“Fanon” (Even the Dead are Not Safe), the exquisite corpus


With an exquisite corpus of work under his wing that in October 2017 earned him a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant to pursue his work in ‘documenting the hidden operations of covert government projects,’ Trevor Paglen is an artist, writer, scuba diver, journalist, photographer, experimental geographer and now machine-learning activist committed to making visible the ineluctable modalities of invisible networks of power and surveillance. His latest activities involve probing the relentless development of what he has called “molecular policing” through the massive advance of machinic vision, facilitating “exceptional forms of power flowing through the invisible visual networks that we find ourselves enmeshed in”. He has been writing about how we need “to unlearn how we see like humans”. Having won the Deutsche Börse Photography Award in 2016, he has recently been an artist in residence at Stanford University working there with computer scientists on evolving machine vision processes and describes these as “more significant than the invention of photography”. Images from his resulting exhibition – A Study of Invisible Images – at Metro Pictures bring to mind the words of Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975): “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects”. This echoes clearly with Paglen’s ‘work “Franz Fanon” (Even the Dead are Not Safe) – and with others in this compellingly provocative exhibition. A spectre of Fanon’s face appears, algorithmically generated and printed on metal. It is developed from an ‘eigenface’, the reductionist ‘thumbprint’ that is used in multiple ways in surveillance and facial recognition systems and based on measuring coordinates of features, reducing individuality to mathematical calculations. It is more than ironic that Fanon wrote in his iconic and revolutionary work Black Skin, White Masks (1952) of “he” who is “the object of information, never a subject in communication” and of how “Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself, and gave myself up as an object.” His visage is now extracted by the forces of micro or molecular calculation, resistance flattened to an ambiguous surface that speaks volumes about the silently violent denuding of identity that the machinic mind imposes. Each work is accompanied by a checklist of the technological systems involved in its making, a signifier if one was needed of the intensity and power underlying what might appear alienating and cold surfaces, unpersuasive of a second glance. But once that is given, these works reveal the weight of the arid deterritorialization of human agency that these new ‘ways of seeing’ achieve, fully distanced from empirical social context and cultural and psychic recognition. Yet in looking at them there is something residual. Perhaps it is another philosophical echo – this time of Félix Guattari in L’inconscient machinique (1979) on how “the field of the machinic unconscious will be opened, a hyper-conscious diagrammatic unconscious no longer maintaining anything but a distant relationship with the significations of dominant semiologies”. We might now ask if the unconscious machinic is now hyper-conscious? Well we might ask.