Feminist art and surveillance. An ill-/ well-omened liaison?

The Fag Face Mask by Zach Blas

Through its development of the central perspective, art has literally opened the hungry eye to the female body. Such a perspective thus quite significantly contributes to the surveillance and control of women, trans* and queers*. Art did not first begin engaging with the capture and surveying of female* and trans* bodies with the invention of photography. As far back as the Renaissance and Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman (1525), art approaches have been exercising a deeply pervasive and penetrating view.[i]

In this context, the crucial factor is not just that the female* body was spawned as an opened window but that the medial space feminizes. Accordingly, the space therefore takes on the female* gender. In other words, for modern-day surveillance, the following could be said: the exercising of the surveilling eye is a sexualized technique of intruding into a feminist space, into an online space imagined as being female.

A queer-feminist look at art history furthermore teaches us that surveillance, as a sexual act, does not directly lie in what the eye actually sees. The suggestion of concealment incites a desire to want to penetrate the data space. Much like veils, cloths, and masks as expressions of visual boundaries have always been a part of art and pornography, opacity metaphors accompany the lust to surveil digital spaces. The Cloud thus represents more than mere data backup. As a metaphor for opacity, it is symptomatic for the discourse surrounding the visual craving that feasts on obscuration.[ii] Such visual boundaries find their equivalent in the discourse surrounding the Internet as a black box[iii] and in all actions that conceal surveillance – whether by the state or on the part of the private sector. Constitutively, discourses, and acts of concealment therefore, serve not only the functioning of surveillance but also the lust for surveillance.

Such lust or this sexualization of surveillance structures how we talk about surveillance. That people so often concede that they have nothing to hide is not contingent but appears to me to be directly related to the fact that, as a henceforth immersive part of the feminized space, that is the ‘Internet’, we consider penetration to be a natural act. Viewing surveillance as a sexual technique of seeing and, in the meantime, of post-optically generating and grabbing data (see dataveillance[iv]) might be one reason why, in society as a whole, the signs of resistance are few and far between. It would appear that since the Internet as a space has been feminized, the plundering of data, on the one hand, and the disciplining of bodies and discourses, on the other, meet with so little protest, so little outrage. In this area alone – it can be said in summary – forms of misogyny and heteronormativity find their expression which are inscribed in the Internet. But what about art?

Feminist artveillance

If, as I have attempted to suggest, art and its visual apparatuses do the legwork for surveillance and control, the question arises as to their possible interventional potential. Is there a surveillance art that is not part of such art or which does not re-echo its principle of the feminist space? Because what conclusion would need to be drawn from a queer-feminist perspective? Would absolute transparency need to be established, as only this could counteract the visual boundaries that are productive for surveillance? Or is the opposite the case: is absolute concealment required in order to escape access to surveillance?

The social and cultural theorist, Andrea Mubi Brighenti, pre-empts such a question by recounting in his text “Artveillance” that artistic works are clearly capable of criticizing the surveillance society. Despite this, they find themselves being a symptom of surveillance. At the same time, he argues, the aesthetic expression of the works are indicators of a more or less artistic ensemble of surveillance technologies in and of themselves. According to Brighenti, they are hence more creative than assumed.[v] Whether, based on this, the assumption that surveillance space operates within a sexual regime of penetration can be confirmed, he adds, is a topic of interest that would need to be explored in a broader study. In this article, I can only put forward individual positions that are far removed from comprising a genre – something that Brighenti can also very generally rule out in the case of artveillance. The positions are too diverse, too deeply under negotiation in the context of a social field.[vi]

That gender has, only in recent years, begun to play a role in this field[vii] can be explained by the fact that a type of feminism is currently forming not in spite of but rather because of the Internet.[viii] It is not in spite of the acts of violence which women*, trans* and queers* are forced to endure through cyberstalking, etc. that they are making themselves heard; rather, it is because the Internet and/or digitally edited images are spying them out that they are becoming visible where averted glances would otherwise have rendered them imperceptible and, at times, dead.[ix] Feminism, where this is discussed in the context of not all people – especially in the context of flight and migration – having the privilege of being able to make themselves disappear, is thus inextricably linked to surveillance. At the same time, such a disappearance can be described as a second narrative for the artistic productions that emanate from people with a queer-feminist background. Below, I would like to examine both strategies – appearance and disappearance – albeit cursorily.

