Essay: To Be Seen
In the 2010s visuality became marketised. From Snapchat to Instagram to TikTok, data trails generated billions of portraits in likes and follows that could be sold as commodities or flagged for surveillance. At the same time, street protests were resurgent: expressions of faith in creating visibility as much as gestures of resistance, frustration, or despair. Systemic oppression, racism, and injustice were in view, but also hidden by algorithms. In the process, opacity has become more visible, too, in contemporary art and public space alike.
“My body is unremarkable, not at all singular,” the poet Juliana Spahr has sung, “as I walk up to join these other bodies, and it remains unremarkable, not at all singular …” These lines come from “Brent Crude,” a poem reflecting on Spahr’s participation in Occupy Oakland. I’ve likewise felt my body’s urge to be nonindividuated in the tremor of protest: this happened first, for me, during the UK’s 2010 student protests against spending cuts and fee hikes in higher education.
We weren’t the only ones yearning to be nonsingular. Throughout the 2010s, assemblies formed everywhere from Tahrir Square to Hong Kong, intent on formulating new social worlds. Yet these gatherings – which, following Spahr’s poetic example, I read as vulnerable, prefigurative evocations of communality – were answered by tear gas, water cannons, surveillance, and other tools of state violence. The severity of these responses affirms the threat that wildcat expressions of collectivity pose to the global liberal order. “We are an awkward formation,” wrote Spahr. “Ununited but together.”