Located in Berlin city’s center is Europe’s fourth tallest free-standing structure, the Fernsehturm, also known as the TV Tower. I first visited this landmark in September 2019 as part of a novelty venture for a close companion’s birthday. We looked out over the city from above, among tourists and student groups, studying the gridded streets and moving vehicles below and green pasturage at the outer ends that stretched across the horizon to meet an expansive and, on this particular day, blue sky. In taking in all that made up this panorama, I noticed for the first time how flat Berlin was. Only two years later, Berlin’s city center has quickly shifted with new high-rises sporadically springing up along the Spree riverfront, drastically altering stretches of former vacant lots.
Documenting these changes to Berlin’s cityscape is an ongoing series initiated by the art institution Schinkel Pavillon which highlights architectural developments taking place at liminal spaces now affected by city planning revisions and corporate acquisitions. During the city’s extended lockdown, Schinkel Pavillon continued a similar project involving artists and site-specificity as an online video series titled HIGH RISE BERLIN. In response to the perpetual confinement to our homes, the series is a collection of drone-led studio visits to Berlin-based artists, conceived in the place of their previous on-site performances. In other words, by repurposing drones to show the artists at work in their studios, as spectacle, and through screens, as data, the series de-centered the cultural objects they produced and instead observed artistic practice as the content itself.
HIGH RISE BERLIN is an intentional nod to J.G. Ballard’s 1975 book High-Rise, a dystopian novel about upper-class residents of a technocratic tower block fashioned to meet all their social needs and isolate them from the world outside. As the infrastructure of the building deteriorates, the residents slip into violent chaos. HIGH RISE BERLIN suggests that a similar social withdrawal occurs under lockdown and the screen occupies an equally ambivalent position as the high-rise. The remote spectatorship it makes possible both reinforces and tries to ameliorate conditions of separation stratification. By linking screens to the drone’s de-personalized and distanced view, HIGH RISE BERLIN evokes Ballard’s critique of the top-down implementation of solutions to social problems and administration of everyday life as exemplified in the ideals of modernist high-rise architects such as Le Corbusier.
The drone point of view also recalls NASA’s photographs of Earth taken from outer space, which was used to brand Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s. Whole Earth Catalog’s statement of purpose proclaimed: We are as gods so we might as well get good at it. Like the “blue marble” Earth images on the covers suggested, the catalog promised an external, aerial view of existence along with access to the kinds of technology – the “tools for living” outside and adjacent to societal formulations – that could sustain it. The newsprint booklet archived various information relevant to the desire to “see it all” and make everything available as easily as possible. In fact, Whole Earth Catalog was later credited for inspiring online search engines which have evolved to rely on Big Data generated by users for their black-box algorithms widely used today.1 In other words, the publication’s incipient desire for self-sustainability was essentially Ballard’s High-Rise in newsprint form – promoting technology as a means to obtain a high-resolution sense (image) of the world around us.
In the wake of the pandemic, our screens remain the central point of almost everything relating to spectatorship including the networks that facilitate our hyper-connectedness and circulate data generated by our inner worlds. Our dependence on screens has grown simultaneously inward and outward: while screens portray myriad spectacles within the home, “rooms” for meetings act as “lenses” for viewing and sharing with “windows” that we scroll through, and so on. This perennial use of screens further blurs the lines between private, public, and virtual space that former models for spectatorship did not. Whereas in the past spectatorship was understood as a subjective, embodied psychological experience (whether passively or actively engaging with perception technologies), spectatorship now is from the position of having watched something that is then classified (seen) by an external network mechanism. As we scroll and click across endless digitally networked terrains, we often take on passive states in this expanse where information comes into our purview without really having recognized the spectacle. Here, the spectator is observed as data for algorithms, which forms a technology’s digital perception, and signifies an evolution towards the active and disembodied machine point of view. Spectatorship then becomes a process of self-identification.
