AUGUST 1, 2020
EARLIER IN THE PANDEMIC, while watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, I found myself wanting to sear every frame into my retina, to absorb and integrate what I was watching into my DNA. I was awestruck by the economy and precision of his visual language — unnaturally verdant grasses subsuming industrial war relics; shallow, toxic water stagnating over once elegant tiled floors; spores of indeterminate origin drifting past a young girl’s hollow-eyed gaze. I imagined my brain storing each image in a file I could select on demand or drop in as an abiding inspirational layer against my own image-making. This desire is only one of many ways I long to be part machine.
Our atomic constitution is already mediated as much by technology as by nature itself. Where there is electricity and regular access to technology, we are cyborgs, by virtue of the digital data we consume and the methods through which we metabolize and excrete them, and yet our bodies stay the same. We are hybrids of technology and microbes, inhabiting a largely undifferentiated natural-artificial world. The pandemic has forced us to go even further, making us engage differently with time and each other. The artist’s role in this situation is to discover and harness adaptable parts of old systems and mutate them into something new.
The social camera is not something just looked through but looked with.
— Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media
In a very short amount of time, smartphone cameras have become our visual prostheses. During a visit to Dachau in the early 1990s, I remember being mortified by other American visitors, who were loudly narrating and filming through their cumbersome camcorder. I judged them for distancing themselves from the horror, rather than simply taking it in unmediated. Today, a lens doesn’t offer the same mediation it did then. The boundary between the self and the camera is virtually invisible — what’s rare is not recording events through our phones. Ironically, it is often the in-the-moment moment we seek to reproduce. Now when we capture experiences, we also share them, communicating wordlessly with friends and strangers across social media platforms.
Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson refers to the social photo as a “technology of instability.” The history of photography acknowledges the fallacy of objectivity — all images are mediated and biased, contingent on the person who captures or edits them. Ephemeral by definition, the power of these images is in the conversation they represent. Jurgenson describes this as photography’s foundational language; “images as speech, as gesture, as breath” and as “a cultural practice; […] a way of seeing, speaking, and learning.” Perhaps this is a potential vector for resistance in our post-truth moment.
[W]e cannot play alone.
— James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
If smartphones and other mobile devices function as extensions of ourselves, they are best engaged collectively.
In her most recent book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway urges us to “remain in the thick present,” and to rethink “response-ability”. And yet, uncertainty is not a comfortable space to inhabit. As many have noted, if not for our phone cameras, we would not all have borne witness to the brutal murder in real time of George Floyd, and countless acts of police brutality and racialized aggression in its wake. Facing a vacuum of national leadership and response-ability, Stasi-like federal secret police snatching protestors off the streets, and braving an uncontained virus, we have witnessed what a response looks like in aggregate. The key may lie in radical collaboration and sharing resources, particularly as resources become scarcer for the most vulnerable among us. Without a blueprint, it might be tempting to slip into a Darwinian I-got-mine-ism. Haraway presents a potential solution: a world of ever-becoming, of interspecies commingling and kinship, of the opportunity inherent in instability. It is within this framework where we might find the first slippery possibility for collective subversion.
What if we could, in decentralized and often anonymous collaborations, cocreate new encoded methods of communication? Throughout history, marginalized groups have communicated using languages intentionally opaque to their oppressors. For those with access, the social photo might be one place to start. Profound truths often lurk in constructed simulations. The most obvious example is memes, with their laconic (often hilarious) flashes of critical discourse and pared-down philosophy. What if we could counter fascist dog-whistling with new visual languages? Not by reproducing current messaging techniques, but by inverting them and creating an equal-but-opposite discursive ecosystem? Such an elusive network of outlaws might include artists, hackers, community organizers, teachers, philosophers, scientists, along with a healthy dose of constructive AI algorithms. This would be sympoiesis at its best, co-making and combining forces. It would be our collective task to be proactive — to offer new messaging in advance and to relentlessly make visible what has been kept invisible. One notable example of this collective action is the recent artist-led In Plain Sight exhibition, using literal and augmented reality skywriting to project messages of hope and solidarity for detained immigrants all over the United States.
The rub, as always, is surveillance. Our current pandemic and uprising provide an “acceptable” cover for implementing state surveillance. Encrypted apps are plentiful, so it’s often difficult to choose just one, and even then, they do not offer a public platform. Data collection and synthesis are still covert activities for an obvious reason: if we knew the extent of what was being mined for its predictive value we might eschew all ecommerce, internet engagement, and social media forever. Commercially mined data now threatens to be used against individual citizens and is already scattered within police departments across the country. This notably includes facial recognition technologies, which have come under fire for their potential for abuse and misuse — specifically in the ways they disproportionately target and misidentify people of color. The recent “victory” in staying the deployment and sale of these technologies at major tech companies is a positive signal, but it must be treated as only the earliest step to combat a labyrinthine structure that rejects oversight and threats to its power by design.
Some of the most inventive and irreverent “free” public content currently exists on TikTok, owned by ByteDance, which has been charged with both censorship and unusually invasive data collection and fingerprinting. Zoom, all fatigue aside, is an unsecured third-party interface in our online conversations. Even so, this 2D interface currently functions as primary. With a new set of symbols, filters, encoded images, and themes, such widely used platforms could be alternatively imagined. Strange bedfellows, and unexpected inter-special collaborations might provide a way forward.
