Building Bentham’s Panopticon

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 4:10 PM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Zoe Alker, University of Liverpool
Bentham’s Panopticon was imagined as the ‘ideal’ prison; it was designed as a circular building with prisoners’ cells arranged around the outer wall and dominated by an inspection tower. From the tower the prison inspector would be able to gaze upon the prisoners at all times resulting in obedient submission by prisoners.

Due to its escalating cost, his designs were never put in to practice. But the recent digitization of Bentham’s plans by Transcribe Bentham, alongside advances in virtual reality software, means that we now have the opportunity to digitally construct the Panopticon and, for the first time, venture inside.

The project seeks to explore how we can use digital technology to examine and recreate alternative ways of seeing and experiencing, in a particular space and place-the Panopticon prison- had it been built. Through the use of 3D modelling and virtual reality technology, we can recreate the perspective, positioning and movements- through sight lines, walking routes, and height and weight records- of the gaolers and prisoners who could have potentially been imprisoned within the walls of the Panopticon.

Building Bentham’s Panopticon rests upon two lines of enquiry. Firstly, it seeks to rebuild and re-examine the idealized construction of prison discipline at its most ideological- to examine the beginning of the separate, silent system and the development of modern prison reform through architecture.

But it also seeks to contribute to a history of the senses and examine how, by (re)building the perspectives, mobilities, sightlines and soundscapes, and thereby explore the sensory ecologies of power that could have occurred within a prison like the Panopticon. Prisons are structures built to control sensory power through institutional rules, differential and shifting power relations, and architectural plans.
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