published: January, 2015
In January 2013 I was a writer in residence at Quartier21 in Vienna, in the preparation for the Faceless exhibition, curated by Bogomir Doringer, that would be shown there later in the year. Faceless focusses on the trend of hiding the face in art and fashion. This short essay was written for the catalog, which is yet to appear. The text reflects on how identity is shaped through a historical reflection of the self in a social context, as experienced through tools and media. The work of four artists (or artist groups) serves as illustrations.
We’ve become entangled in a web made of a myriad of representations of ourselves and others. It is increasingly difficult to decide who and what we are in which situation. The development of global media networks, especially the Internet, has forced us to reconsider our position in the world quite dramatically, literally. By entering the hustle and bustle of the Worldwide Web by our own choice or through the actions of others we are confronted with a new challenge: that of managing our media personalities. Normal and necessary psychological skills that enable us to relate to the world and ourselves are quite suddenly and without warning to be developed and performed on a stage. The theatre of life has been expanded electronically, with little or no distinction between what is private and what is public. This makes uninhibited explorations and reflections on the self of a more sensitive nature and on our relations to others and the world very difficult.
Paradoxically the road to personal freedom today seems to lead into the darkness of inhibition and anonymity. This disturbing realization may have provoked the rising popularity of the mask. The image of the faceless body seems a symbol for the desire for withdrawal from the panopticon of surveillance networks. It expresses the hunger to reconnect with an unsettled but vital physical self. The expanding stages of the theatre of life create the need for an existence behind the scenes that is increasingly more difficult to reach back to.
(Hester Scheurwater makes self-portraits in which she explores the tendency to see women as sex objects. In 2009 she started a Facebook project, in which she posted an exhibitionist photo diary of herself. Though the photographs generally stayed within the limitations set by the social media platform, no explicit photograph of genitals or naked breasts, the artist had her account blocked several times. “The mirrored self-images are my way of reacting to the imitated and fake media images that constantly call upon our imagination without ever intending to be taken too seriously,” she explains, “By switching the ‘subject-object’ relationship, I try to deconstruct this call’s effect without being victimized by it.”)
We exist in an intersubjective space, something that is confirmed by our gaze in the mirror. “For the child to recognize the specular image as its own is for it (..) to adopt a perspective or viewpoint on itself that equals what others can adopt on the child,” write Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi in The uncanny mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience. Self-representation starts here. Doing your make up, fixing your hair and clothes, the mirror enables a very specific interaction with the self and others. It hides an unstable, murky experience of being inside a body and finding your way through the day with a simple and stable image of yourself that exists outside yourself.
In his foreword to his seminal book on the history of media Gramophone, Film, Typewriter the German theorist Friedrich Kittler connects the mirror to the imaginary. As an optical illusion or trick the mirror image conjures up and reinforces a fictional view of the self, which nevertheless has the potential to become at least partially real. In itself however the mirror, like the media, cannot reveal reality. For Kittler the real ‘forms the waste or residue that neither the mirror nor the imaginary nor the grid of the symbolic can catch: the physiological accidents and stochastic disorder of bodies.’
The mirror is a tool for artists through the ages, especially for painters making self-portraits, but also to explore a new perspective on the real through a mirrored reflection of for example interiors. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes how in the visual art of painting a view through a mirror is often used to reflect on the act of seeing itself. Seeing and being however are clearly distinctive experiences. Representation, even through the immediate reflection of something in a mirror, can never be reality. It is more like an intervention, a way to steer or create new perspectives.
(In Amy Alexander’s SVEN (Surveillance Video Entertainment Network) visitors to an exhibition are caught on camera and their pictures are run through face recognition software that compares faces to those of famous pop stars. When a visitor’s face matches that of a musician the computer generates a music video starring the visitor. The work makes a mockery of the malleability and flaws of surveillance technologies.)
We have learnt to pose without seeing our reflection. In the black box of the camera we have constructed a way to capture our mirrored image for storage and reproduction. The photograph is unlike earlier forms of images. In photography we have developed a way to automate the interventionist act of creating new perspectives we know from interacting with the mirror. The camera as an apparatus enacts and enforces a systemic approach of what gets in front of it. Nothing, not even a landscape, escapes the demands of this technology and the need to adapt to them. From the necessity of light to the striking of a pose the camera prescribes the stories it tells.
The Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser has written extensively about photography, from describing the movements of the photographer to the way the photograph has created new power relations between an elite of technocrats and an illiterate audience. Because the camera as an apparatus is a technological construction created from the vision of its producers, what will come out of the camera inevitably reflects their way of viewing the world. Flusser speaks of how the camera is ‘programmed’, and how subsequently the photographer, the photograph itself and the subject of the photograph are programmed too. In the act of photography everybody and everything has to submit to the limitations and possibilities set out by the equipment. In photography our mirror image is clearly and irrevocably beyond our control.
