Tilman Baumgärtel on Mon, 2 Jun 2003 15:50:18 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Self on the screen

Hi!, this was written for www.selfware.at, where they did this very good


Tilman Baumgärtel
The Self on the Screen

This morning, while I was surfing the usual news websites, I stumbled
across the following opening lines: "Hackers evolve from pranksters into
profiteers Computer identity theft has long been a fast-growing
cybercrime. But increasingly, hackers are seeking profit rather than just
fun." (USA Today) "Surveillance Nation: Webcams, tracking devices, and
interlinked databases are leading to the elimination of unmonitored public
space. Are we prepared for the consequences of the intelligence-gathering
network we're unintentionally building?" (MIT Technology Review) And there
was a text about a man who auctioned off electrical equipment on eBay
under a false name but then did not deliver the goods after receiving
payment.  And a Reuters' text about the chats Microsoft X-Box users have
on a new players' online network.

At first glance, these are three texts on very different topics, but upon
closer examination they have something in common: they all deal with
identity on the Internet, with the construction of an online self. MIT
Technology Review enumerates the countless and ever growing possibilities
for being spied on and tracked down via the Internet and other networks,
and for becoming fodder for databanks with personality profiles. X-Box
players, according to Reuters, use the Microsoft network primarily to chat
with each other under a pseudonym. And the crime of the eBay swindler as
well as of hackers who gain access to passwords and credit card numbers in
order to empty bank accounts or shop online is even called:"identity
theft". "It's the perfect crime of the information age", USA Today cites a
staff member of an American banking supervision board as saying. "The
Internet gives identity thieves multiple opportunities to steal personal
identifiers and gain access to financial data."

In the early 21st century, "identity theft" and the possibilities of
"multiple online personalities" has become a subject of everyday
bulletins.  And it may indeed be a good idea to step back for a moment
from time to time and realize that these so seemingly familiar news items
today would have been at most the subject of science-fiction stories not
too long ago.  The issue of "freely configurable" identity and
subjectivity, so commonplace today due to the worldwide networking and
immaterialization of communication processes, first began playing an
important role in the 1990s within two discourses which, admittedly,
hardly took notice of each other, but in retrospect display a remarkable
proximity: on the one hand, in traditional art; on the other hand, in the
debate on the new possibilities for interaction and communication which
digital media began to offer at the time, and their cultural offshoot: net

I would like to illustrate in this text how the debate on issues of
identity has repeatedly been pushed forward by technological innovations,
and how art has taken up and examined indeed with growing keenness not
only with reference to but rather through direct and practical exploration
of these technologies. The references between visual art and cinema, video
and the Internet are manifold, and often muddled, but one theme repeatedly
surfaces at the heart of this artistic exploration of the latest media of
each period: identity, subjectivity, the self. And in each instance
whether it was cinema, video or the Internet the exploration of this
problem has been the product of the genuine properties of these
technologies as media. In this context, one can even speak of a constantly
recurring motif of media art, one which evolves from the specific
technical properties of technical media.

In my investigation, I have proceeded from a project which in this context
signalizes for me an end point in a development of media art and in
particular of Internet art: "life_sharing" by the Italian group
0100101110101101.ORG which, depending on one's perspective, takes from the
start either a disillusioned or an illusionless look at cyber-Utopias of
the 1990s and at conceptions of subject and identity negotiated in
connection with these Utopias.

"life_sharing" (an anagram of "file sharing", i.e. exchanging "music"
files via the Internet) allows access via the WorldWideWeb to the computer
of the two artists. This computer has not only their entire software and
other digital material on it, but also all of the artists' e-mails.
Visitors can read 0100101110101101.ORG's complete e-mail correspondence
since 1999.  Afterwards they are familiar with the artists' exact web
address, their (secret) real names, their postal address, account number,
earnings, exhibition plans or invitations to lectures. One can learn about
their private contacts with friends, gossip from the media art scene and
other things not normally for the public. In 2002, in a continuation of
this project entitled "VOPOs", one could check daily on a website where
the artists were at any moment, since their cell phones transmitted their
respective positions several times a day to the Internet, where the
locations of the two 0100101110101101.ORG members were displayed on a map.

