Hiding in Plain Sight

Julia Scher
Surveillance Bed III, 1994
180 x 240 x 180 cm

We all know that transparency is no longer a magic formula that automatically leads to greater emancipation. By contrast, in order to win back a piece of humanity and freedom, we will have to become our own censors. In various recent artworks Barbara Casavecchia finds the building blocks for a new culture of silence.

Knowing that our external appearance, thoughts and feelings are tracked and analysed by corporations and governments, we have become accustomed to hiding in plain sight, camouflaging ourselves by saying a lot without really saying much. We may soon want (or be compelled) to turn to a culture of reduced visibility, shared experiences on small scales, secrets, silence: we will have to transform ourselves into “secret agents” or “agents of secrets” of our own devising.

In the Orwellian year 1984, when Jenny Holzer released her Truisms, they already included OFFER VERY LITTLE INFORMATION ABOUT YOURSELF and OPACITY IS AN IRRESISTIBLE CHALLENGE. I came across them recently as inscriptions in stone, in the sculpture park of Wanås in Sweden, like silent meditations across time and space on the advantages of underexposure. The visual arts themselves are a realm in which making-visible has, of course, been of the utmost importance, and artists’ enquiries into the relationships of visibility, invisibility and technology often extended beyond the aesthetic field.

And not only in post-Internet times: flipping through the pages of the 1993 Whitney Biennial catalogue, for example where a new wave of experimental videotapes and films responded to a growing awareness of “silent” identities and the emergence of new subcultures as much as to the rise of cable TV, home video, CCTV and mass surveillance – one finds the Gulf Crisis TV Project, which shed light on the war’s origins in America’s military-industrial complex. “On January 7th 1990, a week before US planes started their bombing runs over Iraq”, the statement says, “the series began weekly transmissions via satellite to local access and public TV stations. For the next several months, these programs revealed that there were cracks in the seamless high-tech facade which the mainstream press built around the war”. Shortly afterwards, in 1996, the American artist Julia Scher started teaching her first Surveillance Studies class in Boston, at Massachusetts College of Art (long, long before Discreet, the “intelligence agency for the people” in this year’s Berlin Biennale).

The artist and writer Zach Blas, whose Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–14) is a series of face-effacing, identity-hiding masks, reminds us that “informatic standardizations (…) produce a conception of the human as that which is fully measurable, quantifiable, and knowable – that is, informatically visible.” He also speaks of the right to opacity (and, specifically, queer opacity) as a strategy of resistance. The human element and its lived experiences are still a resiliently opaque area, too: hard to decrypt or resisting decryption, when it comes to free expression, sex, politics and pleasure.

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We are currently asked to believe in and fetishize the interaction of humans and machines, the growing humanisation of technology, or even the incorporation of one into the other. But for all of our futuristic enthusiasms and anxieties, we ought to remember that there are still real bodies, with individual agendas, operating behind the algorithmic machine. Like Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker, the never-to-be-seen actors who animated the Star Wars droids C-3PO and R2-D2, they are indispensable to keep up the illusion of automated intelligence, speed, efficiency, and objectivity.

Dark Content (2015–), the most recent project by Eva and Franco Mattes (aka 0100101110101101.org) analyses the “filters” sorting through the “inappropriate” images, words, trolling, political slogans, and violence we would otherwise find online. After one of their videos was removed from YouTube, they started looking into content moderation. “Who or what decides if something should be removed from the Internet? Is it an algorithm? Or humans? Who chooses what to keep and what to delete? Who actually deletes the stuff? Who oversees the process? Are there guidelines?”, they explain. So they posted a job offer online to meet moderators and interview them about their experiences. “Even if they left the job long ago, most can still recall the video that made them quit. They work in their cubicles and bedrooms in the Philippines, or Arizona, or Bulgaria, with minimal to no knowledge of the companies for which they’re working. They never step into the headquarters of these companies, and they are paid by the task, yet they make culturally impactful decisions with each click of ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” The interviews were turned into short video episodes with text to speech and avatars representing the workers, and periodically uploaded to the Darknet, the anonymity network allowing its users to avoid identification – which, the artists remark, is “actually much more transparent than the cloud. Spend a few hours researching it and you’ll pretty much understand how it works.”

