An absent photographer with a voracious appetite
It would be impossible to know exactly how many images of us really exist in the world; how many photos and videos of us have been taken, how many captured moments we have produced. How many fractured, low resolution pixelated bits of data we have been instrumental in. How many bursts of time we have unwillingly marked, minding our own business, doing what it is we do, going about our daily lives, unseen, unheard. Data collection comes in many forms but probably the most obvious are those inescapable cameras which are forever present all around us. They can be found on top of poles, on the façades of buildings, attached to the bus, perched atop of architectural architraves, nestled between columns, balancing in a nook, almost everywhere imaginable. While some are visible, exposed by their outer skins, some are far more deceptive, their identities concealed, blending in with the architecture, acting nonchalantly like there could be no possible use to their purpose. But, regardless of their attributes, the one thing they all have in common is a voracious appetite to record whatever comes within its angle of view.
An absent photographer capturing everything that moves, everything it is asked to track. Its solitary independence excludes no one. It is not biased, it performs its job flawlessly, every second, every minute, day-in and day-out. Every frame a Sontag fracture or a Manovich photoset. An automated recording machine where no one is present to ‘take the photo’, to release the shutter or to activate that moment of capture. It is a non-existent documenter, gathering information, converting movement and presence into pixel-oriented mappings, aggregated visualisation clusters, or multi-dense pixel dimension, grouping them according to their values, encrypting the granular low resolution pixel into patterns, information, data, knowledge. Assembling the digital to reveal an exploited image; an image which Harun Farocki would describe as “a picture of abstract existence.”
Walk into any supermarket, retail store or institution today and you can watch yourself caught on the screen as you enter. And as you watch, you can see yourself exit the screen as you walk past. The camera, never panning, anchors its focal plane to a transitional space, its gaze fixed, in a similar fashion to a scene from a Hitchcock movie, where the camera lens binds itself to a ‘stage’ as the actor intervenes in the static gaze. A scene which was once devoid of life soon becomes activated by the physicality of a human presence, of motion cutting across the plane of the screen. In a strange way this type of intervention forces the viewer to take on the roll of the camera, a voyeur, or a ‘flaneur’ occupying a fixed point of view but grazing the pixelated screen waiting for some movement to occur, for some sort of intervention to activate its interest. Waiting for a pixel to transform from one colour value to another as motion is defined by the subtle alterations of hue, off and on. A pixel that glimmers like the microbial dance of life in a petri dish being watched by the microscope.
And as you leave the supermarket rarely do you see yourself exit. The screen ignores you as you are no longer relevant, you have done your job, you can go now, your image no longer needed. But in a warped time spatial confluence, even though you have left the store you still remain there, captured, embedded in some machine, in some backroom office, destined to an archive and hopefully, eventually, to some server side software application which has been coded to write a stream of meaningless pseudorandom data over you. Eventually. Hopefully.
Objects of translation
In December 1975 Steve Sasson, an engineer with the Eastman Kodak company developed the first digital camera. It heralded a revolutionary change on so many levels. It not only changed the way that images were made but it also extended the lifespan that images acquire. No longer would images be subjected to the whims of light, chemicals and celluloid interactions. No longer would they be required to sit between plastic sleeves, pages and pages, albums upon albums, ‘sweating’. And if you had been caught in the institutional loop of record keeping, a file cabinet or a manila folder, would become your final resting ground.
As technology accelerates at phenomenal speed time is compressed and so too does the capacity to store more and more images, larger amounts of data and vast quantities of information. We can squeeze more pixels into less space, compress more information into shorter code. This momentum is also evident by our appetite to capture images. In 2015 it was estimated that in the US alone over 105 billion digital photos were captured, only a third of the total images processed. And it doesn’t look like its about to slow down either. According to Ray Kurzweil “because of the explosive power of exponential growth, the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress.” And like most things today the mass manufactured camera has also been caught up in the accelerated pace of object commodification.
Nobody really knows how many CCTV cameras exist in New Zealand but one figure from the privacy commission website revealed that Auckland’s Queen Street alone had at least 100 cameras in operation. They go on to say that in “going about your day in NZ, you could expect to be recorded on CCTV walking down the main street, when you go into a bank or use an ATM machine, while supermarket shopping, getting petrol, driving through main traffic areas or intersections, going to a museum, art gallery or cinema, or going to the hospital,” and these are just but a handful of situations where cameras exist in public places.
Although the camera is just one of the many mapping techniques employed by governments, institutions and organisations, it is also the most tangible of tools in use today. The camera acts as the intermediary device between subject and viewer capturing and recording our understanding of the world as we interact with it. It can have a powerful and revealing role as it captures evidence, confirming realities, offering a sense of justice and validation; or it can reveal an obscure moment as it reinterprets only a snippet of an event, a moment open for interpretation, creating an ambiguous perceptual field. Our relationship with cameras is fundamental to our understanding of where we came from, where we are at present and where we might want to go. It is embedded in our nostalgia and it represents our memories, an object which captures the images which facilitate the emotional connection between sensory experience and perceived reality.
The stage of encounter
"The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life." – Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life
Inherit within all of us is a real sense of who we are as individuals, how we have come into being and what it is that has shaped us. We are quite certain of what it is we look like, how we behave and how we identify with our sense of self. For most of us, we are fully aware of how we might be perceived by an external world. The photographic image is what helps us confirm mostly what we already know about ourselves, but it also has the power to take us somewhere else. It is immersed with ‘otherness.’ It carries with it multiple connections, sets of data which we retrieve through associations.
