data culture / tracking / surveillance / :: / image / perception / object / movement / :: / photography / the event / connexions / interface / :: / the unseen / transparency / :: / works / writings / musings :

an imperceptible transmission

processing

A few thoughts on the role that the image plays within our new knowledge economies and how its employment as a digital labourer is possibly being exploited.

September 12, 2015

This essay was presented at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design – Auckland, New Zealand. Additional research and notes here. PDF version of talk notes/outline here: ⇒ talk map // 

India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi is standing on a stage addressing a crowd of more than 17,000 followers in Dubai, you can watch it on YouTube. Or you can watch some of his holographic lifelike onstage tele-presence experiences of over more than 800 of his ‘live performances’ that he gave during his frenetic 2014 campaign to secure his victory. With over 3 million square kilometres of land to travel and a population of roughly 1.3 billion people to talk to – it is a gruelling and long campaign. India is a big place but the world has just gotten a bit smaller, where the old idiom of ‘you can not be in two place at once’ has just exited stage left. This is not the stuff of science fiction. This is real and the company which developed the technology HologramUSA – states that the experience “will transform your business” – “help you break through the media clutter” and make “you stand out from the crowd”. 1

In Susan Sontag’s On photography she provides us with a perceptive view of the role that the photograph played within society up until about the late 1970’s stating that the camera was “fulfilling its promise to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.” In describing ‘the image-world’, she outlines that the way we interpret reality had shifted from around about the mid 19th century where the philosophical and religious dogma of the time had been displaced by the photograph and that “in the new age of unbelief [our] allegiance to images had become strengthened. And that credence was now being given to realities understood to be images – or – what she called “illusions”; adding that the commonly held view of the time was “that a society only becomes “modern” when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, and when images have an extraordinary power to determine our demands upon reality, and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience, they then become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.” 2

Much of what Sontag said about the image still holds true today, but of course, that was 1977 and the digital image was still just in its infancy, having been invented only 2 years prior by Steve Sasson, an engineer with the Eastman Kodak company.

But the image which I am most intrigued by are not the images of Susan Sontag’s world – but rather my interest is with its digital cousin. The image which inhabits our screens, races across our devices and confronts us on the couch. An image which now goes with us wherever we go – travels in our pockets – disappears – reappears – shooting across our screens. An image loaded with data – and as we engage with it, transfer it from shape to space, from format to format, from resolution to evolution – we socialize it. An images which Judith Doanth describes as being mediated by a “social machine” where its “abstracted binary digits are programmed so as to transform it into a communication medium and a setting for interactions – an electronic place to see and be seen”. 3

And not only are we looking and watching, we are also touching and swiping, where the seamless interactions between knowledge and seeking is set in motion. It is this interaction which activates the hidden labour within the image – through the click of a mouse, the tap on a screen, a like, a share, a follow, we set in motion a series of connections which not only manifest themselves as social engagement but also activate a set of financial transaction. These transactions form the basis of our new information economy, where the image is a digital conduit deeply embedded with statistics, bytes, pixels and layers of information, data and code, tracking bots and geo-tagging locations. An image which not only ‘gives-away’ our preferences on any subject at any given time in almost any location, but also an image which travels along a digital superhighway, a global network system who’s function extends far beyond just an interconnected social platform for sharing pictures of our cats. But rather it resembles a network which the sociologist Manuel Castells describes as one of “collective consumption” which “organises the position of actors, organisations and institutions”4 strategically so that they can continue to generate wealth through the corporate controlled mechanisms of collecting information. Information which blurs the boundary between private and public, work and play, sinister and social.

In Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on the economy of Social Being he proposes that it is our expenditure in accumulating social gravity which yields our sense of worth and that through the aggregation of this capital, combined with our accumulation of a practical investment, or how we relate to the world around us, is what defines us as agents within any given field. And by a ‘field’ he means a space which has its own set of rules, systems, and hierarchies of domination. For Bourdieu every individual occupies multidimensional social environments, where the accumulation of ‘social capital’ is what makes us active agents within our social, political and scientific world. So if we apply some of Bourdieu’s thinking to the value that an image acquires as it moves about the internet – and think of it as an agent which forms bonds to a viewer within a given space – we can then begin to see what makes the image such a desirable employee and how its ability to integrate vertically into complex multi-channel markets is what gives the image its competitive edge as a commodity.