In her book Nonhuman Photography, Joanna Zylinska describes how “images involve the execution of technical and cultural algorithms that shape our image-making devices as well as our viewing practices.”2 There are certain subjective mechanisms for seeing which devices limit or fragment depending on their world-building capacities. Zylinska classifies non-human mechanisms, the technologies used to circulate or capture images, as a disembodied process whereby the human is absent from the roles of “subject, agent, or addressee.”3 Yet, as technological sentience develops, the corporeal viewer is under constant observation from the devices she uses. Unlike viewing in older mediums, spectatorship here is ever-expanding and colored by categorically subjective modes of surveillance. In other words, the digital landscape has shifted the position of spectatorship from the individual eye to an all-seeing machine’s eye, and while the experience of perception shapes itself as data in networked digital domains, we become subject to surveillance and reappropriation in new platforms having different levels and protocols for use where, “the overall effect is a society that amplifies diversity (or rather a diversity of metadata signatures) but does so precisely because the differentiations in metadata signatures create inroads for the capitalization and policing of everyday life.”4 Under such a regime, the cost of seeing is being seen as data whereby biological information and behavioral details are collected, classified, and manufactured into so-called self-evident truths.
To take on even more sensory attributes, to feel or sense through that seemingly endless data circulating online, viewing apparatuses also play a vital role in the abundantly totalizing act of aggregating or allocating information – or, in this case, a top-down documentation of our experiences as visual data into digital spheres. As Zylinska wrote in 2015, being spectated means that “increasingly, visuality will be situated on a cybernetic and electromagnetic terrain where abstract visual and linguistic elements coincide and are consumed, circulated, and exchanged globally.”5 Rather than being inseparable from the circumstances where the contextual meaning is conveyed, what is processed as data can be extracted from its context without changing its substance.
Hito Steyerl’s short film, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), satirized the educational video format and detailed five steps one might exercise for invisibility. The film begins with asking, “How do people disappear in an age of total over-visibility?… Are people hidden by too many images?… Do they become images?” After posing a few questions regarding the newfangled hypervisibility one is subjected to online, Steyerl proposes a step-by step resolution. Steyerl uses drone-captured imagery of a “resolution target,” as the voiceover narrates the operative ends for an image that “measures the resolution of the world as a picture. Resolution determines visibility. Whatever is not captured by resolution is invisible.” As Steyerl observed, scenes produced by the drone, a mechanism positioned at an aerial and all-seeing position, are implicit to the inherent consumptive and, most importantly, surveillant nature of its apparatus. The top-down positioning of the drone, the “God’s-eye view” – all-seeing and, therefore, all-knowing – is where life and its auxiliaries are subject to constant aggregation.
Spectatorship understood this way supersedes human habits of seeing. Machines become activated to observe and decode data, affording attention to a corporeal human subject from whom the data is collected. As a disembodied and expanded act, spectatorship acclimates to a series of fluctuating identifications and classifications. While the machine is actively spectating, we are decentering human perception as a sort-of post-human eye and what Zylinska calls a “shift of attention toward questions concerning our human engagement – as well as material entanglement – with nonhuman entities and issues” done with non-objective assumptions, classifications, and their implications built into such mechanisms.6
In his 2015 book A Theory of the Drone, philosopher Grégoire Chamayou considers many of these apparatuses as a “revolution in sighting” and argues that drones create a “data overload” where hypervisibility of the world and its movements will lead to an “excess or avalanche of data, the profusion of which will end up making the information unusable.”7 However, recent information management technologies are shifting such obfustications. During a visit to a “future of surveillance”8 technology showroom, Arthur Holland Michel, the author of Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All, witnessed how machine-driven data congregants perform a “process of braiding together strands of information” into one information system cerebrum. “What [police] needed,” Michel wrote about Chicago’s enforcement surveillance uses for integrating such devices, “was a tool that could cut a clean line through the labyrinth.”9
Beyond diligently processed data circulating in networks, the overwhelming experience of “screen fatigue” or information overload happens to be a reoccurring obstacle with information systems throughout the ages. According to historian Ann M. Blair, information overload can be dated back to technologies that drove “the transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment.”10 Even before mass printing presses, manuscripts were assorted in reference books and assembled under ancient or medieval information management categorizations. “Historians have pointed especially to three main sources of information explosion in the Renaissance: the discovery of new worlds, the recovery of ancient texts, and the proliferation of printed books,” Blair writes in Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age.11 As a result of the prevailing information profusion, new methods of canonical, cultural, and political organization were required to incite a prompt and passive sifting of the “lists of authorities, lists of headings,” and so on. As we are overwrought with even more on-screen spectacles operating over endless seas of information, we may find ourselves ultimately impassive to such infinite vastness, not to mention always vulnerable to having our spectatorship misconstrued or categorized for other incentives such as government controlled surveillance, information dominance, and the sales of various commodities.