Nevertheless the photographic image is the result of methodical reasoning. Flusser points to the similarities between photography and philosophy. In both photography and philosophy determining a point of view, or a point of departure, is essential. The logic of the camera forces us to make choices that will influence the capture of a particular moment, while the portrayal of this same moment ultimately steers how we see events, situations and ourselves in the future. The post historical images of photography mark a turn in our reflection on the world. Instead of trying to capture reality in a stream of words we now define it through that single perfect shot.
(The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine is a software art piece from 2009 by MODDR_LAB: the artists Walter Langelaar, Gordan Savicic and Danja Vasiliev. The software was designed to automatically delete accounts from Facebook, Linkedin and Myspace. After Facebook sent the artists a cease and desist letter the work received a lot of mainstream attention worldwide.
The mirror is replaced by a myriad of reflections online. Few people know how the Internet actually works. Many are as baffled by Internet effects as were people watching Thomas Edison’s train films around 1900. A new kind of image unfolds in front of them, an image that is animate, but fragmented and elusive. The Net is clearly not a simple, straightforward visual medium like photography or film. In digital networks different old and new technologies and archives stack up and interweave. Visual appearance is no longer the primary form of representation. The camera is only an addition to the computer.
On the Net data have replaced the photographic image. Not only has the photograph itself been transformed into lines of code, but also the main form of representation in the digital domain is text-based (be it in human or in programming languages) rather than based on visual imagery. The construction of a vision, an object, or an identity in this environment is the result of the application of carefully constructed digital machines (software) operating within equally carefully constructed hardware networks. If we follow the theories of Flusser this means that the programming of the way we are represented and the way we are manipulated to present ourselves has been multiplied to the extreme, and is now even largely beyond the control of individual experts. The Internet is an information labyrinth, an Escherian construction, seemingly expanding, collapsing and rotating in every direction. In this unstable mega machine representation is always a clear manipulation of the real.
In this environment intersubjective play with identity is engendered and stimulated by the configuration of the network architecture. Yet as the digital databases and thus also the interests of industry, authorities, and the public merge problems arise. Media theorist Geert Lovink describes in his book Networks Without a Cause how geek cultures clash with new, stealth forms of capitalism, in which demands for transparent consumer citizen policies serve transforming power networks, and how they clash hard. The fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is the epitome of this confrontation. Smaller, more everyday examples are abounding in the rampant development of Web 2.0, from the censorship of nudity on Facebook to the concealing of search results by Google. Rules of behaviour are literally programmed into regular, individual uses of the Net.
In Cypherpunks – Freedom and the Future of the Internet Assange warns us for the development of the Internet as the ultimate tool for ‘the new surveillance state’. His mention of a surveillance state suggests a centralized, overt form of government, but through protocols such as that of Facebook surveillance becomes internalized. It merges with our desire to fit in as a social animal. Behaviours and appearances that disagree with popular standards or legal boundaries automatically disappear, conditioning us in the process.
(The MacGhillie saga is a work in progress by Knowbotic Research that evolved from their work Naked Bandit in 2011. By applying a camouflage suit used by the military to ‘disappear’ in public space the work makes a connection between the absence of rights for suspects in military prisons like that of Guantanamo Bay, which was addressed in the code art work Naked Bandit, and the status of the public in a street surveillance zone. “macghillie is roaming around, defying a goal, without intention, withdrawing from purpose, crossing the cybernetic loops. macghillie defies classification, attributions are shifted into the void, no will to communicate. recognition does not help. how long can this last in a postutopian space? are there moments for something that does not want to be anything?”)
The Street, or where it ends
Walking down the street of any major city it is obvious: street cultures and Internet cultures merge. Geek cultures from World of Warcraft type games to the visual frenzy of 4chan have started to infect graffiti and fashion. Pictures of street scenes and colourful walls in turn are replicated endlessly in blogs and social media. Street culture is blog culture. Shop windows are browser windows. The matrix is a dirty, material space.
Surveillance cameras on the street, though older than the Internet, add to the experience of this merging of on- and offline spheres. Like with other older media their feeds have become part of the construction of larger data bodies and information objects. Under their watchful eye we have learnt how to hide in plain sight, to blend in without conforming, but soon this will not be enough. RFID tracking and face recognition technologies will deepen the programming of the public sphere, while data tracking maps every move we make online. What we need is a revival of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), in which every connection to the media landscape is cut off, even if only for a few moments. This time around however this is often a one-person zone.
The faceless body is the symbol for our endangered autonomy in the surveillance state, and it is also the embodiment of the ultimate freedom, through (social) death or through ecstasy. The mask is the first sign of resistance. In the Greater Network however escape must include more sophisticated forms of camouflage.
January 2013, Vienna