But the image is far more powerful than just its financial resoluteness within certain markets. Art historian, author, critic and professor David Joselit suggests in his book After Art – that images represent a “paradigmatic transformational experiences” going on to say that “as both commodity and experience” they “occupy the vanguard where the images cultural difference is assessed and traded like Yen, Renminbi, Euros and Dollars.”5 But what Joselit is referring to here is the image that belongs to the white cube, the image which is traded at art fairs, commercial galleries and institutions, images which are exchanged amongst dealers and consultants, CEO’s and philanthropists.

Hito Steyerl, however, approaches the image from a slightly different perspective in her essay The Spam of the Earth: withdrawal from representation – where she describes the images of our digital culture as ‘dark-matter’ which litters our ‘deep-space’, circulating endlessly without ever been seen – images which produce a state of anxiety by misrepresenting our virtual selves, describing them as “a tool for the production of bodies, which ultimately ends up creating a culture stretched between bulimia, steroid overdose, and personal bankruptcy.”6 These are images which belong to online adverts and follow us around from one virtual space to another, or embody the form of an unsolicited email purporting to have originated from Nigeria. They are images from our late night shopping channels which take advantage of our miss-informed perceptions of beauty and desirability. What I am trying to convey here is that our emotional attachment to images spans a wide spectrum of aesthetic modalities, and the function of images can be measured in terms of their ubiquitous existence. Its what Bourdieu would have classified as Symbolic Violence, where the images dominance is so complete that our relentless association with them has left them open to exploitation. Where the images ‘employment’ as a commodity and its position within a virtual space have been carefully scripted so as to benefit corporations, institutions and political front-men whose are only concerned with ROI’s, KPI’s and stakeholder investments.

A curated project entitled Image Employment at PS1 MOMA in 2013 sets out to investigate various forms of “contemporary production” which “illustrate differing approaches to the subject.” The show included “observational films that avoid participation in capitalistic image creation, and videos that engage corporate omnipotence by employing its processes, as well as works which complicate these two tendencies.”7 Part of the show focused on the filmic breakthrough Workers leaving the factory by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière from 1895, where Harun Farocki and Andrew Norman Wilson give their take on the short black and white 1 minute film. The film not only documents a moment in time but it also reveals a lot by what is left behind. As workers leave the factory, they leave behind an empty carcass and apart from a few figures, possibly a foreman, all but remain. It is hard to ignore its symbolism as it reminds us of who holds power and what position the labourer inhabits within these systems. The film is a moment of cinematic ingenuity as it marks the origins of the mass-manufactured image in the form of moving stills. Images which go on to be mass-consumed and forever ingrained in the celluloid membranes of our memories. Images which collapse time.

Harun Farocki’s career as an artist has been described as “avant-garde” where his works “examine the ways that images are used to inform, instruct, persuade and propagandize.” His short documentaries expose the complexities of contemporary life, where he takes on socio-political issues including “war, imprisonment, surveillance and capitalism.”8 In Farocki’s take, he explores the relationships hidden between labourer and the manufacturing behemoths of the early 20th century. Clips from the Ford and Volkswagen factories are intertwined with classic propaganda films, while other fictional places of work employ cultural pop-icons of the day such as Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang all of which criss-cross each other as a narrator describes the workers possible state of mind. What Farocki does is help us to make connections between these varying thresholds through the use of motion. His genius lies in his sensitivity to the unseen, to the residual moment of lost opportunities, society’s failure to experience the world in a different light – through a different lens. His ‘re-employment’ of the image within his own work talks about those lost opportunities. He states that “because so many images already exist, I am discouraged to make new ones; I prefer to make a different use of pre-existing images. But not every image can be recycled; a hidden value must pre-exist.”9

In Andrew Norman Wilsons video, Workers leaving the Googleplex he sets about documenting the mysterious Google Book – “ScanOps” – yellow-badge workers as they leave from the one building they have access to. He references the Lumiere Brothers classic and describes the work as an investigation into “a class-based system of access that can script different flows of movement” and that “despite our technological progress and the increasing prominence of cultural and informational labour it is the persistent necessity for repetitive, manual labour” which binds us to an analogue existence. The video present us with a series of frames, images within images, levels of information and patterns of accessibility – or what he describes as “an expansive aesthetic distributive system”.10 Tabs and windows, icons and montages echo the hierarchal multiplicities of our relationships with images. And when the image breaks past the confines of its ‘performative’ screen and inhabits the virtual world of online life, it recycles itself back into the distribution system, setting in motion yet another series of interactions. These are sequences which Hanna Arendt describes as a “cycle that needs to be sustained through consumption, and the activity which provides the means of consumption is laboring”.11 These flows not only talk about the physicality of an exchange – whether they be on the most basic of levels or on the larger scale of globalised networks – but they also ask us to contemplate these at their most intrinsic of biological levels, that most delicate of bio-chemical environments within the human brain and how fundamentally this is where we connect to the digital world.