Critical opacity

In Facial Weaponization Suite (2012), Zach Blas, through his development of three-dimensional, amorphous masks comprising the facial data of multiple participants, established the artistic method of critical opacity[x], i.e. criticism through opaqueness. His Fag Face Mask, one of a total of four masks, is one example of an aggregate of a number of queer men’s* faces that are rendered indiscernible through the use of three-dimensional modeling software. Surveillance, which works based on biometric facial recognition technologies, capitulates in the face of such masks.

Among other things, Blas thus draws an obvious artistic conclusion from the various studies that ‘prove’ the identifiability of sexual orientation based on the identification of faces.[xi] Since the findings of such studies not only reproduce forms of stereotyping but can be applied against LGBTIQ* persons directly and in connection with administrative power[xii], Blas ties the use of masks into the context of various activist movements such as Zapatista, Pussy Riot or Black Bloc. Rather than articulating solidarity with these movements, Blas’ use of masks is about creating a collective face that – by removing individual facial features – poses a threat to the neo-liberal and state surveillance system. Hence also his use of the color pink: The association with pigs seeks to remind people of a queer policy that has made a ‘pig’s ear’ of itself, one which has nothing in common with the state or its recognition economies (gay marriage) but is rather the state’s ‘plague’.

Blas, whose work falls in line with methods of tactical invisibility[xiii], is thus resorting to a level of examination that articulates opacity as a tool of criticism. The decisive factor here is that the masks are completely amorphous. To frame it in the language used by art historian, Tom Holert, the shapeless form of the masks is consistent with a lack of detectability.[xiv] As such, Blas unmasks the dysfunctional nature of surveillance, which has ceased to adhere to any rationally comprehensible processes.

Exhibitionism as counter-surveillance

Aside from works from the likes of Zach Blas or even Hito Steyerl[xv] surrounding the issue of how we can cease to be seen, hypervisibility represents the primary creative source for feminist artists in particular. Following on from the artistic practices of the feminist avant-garde of the 1970s, artists such as Mare Tralla, Leah Schrager, Amalia Ulman, Arvida Byström and Molly Soda use the female* body as a means to an end in their examination of what another contemporary artist, Martine Syms, expounds as ambient cinema. The fact that we are being filmed at every turn transforms daily life into a cinematic experience and the self into an actor*. Surveillance that ceases to be linked with distinctly pinpointable institutions, such as prisons, schools or factories, but shapes the everyday environment in which the self is inherent [xvi], rightly comes in for close scrutiny in modern-day artistic works as a presentation of the self. In this process, the display of the female* body acts as a critical discourse on the disciplinary effects of ambient surveillance.

Referencing the paradox that the justification of the existence of social media is founded on a high selfie-posting frequency, where selfies are censored across normative algorithms, however, Leah Schrager plays with the fine line that exists between pornography and self-portrayal. In her series titled SFSM (Safe for Social Media) (2016), for example, she casts a glance over her body that is pornographic and yet not.

Infinity Selfie 3 or SFSM (Safe For Social Media)

The frame-within-a-frame process, which, by reducing the image within the image, stimulates but also thwarts the penetrating look, allows Schrager to leave her images in the archive of social media that are otherwise becoming increasingly purged of sexuality. In doing so, she not only highlights that surveillance through technologies of the self has become an everyday occurrence, but that surveillance has a retroactively normativising effect on the self. A similar approach is adopted by Arvida Byström and Molly Soda in Pic, or it did not happen (2016). The book is a compendium of selfies deleted from Instagram, often based on showing the female* body far removed from the normed perceptions of beauty, i.e. displaying pubic hair, cellulite, and period stains. In All I have is my iPhone (2016), Molly Soda delves deeper into the issue of disciplining bodies by including her feelings. By allowing her iPhone full access to her life and discussing how it follows her at every turn, feelings that are also cloaked through the emotion economy of likes, such as shame, become the center of attention. Making shame transparent as a contact zone that should not be omitted when it comes to surveillance is one of numerous starting points for comprehending exhibitionism as a form of counter-surveillance.

Another is conscious fictionalization – or speculation in the moment of exhibitionism. In her feature-length film, Martine Syms’ Incense Sweaters & Ice (2017) outlines in detail the dramatic situation facing Black working-class women* in particular of remaining invisible even while being spied out continuously. Instead of suggesting that there might be a way out from the one (invisibility) or the other (hypervisibility), she seizes on the aspect of a lack of authenticity in a world engulfed by exhaustive surveillance and draws strength from the insight that everyone who is surveilled would perform.