To put it briefly: "life_sharing" is a relatively complete form of
self-exposure. Since both the professional as well as the private life of
0100101110101101.ORG occurs, or at least is coordinated, to a large extent
via computer, there are few aspects of the artists' lives which cannot be
viewed by these means. One could almost describe "life_sharing" as a kind
of online self-portrait. Of course, this self-portrait leaves almost as
much open as it conceals: for despite all its openness, it does not reveal
what the two people look like who are working at this computer. Unlike the
countless Internet exhibitionists who continually film themselves doing
daily tasks and then distribute these images on the Internet (like the now
famous "JenniCam"), 0100101110101101.ORG entirely refrains from giving
visual information, providing only digital texts. And unlike all the
webcam girls and boys, 0100101110101101.ORG cannot even influence what
viewers see by how they position cameras and so deprive themselves of the
most important method with which human subjectivity is wrested from the
apparatus in cinema. The machine with which 0100101110101101.ORG work,
simply registers all the data they come into contact with.

The fact that machines can record and reproduce every human movement and
emotion is, of course, the primal media experience; and since the
emergence of photography as well as of the phonograph in the late 19th
century, it has sometimes been viewed with horror or as downright
traumatic. At other times it has triggered optimistic ideas of a "new
man", an "expanded consciousness" and a "freely definable subjectivity".

Long before anyone could even imagine such a global multimedia
communication network such as the Internet, it was the cinema which first
made a topic and motif of its technical dispositif. Much has been written
about early cinema's fondness of doppelgangers or doubles, indeed this
subject has become a similar topos in literature on cinema as the subject
of the Wiedergänger has on the screen: the armies of shadows and
mirror-images that have come to life, from Mr. Hydes and portraits of
Dorian Gray, clones and all the mechanical doubles to the doppelgangers
created from the flesh of their makers that have populated film and TV
screens for over a century.

Their origin in German Romanticism or works by Dostoyevski has been
extensively described. They have been interpreted as critique of the human
hubris or as satirical reflection of their environment. Yet these
doppelgangers, which early cinema so enjoyed making the subject of its
stories, can be understood as an allegory of the reflecting power of the
medium itself. For the most obvious property of photography and cinema is
the incessant production and reproduction of doppelgangers. Photography
and film also have doubling qualities. As Roland Barthes emphasizes in his
book "Camera Lucida": "A specific photograph, in effect, is never
distinguished from its referent (...) By nature, the Photograph (…) has
something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always and intractably a
pipe. It is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself,
both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility, at the very
heart of the moving world; they are glued together, limb by limb, like the
condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures; or even like those pairs
of fish (…) which navigate in convoy, as though united in an eternal
coitus." These specific properties of photography as a medium, its
potential for infinite technical reproducibility, mark its relationship to
pre-photographic reality. "The direct physical relationship between
light-reflecting objects and their 'take' in the chemical surface of the
film makes photography analogous to the world of material objects beyond
the picture." From this technical circumstance, Katharina Sykora deduces
certain "shared structural aspects" between photography/film and the motif
of the android, but what she states is doubly true for doppelganger
figures on the screen. These doubles, which have above all played an
important role in fantasy films, can at all times also be read as a screen
reflection of cinema technology with its qualities to directly reproduce
and imprint.

Particularly German cinema of the 1920s is rich in doppelgangers and
figures divided between different bodies. Among such films is "The Student
from Prague", which has been remade several times, and in which the
student sells his mirror-image to a sorcerer. Another such film is Max
Mack's "The Other". "Dr. Mabuse", who first appears as the director of a
"lunatic asylum" and then as one of its "inmates", must also be mentioned
in this context. The many artificial humans found in films such as
"Alraune", "Metropolis" or diverse other treatments of material about the
Golem and Homunculus, can also be seen as a continuation of the
doppelganger motif.  Strikingly, it was primarily horror films which never
tired of dealing with the horrors of the reproduced self.

In "The Haunted Screen" , Lotte Eisner points out the special meaning of
motifs of shadows and mirrors in the silent films of the Weimar Republic:  
"In their trips through the looking-glass the metaphysically-inclined
Germans go much deeper than Alice (that essentially very materialistic
little girl). The rhyme of Schein (seeming) with Sein (being) leads them
like Tieck, to juggle with reality and dreams until the forms born of the
darkness seem the only genuine ones."