There is something characteristically Baroque about aggregating and allocating information – or, in this case, human experiences – as data into digital spaces. Franco “Bifo” Berardi uses the Baroque era to aptly scrutinize the modern condition of virtual information excess and density within a Western canon and as a result of colonial expansion during that time. The systems sifting through excess as Berardi explains in writings on phenomenology and capitalism is comparable to the “Baroque sensibility [of expansion which] opened the door to . . . infinite proliferation and therefore to the experience of modernity.”12 At the same time, Eurocentric infospheres, originating from Baroque societal structures, began to disseminate through global colonization, the Atlantic slave trade, printing formulations, and canonical technologies. As a result, such information systems are the foundations for the “all-seeing eye” that technology assumes in Western modernity – or, more specifically, capitalism’s anthropomorphic fixations on obtaining, archiving, and linking information to individual profiles and their associations.
Drones, for example, have evolved from weaponry into a consumer product, allowing for commercial purposes of archiving, diagramming, or mapping, and, most simply, seeing the world in its entirety from a meta-perspective (neural network), aggregating even more information into our data spheres to be identified, managed, and matched to our corporeal experiences of technology. When writing about a series of drone photographs, Kelly Pendergrast notes that “the aerial gaze is not a position we can inhabit permanently without risking identification with the surveillor.”13 While machines have been developed to actively view, engage, and identify, we ultimately surmise spectator passivity while being spectated.
Also in Berlin, KW Institute for Contemporary Art took a related avenue concerning the online art spectacle with their most recent digital exhibition, The Last Museum, wagering its portrayal as “sculptural interventions . . . videoed by the artists.”14 The exhibition began with a web page depicting a computer monitor atop a desk, where visitors to the exhibition are invited to activate the interface, as a way of “blurring between cinematic experience and website interactivity” and create what the curators described as a wormhole effect.15 The Last Museum exhibits a website-specificity framework, “stacking”16 artworks by artists whose contexts are extracted from their dispersed localities as a way to intentionally collide analog, embodied, and dematerial representations within interconnected digital domains or further “calibrate the world as a picture.”17
Not quite television nor cinema, The Last Museum series will move through partner institutions’ web domains as a pop-up online exhibition to provide an immediacy to an art practice and conceptual medium, or the mediated screen, gradually expanding representational drone fictions — a term coined by Daniel Greene to describe when drones are used in artistic or memetic formats, in his treatise on anthropomorphic attributes allocated to the drone.18 While Schinkel Pavillon’s HIGH RISE BERLIN relates drone fictions to establishing the cinematic pictorial nature of spectatorship and drone apparatuses, The Last Museum extends the genre of drone fiction to a virtual panorama with its immersive, written, and sensory treatments making constructions of digital spaces from aerial perspectives: the lens simulates a sort of portal, doorway, opening – the threshold of the sequestered artist’s domain with sculptural fragments within their locales. Screen-interactivity denotes an architecture of perception that relies on further clicking into the wormhole of the constructed and intentional artist’s own “picture.”