Of course, we all act as filters of our human content when going public. But we could take hidden moderation as a metaphor or a soberly subversive guideline for gatekeeping the safety of our own worlds.

A synonym of moderation is self-effacement, and if we do away for good with the moralistic undertones of such a word, it could reflect some of the increasingly diffuse counterstrategies we have to adopt to shy away from public control in the socially mediated sphere – a space where shyness is now categorized just a notch below “social anxiety syndrome” (officially a phobia or personality disorder), so that all refusal to embrace exposure is seen as verging on the pathological. If disappearance is almost impossible (or even an insufferable tool of selfpromotion, as Radiohead recently proved), being there without being entirely unprotected seems the least unfeasible alternative. Withholding information and recovering personal areas of uncommunicated, unrecorded and hence unforgettable experiences evidently has huge potential.

Discretion could be a similar story, as in artist Constant Dullaart’s “balconism” manifesto, where he declares: “We need a private veranda above ground, a place for a breath of fresh air, out of sight for the casual onlooker, but great for public announcements. The balcony is both public and private, online and offline. It is a space and a movement at the same time. You can be seen or remain unnoticed, inside and outside. Slippers are ok on the balcony. Freedom through encryption, rather than openness. The most important thing is: you must choose to be seen.”

Vanishing behind surface overload seems to work too: as Hannah Black makes clear in the essay “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Hot Babe”, “now social media makes of everyone a Hot Babe, should they be willing. What is private, secret, is not the detail of the life but the disappearance at its core. (…) Today the ‘authentic’ self of ideology requires a surplus made up of selves that are not perceived as ‘authentic’ – among them is the Hot Babe. (…) She ‘maintains her image,’ but not any particular image. The condition of the Hot Babe is invisibility or (the same thing) pure contentless visibility.”

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Personally, I’ve found solace in the concept of تقيه (taqiyya, literally fear or caution), as interpreted and performed by artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, which strongly and elegantly relates with the issue of how to “moderate” language. In the series of “live audio essays” Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself (2014) as well as in his solo show at Kunsthalle St. Gallen in 2015, the artist dissects taqiyya, a term borrowed from Shia Islamic jurisprudence implying dissimulation, or “a legal dispensation whereby a believing individual can deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal or blasphemous acts while they are at risk of persecution or in a condition of statelessness”. Taqiyya implies that “you speak to people on the level of others’ readiness to listen” and is rooted in the culture and language of the Druze community, an esoteric sect of Islam and a minority living between Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. It allows Hamdan to call attention to the Western notion of truth as transparency, as well as to how and when exercise it fully, and to whose advantage. “Taqiyya is for me an admission that free speech is not about speaking freely, but reclaiming control over the very conditions under which one is being heard. (…) Taqiyya is silence articulated by phonetic articulation”, the artist says.

Reclaiming control over our individual presence in an increasingly controlled public space by understanding that we can deploy what Hamdan calls “a whole range of silences” could be vital. Choosing to question authenticity and to embrace reticence could be too. In times when realities are multiplying as fast as of the invisible “moderators” behind them, artists can teach us not only how to disappear effectively – as Seth Price did almost a decade ago, with his 2008 book How to Disappear in America – but also how to look harder into what we are constantly encouraged not to see. How to shut up about what we are deceptively urged to talk freely about – ourselves, basically, in a profitable orgy of self-disclosure – and to talk about what we are encouraged to shut up about: politics, for example, or power structures, or pleasure.

Barbara Casavecchia is a writer based in Milan.

This text was published in the print issue Spike Art Quarterly N° 48, which can be orderd at our online shop.