Portrait, Projects

A secret surveillance project of the Vienna Opera Ball

Images from the series Vienna MMIX – 10008/7000 Surveillance Panorama Project No 4 – The Vienna Opera Ball © Jules Spinatsch

By reappropriating a state of the art surveillance system, Jules Spinatsch discovered a way to capture the rich and powerful as they look at each other, and are desperate to be seen

The Vienna State Opera House has a state-of-the-art camera surveillance system. In 2009, for the Vienna Opera Ball, they ceded control of that system to Jules Spinatsch.

By repurposing a photographic network designed primarily for security purposes, the Swiss photographer created “a portrait of high society, of the ruling class enjoying itself, in a way unseen anywhere else,” he says.

On the evening of the ball, Spinatsch climbed into his hired tux, paid the entrance fee of €250, and mingled with the crowd – “half of the Austrian government, all the big names in business, a few celebrities.”

He took control of two suspended interactive digital cameras from the centre of the Opera House’s domed roof and had programmed each to cover, in two full rotations and in tiny increments, the entire interior of the Opera House, a grand neo-Renaissance building first built in 1869 and still, today, a byword for European high society at play. They began recording at 8.32pm and took a picture every three seconds until the ball’s denouement at 5.10am.

The architecture of the Opera House is perfectly designed for such a project: “The layout was modern,” writes curator David Campany of the building’s design. “Not so much for the view of the stage it offered, but for the view the audience was offered of itself.”

Spinatsch’s resulting photobook, Vienna MMIX – 10008/ 7000 Surveillance Panorama Project No 4 – The Vienna Opera Ball, is the fourth in an ongoing Surveillance Panorama Project, the best known of which is his 2005 book Temporary Discomfort Chapter I–V, which used a variety of surveillance-based photographic techniques to examine the security transformations of the venues used for the G8 and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Genoa, New York, Évian and Geneva.

“Spinatsch’s work in this project is in part a reaction against the established consensus that photojournalism is about getting as close as possible to the action in order to relay the truth of events,” writes Hugh Campbell, professor of architecture at University College Dublin.

Photojournalist agencies such as Magnum Photos, Campbell points out, still take as gospel Philip Jones Griffiths’ mantra of: “If the picture’s no good, it’s because you’re not close enough.”

“For Spinatsch, in the era of embedded journalism, where even the most seemingly spontaneous events can be staged, the imperative of proximity can no longer apply. Distance might now be the only means of achieving any kind of objectivity,” writes Campbell.

Vienna MMIX is an evolution; a remarkable document of every image taken by each of those cameras, an anthropological study in class constructed, says Spinatsch, “using fragments of documentary”.

Volume 1, entitled Every Three Seconds, presents each of these images – 10,008 of them in total – in chronological order, each page representing, in a grid-like design, each separate minute of the ball. “What follows,” writes Campany, “is a consideration of an artwork that is emblematic of the perplexing and fraught experience of images today.”