The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed.
— Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Our bodies are and will be seen. Visual biases related to bodily exteriority warrant close attention, especially now. If only we had identity-shifting “scramble suits” like the kind depicted in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, by way of Philip K. Dick. As it stands, we have masks, which have taken on renewed importance. Health concerns may be primary, but we are collectively rediscovering that facial obfuscation has merits that extend beyond the medical. Artists like Zach Blas have been wise to this for a while, particularly where unprotected populations are concerned. But the mask’s subversive potential has recently captured more widespread adoption. I’ve been exhilarated by the innovative and boundary-blurring methods people are using to visually articulate their environments, skin, hair, clothes, age, and gender expression. In some of these images, the very idea of identifiability is at stake, since the categorical boundaries of the face as such are being explored. Grotesque hand-knit masks, Hunger Games–style hair and makeup, mind-bendy VFX, customized VR avatars, transformative AR filters, AI-smeared features, and inventive substitutions of classical paintings with everyday at-home objects are just some examples of this creative explosion. A DIY music video by a young singer whose appearance eluded any conventional characterizations provides a glimpse into an otherworldly future, replete with unruly potential.
How can we push these practices further? How might we represent ourselves as ever-shifting machine hybrids? My preference is for immersive and digital art, as they allow for multiple sources of sensory input. The Most Human Human author Brian Christian illustrates the inextricably connected human-computer interface by citing a professor who compared poetry to lichen: “[an] organism which is actually not an organism at all but a cooperation between fungi and algae so common that the cooperation itself seemed a species.”
In a recent self-portrait exploring the nature of interiority, I approach the question of whether we can know someone from within, rather than classifying them from without. I’m attempting to tackle this idea in the non-space/infinite space of VR, combining abstracted atomic and cellular matter with digital captures of memories, sounds, biometrics, artworks, videos, and thoughts. I want to render scraps of embodied cognition through digital mediation and discover whether it would be possible to achieve a visceral transfer of knowledge to the viewer. Certain areas of my rendering remain empty as others coagulate with data, gesturing toward all that is involuntarily extracted from — or applied to — the self.
How can we use that essential fungibility and porousness as a source of power? If the human body is an interface, where do our screens overlap and interlock? Through shared struggle and body-knowledge, which are hard won. Unlike computational knowledge, visceral wisdom (gut to brain) may be our best weapon. Empathic experiential artworks are more likely to make an impact because we remember the things that move us emotionally. By actively listening to our bodies, we can find profound kinship with others.
Many artists are doing this brilliantly, catalyzing change through socially engaged practices. I’m always astonished by the resourcefulness and resilience of my peers. Where access to XR technology (shorthand for “extended reality,” a catchall for immersive technologies including augmented, mixed, and virtual reality) is concerned, however, the barrier to entry still remains high. Mirroring the dynamics of our lopsided economy, opportunistic for-profit organizations have begun throwing resources behind one percent artists while lesser-known pioneers — the ones who embrace the subversive potential of these media — continue to work without the material support and safety nets necessary to sustain their practices.
Recent economic free fall has exacerbated these and other entrenched conditions. Too many artists I’ve spoken to recently, in a variety of fields, remain unpaid for their labors by well-funded arts institutions. They have no real recourse. If we protected cultural workers, producers, and artists as valued creative problem solvers, if we empowered them to work in and through networked systems, then an interdisciplinary workforce could be tasked with solving our greatest planetary challenges.
The digital poorhouse is a part of a long American tradition. We manage the individual poor in order to escape our shared responsibility for eradicating poverty.
— Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor
Unlike organically generated networks, networked AI systems operate on a backbone of pattern recognition at scales that supersede human comprehension. Biased algorithms are regularly deployed to keep people from accessing basic social programs like health care and welfare. Automated systems with byzantine internal networks designed to make even the most determined caller give up are all but enshrined. AI’s potential for productive and ethical problem-solving is wide open. In lieu of avoidance, a movement of artists, coders, and social scientists could rise up to share in the monumental task of building artificial intelligences that chip away at — rather than reinforce — structural inequities. Bias is entrenched in all such endeavors, but generating a foundationally inclusive movement would help mitigate this. By reframing our interdependence constructively and using our shared (remote, physical, and virtual) spaces of human and nonhuman encounter, we could begin to tackle the challenges we face in uncharted territory.
In her essay “Four Theses on Posthuman Feminism,” species egalitarian Rosi Bradiotti writes,
The posthuman feminist knowing subject is a complex assemblage of human and nonhuman, planetary and cosmic, given and manufactured […] she remains committed to social justice and, while acknowledging the fatal attraction of global mediation, is not likely to forget that one-third of the world population has no access to electricity.
If, as it appears, we live in a Stalker landscape — deep in the Zone, where unseen forces work through us at all times, keeping us disoriented, exhausted, and irritable — let’s wander through it together. Rather than resist our integration and dissolution in this new world, let’s use it as a point of embarkation. Let’s not just stay with the trouble; let’s use it.
Nancy Baker Cahill is an artist working at the intersection of fine art, new media and activism. She is the Founder and Creative Director of 4th Wall, a free Augmented Reality (AR) public art platform exploring resistance and inclusive creative expression.