Michel Foucault casts a wide net in his discussion of heterotopias, describing a vast array of different spaces, with an equally diverse set of social roles and embedded power structures. Still, he’s clearly hit upon a rich idea in human spatial practice, one that we can see at work any time someone wants to (or is forced to) “get away from it all”. Of course, there is no “away from it all”—as Trevor Paglen has discussed, all actions, even “dark” or “invisible” actions have a physical location and leave material traces. Still, Foucault’s interest is in the way such spaces function in our psychology and society, ways in which we make certain spaces invisible through collective social decision.
The one issue that Foucault doesn’t really address is how the experience of heterotopias can be intensely personal. He describes how these spaces fulfill different roles from society to society, but doesn’t describe ways in which these spaces may change from person to person. For example, to the visitor, the museum exists as an accumulation of time in a confined space adrift from everyday life. However, what about the museum director? The curator? The janitor? A museum has a full staff who are intimately aware of the current state of the museum as a physical building and an institution whose funding, design, management and so on is subject to all the economic and cultural trends of the outside world. Do the people in power over such spaces have a self-awareness of how their space functions, or are the wrapped up in the same cultural mythologies they’re creating? In particular, I’m reminded of recent reporting on prisoner abuse in Rikers Island. In this case, prison officers have personally absorbed the ideology of the prison system to violent ends, and I wonder if that’s a behavior of the prison system specifically, or heterotopias in general.
Richard Ross’s photo project, Architecture of Authority is an exploration of such spaces, deliberately collecting images from institutions at all levels of power across the globe and then shuffling them together. What’s especially striking about many of these spaces is how much they conform to a logic of modularity and duplication. Public school classrooms, holding cells, hospital beds, hotel rooms, and so on all exist as copies, often aligned in a grid to make this especially obvious. The motives behind this design are often practical, but I think they have a deeply ideological effect. As Foucault describes, the standardization of spaces creates a sort of paradoxical situation. On the one hand the space seems anonymous and open (that is to say, if I can access one hotel room, then I understand a great deal about the spatial layout and living situations in every room), but on the other, each space is still occupied by individual people in distinct physical locations and circumstances, and can afford a great deal of privacy (either to the occupants, in a hotel, or to those who control the space, as in a prison cell or interrogation room).