8-bit Panopticon | Alex Bishop-Thorpe

Constance ARI, Hobart - January 2015


Of the Horizon’s Adversaries

Alex tells me that view photographers used to carry around axes to cut down trees that interfered with their compositions.[1] Over the course of European colonisation of Australia (particularly during the mid-Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries) the enterprise of ‘View photography’ became popular as way of commercialising images. These photographs of idyllic, Arcadian landscapes were produced for commercial consumption, reinterpreted to fit a picturesque standard. Framing the vast, harsh Australian landscape into something cultured and colonised was a way of mediating how it was understood. The highly contrived compositions fostered a sense of nationalism in the face of Federation, and offset an industrialised aesthetic that was occurring back in Europe at the time.[2] Alex Bishop-Thorpe’s practice engages with this representation of landscape as a vehicle for power. He examines how we depict an Australian landscape in the wake of this aesthetic crisis and how, in turn, landscape invariably informs an Australian identity through its depiction.

Differentiated from the European perspective of imposed control, the Australian attitude to landscape is as much about knowing the limitations of the ones’ power. My own experience of the Australian landscape from childhood is almost always mediated through a car window. As I write this I am propelled through the Nullarbor Plain at 110kph en route to Perth in 1.3 tonnes of Mazda. The ‘road trip’ is an important part of an Australian identity – both how the landscape is depicted and how we identify with it are both exercises in power, forms of defining ourselves and our surroundings. The road trip is an essential component to Bishop-Thorpe’s practice, a means to experience the immensity of the landscape in both space and time.

This unforgiving environment inevitably informs a (colonial) Australian archetype of fortitude in the face of adversity – I am reminded that my power is conditional. Without a car, a road, fuel, water or any knowledge of the land, my circumstances would be uncomfortably different. Inside this conditional control however, Bishop-Thorpe explores the landscape ‘as a leisured space, colonised and receptive of play’ through the specific use of an outdated Gameboy accessory, reminiscent of a misspent youth.[3]

8-bit Panopticon is a rotating Gameboy camera, taking a continuous reel of panoramic photographs in an attempt to compress down an all-encompassing horizon. This incidence of landscape, control and video games strongly recalls my childhood spent shooting through the Australian void between Darwin, Adelaide and Perth armed with my Gameboy Colour. Upon the batteries on my faithful device running out, I would be forced to improvise my own game. Using my forefinger and middle finger as legs, I would devise a game where my character (my hand) would run along the scrolling landscape created by the car’s motion, jumping over obstacles like hills, trees and fences. I was inadvertently compressing the landscape to the car window as a ‘screen’. While this compression is a gesture of control, the landscape itself also imposes itself on the game, frequently throwing large trees, power lines or other impassable objects in the way. The game becomes an unwitting dialogue between me and the landscape staged across the car window, not unlike 8-bit Panopticon’s playful staring contest with gallery-goers.

The photographic control inherent in the panorama is mirrored in the panopticon. Designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, the panopticon was a prison plan featuring a central tower surrounded by a ring of cells, lit so the inmates could never be sure if they were being watched from the guard post. Inmates were forced to act as if they were constantly under surveillance. Bentham’s design assured that control could be enacted without a direct assertion of power - as self-surveillance. Bishop-Thorpe positions the Australian landscape in the same way - we are made adversaries to the horizon – completely surrounded but held at a distance. The landscape itself is a panoptic space – we are captives to distance and duration. As with the panopticon, sight and power are omnipresent and inescapable. We see this feedback loop of surveillance in 8-bit Panopticon. You watch the work as it watches you, and produces images in your likeness. But do you adjust your posture, strike a pose or avoid the lens? Do you survey yourself in the same panoptic way?


Ash Tower

December 2014


[1]Art Historian Tim Bonyhady has demonstrated that it was common practice to move a bush or fell a tree to create foreground interest and lead the viewer’s eye into the view in accordance with picturesque conventions. Tasmanian photographer J.W. Beattie, an early environmentalist, always carried an axe to overcome any faults in his compositions.’

Ennis, H. 2007, Photography and Australia, Reaktion Books, London. p. 59

[2] Andrews, M. 1989, In search of the picturesque, Stanford University Press, Stanford. p.31

[3] Bishop-Thorpe, A. [Interview by author]. Email dialogue. December 28, 2014