It is within this complex world of overly saturated technological jargon, ambiguous systems of statistical profiling and a superficial culture of pop-psychoanalysis where the image has taken up the role of ‘simulator’, a stand-in which conceals the codified fabrication of its back-end persona. Its representation merely an abstraction of its underlying environment. And it is within this layer of codified engagement which provides the ideal breeding-ground for corporate intervention, commercial sharks and vote-seeking politicians, to use the image to disguise their true intent and to manipulate our information.

Knowledge has always been essential to our survival. Elders around the campfire told stories laden with wisdom, insights and information – like how to read the clouds, count the tides, or know which berry to eat. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde states that “to convert an idea into a commodity means to establish a boundary of some sort so that the idea cannot move from person to person without a toll or fee,” and that ideas do not circulate freely when they are treated as commodities.”12 In todays knowledge economies images are the currency which we trade and exchange. Information is now trapped in the potentiality of gaining financial value, of being controlled and manipulated by power hungry suits; packaged, designed and rolled-out by start-up companies, international conglomerates; dressed up as entertainment by pop-stars who talk nonsense. It is a virtual social icon, a friend you have never met, an image that is not an image, a pixel waiting for us to recycle it back into the system, where it aggregates more information, and gains more and more value.

Although information might be promising us a utopian return to the warmth of our campfires, where a sharing economy is what might keep us cosy on those long winter nights – questions still remain: like, who controls the distribution of our information? and who controls all the data that defines our ‘norms’? Who builds the platforms where our images are progressively being manufactured to act as brokers within our information networks – where more and more images are competing for more attention? But volume may not be our panacea either, after all its what created the untenable situation we are in now, in the first place.

Images document. They are tools which suspend time, so that we can begin to understand things better, to equip ourselves with more knowledge, or as Hito Steyerl puts it – “to express what is unimaginable, unspoken, unknown, redeeming or even monstrous”.13 Images always live in the potentiality of being something else, and yes, they have social, political and financial hierarchies and they do occupy a certain scale within an ‘economy’. But they are not prisoners within their networked environments, either – images also have the ability to disrupt and to engage us in a different conversation, to help us see the ‘unseen’.

These are images which have been exiled from our everyday and operate at the fringes of society – skirting the network at its ‘darker-limits”. They have been removed from their operational flows and have been reconfigured, de-coded and re-coded, altering their hierarchical layering structures. They exist to disrupt our perceptions of reality and prompt us to contemplate their accessibility, their place of origin and to rethink their intended function. These are images which have dismembered the corporate talking head from its body and re-attached it to a mythical online-space, where it takes on another persona, collecting new information, distributing new knowledge. Or it is the political puppet who has been digitally put under the scalpel of the magnifying glass to reveal its pox-marked pixelated skin, porous craters of glimmering sweat, repeating themselves endlessly. A head of state who’s lips are caught in the loop of insincerity. Or the disfigured international pop star who has been stretched passed its panoramic identity, extended beyond its recognisable self. Collapsing its representation into bands of colour, shadows of its hypocrisy.

These are images which have escaped the network of their own validation. Images which continue to collapse the spaces between encounter and understanding, where our new digital economies may no longer be the illusionary mirror of Sontag’s world. And as images continue to mediate our screens and to explode beyond their polymer boundaries, I wonder, how might the ‘ghost of Modi’ present itself to us in the future?

