How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) Hito Steyerl

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My friend, Rupert following the instructional video and trying not to be seen at the Tate. I think his pixels are too big.

Hito Steyerl’s instructional video shows the viewer how to avoid detection by various digital surveillance technology. The title references Monty Python’s spoof Government Public Service instructional that showcases the benefits of not being seen e.g. not being shot or blown up, which is particularly important if you are a whole country avoiding nuclear annihilation.

The narrator in Steyerl’s video explains that visibility is dependent on resolution, whatever is lost by resolution becomes invisible. The videos are shot against a green screen at an old US airforce ‘resolution target’ that was used to test the resolution of aerial cameras and the artist (plus assistants) attempt to not be seen by the camera by employing various techniques that are explained in detail to the viewer.

The use of the .mov file extension and the exploration of very particular technologies sets this work firmly in a specific time and place where ideas around surveillance and our images being captured and held as digital images, with or without our permission, has become a topic of political, cultural and artistic conversation.

I read Steyerl’s essay “In defence of the poor image” a couple of years ago and found this piece to be a great accompaniment. They both examine how digital image quality – and degradation of quality – can be used within contemporary art to explore issues such as comprehension, visibility, passage of information and the place of perceived visual quality in value judgements.

Performing to camera/Performing for camera

There is a new exhibition on currently at the Tate Modern called “Performing for the Camera”. I had a look through the works on display and it got me thinking again about some of the ideas I’d grappled with last year when making my first performative videos, as well as my dabble in live performance.

In my mind, the statements ‘performing to camera’ and ‘performing for camera’ are two very different propositions. The first denotes a connection with the camera (and therefore the audience behind the camera) that is likely to be realised through direct dialogue in some form; not necessarily speech or eye contact, but an obvious angling of the performance to the viewer. All actions are performed ‘to’ the camera – the audience is the camera. The second suggests the performer has an awareness of the presence of the camera and, therefore, of a potential audience. But the performance might not include any direct dialogue with the camera in the form of gaze, gesture or speech. A performer could quite well perform in the distance with their back to the camera and still be performing ‘for’ the camera. When creating my pieces last year I made the decision that the performances would be ‘to’ the camera. In Hive Oracle (2015), Sublimation (2015) and Albedo (2016) there is direct eye contact from most of the performers. Some performers in Albedo do not make eye contact with, or address the camera, but their pose and gesture is angled to the camera’s presence.

Working with performers I found many differences in the way still photography and moving image recognises tone and gesture. An expression that might be captivating in a still image becomes overwrought and overacted as soon as the image is moving. This is equally noticeable in my barely-moving tableaus which straddle the line between image and moving image. It was imperative for the work that I did not end up with performers who looked like they were Performing (capital P). I’ve seen this happen before with performers who, no matter what role they are taking on, are always, intrinsically themselves. In certain circumstances this is a strength, but it’s not what I needed for this work. Then the other side of the coin is hoping to work with inexperienced performers to find a naturalness in the work, but they can be too anxious to relax. Luckily I was able to work with some great performers who were able to relax into the roles and give an understated, natural performance.

There is a set of new work by artist Amalia Ulman showing in this exhibition that interests me particularly. Her Excellences & Perfections series appeared on instagram as what at first glance seemed to be the heavily curated selfies of a preening millennial. It was infact a scripted and well-planned performance of three consecutive tropes of young female internet celebrity existence.

“It’s more than a satire,” she explains. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’ ” What was the joke? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
Ulsan, A. quoted in Sooke, A. (2016) Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece? Sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

There are layers of performance going on within this work: the performance of Ulman as the women in the work, the performance of Ulman as a woman in everyday life, the performance of Ulman in the art world as a young artist, the performance of Ulman as the artist performing the art; it just goes on and on, bending back upon itself. Very interesting. I was wondering how much of Ulman herself exists as parts of the tropes she was performing? How often is she knowingly or unknowingly drawn into playing those roles?

With my next filing session I have some ideas around testing the performance of the actors to camera and around how much of themselves becomes present/not present. Hopefully there will be some curious outcomes.

Photo credit: Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​