This article was conceived in response to the authors’ mutual participation in The Selfie and Social Activism Symposium at the University of NSW in December 2016. The event explored self-representation and critical agency within a broad visual context. This piece traces some of the tangential links between seemingly disparate areas of research; of Tim’s paper excavating the narratives of heteronormative power encoded in the Australian Government’s ‘Safe Sexting: No Such Thing’ campaign and Vaughan’s research into militarised visualisation practices. More broadly, it is a reflection on research interests that are both marginal and pervasive; simultaneously hypervisual and invisible.
I want to preface this piece by firstly sharing my scepticism of the selfie as a critical gesture. The selfie speaks to the desire for self-representation and digital citizenship. However, it is prefaced on participation within networks of pervasive surveillance, data-mining and tracking. More interesting would be a selfie of Dataminr; the self-image of the tracking algorithm. Gregoiré Chamayou describes the researcher as technician; reverse engineering technical functions of state violence in order to chart its political implications. I feel this is a similarity which spans our varied research interests; theory informed by the perspective of the technician.
What are the implications of working with the ‘master’s tools’ — in this instance, military visual modes and/or porn?
The tools of the porn industry are not easy to define. The biggest porn companies are accumulators not producers. While companies like Hustler and Playboy have brand recognition, it is corporations like MindGeek that control and own the global flow of porn. On the rare occasions I’ve had direct contact with porn producers I have been met with a range of responses from suspicion and misunderstanding to exuberance. However working with the industry is different to working with the tools of pornography. The practical restrictions of working with pornography in Australia has been extensively chronicled by Australian artist and academic Zahra Stardust. The absurd censorship and classification rules (in particular the almost impossible ‘artwork’ exemption) means that almost all porn produced in Australia is technically illegal, and that which is made legally has to conform to heteroporn narratives and aesthetics. But if we were to think of the ‘tools’ in a broader sense then we can discuss various characteristics that are always both repressive and radical. Take, for example, authorship. Porn refuses authorship (identification of people in a stable, iterative sense) yet makes the body explicit. It is somewhat paradoxical, as there is no real anonymity in porn, but the refusal of the legal or consistent name is something artists could learn from. Of course many artists do this, but what is interesting is that in porn it is the industry standard. Another tool of porn is its inherent anti-intellectual property or copyleft position. It is often ignored that we expect porn to be free. Sites like youporn completely ignore copyright. As digital content is increasingly policed and monetised by copyright law, porn’s position becomes more radical and more important. There are many reasons for this (and it would be hard to argue it as an ideological stance), but the result is that porn, by default, is copyleft. These are some elements of the master’s tools which are far more progressive than we find in art.
This is interesting; the critical positions that emerge from within fields, rather than from the outsider-theorist. The sense of critical-intimacy can be a powerful position for critique. Strangely, contemporary gaming has thrown up some surprising complex critiques of contemporary warfare — where the adrenaline of combat is replaced by the tedium and disconnection of drone warfare.
There is something amazingly strange about these moments also, where the player shifts from first person to remote pilot (usually via laptop). The nesting of simulation and disorientation is a side-effect of the game’s quest for authenticity, but accidentally stumbles upon something a bit more interesting — the assemblage of material, simulation and embodiment which typifies contemporary network-centric warfare.
How do artists/theorists deal with speculative situations and materials that can not be directly experimented with (is it possible to not just speculate)?
It may seem paradoxical to work with a material that cannot be worked with. Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology reinforces the idea that any material’s potential can never be known, and Timothy Morton refers to hyperobjects like Uranium that are impossible to locate in orthodox ontologies and are un-sculpturable or self-sculptured. But I am not interested in that argument, I am more interested in the mundane reality of working with that which cannot be worked. I’d like to suggest that such a method is the most common way of working — for example, practice based on theory that is never read, installations that have no reference to engineering, gravity, or safety, sex that refuses the existence of porn, labour that is void of politics and so on. Mostly this is not because it can not be accessed, but rather it is easier, cheaper, safer, purer to work with the unknown. Such practices still contain what they refuse, they are always co-productive, even in their absence. Wilful denial of the thing that one is actually working with is not inherently radical (for instance the Panama Papers’ revelations of Sotheby’s and Christie’s is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the artworld’s denial of its implication in late capitalism), but it can have the effect of producing the object it denies.1 Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (a text that thanks to its length has often actually been read by those who profess to be inspired by it, and hence why it is not a good idea to reference it, and why here I do) introduces the idea of the aura of the original artwork. But the point is that ‘aura’ doesn’t exist until mechanical reproduction. The ‘aura’ of the artwork is ‘real’ only at the moment it dies. A thing comes into existence at the point that it cannot exist. Karrabing Film Collective’s Windjarrameru (The Stealing Cnt$)*, 2015, explores this in relation to sacred land. In the film sacred land is returned in the form of a toxic dump that prevents the police from entering — it becomes sacred upon its total destruction by the coloniser. In my field I’d point to post-sex as creating ‘authentic sex’ in the moment it dies. The key, that I think both of us realise because we actively work with the unworkable, is to never mistake the nostalgia (or technophilia, or radicality, or agency) of the thing that emerges at its death as ever having existed.
