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The Absolute

Surveillance City


Leah Ying Lin

RISD M. Arch 1

Instructor: David Gersten

This thesis is a dystopia fiction of an absolute surveillance city, an architectural imagination that recognizes the prison of the world -- an invisible prison that we all live in, which is created by the system of different authorities and contributed by ourselves through all the data, pixels of images that captured and recorded by “eyes” -- the immersive surveillance of our daily life today. The external and internal geography of the prison not only is the fabric of the physical world we are looking at, but it is a fabric we become, they become our skins (or identities) that enframe us, restrain us and capture us.

Based on the research of the theories by Michel Foucault about surveillance, body, and punishment, this thesis re-thinks about surveillance through time, which is viewed also as a value today rather than a punishment in the past.


In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham proposed an architectural concept of the Panopticon (panoramic prisons), set up as one watchtower in the middle of a circular prison, jailers can uniaxially observe all the prisoners' behavior through the principles of optics. Foucault brought up a surveillance system from the physical to the psychological based the idea of Panopticon. This society mode does not only exist in prisons but also penetrates into social mechanisms such as schools and hospitals. Imperceptibly, external surveillance: the human eyes are transformed into invisible surveillance that exists in everyone’s mind--that is, a principle in society. It forms a fear of always being watched, and thus gradually forms a surveillance insides your mind -- we are the jailers of ourselves.


In the past decade, China has been the fastest growing country for CCTV cameras. According to the data in 2016, China has a total of 176 million CCTV cameras throughout the country. The 21st-century surveillance system, still in the name of security, has formed an air-tight network in our daily life. In addition to the CCTV cameras, computer cameras, smartphone cameras, and the recording device, we were inadvertently digitized by images, videos, and texts created by ourselves. 


We spontaneously contribute, to the social platform, like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., with our daily routines — what we eat, where we go, what keywords are searched. Everything is going to rebuild another digital identity of yourself in the virtual space. Why is Google free? Because we are the products themselves. In the past, “the Eyes” grasped the data by observing records to form invisible manipulation power and control. Nowadays, “The Eyes”, that is, also ourselves, spontaneously and ecstatically expose and anatomize ourselves to the system.


In my city, I create the absolute looping surveillance through 3 zones: a punishment zone -- the center of the city, a limbo zone -- surrounding the center and a watch room -- above the city. The geometry, the interior, and exterior fabric of the architectures are generated by the emotion and inner desire of the residents, the walls and the relationship in between the walls are the projection of their (or our) bodies and mind, and the materials of the walls radically reveal the power of surveillance. What is the real punishment? Which zone of the city that you live in? Where is the actual prison? are the core questions of this thesis, which will be presented through sculptures, installations, video, sound, and architecture.

Thesis Film | Directed/edited/acted/sound produced by me

The City Structure


Punish Zone:

The Center of the surveillance city

Who does not follow the rules of the city --  being absolute surveillance -- in the name of safety, sharing, connecting, more advanced lifestyle...will be prisoned into the tower, where has 9 different classes and each class has 5 levels. the lower, the narrower... The prison is beautiful, full of everything you need to live as a human being, but insides the fancy room generated by the prisoner's inner desire, you can only see yourself but nothing else, it's a space of mirror, isolating from everywhere but you and your mind. 

Concept Sketch.jpg

The Punish Tower:

At the center of the tower, there is a confession room, where the prisoners can learn and practice to be surveillance through daily life to be purified again and go back to the limbo zone. The better they behaved, the higher level they will get updated into, eventually, they almost can see how the watch room looks like, but before that, they are transported back to the limbo through the 4 bridges in the sky. The loop starts running again, and again.

In between of each room, there is platform called watching park, people live in the limbo zone can take
the elevator to visit the tower, just like a zoo, but full of cameras and flowers. 

The tower itself as an entertainment and also a warning, the cameras not just built outsides but gradually built insides.


The Watch Room:

God's eyes

Screens, cameras, surveillance

Punishment & Entaintanment

Nobody how it looks insides
It lives on top of the city
People who named themselves the God's Eyes
Live arond the circle the watch room
the zone has for 4 bridges for the watchers
and another 4 bridges connects to the city.


The Wall Study

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NZHF4107 copy.jpg

A series of wall studies by using tools and my own body -- punching, digging, scratching, breaking... to project a prisoner's inner desire of escaping the absolute surveillance city into the wall panels (8''x 8'', clay, silicon, resin)


Inside ↹ Outside

Interiors ↹ Exteriors

The walls of the punishment tower are the reverse of walls of the watch room.

In the punishment zone, the interior walls are the physical projections of prisoners' emotions, full of the anger of being isolated, watched and controlled. No matter how crazy the interior space is created, the exterior is still like a lake, as calm as a mirror.

But in the other way, above the city, the exterior walls of the watch room, are generated by the desire of breaking the invisible walls, the desperation of freedom and seeking the truth, what's side? How does the space look like? Who is watching? 


The Self-Generated Space

Punishment Tower: Bathroom


Punishment Tower: Bedroom


Punishment Tower: Living Room

Living Room1.png
Living Room2.png

The Limbo Zone


Punishment Tower: Watching Garden


Collage of 3 zones

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Special Thanks to Kiro Xie, Guoxi Zhou

This thesis topic will continue in the Arts, Letters & Numbers, an artist residency run by David Gersten, my thesis professor, From  2019/07/01-2019/08/04. More updates will come after the residency program.

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