In contrast to this romanticizing description, Siegfried Kracauer
interpreted "The Student of Prague" as an allegory of the German middle
class in the 1920s: "By separating Baldwin from his reflection and making
both face each other, Wegener's film symbolizes a specific kind of split
personality. Instead of being unaware of his own duality, the
panic-stricken Baldwin realizes that he is in the grip of an antagonist
who is nobody but himself. This was an old motif surrounded by a halo of
meanings, but was it not also a dreamlike transcription of what the German
middle class actually experienced in its relation to the feudal caste
running Germany?" Even if one is not so inclined to follow Kracauer's
rather willful Marxist-materialist interpretation, the fact that "The
Student of Prague" is by all means marked by a "deep and fearful concern
with the foundations of the self" cannot be denied.

Just as the technological parameters of film played a part in this concern
and the ensuing motif of the doppelganger in early cinema, the topic of
identity and subjectivity also played a an important role in the next
medium accessible to artists: video. Lucid observers quickly noted that in
the early video art of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the self,
(artistic)  subjectivity, was a central motif. In 1976, in a now famous
essay written for "October" magazine, Rosalind Krauss describes an
"aesthetics of narcissism" as one of the most salient features of new
video art. Based on some works by artists such as Richard Serra, Nancy
Holt, Bruce Naumann, Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, Joan Jonas and Peter
Campus, she points out a preoccupation of the artist with his or her self
as one of the most prevalent motifs of video art. By the way, a fact often
forgotten today as it is in part hard to imagine: for Krauss video was not
predominantly sculptural video installations or the presentation of
finished tapes, but works using feedback or closed-circuit arrangements,
or that were used as a component of a performance.

The recurring motif of the doppelganger in German cinema of the 1920s,
which resulted from the reproducing qualities of the medium, repeatedly
depicted the decentering of human subjectivity. Kraus, on the hand,
detected a completely different attitude with video: "The self and its
reflected image are of course literally separate. But the agency of
reflection is a mode of appropriation, of illusionistically erasing the
difference between subject and object." In contrast to the decentered,
literally 'torn' subject of German silent films, one can speak of
subjectivity and the apparatus of a reproducing medium absorbing each
other in the early video art works described by Kraus. Instead of a sense
of horror at the duplication of the human image, such as played so
significant a role in German silent film, Krauss detects in early video
art a kind of "peaceful coexistence" between recording/replay technologies
and their subjects, which may have been encouraged by the
technology-friendly or even underlying euphoria in the new technologies
prevailing in the art scene at the time.

Initially, net culture and art in the 1990s took an almost playful
approach to the topic of the reproduction of the self: its keenness to
experiment and lack of seriousness set it apart from the
analytical-indifferent attitude of video art towards its subject. As with
cinema and video, it was once again the genuine properties of new digital
technologies as media that made the topic of identity and subjectivity so
compelling. The anonymous character of online environments allows their
users to develop new and, if need be, different identities, as well as to
present themselves on the Internet without any correspondence having to
exist with their real personalities.

It should be emphasized here that by no means only Internet art which was
oriented towards traditional high art was immediately interested in this
topic. Rather, cyber-entities suddenly appeared, independently and without
having been coordinated, in such diverse forums as mailing lists, MUDs and
MOOs, chats and the web. These entities all played with their ability to
be ascribed to a real entity. Concealed behind avatars, nicks, fictitious
e-mail addresses or figures in an online game, one could or can splendidly
experiment with the possibilities of self-portrayal in online
environments.  On the Internet, a person's identity, gender, age, ethnic
origin, class membership, etc. have become manipulable, unstable entities.

These games took place against the backdrop of a postmodern debate on the
"constructedness" of human subjectivity, "hybrid identities" and the
"deconstruction" and "de-essentialization" of categories such as gender
and race. Even if most of the participants in this play probably had no
knowledge of such academic debates, their experiments can be seen as
entirely congruent with such discussions. The American psychologist Sherry
Turkle, who in her books "The Second Self" and "Life on the Screen"  
investigated the impact of computers and the Internet on the self-image of
her patients, summarized the facts neatly in the phrase: "Computers embody
postmodern theory and bring it down to earth."