Today, the photographic image is a digital amalgamation loaded with ‘embedded indebtedness’. It carries with it far more than just an Abby Warbug moment of ‘bilderfahrzeuge’. It is far more than just a vehicle for transporting culture or history; far more than a transmigratory object for the proliferation of aesthetics, politics, emotions. The image has evolved. It has become interactive. It has developed new survival skills. It has mutated into a data-collecting responsive interface with the capability of recording our habits, collecting our likes, sharing the things we share, the places we go, the things we see. And through a series of integrated connections, it comments on what we consume, the things we ingest. Hito Steyerl suggest that this rapid metamorphosis might be due to the image’s ability to undergo “countless transfers and reformattings” and that we should consider an alternative function or value to images, one that is “defined by velocity, intensity, and spread.”
Liminality is described as ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold. Images today are liminal. They resides mostly in that moment of being between two states. In the potentiality of being something else. They can manifests themselves as bits of code which are set in motion through the swipe or scroll of the screen and as the image enters the stage-of-encounter, the theater-of-complicity, its pixels come alive and transform themselves into a digital glow of light-emitting stimulation, interacting with “some 130 million microscopically small receptors, each of which responds to the wavelength and intensity of the light it receives,” only held back, constrained by the polymers of the display, a rectangle, a shape.
And as you activate that image through a tap on the screen, a click of the mouse, you awaken its true intent. Hidden in the background, embedded within its coded DNA, its stimulated synapse travels unfathomable distance at constant speeds, crossing unimaginable terrains through varied topologies, ignoring geopolitical boundaries, possible bifurcations, distractions, flowing through contended spaces. And then, in a blink of an eye, it comes to a brief rest, as a bit of data, stored on a server, a memory bank or in a cloud, only to be temporarily archived, stored, backed-up. And when needed that image is then reconstituted as a set of data points on a series of colourful wiggly lines, bars and pies charts, scatterplots projected through the artificial light of yet another lens in some board room half way across the world, printed and bound, encased in plastic. It is then redistributed, passed around, and it begins to travel once again, in the brief case of a sales person, emailed to a prospective buyer, its potentiality alive again, its shape redefined… what David Joselit describes as an “emergent image,” one which is lively, potent, dynamic, in motion… working the room… But I digress.
A case of too much information?
So, where do all those copies of us go? All those pixels that have been stored away on servers, hard drives, thumb drives; what happens to them? And what happens to us as we are copied from one institution to another, from one server to another, passing through fire-walls, through encryption software portals, virus scans, multi-platformed digital ecosystems and varying versions of operating systems? And more importantly, what do we become? Have we now been altered as we inhabit multiple dimensions, those of the virtual and the real. Have we now become slightly warped, diluted, a bit weary from all that digital parsing? All those machine translations, ‘lexical analysis’ and ‘left recursive production tools’; converted from a C++ complier to HTML, from Python to Bison or Lemon to Parboiled? From input data and source trees to output; from being interpreted and analyzed to being just a token along the way? What have we become? But, are things really that complicated? All I was doing was walking into the supermarket.
According to Judith Donath, “we need public spaces, where we can encounter the new and unexpected,” she goes on to say that we also “need private space, free from the constraining norms of the greater world.” But who controls that world and at what cost? And who controls all the data that shapes our ‘norms’? Who controls all this knowledge? There is no doubt that we are living in the information age where knowledge is the commodity of our new economies. A knowledge economy which is embedded with data, statistics, bytes, pixels and layers of information. And the currency of these new economies resides with those who posses it, collect it and then re-sell it. If images are merely representations of reality disguised as code, data and pixels, then surely images are embedded with currency as well. And if we keep following this line of questioning then all those images of us, all those archived multiplicities are currency too, which means that we must also have a certain amount of currency too.
Every time we cross the street, go to the shop, walk the dog or even a day at the park our daily lives implicates us as ‘unsuspecting labourers’ to the information society, workers who don’t ‘work’. We have become children of the ‘digital revolution’ building financial empires for free. And this new form of labour that we are engaged with is not just confined to our urban environments. The information age has fully embraced the world of micro-miniaturization and has fully capitalized on its ability to bring universal knowledge to every device, TV, phone, watch, fridge, car, house that we consume.
Knowledge was once free. It was deeply rooted to instinct and wisdom. It possessed a mystical and practical value. It was essential to our existence, an exchange laden with insights and vital clues; how to read the clouds, to sense the rain, count the tides or knowing which berry to eat. It was a gift which was passed-on from generation to generation. But today knowledge is controlled and manipulated by power hungry suits; packaged, designed and rolled-out by start-up companies, international conglomerates; dressed up as entertainment and 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 glimmering pixel waiting for us to activate it, to bring it to life. But, according to some, what we can’t see will never harm us… or something like that.
1. Farocki, H. (2004). From the surveillance society to the control society. In T. Ellsaesser (ED.) Working on the sightlines. (pp. 289-295). Amsterdam, Holland. Amsterdam University Press.
2. Kurzweil, R., Meyer, C. (2003). Understanding the Accelerating Rate of Change. http://www.kurzweilai.net/understanding-the-accelerating-rate-of-change
3. Office of the Privacy Commissioner, (2009). Privacy and CCTV: A guide for the Privacy Act for business, agencies or organisations. Retrieved from https://www.privacy.org.nz/news-and-publications/statements-media-releases/new-guidance-on-privacy-and-cctv-media-release/
4. Steyerl, H. (2012). The wretched of the screen: In defence of the poor image. Berlin, Germany. Sternberg Press.
5. Arnheim, R. (1974). Art and visual perception: a psychology of the creative eye - the new version. Berkley, CA. University of California Press.
6. Joselit, D. (2013). After art. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.
7. Donath, J. (2014). The social machine: designs for living online. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.
This essay first appeared on http://www.blended-theory.org/project03-introduction