Likewise, in Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections (2014), the display of performance furnishes the potential for challenging the assertion that surveillance can lead to learning something about people. The mere reactions to her entirely fictitious “Instagram Fiction story of an It girl”[xvii] illustrate the levels of confusion that come from taking the illusionistic nature of simulated worlds at its word.


[i] Cf. in this context, Linda Hentschel (2001): Pornotopische Techniken des Betrachtens: Raumwahrnehmung und Geschlechterordnung in visuellen Apparaten der Moderne, Marburg.

[ii] Cf. Laura Mulvey (1975): Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in: Screen 16/3: 6-18.

[iii] Alexander R. Galloway (2010): “Black Box, Black Bloc”. A lecture given at the New School in New York City on April 12, 2010, in: http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/pdf/Galloway,%20Black%20Box%20Black%20Bloc,%20New%20School.pdf, most recently accessed on: 27.2.2019.

[iv] Roger Clarke (1988): Information technology and dataveillance, in: Communications of the ACM, 31/5: 498-512.

[v] This is countered by the assertion that images which, for example, serve to collect biometric data, are post-aesthetic images, i.e. operative images that are fully merged into procedural executions. Cf. Harun Farocki (2002): Quereinfluss/Weiche Montage, in: Wolfgang Ernst/Anselm Franke (editors): Politik der Bilder. Visuelle Kompetenz und Kriegsbildrhetorik. Documentation/collection of texts. Panel discussion on 19 January 2002, Berlin: 111-117; see also: Brigitta Kuster (2018): Biometrische Filmbilder. Eine neue Weise, in der audiovisuelle Aufzeichnungen die Wirklichkeit berühren?, in: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0318/kuster/de, most recently accessed on: 2.3.2019.

[vi] Andrea Mubi Brighenti (2010): Artveillance: At the Crossroads of Art and Surveillance, in: Surveillance & Society, 7/2: 175-186.

[vii] Yasmin Abu-Laban (2015): Gendering Surveillance Studies: The Empirical and Normative Promise of Feminist Methodologies, in: Surveillance & Society, 13/1: 44-56.

[viii] Petra Collins/Marilyn Minter (2017): “I’ve Been Waiting for You”: Marilyn Minter talks to Petra Collins, in: Petra Collins: Coming of Age, New York: 88-96.

[ix] Donna Haraway (2016): Fetus. The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order, in: Kathrin Peters/Andrea Seier (editors): Gender und Medien Reader, Zurich: 270.

[x] Zach Blas/Jacob Gaboury (2016): Biometrics and Opacity: A Conversation, in: Camera Obscura 92/31 (2): 155.

[xi] Cf. inter alia Jesse Bering (2009): There’s Something Queer about That Face, in: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/something-queer-about-that-face/, most recently accessed on: 3.3.2019.

[xii] Dean Spade (2011): Normal Life. Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law, New York.

[xiii] Giorgio Agamben (1993): The Coming Community, Minneapolis; Tiqqun (2010): Introduction to Civil War, Los Angeles; Alexander R. Galloway/Eugene Thacker (2007): The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, Minneapolis.

[xiv] Tom Holert (2016): Exposure without Intelligibility. On some Requirements
of Addressing Surveillance
as a Visual Practice, in: Louise Wolthers/Dragana Vujanovic/Niclas Östlind (editors): Watched! Surveillance, Art and Photography, Cologne: 276-280.

[xv] Hito Steyerl: HOW NOT TO BE SEEN. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File (2013), short film, 16 min.

[xvi] This describes the change from the scopic regime of surveillance, as described by Michel Foucault, to the society of control based on the writings of Gilles Deleuze. The latter had summarised control as a form of “flexible, variable and mobile control, which is overridingly implemented as a meshing of media technologies and technologies of the self”. Cf. Michel Foucault (1976): Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Frankfurt / M.; Gilles Deleuze (2004): Postscript on the Societies of Control, in: idem: Negotiations 1972–1990, Columbia University Press: 254-262; quote: Dietmar Kammerer/Thomas Waitz (2015): Überwachung und Kontrolle. Einleitung in den Schwerpunkt, in: ZfM 13/2: 13.

[xvii] Louise Wolthers (2016): Watching Europe and Beyond: Surveillance, Art and Photography, in: Louise Wolthers/Dragana Vujanovic/Niclas Östlind (editors): Watched! Surveillance, Art and Photography, Cologne: 8-24