Borrowing the term “metamorphosis” from Elias Canetti’s philosophy, my research revolves around what I define as “visual metamorphosis”, through interdisciplinary art projects. According to Canetti, metamorphosis describes the essential goal of survival achieved through countless creative endeavors, and can be understood as that which enables humans to resist the power that dominates them. In his notes, Canetti explains how metamorphosis is the beginning of existence, what power is afraid of, what art should always create, and what has been expressed – since the beginning of time – in our dreams.1 Indeed, a recurrent image in mythology is that of a human, who in order to escape from danger (some form of external power), transforms him/herself into an animal or a plant, and if that danger also changes its form to continue chasing its prey, the human will again transform him/herself, in a constant loop of metamorphoses. The history of art and literature are the richest repositories of such visions, and today the theme is so widespread (one must only think of contemporary posthumanism and transhumanism) that its prevalence can be compared only to its presence in the Greek and Latin traditions.
The concept of metamorphosis has adapted to the times, but its essence has remained the same. Stories of people shape-shifting into animals to overcome danger, such as an evil ruler or a bigger creature, were created at a time when large animals and despots embodied the highest idea of power. Today, stories of humans becoming machines, or networks, or integrating their bodies with technology to overcome superior threats confirm a similar attitude, updated for our contemporary society. These stories may take the form of scientific research, sci-fi film, literature or visual art (as in my case), and are always visual, since metamorphosis in its first stage is always a mental image. The concept of the body as data is the most natural conclusion: futuristic bodies will be copied and deleted, will disappear within a network, and resurface as new inhabitants of this Smart World yet to come. But as power struggles to control every step of this transformative process, and to channel its energy, the masters of metamorphosis resist any attempts of command and control (⌘ ⎈) through countless subterfuges. A long time ago such practices were the prerogative of wizards, gods and shamans: for example there was Hermes in Greece, Eshu in West Africa, Krishna in India and Coyote in North America.2 Their heroic and imaginative acts fill the pages of mythology. Now hackers and media activists play the same cathartic role: they perform ongoing and unpredictable mutations in the most controlled environments, and do good by cheating, bending rules and exploiting loopholes.
I can discuss my work THE GOOGLE TRILOGY (2012) as an example of my belief that technological power is the most significant today, and to exemplify the possibility of studying it (in the light of our current social and political situation) from an artistic perspective.3
The series of 100 digital photos called Report a Problem is the first part of this project. “Report a Problem” is the message that appears at the bottom of the Google Street View screen, which allows viewers to report a problem during the viewing of the place they are virtually visiting: missing censorship, wrong colors, random appearances. Only an image that is operative, that is put within a larger system of beliefs\functions can be considered “wrong”. That’s what happens in Google Street View, where images have the primary function of representing places in a realistic way. In 2011, while traveling in Google Street View, I started noticing images that could be simply defined as wrong. One image of a building, for example, presented something like a dimensional portal on top of it, another misplaced several elements, as though the landscape had been segmented into small pieces and then rearranged randomly. Fascinated by these virtual places I began saving their coordinates, so that I could find them again in the future. What I hadn’t taken into consideration is that what I naturally considered beautiful data, was in fact for the majority of Google Street View’ users just an annoying glitch. In fact, when I went back to those locations I found that most glitches had disappeared. Suddenly anonymous, boring views had rightfully taken the place of those surreal landscapes that had captured my interest: the magic was expiring. Therefore I decided to start photographing all of the wrong landscape I could find, creating some sort of collection of something that was destined to be erased as soon as someone reported the problem to Google. It was precarious data, time sensitive matter. That was around one year before the release of the project, and at that time I wasn’t sure about the end result of my effort. Collecting images (I should say certain images) is also still part of my methodology, or organizing and transforming pre-existing materials, and at that time those weren’t the only “wrong images” I collected. I had started, for example, a collection of screenshots of every single error notification visualized on my computer monitor. In that case I was interested in them being fake errors, or as Mark Nunes has explained in detail, “prepackaged errors”4. This term, as opposed to the “uncaptured error” is particularly important for my work with glitch aesthetic. A prepackaged error is a potential error, which is a fundamental part of the working mechanism of contemporary network society. It is also one of the instruments of technological power, which requires that error is always anticipated and caught (in some kind of feedback mechanism). The prepackaged serves and integrates technological power, acting as feedback and in other words explicating the norms and codes that define error in the technological realm. A common errors of this sort is in fact the 404, which appears on web browsers in the case of erroneous URL addresses, and that was one of the most common error