CT) and on to image production via sound (MRI). These images have lost their indexical principles and are primarily based on algorithmic data models, computational interpretation and artificial intelligence. What effects does this advanced gaze into the inside have on the body and the clinic, as well as urban space and privacy? How do artists and architects react to these new paradigms of visuality?

X-ray motion study of a woman applying make-up in side view. Martin Rikli, Röntgenstrahlen (1937). [Screengrab by the author, digital file provided by © Murnau Stiftung, Wiesbaden]


Cartwright, Lisa. 1995. Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Colomina, Beatriz. 2019. X-Ray Architecture. Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers.

DeLanda, Manuel. 2016. Assemblage Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Harrasser, Karin. 2004. „Technoavantgarden – Umbaupläne in ästhetischen, kybernetischen und medientheoretischen Programmatiken.“ In Das Jahrhundert der Avantgarden, by Cornelia Klinger and Wolfgang Müller-Funk, 181-196. München: W. Fink.

Lash, Scott. 1990. Sociology of Postmodernism. London; New York: Routledge

Pasveer, Bernike. 1989. “Knowledge of shadows: the introduction of X-ray images in medicine.” Sociology of Health & Illness, 11(3): 360-381.

Reichert, Ramón. 2008. “Erotisch-voyeuristische Visualisierungstechniken im Röntgenfilm.” zeitenblicke, 7(3).