On the other hand, it can be assumed that the participants in experiments
conducted in the early net art of the mid-1990s had at least a rudimentary
knowledge of the postmodern debates revolving around the self. The
abundance of works done on identity and subjectivity at this time are
almost too enormous too assess; they are so numerous that this motif came
close to becoming a cliché. Hence only a few works from this cheerful and
ironical period will be mentioned briefly here: in her work "Bodies Inc.",
American artist Victoria Vesna allowed users to construct their own online
bodies from a variety of digital elements and, when necessary, to bury
them in a designated cemetery. For a net art competition put on by the
Kunsthalle in Hamburg, German artist Cornelia Sollfrank created over one
hundred alleged cyberartists, who then submitted their entries to the
competition via e-mail addresses set up just for this purpose ("Female
Extension", 1997). Austrian artist Eva Wohlgemuth had her entire body
scanned in the USA and used the data from this 3D wire-frame model for
manipulations on her website. All these works play with human identity and
the possibility of their manipulation "in cyberspace".

In this context one net entity became especially notorious: she was called
Netochka Nezvanova or N.N. and she flooded countless mailing lists on
cyberculture and net art with her contributions as of 1997. In a peculiar
hotchpotch of English, French, German and diverse programming languages,
she presented herself by cursing and insulting most of the participants.  
The campaign, evidently conceived as advertising for a computer program on
real-time manipulation of multimedia data, seemed to have come from a
whole group of participants. It is an amusing example of how different
people could converge in one online identity, instead as was usually the
case of one person splitting into diverse online identities.

Initially the attention which N.N. attracted in this campaign led to a
string of invitations to festivals; yet it was not long before everything
related to this artificial figure quieted down. And otherwise too, little
remains at the beginning of the 21st century of the delight of the
mid-1990s in the supposedly so freely selectable and constructible online
identity. Moreover, ever since the American music and film industry
successfully tracked down the identity of users of peer-to-peer exchanges
so as to reprimand or even take proceedings against them, and since a
series of dramatic trials have been held dealing with illegal materials on
private websites, the myth of the unrestricted freedom of cyberspace has
suffered. After the passage of strict laws on the liabilities of Internet
users in different countries (including the USA and Germany) and laws
requiring providers to store all user data or even to actively monitor
their users for violations of the law, the Internet no longer seems to be
a Utopia with much scope for playing with identity and subjectivity, but
rather a panopticum for perfect surveillance.

"life _sharing" marks exactly this post-Utopian point in the history of
the Internet and translates it into a kind of Internet ready-made: a
personal computer that is in fact nothing else but a personal computer.
Without selecting, it stoically records all in and outgoing digital data
and holds it for retrieval offering, like a deaf and dumb waiter, all the
information stored on it about its owner. In a certain way this work
evades analysis in the same way as did the pathological narcissist of whom
Freud wrote he was incurable because he was just plain not interested in
any form of therapy.

Yet against the background of the development of the doppelganger and
double as motifs in media art made with film, video and the Internet,
"life_sharing" appears to be an acceptance of the inevitable: of the fact
that the machines which surround us constantly register and record data
about us and that this information can be retrieved at any time.  
0100101110101101.ORG accept this technologically-generated status quo, yet
they do not do so without an ulterior form of resistance: instead of
freezing in horror when faced with their digital doppelgangers or trying
to conceal or encode these data, they make them as accessible as possible,
as if they might be able to disown their continual reproduction precisely
by clogging the media's channels. Politically and in terms of data
protection, this might be seen as a problematic choice, yet it is
simultaneously a conscious reflection on how to deal with this topic, one
which most others recorded pursue without even knowing it.

And what has come of the horror which filled contemporaries in the early
20th century when confronted with the possibility of their reproducibility
in media? The doppelganger the evil Mr. Hyde who accompanies the Dr.  
Jekyll of our everyday ego has today become the protagonist in computer
games like "Grand Theft Auto". Now, under his new nom-de-guerre, Tommy
Vercetti, he serves as frame and pretence to live out one's most asocial
urges, and by doing so to "win" "mission" after "mission". At this very
moment, a few hundred-thousand people around the globe are probably busy
stealing, murdering, blackmailing or committing arson in the cyberspace of
their PlayStations. In 1913, when sorcerer Acapinelli bought the student
of Prague's mirror-image for the very first time, he would not have even
dared dream of such an army of devious doubles.

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