in my screenshot collection. The “404” failure notices correspond to a potential error, something that the system has actually predicted before it occurred. Thus technological power transforms the virtual and potential opening of an error into a systematic closure: the prepackaged error message that we all receive conceals a successful operation from the perspective of the functioning of the system, and the potential error cannot but remain as such. What error would naturally imply, i.e. an opening to chance and the unexpected, is annulled. From the perspective of the system, the 404 error is always perfectly foreseen, and for this, its only remaining function is to act as feedback, useful for reinforcing the system’s control. The landscapes I had found in Google Street View were very different: not only had they not been foreseen, but they had also escaped any form of “quality control” – perfectly representing the unexpectedness of a real technological error. With this in mind, my diary of error messages (which is still ongoing and now contains 3 years worth of prepackaged errors) functions as a personal encyclopedia of domestic errors, illustrating the pervasiveness, repetitiveness and banality of the control exercised on our networked spaces. Although the interest is still there, I haven’t decided how to present this collection, yet. With the Google Street View Images, on the other hand, I knew that their aesthetic quality deserved something similar to a traditional exhibition: a photographic collection of the “rarest kind of technological errors”: the uncaptured ones. The above description of prepackaged errors is in fact fundamental to contextualize both the rarity and the poetic openness represented by my Report a Problem photos. An uncaptured error is generally an error that refuses to collaborate with anything or anyone and disrupts efficiency in unexpected ways. The uncaptured is the sudden technological crash, the communication blackout, the hacker attack that disables the government website, the noise that interferes with data, an errant and aberrant signal. An uncaptured error always presents an excess that renders it not completely manageable, hence my desire to utilize and appropriate the uncaptured does not imply taming it (in fact, as I said earlier, mine is a documentation of the presence of these errors, but similarly to the mere documentation of a wild species it doesn’t exercise a strong control on the documented subject). Etymologically speaking, the errors in my Report a Problem series are the perfect example of real technological errors. As Nunes wrote:
[An uncaptured error] calls attention to its etymological roots: a going astray, a wandering from intended destinations. In its failure to communicate, error signals a path of escape from the predictable confines of informatics control: an opening, a virtuality, a poiesis. Error gives expression to the out of bounds of systematic control.5
I continued to travel on Google Street View for a year photographing all the “uncaptured errors” I encountered before others could report the problems and prompt the company to adjust these wrong landscapes. Common landscapes are transformed in these images into something new. In the end, the work is presented as both a large scale photographic installation of 100 photos or a 5-minute long video slideshow of images.
The second part of the project, called Michele’s Story, refers more directly to the cold impersonality of Google Street View’s gaze. We all know that the service offers an immense public archive of panoptic images, the result of a systematic work which mechanically records aspects of life while avoiding human contact with the subjects photographed. At the time I was working on this series, each Google Street View car was equipped with a Dodeca 2360 camera with eleven lenses, capable of photographing 360 degrees. Afterwards the photos were assembled, creating a stereoscopic view, and an algorithm developed by Google automatically blurred the faces of people to protect the privacy of those accidentally portrayed. But, I asked myself, even with blurred faces, what really happens to the images and stories collected in the process? My immediate answer was: they are both ignored and put on display. My second question was: is it possible to revert the de-humanizing approach that is at the basis of Google Street View? To find out I started working with Michele, a man who in 2007, as a result of an accident, became almost completely paralyzed and had memory damage. To contextualize my choice of working with him I have to say that the theme of memory has always had a major role in my work, as well as the fact of collaborating with other people, whether they are artists, scientists, or people I had met. At that time I had completed a project called The Sicilian Family (2012) that had required long interviews with my relatives in Sicily, through which I created a memory archive of my family. And more recently I’ve worked with the memories of Italian migrants in New York (Memoryscapes, 2015) and am trying to develop an artificial intelligence based on human memories for a drone (Mnemodrone, ongoing). Together with Michele, we used Google Street View as a repository of collective stories, a visual documentation of multiple memories, from which to pick the ones that resonated with his personal story. We slowly started to compose a sort of large scale puzzle, divided into 4 panels each presenting 25 details of images from Google Street View. Anyone who would look at the final photographic work could guess the story of a man going through a car accident and infirmity, interspersed with moments of deep sadness and solitude, poetical images and flashbacks from childhood conveying a contrasting sense of freedom and joy. The final collection of 100 photographs called Michele’s Story is therefore composed of details taken from Google Street View and attempts to precariously reconstruct a single human journey by recovering snippets of stolen and dehumanized life.