As an artist working in military technology, a speculative method has its complexities. I think it’s interesting that these technologies generate their own paranoid aesthetic, formed by the psychic shadow of drone war — of dark data, apocryphal surveillance satellites, stealth drones. I think these artefacts take on a magical quality due to their absolute inaccessibility; an extension of what Harun Farocki terms as imagined war subjectivity. My research tries, through very crappy DIY approaches, to approximate some of these artefacts, to transfer their aura of phallic tech-fetishism to that of the handmade. Important deviations from this line of enquiry are artefacts like the Syrian ‘Sham II’, which are a fascinating negotiation of drone warfare. The ‘Sham II’ is an armoured drone made from car parts, a home security system and operated via a PlayStation controller and where labour is highly visible. The rhetoric of seamless, networked telepresent warfare produces these local assemblages, which reflect a fascinating negotiation of militarised vision. It’s also interesting to me that military logic in itself is speculative — creating strange prototypes, obsolete relics and imagined wars. I also acknowledge that speculation is an incredibly privileged position, and that drone warfare only occupies a mythical position for those lucky enough not to have experienced its grim reality.
What does it mean to work in a field which is at once hypervisualised (in a ficto-cripto or ficto-political sense) and completely invisible?
Adolescent sexting is part of a larger field of hypervisualisation of sex which at the same time remains invisible. As Paul B. Preciado states ‘the audiovisual industry is the political editing room where public sexuality has been invented, produced, and broadcast as a visible image since the end of the nineteenth century’.2 The problem is how we define the difference between ‘public’ and ‘private’ and even if such a distinction can be usefully made. The public seems easy to define, it is the matrix which privileges displays of white heteronormative bodies as the agency most capable of accelerating capital. The Australian educational campaign against adolescent sexting (YouTube Megan’s Story for a prime example) features an all white cast and two males — an ‘innocent’ boy and a ‘civilian’ teacher — passing judgement on an adolescent woman. No one who made that campaign and no one who has done research into adolescent sexting has ever seen what they are critiquing, for to do so would be illegal. We assume that we know what it looks like, we may even assume we have seen it. It is this assumption of the invisible that most interests me. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner discuss the sex act which is ‘shielded’ from the public and yet is the foundation of heterosexual culture. It can only be the foundation because we assume we know what it is, even if our own experience of it differs. There are two ‘privates’, one which has an assumed public image and one which is truly invisible. The former is political because it provides an existential validation for public order (both authoritarian and hierarchical), and the latter is radical for its potential to disrupt the public image. The invisible private has been conceptualised as noise (of which adolescent sexting is just one example). Noise is not opposed to signal but constitutive of it and hence ready to be heard. How to listen to noise is the question which I find most useful when trying to access the invisible.
For Paul Virilio, visibility equates to targetability. This relation between the visual/visible hints to the militaristic function of the image; of aesthetics. In this context, I think of hypervisualisation in terms of technologies like tactical holography or Geotime. Working with holograms, it’s interesting to see how optical illusions are fundamental to tactical maps of enhanced ‘legibility’. For Mieke Bal, realism cloaks ideological manipulation, masking it as naturalistic. Hypervisual forms like holography enable an expansive sense of vision, but only if viewed from a particular technopolitical and spatial viewpoint. These technologies of apparent increased visual accuracy just as readily produce disorientation and vertigo.
Interestingly, camouflage and tactical holography seem to draw from the same gene pool of precinematic trickery and optical experiments. Visualisation and camouflage are equally expressions of state power; in deciding signal from noise, legible from invisible.