References:

  1. HologramUSA. (2015). About HologramUSA. Retrieved from http://www.hologramusa.com/about-hologramusa/
  2. Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. (iBooks version 1.2). London, England: Penguin Group. Retrieved from Apple Inc.
  3. Donath, J. (2014). The social machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  4. Castells, M. (1994). Working notes for a critical theory of the informational society. In T. Druckery & P. Weibel. Net-condition: art and global media. (2001). (pp. 30-47). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  5. Joselit, D (2013). After Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  6. Steyerl, H. (2012). The wretched of the screen. Berlin, Germany: Sternberg Press
  7. MOMA PS1. (2013). Image employment. Curated by Aily Nash and Andrew Norman Wilson. Retrieved from http://momaps1.org/exhibitions/view/375
  8. Fox, M. (2014). Harun Farocki, filmmaker of modern life, dies at 70. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/1zLSAkI
  9. Farocki, H. (2008). In M. Fox. Harun Farocki, filmmaker of modern life, dies at 70. (2014). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/1zLSAkI
  10. Wilson, A. N. (2013). In conversation with Tensta konsthall Associate Curator Laurel Ptak. Retrieved from http://www.andrewnormanwilson.com/WorkersGoogleplex.html
  11. Arendt, H. (1989) The human condition. Chicago, IL. The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1958)
  12. Hyde, L. (1983). The gift: creativity and the artist in the modern world. New York, NY. Vintage Books.
  13. Steyerl, H. (2003). Documentarism as Politics of Truth. Transversal 10/03: Differences & Representations. Translated by Aileen Derieg. Retrieved from http://eipcp.net/transversal/1003/steyerl2/en

Images:

