In their text “Political and ethical perspectives on data obfuscation”, Finn Burton and Helen Nissenbaum define “obfuscation” as a “strategy for mitigating the impact of the cycle of monitoring, aggregation, analysis and profiling, adding noise to an existing collection of data in order to make the collection more ambiguous, confusing, harder to use and, therefore, less valuable”. These fall under categories: ”time-based obfuscation, which relies on temporal limitations; cooperative obfuscation, requiring the network effect of cooperation or collaboration by groups of obfuscators; selective obfuscation, interfering with data to conceal specific details while leaving others available; and ambiguating obfuscation, which renders data ambiguous and doubtful for future use”.

All those strategies rely on the assumption that we live in a world of global surveillance, evidence that was recently made public with the “revelation” that the US National Security Agency spies on millions of US citizens – and not just them. A big part of the debate around this theme has centered on using a visual-like vocabulary to talk about both the processes of surveillance and of obfuscation – the not-being visible in the digital age[1] Contemporary art, expression of our visual culture, also addresses the issue of obfuscation as an anti-vision technique of how not to be seen and disappear from information capturing and prediction. People such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange tried to show us just how much we are defined by data, if we allow tracking our personal information through various digital channels. Several are artists that dedicate a part of their work to the exploration of new techniques and surveillance devices. An example of this is that of Laura Poitras, filmmaker and journalist, who last year held her first solo museum exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Acclaimed for the film Citizenfour, which won her an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015, for this (institutional) occasion she created new works based on topics of mass surveillance, the War on Terror, U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture. Astro Noise, the title of the exhibition, is the name Edward Snowden gave to an encrypted file containing evidence of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency that he shared with Poitras in 2013 – and historically a reference to the faint background thermal radiation causing interference l, a consequence of the Big Bang. Outside her nonfiction filmmaking, the exhibition incorporated documentary footage, architectural interventions, primary documents, and narrative structures. Beyond the judgement of whether the works achieved or failed to exploit the data sublime [2] as a productive strategy for contemporary art, if the formal decisions were more or less arbitrary, and if without the volume of information they represent the aesthetic objects remain indecipherable, the case of Laura Poitras’ work – originally more literary than visual – “entering” a museum is emblematic.

A big part of the debate around this theme has centered on using a visual-like vocabulary to talk about both the processes of surveillance and of obfuscation, the not-being visible in the digital age. The fundamental point, in fact, is not of the surveillance per se, a well known phenomenon for a long time, using even less technological means, but how it is changing with the use of machines, which in turn are changing the general landscape of vision. As the artist Trevor Paglen already pointed out in an article published on Frieze a couple of years ago, the rule is “robot-eyes, seeing-algorithms and imaging-machines, and seeing with the meat-eyes of our human bodies is increasingly the exception”. Even if this change of vision-perspective is without discussion and we all recognize that vision today passes the most of the time through a screen before arriving at human eyes, still the image that frame the discussion on surveillance is that of the Panopticon. In the famous prison-like architecture the position of the “disciplinary power” is central and causes an omnipresent fear of being watched by the state deriving a clear consequence – preventive adjustment of behaviour. This image is that of a self-regulated system that normalizes and controls its agents. However, in our current society seeing-machine is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing every physical boundary (from infrared to facial-recognition systems, from WI-FI and phone communication interception): the machines see everything and what they see is translated into images, which are invisible to human eyes.

If the watcher is no longer human, indifferent to ideologies and fetishism, a robot that quantifies, tracks and predicts, the visual metaphor of the system should also be reconsidered. A shift has occurred and a change of the positions in the Panopticon derived: the original circular space has been stretched, dilated ad infinitum and almost became flat as the retina of our eyes, the central place which correspond with its 360° degree is now occupied, at the same time, by the machines and us, the embodied power of surveillance. [3] The body, the surface of our eye, is the medium through which we see and are seen. The space from which we access the world is flat, a tiny and thin screen that we carry everywhere, but the world inside is not bi-dimensional neither tri-dimensional, it is much more than that…

Now breathe, relax, and switch off your Wi-Fi signal. Don’t you feel to have left somewhere to return to your intimate sphere?

[1] This dynamic is well explained by Hito Steyerl in her video “How not to be seen: A fucking didactic educational .mov file”, 2013.

[2] Term coined by Julian Stallabrass to define the experience of being overwhelmed by a deluge of data without being provided with the conceptual tools to process it.

[3] Cfr. concepts of “biopower” and “biopolitics” in The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality Volume I 1976.

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