Observing Observation: Uncertainty
by Margit Rosen
Peter Weibel's 1973 closed circuit video installation Beobachtung der Beobachtung: Unbestimmtheit (Observing observation: uncertainty)  is a complex epistemological model of the preconditions for global observation and the construction of reality. In this installation, Weibel also focuses on the social dimension of the medium of video/television, which has fundamentally transformed the structure of representation and with it the structure of society. The closed video circuit is a model of the mechanisms that prevail in a media-dominated society where anonymous and unlocalized observation enforces social compliance.
Three video cameras and monitors are arranged alternately in a circle in the room. Facing towards the center, the cameras and monitors are switched in such a way that the spectator who enters the circle can constantly observe himself, though only from the back. As Peter Weibel writes: »Enclosed in a room, each point in that room is its own prison warder, the perspective is his deadly fate.«  The idea of perspective enables Weibel to locate the concept of »interactivity« in an art history context and at the same time create a walk-in model that renders reality visible as something constructed. To quote Weibel again: »Perspective always means participation.«  For the illusory space of the three-dimensional representation to be able to emerge at all, artists have always had to rely on the spectator's cognitive and physical participation. »Perspective as a constructive principle«: this is a model of reality that depends on the spectator's active orientation. Once the latter enters the installation, he is at the mercy of the pictorial space Peter Weibel constructs by way of the media. The dependence of perspective on the spectator, on participation, turns out to be a form of subjugation. The spectator is a prisoner of perspective and thus a prisoner of a heteronymous access to reality.
The title of this work explicitly alludes to Weibel's epistemological approach, which goes beyond the perspective debate. The problem of observing the observer, which he already addressed in 1969 and 1972 in the installations Das Publikum als Exponat (The audience as exhibit)  and Video Lumina , is presented more precisely in the 1973 video installation and at a more abstract level that refers both to Heinz von Foerster's and Norbert Wiener's ideas on cybernetics, and to the insights of quantum mechanics. Here too, as in the 1969 installation, the observing subject becomes the observed object. The observer observes himself in his attempt to understand and steer the system of the closed circuit installation. In view of the fact that as an internal observer he is also part of the circular arrangement, he unavoidably comes up against the limits of observation, i.e., the limits of self-observation. Only a second observer can recognize the blind spot of the first observer's perception. Only at the level of cybernetics of a second order, the observation of observation as staged by Weibel, does it emerge that phenomena are relative to the observer.
With a view to observational operations in microphysics Werner Heisenberg analyzed the dependence of what is observed on the observer. His concept of »uncertainty«, which Weibel cites in this work, has to do with the fact that every observation, or measurement, represents an intervention to an uncertain degree. The observed object changes due to the act of observation. Weibel transfers the idea of »uncertainty« to the level of human perception in everyday life. With his installation he has created an observation chain in which the camera observes the observer, who in turn observes himself on the screen. The features of the observation apparatus, i.e., the features of the video system and of the human observer, determine the form of the reality. The distortion caused by the media, which we »adjust« when looking in the mirror, is underscored by the coupling of the video system. In principle, the degree to reality is distorted remains uncertain.
When such reflections on our knowledge of reality are applied to the social impact of the media, the question about reality becomes a question about the defining power over reality. Weibel has been preoccupied with the status of the feedback between perception, consciousness and media impacts since 1969. Whereas his Der Wächter als Bandit (The guard as bandit)  addressed the theme of the preconditions for democracy – »a supervision of the supervisors, a control of the controllers«  – the 1973 installation focuses on the mechanisms of adaptation in a society of the kind described in the early 1980s by Gilles Deleuze in his concept of a »control society«. Much more so than the »disciplinary society« of Foucault, the »control society« is characterized by maximum self-regulation of individual and social behavior, which latter is oriented around the goals of the anonymous power of the economy. Heteronymous and self control become superimposed in the cameras behind your back, of which the spectator in Weibel's installation sees the images on the monitors. An awareness of the paradoxical fact that no one except the observer himself perceives the data from the cameras still fails to eliminate the feeling of being controlled. The feed-back based video system in which cause and effect are superimposed becomes a model of the »control society«, whose members when confronted with media images of themselves endeavor to conform to a norm of which no one can say who defines it.
1 Exhibition Audiovisualle Botschaften, Trigon '73, Künstlerhaus Graz, 1973. ^
2 Peter Weibel in: Mediendichtung. Protokolle, volume/set 1982, Vienna and Munich, 1982, p. 118. ^
3 Peter Weibel, »Inszenierte Kunst-Geschichte«, exhib. cat. Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, 1989, p. 122. ^
4 »Exhibition Multi Media 1«, Galerie Junge Generation, Vienna, April 1969. ^
5 Video Lumina (concept 1972), Galerie Magers, Bonn, 22.4.-22.5.1977. ^
6 »Exhibition Kunst als Innovation«, main branchof the Vienna Savings Bank, Vienna, 1978. ^
7 Peter Weibel in: Orwell und die Gegenwart, Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna, 1984. ^
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- > Peter Weibel : »Der Wächter als Bandit« (The guard as bandit)« 
- > Ursula Frohne : »Peter Weibel. The Panoptic Society or Immortally in Love with Death«