Towards Visibility: Pop As A Carrier Signal

"The best American invention is to be able to disappear."
-Andy Warhol


Is quasi-psychedelic crypto-Pop the new Pop art?

On November 22, I joined the TOWARDS INVISIBILITY panel for the Surveillance & Privacy: Art, Law, and Social Practice Symposium hosted by the Henry Art Gallery and Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS). The panel included artists Adam Harvey and Holly Herndon, UW professor and lawyer Sean O'Connor, and New Museum curator Lauren Cornell.

Considering the title, TOWARDS INVISIBILITY, I began to think about visibility and Warhol. Ed Shanken also referenced Warhol during his SURVEILLANCE ART AND CRITICAL SOCIAL PRACTICE lecture, highlighting SLEEP (1963) in his pre-history of surveillance art

Andy Warhol. Self-Portrait. 1986

When you look at Warhol's art, you realize that he is always disappearing. Always invisible. Always in disguise. In the 1980s, he produced a series of camouflage self-portraits where his face dissipates into a pattern. In his films, he vanishes behind the camera, often simply turning it on and letting it run. Another Warhol quote: "My fascination with letting images repeat and repeat - or in film's case 'run on' - manifests my belief that we spend much of our lives seeing without observing."

Warhol constantly hid behind a mechanized gaze that became his mirror for popular culture. We see this throughout Pop art, as artists orchestrated disappearances through inhabiting commercial and industrial apparatuses. 

Today, artists continue to move toward invisibility via the act of disappearance. In 2008, Seth Price had a show at Fredrich Petzel that included a publication titled HOW TO DISAPPEAR IN AMERICA. The text alluded to 1960s countercultural handbooks, providing quite literal instructions for for how one could drop out of mainstream society. A few years prior, in 2005, Cory Arcangel staged a public performance of his Friendster suicide.

Artists are also choosing to make the invisible, visible - to appear, rather than disappear. They create transparency by exposing and even empathizing with the digital and surveillance technologies that now infiltrate every aspect of our daily lives. During the panel at the Henry, Holly and Adam both referred to this gesture as employing Pop as a carrier signal. Their respective artistic practices indicate a desire to drop in, rather than drop out of society. They use popular culture as a communication and distribution system to actively question surveillance.

Metahaven, an Amsterdam-based research and design studio that Holly has collaborated with, also approaches Pop as a point of departure:

Working intensively these past months with composer and musician Holly Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst has strengthened our belief in Pop as a carrier signal, as a force that can change the critical mass of a politically stagnant cultural field. Pop wants to be out there, heard, seen, shared, liked, and loved—and however superficial and corrupted this tendency may be sometimes, it is at least a basic human impulse that is universally understood. By contrast, within the (especially visual) arts, many seem happy with a position that no longer confronts any outside, but rehearses theoretical concepts inside a (global) inner circle....

In his brilliant essay, POST-CAPITALIST DESIRE, the essayist Mark Fisher searches for a Leftism that embraces “quasi-psychedelic crypto-Pop.” We fully agree with him. There are many important precedents, and some inspiring contemporaries. More importantly, there is a future for us all to win.

Holly Herndon

Holly Herndon is an artist currently based in San Francisco, California. As well as touring the world to perform and exhibit new work, she is currently candidate for doctoral study in Computer Music at Stanford University.

CHORUS (2014) features an intimate 3D look at people’s desks and workspaces.

Holly on CHORUS:

I love the idea of depicting the mundane and quotidian in high definition, and how evocative and individual each of these spaces are. Thinking about intimacy and the laptop is familiar territory for me. I’ve also been thinking a lot about privacy, particularly in light of the ongoing revelations regarding the NSA, which add a more sinister sub-narrative to Akihiko’s piece.

I was interested in exploring the textures of daily necessities and the embodiment / physicality of the computer and Internet. One of the most striking contemporary images is that of the desktop capture, which is seen commonly on YouTube as part of software tutorials. I like the shots of desktops that are poorly organized and ‘lived-in’.

Adam Harvey

Adam Harvey runs the Privacy Gift Shop, an online marketplace for countersurveillance art and privacy products; and developed CV Dazzle and the OFF Pocket. He is currently working on the Surveillance Trend Report and a Rhizome Commission.

CV DAZZLE explores how fashion can be used as camouflage from face-detection technology, the first step in automated face recognition. It is form of expressive interference that takes the form of makeup and hair styling (or other modifications). The name is derived from CV, a common abbreviation for computer vision, and Dazzle a type of camouflage used during WWI. Dazzle camouflage was originally used to break apart the gestalt image of warships, confusing observers about their directionality, size, and orientation. Likewise, the goal of CV Dazzle is to break apart the gestalt of a face, or object, and make it undetectable to computer vision algorithms, in particular face detection.

Adam (from a Rhizome interview):

I became interested in spoofing and camouflage when cameras metamorphosed from art making tools into enablers of surveillance societies. This happened gradually over the last decade starting with the Patriot Act in 2001. To me, this document marked the beginning of the end of photography as I knew it from art history books. Now, 175 years after the daguerreotype was invented, cameras integrated with facial-recognition systems comprise the fastest growing sector of the biometrics industry.

But the use of photography in biometrics is almost as old as photography itself. In the late 1800s Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and pioneer of biometrics, used composite imaging in an attempt to predict criminal behavior and illness. For example, if a subject has similar facial features to that of a criminal he or she was more likely to commit a crime.

I see spoofing and camouflage as intelligent responses to the uses/misuses of photography: surveillance cameras, biometric systems, and paparazzi photography.  Though these uses have always been part of photography at large, it’s impossible to ignore their presence now.

Sometimes this negative omnipresence supersedes the camera’s role as an art-making tool. As a photographer, I think spoofing and camouflaging tactics can help offset this effect and make photography more interesting, more communicative, and that this can lead to better pictures. Camoflash and CV Dazzle are projects centered on making photography more interesting.

One of my favorite quotes, by René Magritte, is that “everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” When everyone is photographing and revealing the world, it becomes interesting to try and cover it back up, to reveal anonymity.