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carnivalesque and obfuscation

In September 2011 the Western world of trade observed the emergence and protests of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. This was a watershed moment in contemporary social consciousness and flourished later on with other grassroots actions held on a different scale. At the same  time moment, the surveillance systems widely applied in public space become apparent. In Zuccotti Park, Manhattan, demonstrators wore Guy Fawkes masks to express their political opposition to the surveillance system  by referencing  the  Anonymous online activist group, among others. Some of those wearing masks were arrested being accused of breaking the law. The policemen referred to outdated ordinances from almost a century ago forbidding the wearing costumes or covering faces with masks in situations that differ from planned protests. In fact those masks block facial recognition technology employed by public safety surveillance system in the streets of New York.

This anecdote become a starting point for Zach Blas, activist and artist, literature and (expert in) queer theory (theoretician), affiliated with Duke University. He works with minority groups (including ethnic, religious and sexuality) in order to counter different types of intolerance and prejudice. In his large scale project  Contra-Internet which include his writings, installations and performances, Blas sheds  light on those questions. He defined his position as critical towards the internet as a neoliberal agent, the place where homophobia, classism, racism, sexism are freely present. He rejects the close connection between new technologies and life, as the only way to involve and understand it. He also calls for alternatives to the internet and banning network-centric as a work-leisure place.

In 2012 he started to work on complex long-term project Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-2014) including public workshops, actions, artist talks and installations. Work with minorities was emphasized, due to their marginalization and categorization based on cultural and social  stereotypes. During workshops held with members of the queer community he focused on his obfuscation project. Opposed to public surveillance systems, which use face recognition technology, he decided to adopt a particular strategy. Knowing that in public spaces, our faces are constantly analysed and categorized he decided to use the same strategy for defense. Face recognition algorithms are based on predefined human characteristics. Proportions and face dimensions supply information for a program which can analyse if a person can be potentially dangerous to public order. According to Blas, we cannot judge a person before they act only based on their physiognomy; this can lead us straight to ostracism.

During his workshops he scanned faces of participants in order to gather bio-metric data. Using graphic design software he multiplied and juxtaposed face scans of the participants creating amorphous masks. These should be worn in public spaces to fool the aforementioned surveillance systems. In a short video, Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2013 Blas clearly explains the background of this workshop and how masks are used in the end.

He uses  faces – a source of information – as a weapon. Obfuscation in this case can be efficient only in a group and collective act. The mask, or even more, a costume, is a symbol of refusal of certain situations (social, political or other) and the resistance to discriminating standardization. Hiding or rather modifying information about our identity releases the individual from being  pigeonholed on the basis of physical attributes like skin colour, clothes or anatomy.

Adopting costumes to artistic strategy refers us back to the idea of  ‘Carnivalesque’. To understand the phenomenon of this concept it is important to return to its roots in carnivals, which are not just for amusement and an entertainment. The eyes and ears of contemporary anthropologists of culture, philosophers and researchers first turned to this topic in the sixties when Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World was released[1]. The author analyses this French writer’s output, underlining his strong connection with traditions. To better understand Rabelais, Bakhtin delves into the roots of Renaissance celebrations, investigating carnivalesque rites, elements and functions in social life. He also analyses carnivals as a state of mind  which people at the time experienced a few days a year, just before the Catholic Lent. He describes carnivals as a group celebration, full of joy, where conventions and forms of behavior temporarily vanish, making space for spontaneous happiness. This rich and ultimately anthropological description of carnivals further reveals the importance of this period for societies, identifying its elements which later became part of the carniva­lesque definition.

Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania the fight between carnival and lent bruegel

Initially Bakhtin’s concept of carnivalesque concerned only literature before eventually spreading to all cultural domains. Netherless it seems to be a very fluid idea, laden with meaning, so it’s essential to identify and describe a few of its basic elements. The term carnivalesque characterizes an event,  human action or  performance which are not necessarily connected with traditional carnival time. Carnivals as carnivalesque events were — and still are — periods of spontaneous group action when everything is pallowed, symbolically turning the known world upside down. The celebrating crowd uses grotesque language, also often changing participants identity (for example by wearing masks or costumes). This upside down situation is a diagnosis of contemporary society, constructs a temporary utopian vision of life which could happen and which usually is contrary to the one they exist in, an illusory freedom in a world of control and order. Quite often it becomes an anti-vision of existing society and this conclusion is based on an unconscious self- portrait made by an active group. It is a communal performance full of laughter with no laughs.

Occupy Wall Street’s ‘carnival’ or just through the simple gesture of wearing masks by Blas and his companions in public spaces leads us to this action of turning the situation upside down. It can express  opposition against certain rules imposed against our will. Wearing mask allows us to change identity or rather show that it this us who decide how we want to be seen. Here again  is the obfuscation tactic, defined by Brunton and Nissenbaum an organised grassroots movement adopted by a particular community. It clearly shows its mechanisms– misleading information supplied will falsify the facial recognition software analysis results. But it has also strong symbolical dimension.

All images are details form The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


[1] Mikhail BAKHTIN, Russian philosopher, literary critic, ethic, philosopher of language. He written Rabelais and his World during II World War, but he was denied for publishing by authori­ties till 1965.

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