Call for Papers: Our Mechanical Eyes — On Seeing Machines, Kunstlicht Vol. 40 (2019), No. 4.

Managing Editors: Cleo Foole and Joyce Poot

Deadline for proposals: 12th August 2019

In the exhibition Rothko and I*, *alone without your phone, the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam (Schiedam, NL) invites their visitors for an “intimate experience” with Rothko’s Grey, Orange on Maroon, No 8 (1960); the visitor can observe the painting, but has to leave their phone at the door.[1] The mobile phone is seen as blocking the way when it comes to attaining intimacy with the painting. This presence of smartphones in the exhibition space, not only as communication devices, but also as devices for recording and looking through, has increased dramatically over the last few years. With it came opportunities to share the experience and to prolong one’s visit digitally, yet, as Rothko and I implies, the smartphone also changes how we see.  Directed towards sharing, the experience of an artwork becomes a self-reflexive re-creation, wherein the spectator is as much the represented object as the artwork itself.

With the rise of ‘smart technologies’ the meaning of ‘seeing,’ ‘looking,’ and ‘viewing,’ is changing. In Judy Radul’s 2017 installation the king, the door, the thief, the window, the stranger, the camera, the reflexivity of (digital) spectatorship is already incorporated in the artwork. It is not the spectator who records and curates her own experience, but the ‘seeing’ objects Radul places in the exhibition space. The spectator is confronted with video footage of themselves walking through the installation just moments before, causing a distancing between the image of the spectator wandering through the installation and the actual experience of this wandering. But strikingly, the cameras do not follow the spectator, but are programmed to fulfil a pre-set choreography. Therefore, Radul’s cameras are neither surveillance nor spectacle — or are they both? And if so, where should we place the spectator — who not only watches the spectacle, but also sees themselves, and who is not simply observed, but becomes complicit in this surveillance.

Both of these examples show how what it means to be a seeing subject has become vague. In Radul’s installation, there is both the spectator’s human vision and the installation’s machine vision, but in fact, we carry smart technologies with us everywhere we go, yet we are only confronted with this when we are asked to abandon our smartphones. Machine vision is different from human seeing, yet it has come to influence what and how we see; it can look at us, look for us, and regulate what is shown to us. In 1975, Michel Foucault wrote that our society had become “not one of spectacle but of surveillance… We are neither in the amphitheatre nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine.”[2] In the age of intelligent machine vision however, spectacle and surveillance seem to be no longer juxtaposed. The sharer-spectator spectacularizes themselves in an act of (self) observation. They have come to experience the artwork and themselves as an interactive spectacle. Here, we understand the spectacle to interfere with human agency and understanding, as “a social relation between people that is mediated by images,” it is “a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at,” according to Guy Debord.[3] The spectacle becomes interactive when the encounter of the (former) spectator with the spectacle becomes the spectacle itself, rendering the spectator in part object of her own gaze.

This issue of Kunstlicht is an attempt to go beyond an analytical account of perception, and question what it means to be a seer in a world of mechanical eyes. We are interested in how the interactive spectacle influences the field of contemporary art, where the experience of the spectator plays a pivotal role. Radul is only one among many artists who explore the possibilities of digital technology, which appears to create new opportunities for interactivity. Still, the (proposed) interaction can not only emancipate the spectator, it can also limit their agency. And moreover, the museum’s presentation of Rothko’s Grey, Orange on Maroon, No 8 is exemplary of the renewed focus on direct perception, showing a fetishization of the unmediated and thus “intimate experience.” Yet, it is questionable if such a momentary return to another, perhaps already archaic way of seeing is even possible — or desirable.

Instead, we might have to rethink Guy Debord’s spectacle in the age of digital interaction. Does Debord’s critique of the spectacle — to stay with technological terms — need an update? Can we argue that we find ourselves in an interactive spectacle, or could we go to a digital playground? Do mediated screens activate spectators, by making them more involved through appropriating what they look at, functioning as a kind of playbour? How does this online representation reflect back on the physical experience of artworks? And if smart technologies look at and for us, and when they can even regulate what is shown to us, then is there still any direct perception possible? Can the spectator still wander, when their movements are observed, regulated, stored, and then anticipated upon?

To explore the ways in which the spectator of contemporary society sees, we open the call to academic articles, image-based contributions, and experimental text contributions from writers and artists who research perception and its subversion in the digital age; those who offer a digital detournement, those who expose the limits of the digital human and those that transgress. We encourage writers to discuss the spectator of the future as well — we encourage predictions, urges, and underbelly feelings. Proposals (200-300 words) with attached résumés can be submitted until August 12th 2019 via Selected authors will be invited to write a 2,000–3,000-word paper (excluding notes).

Authors who publish in Kunstlicht will receive three complimentary copies. Unfortunately, Kunstlicht is not able to provide an author’s honorarium. Two articles will be selected to be available online. Two years following publication, papers will be submitted to the freely accessible online archive. The editorial board reserves the right to decline contributions.

Cleo Foole is a Master’s student in Philosophy of Humanity and Culture at Tilburg University. She holds a BFA in Costume Design from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, where she is currently enrolled in the part-time fine arts program. Her philosophical and artistic research focusses on intimacy in the relation between spectator and artwork.

Joyce Poot is responsible for the public program at the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam. Previously, she has held positions at Wiels, Brussels (BE), the University of Leiden, and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam.  She graduated in 2018 from the Research Masters in Contemporary Art Theory/World Art Studies (cum laude) and the Masters in Film and Photographic Studies, both from the University of Leiden.

Kunstlicht is an academic journal for visual art, visual culture, and architecture, founded in 1980. It is affiliated with the Arts & Culture department of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, but operates from an independent foundation. Kunstlicht is published three times a year, and features both scholarly and artistic contributions.


[1] Rothko en ik*, *In je eentje zonder telefoon, website Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, 24 June 2018. Online:

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1975 (1991), 217.

[3] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967 (1984), thesis 2 & 4.