The closing part of the trilogy, entitled The Driver and the Cameras, merges the topics of the previous parts. It expands the reflection on uncaptured errors from the first part with a focus on the “human factor” similar to the second part. The starting point of the eleven photos that compose The Driver and the Cameras (eleven refers to the number of lenses used by the Google camera) was once again uncaptured errors. But these errors didn’t affect the way a landscape or a urban environment was presented; it was specifically errors in the algorithm that automatically detected and blurred human faces. So, to create this third series I went looking for faces that had escaped this algorithm. The eleven resulting photos are portraits that immortalize the driver of the Google car. Eleven people, anonymous drivers, from Israel to the United States, portrayed in the act of cleaning or fixing the camera. Their proximity to the camera may have tricked Google’s facial recognition software, or their presence may be the result of some other technical error. What’s interesting for me is that the driver represents a sort of phantom power; he appears where he shouldn’t be and his presence has escaped censure. His face is the symbol of an error yet at the same time shows a human side and, perhaps, the limits of technological power. We know from the writings of Norbert Wiener, father of cybernetics, that in relation to cybernetic systems, error speaks the “language of evil”6. So do these evil phantoms represent a menace for the system “Google Street View”? Is that one more reason to “fix” these images and quickly make the drivers disappear? If one important concern of the new aesthetic is how machines see us, would “ghosts” be a meaningful answer? Wiener in particular associated uncaptured errors, such as the driver portraits, with bad behaviors, intentional resistance, opposition to the system, or the possibility of someone causing disorder and failure. Still, the subjects of these photos are workers, invisible but indispensable humans behind the cascades of data that Google organizes. In Wiener’s vision, the uncaptured error is the demon that wants to see the world burn, but also the gap that opens up a dangerous breach in the faith in the system. I believe these errors are very far from demoniac presences, but they strongly undermine our faith in the perfection of technological systems: on one side they remind us that there are still humans sweating behind virtual realities, and on the other side they remind us that technological systems are fallible, just like people. This gap in the control of the system, which corresponds to the culmination of anxiety in Wiener’s cybernetic systems, brings our attention to the gaps or interstices of power: the weak points in the system. It is precisely these interstices that interest me and function as a catalyst in my art projects. These ambiguous spaces, according to Wiener, occupied by a “malevolent potential”, become my field of action. They represent the connection point between my interest in errors and my interest in metamorphosis. When we consider metamorphosis as a creative transformation and we accept the unpredictable creativity of errors, we reach the certainty that error is a fundamental element in metamorphic processes – an idea that would make many biologists nod in approval. To conclude, experimenting with technological errors towards new visual metamorphoses offers the unique opportunity to understand the hidden structures of the technological power that surrounds us, while also proposing ironic, poetic, and unexpected ways to resist its most menacing effects: command and control.
Emilio Vavarella (IT/USA) was born in Monfalcone (Italy) in 1989. He graduated summa cum laude from both the University of Bologna with a B.A. in Visual, Cultural, and Media Studies, and from Iuav University of Venice with an M.A. in Visual Arts and study abroad fellowships at Bezalel Academy of Tel Aviv and Bilgi University of Istanbul. Emilio’s work has been recently shown at: EYEBEAM, ISEA, SIGGRAPH, GLITCH Festival, Media Art Biennale, European Media Art Festival and Japan Media Arts Festival. His work has been published in: ARTFORUM, Flash Art, Leonardo and WIRED. He currently lives and works in New York.Leo Selvaggio: Surveillance, McLuhan and the Social Prosthesis