  1. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) Image capture of optical-view finder during image processing.
  2. PM Modi’s address to the Indian Community at Dubai – HD – Official YouTube channel of Shri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India. https://www.youtube.com/user/narendramodi/featured
  3. Shri Narendra Modi’s Address to “Bharat Vijay” Rally using 3D Hologram Technology 17/4/2014 – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiPqlA0Ii_rKL4-mMzr2Ofw
  4. Shri Narendra Modi’s Address to “Bharat Vijay” Rallies across country using 3D Hologram Technology. Published on Apr 27, 2014: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiPqlA0Ii_rKL4-mMzr2Ofw
  5. Shri Narendra Modi’s Address to “Bharat Vijay” Rally using 3D Hologram Technology 14/4/2014 – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiPqlA0Ii_rKL4-mMzr2Ofw
  6. Shri Narendra Modi’s Address to “Bharat Vijay” Rally using 3D Hologram Technology 11/4/2014 – – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiPqlA0Ii_rKL4-mMzr2Ofw
  7. Indian politician morphs into hologram to reach millions of voters. http://www.theverge.com/2014/5/7/5691714/indian-politician-uses-holograms-to-reach-voters
  8. Screen capture – Home page – http://www.hologramusa.com
  9. Susan Sontag – http://elfanzinedemalbicho.blogspot.co.nz/2013/01/los-diarios-de-susan-sontag.html
  10. Portrait engraving of Ludwig Feuerbach from Die Gartenlaube 1872 (1) p. 17 – Ernst Keil (publisher) – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ludwig_Andreas_Feuerbach.jpg
  11. Pierrot Laughing, 1855, Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) (French, 1820–1910); Adrien Tournachon (French, 1825–1903). Coated salted paper print from glass negative; 10 3/4 x 7 13/16 in. (27.3 x 19.8 cm) – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1998.57
  12. Sputnik 1 – Primera sonda espacial enviada por la Unión Soviética el 4 de octubre de 1957. – https://carreraespacial.wordpress.com/imagenes/sputnik1/
  13. Time Life covers – (L) Life Magazine, March 3, 1972 – Mao Tse-tung. http://www.oldlifemagazines.com/march-03-1972-life-magazine.html?q= / (R) Life Magazine, November 1, 1978 – Mickey Mouse. http://www.oldlifemagazines.com/november-01-1978-life-magazine.html?q=
  14. Steve Sasson with first digital camera he created 1975 – Photo Steve Kelly – http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/latest/photo-news/kodaks-digital-camera-inventor-and-brian-may-honoured-update-11815
  15. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) Code racer, still
  16. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) Code racer, animated video
  17. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) Image making
  18. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) Street observations of users on their mobile devices
  19. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) Screen capture – recomposited : from code to cortex to cognition
  20. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) Free-WiFi
  21. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) The chase – screen capture of stop motion animation
  22. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) Screen capture – mobile device navigation / mobile device Wi-Fi settings
  23. Peirre Bourdieu – Le sociologue Pierre Bourdieu au CollËge de France. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu at the College de France. El sociologo Pierre Bourdieu en el College de France. Paris. Fin des annÈes 1990. Photo: Leonardo Antoniadis. http://www.lurvely.com/photo/4357339368/Pierre_Bourdieu/
  24. Social Capital – https://www.withfriendship.com/user/Athiv/Social-capital.php
  25. Gender swap – Interdisciplinary art collective BeAnotherLab has developed a virtual reality headset that allows users to experience what it would be like to live in the skin of someone from the opposite sex – http://www.dezeen.com/2014/01/22/virtual-reality-headset-by-beanotherlab-lets-users-try-swapping-gender/ screen grab
  26. Lev Manovich’s ‘Media Visualization’ – http://infosthetics.com/archives/2010/10/lev_manovich_media_visualization.html
  27. Valenti, C. (2015) – Copyright = capital
  28. Auction house – http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/how-much-does/expensive-paintings-time/
  29. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) – a gap between rationality and obscurity. All photo Julian Elias Bronner, unless stated otherwise. In collaboration with all participants whether they know it or not.
  30. 9c4e1_best_weight_loss_pill_on_the_market – http://dietstips.info/best-weight-loss-pill-on-the-market-diets-at-northern-michigan-reginal-hospital/
  31. ‘Burger Boy’ – Screen grab – origin unkown, 2015-09-12
  32. TV shopping channels investigated over bogus claims – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/mediatechnologyandtelecoms/10072681/TV-shopping-channels-investigated-over-bogus-claims.html
  33. S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner. http://www.reuters.com/news/picture/inside-kandahar?articleId=USRTR2PCBT
  34. Where to Get A Tren Steroid for Your Tren Cycle – https://allenwalsh9.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/tren-steroid-for-tren-cycle/
  35. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) Screen capture – Right decision – http://www.istockphoto.com/photo/right-decision-42190314
  36. Brothers Louis (on the left) and Auguste (right) Lumière in their laboratory, photographed probably by Czech photographer Karel Šmirous – http://sechtl-vosecek.ucw.cz/en/expozice10/tabule-lumiere.html
  37. The First Film in the History – December 28 – 1895 – The Lumiere Brothers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDnppCDhI9U
  38. Harun Farocki, I Thought I was Seeing Convicts, 2000 – https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/harun-farocki-in-new-york
  39. Harun Farocki, Serious Games I–IV, 2009-2010 – Screen grab – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcKL-_RtU5Y
  40. Harun Farocki, Workers Leaving the Factory 1995 – screen grab – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU0_a6pCMLw
  41. Harun Farocki, Workers Leaving the Factory 1995 – screen grab – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU0_a6pCMLw
  42. Harun Farocki, Workers Leaving the Factory 1995 – screen grab – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU0_a6pCMLw
  43. Harun Farocki, Workers Leaving the Factory 1995 – screen grab – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU0_a6pCMLw
  44. Harun Farocki, Workers Leaving the Factory 1995 – screen grab – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU0_a6pCMLw
  45. Andrew Norman Wilson – Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2009-2011 . HD Video . 11 minutes – installation view, School of the Art Institute of Chicago – http://www.andrewnormanwilson.com/WorkersGoogleplex.html
  46. Andrew Norman Wilson – Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2009-2011 – screen grabs – http://www.andrewnormanwilson.com/WorkersGoogleplex.html
  47. Andrew Norman Wilson – Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2009-2011 – screen grabs – http://www.andrewnormanwilson.com/WorkersGoogleplex.html
  48. Andrew Norman Wilson – Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2009-2011 – screen grabs – http://www.andrewnormanwilson.com/WorkersGoogleplex.html
  49. Andrew Norman Wilson – Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2009-2011 – screen grabs – http://www.andrewnormanwilson.com/WorkersGoogleplex.html
  50. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) A globalise network of digital labour – graphic
  51. Dictyostelium Discoideum – Courtesy of Dr. Milton Saier. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jM6aaVT-q8M
  52. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) – The blame game. This image surfaced early after the disappearance of flight MH370. Doctored images have a long history within the machines of propaganda, note the bottom half of the two surveillance images. Source: the internet. Screen grab.
  53. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2014) – the-gift-of-sight-03
  54. HIVE at Houston Command Centre 16 July 2010 – keywords: big business, state alteration, photos, contemporary – http://blog.chron.com/newswatchenergy/2010/07/bp-alters-photos-for-web-site/
  55. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) – A conversation amongst clouds
  56. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) – A sensitive issue – video
  57. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) – Transparency in exile, installation view
  58. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) – Transparency in exile, installation view
  59. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) – Factual information may vary according to availability, installation view
  60. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) – Factual information may vary according to availability, installation view
  61. Valenti, C. (Photographer) (2015) – St Anthony and the hacker (working title)

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