Saturday, July 21, 2018

No Man's Land: View from a Surveillance State

No Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance StateNo Man's Land: Views from a Surveillance State by DeSieno Marcus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outside of an introduction by Ariel Shanberg outlining the aesthetic purposes behind DeSieno Marcus' photographs and an outro by Martha A. Sandweiss delving into the technologically transgressive nature of the project, this book is all about the photographs. The simple design lets the photos breathe in a startling way.

Once one understands (through reading Sandweiss' essay) the subversive nature of Marcus' methods, the landscapes take on a decidedly hauntological tone, but in a twisted way. Rather than fostering a vision of a past that never was hoping for a future that never will be (as in the Ghost Box Records oeuvre, for a musical example), Marcus' photographs subvert our inner version of the "wilderness" by tricking us about our assumptions. Without context, one looks at these photos and thinks that they are beautiful vintage photos of the world's great wildernesses. The astute observer will see that there are sometimes elements - a line of power poles, for example, or a graded road - that indicate that these are not necessarily old photographs and that the photographer might have used old techniques to emulate antique photographs. This is true . . . partially.

The true hauntological element comes in when one realizes that the way Marcus produced these photos was by hacking into trailside and wilderness security cameras. He then sets up a wooden camera (complete with bellows and brass fittings) and shoots a picture of his computer screen. Then, using "a waxed paper negative process", he creates images that look as if they were shot in the very early days of daguerreotypes.

Genius. Pure, subversive genius.

Of course, this opens up a whole Pandora's box of questions: Since he is hacking into security cameras, who is watching who? And if you happened to be on the trail or in the landscape at the time Marcus "took" his photographs (I use the word intentionally) and you are now viewing those photographs, are the observer and the observed the same? Or, through Marcus' manipulation, has the observed changed in some way because of the nature of the transformation? Furthermore, what about the purposes of the trailside cameras? Are they "secure"? Do they reach the objective of their "security" if they can be hacked by an outsider, then viewed by the world, at least in a frames'-worth snapshot in time?

The hauntological implications are really quite staggering. How often do we fool ourselves into accepting a certain vision of "the past," when, in fact, that vision has been manufactured in the present? I was a child of the '80s - graduated high school in 1987, if you must know - and it is easy for me to listen to music, for example, that was created recently, but that I swear could have been present at that time, but absolutely was not. The retrowave synth movement is the classic example of this. Listening to it, I can say that, yes, it evokes the way it felt to be a teenager in the '80s (I realize I am generalizing my nostalgic feelings and applying them to millions of people, which I have no right to do, since each individual experience of that decade was different), but if asked to provide examples of where and when I heard such music, I am hard-pressed to come up with good examples. I suppose the movies Tron, Escape from New York, and Blade Runner and their soundtracks provide the best readily-accessible example, but not every movie in the '80s was Tron, Escape from New York, or Blade Runner. In any case, none of these soundtracks are identical to the retrowave music being produced today (and vice-versa), so, really, even the nostalgia I feel when listening to new-retrowave music is not truly memory, it is a reflection of my present views of the past, not a mirror of the past itself, an imposition of my present mind laid on top of my muddle memories of the past. My memories of the past are haunted by the phantoms of the present and my present impressions are haunted by the underlying memories of the past.

Which begs the question: Am I even myself? The question . . . haunts me.

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  1. Someone's been reading AYintC, