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Dec. 9, 2016: Trevor Paglen, Bruce Hainley, and "Muybridging"

The latest issue of The New Inquiry, "Science/Fiction," has an essay by Trevor Paglen called "Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Looking at You)." Even if Paglen's art isn't always "great art," the concerns he takes up therein are always well-considered and of interest to me. Not that that matters.

Anyways, in the essay Paglen outlines ways in which digital images break from the model of human-human reading, sharing, and storing that defines physical images; besides fostering new modes of human image-processing, digital images exist in an unseen universes of machine-machine transmissions, wherein machines do what humans used to do with images, i.e., reading, sharing, and storing. He writes:

What’s truly revolutionary about the advent of digital images is the fact that they are fundamentally machine-readable: they can only be seen by humans in special circumstances and for short periods of time. A photograph shot on a phone creates a machine-readable file that does not reflect light in such a way as to be perceptible to a human eye. A secondary application, like a software-based photo viewer paired with a liquid crystal display and backlight may create something that a human can look at, but the image only appears to human eyes temporarily before reverting back to its immaterial machine form when the phone is put away or the display is turned off. However, the image doesn’t need to be turned into human-readable form in order for a machine to do something with it.

This reminded me of what Bruce Hainley, in his book on Sturtevant, Under the Sign of [Sic], calls "Muybridging": basically, using media to help adjust human cognition. Eadweard Muybridge highlighted how photography could effectively teach our eyes to see things that we technically always saw but couldn't perceive, i.e., all four of a horse's hooves off the ground at the same time. Hainley writes:

If Muybridge proved humans didn't have the right kind of eyes to see how things actually moved and needed to invent a device, a technology, to record what our peepers alone couldn't see. Sturtevant also invents a technology—availing herself of the difference of repetition, making her work the work of other artists. Mubybridging locomotion, she positions notions of a body, hers, stripped bare... Of what that body's made, these various paintings she walks by... Into a diagram of her procedures and their effects, by which, not unrelated to Muybridge, she devises not only a way to visibly engage invisible structures but also a way to probe or test what allows, if anything, aesthetics still to convene or cohere... During the vogue for Muybridge in the '60s among various kinds of artists, from Yvonne Rainer to Dan Graham, Sturtevant wasn't the first but she was the only artist who was tracking, paradoxically, what's invisible. Something like the physics of aesthetics... Sturtevant makes motion pictures picture the sight of sightlessness. To spur thinking about what girds aesthetics.

What Paglen ultimately shows—and this is an argument that I've long agreed with, yet failed to articulate as clearly as he does; it applies, in slightly-altered form, to triadic harmony in music and Enlightenment thinking in general—is that we assume machine-led manufacture and perception to be perfect or objective. In reality, it's full of bias: "Neural networks cannot invent their own classes," he writes; "they’re only able to relate images they ingest to images that they’ve been trained on. And their training sets reveal the historical, geographical, racial, and socio-economic positions of their trainers." We need a good dose of twenty-first century Muybridging, as it were, to help disassociate rational, physical, human modes of image-processing from digital image-processing. In other words, "if we want to understand the invisible world of machine-machine visual culture," Paglen concludes, "we need to unlearn how to see like humans."

Paglen outlines some artistic projects that manifest the unseen in efforts to, in effect, Muybridge us and attune us to the watchful eyes of digital images. But these new ways of seeing have sprawling implications on not only our privacy and economy, but also our physical bodies. Hainley does an excellent job of showing how Sturtevant adjusted our vision and perception to process emerging developments in commerce, queerness, movement, and culture; her defiant cancellations focused attention on the conditions out of which they arose, and the bodies they contained. I think what Paglen is unknowingly advocating is for this century's answer to Sturtevant, although I must say, I have no idea who that would be or what the art might look like.

Well, maybe I do—and maybe Paglen does too, as he includes an image of Hito Steyerl. Steyerl of course is much more programmatic and self-conscious in the ways she Muybridges us than was Sturtevant, but her battle with the digital image and its surrounding contexts ultimately achieves similar (though, in the case of Sturtevant, perhaps unintended) goals. I think there's a good essay there: Hito Steyerl and Sturtevant. Maybe one day. Looks like Steyerl was involved in a Sturtevant panel in Sweden, so I must not be totally off base...

And, well, this is all just something I thought about today, so I don't have any grand conclusions. Good stuff to think about. This is an important pull quote from Paglen's essay too:

Ideology’s ultimate trick has always been to present itself as objective truth, to present historical conditions as eternal, and to present political formations as natural. Because image operations function on an invisible plane and are not dependent on a human seeing-subject (and are therefore not as obviously ideological as giant paintings of Napoleon) they are harder to recognize for what they are: immensely powerful levers of social regulation that serve specific race and class interests while presenting themselves as objective.

The invisible world of images isn’t simply an alternative taxonomy of visuality. It is an active, cunning, exercise of power, one ideally suited to molecular police and market operations–one designed to insert its tendrils into ever-smaller slices of everyday life.

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