This picture, aerial hypervisibility, or data stack, entails correlations between historical instances of spectatorship and their contemporary conditions. The Last Museum attempts this straightforwardly with its layered realities. For example in Nicole Foreshew’s piece set in Australia’s Urumbilum River, the exhibition attempts to subvert the colonial gaze by providing symbolic attention towards historically eradicated indigenoius communications — more specifically “an ancient form of communication” through what the Wiradjuri artist names “message sticks” made of natural materials from the Gumbaynggirr Country region.19
Any act of spectating assumes the social and political frames of perceptions, and points of view, all of which are historically entangled with surveillance — and any use of drones, for example, makes this explicit. The buzzing sound of a drone still inflicts an agitation for some, a sound that indicates the possibility of an airstrike. Anything shot by drones, for example, immediately draws us into the history of their visceral use in police surveillance and military missile targeting.20 What we are seeing and experiencing happens through subjugation or expansion of the politics concerning embodied and disembodied seeing: what we understand, what we see in spectacles, and what is revealed in the methods we use to see or subvert them.
Concerning the historical instances of the gaze imparting on their contemporary conditions is Simone Browne’s apprehensions towards how Black life is depicted and perceived online. Her book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness highlights “the conditions of Blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and resisted,”21 where the author focuses on the material histories of technological surveillance beginning with the transatlantic slave trade to the over-policing of Black life. Browne also recognizes that there are strategic uses for circulating videos that depict killings by police, bearing witness to such videos warrants a subversive act and pervasive power of the technological image within systems of white supremacy. However, at the cost of being identified by those very systems, “we filter learning, but we’re also being filtered and indexed in a way that is highly surveilled every time we go on sites and use keywords or whatever it is.”22
Jimmy Robert’s contribution to the Schinkel Pavilions’ series, Private Life, carries forward similar sentiments to Browne’s racialized surveillance in “questioning what it means to see and be seen. By reusing the principle of performance art — its eroticism and the tension between vulnerability and violence.”23 In one scene, Robert was wrapped in fabric that was used for an earlier performance at PEER titled European Portraits (2017). Wallowing in this fabric on the studio floor, Robert rolled from one side of his body to the other. A brief motion revealed a 16th century early Baroque Mannerist-style Bronzino portrait painting printed on the fabric that enveloped Robert’s body. This small glimpse subverts our attention as her gaze pierces through the drone’s lens, into our screen, and ultimately lands upon us – suddenly making us, the viewer of this spectacle, feel observed.
Robert works with the referential constructed compass of Blackness and gender identity further explored by layered cultural, musical links to his work. Lyrics from Grace Jones’ song “Walking In The Rain” are spoken during this scene, which repositions Robert as a surveilled body outside of his studio and within social stratifications:
Walking down the street
Looking at the billboards
Oh so rad
Summing up the people
Checking out the race
Doing what I’m doing
Feeling out of place
In the rain
Feeling like a woman
Looking like a man
Sounding like a no-no
Making what I can
Whistling in the darkness
Shining in the night
Coming to conclusions
Right is night is tight
Observing these artists from above on my computer screen and from a rather sequestered position in my home reminded me of the TV Tower observation site in Berlin’s city center: disconnected from the realities below, all-seeing in a sublime, distanced tranquility. Opting out of being seen, or what Steyerl names “hid[ing] in plain sight,” is a proposition that is no longer attainable24: diffusing spectacles into online formats entails all the corporeal, material, and conceptual excess that make up architectures of perception. As spectatorship remains an ever-expanding practice, data collection and perception apparatuses continue to take on all-seeing, all-knowing, anthropomorphic, and world-building qualities. To truly engage with the burgeoning surveillant nature of spectatorship is to understand the hypervisibility embedded into disembodied points of view. Only then can the technological spectacle and its mechanisms diverge from identity-based architectures of perception to produce subversive acts of seeing.
Jazmina Figueroa is a writer in Berlin. Currently, she is in residence at ZKM, Karlsruhe as part of the Beyond Matter research project where she will develop performance lectures as didactic experiences for virtual realms. Her written work has appeared in Texte zur Kunst, Artforum, Arts Of Working Class, and more – with essays in publications from Montez Press, Valiz, and Navel.la.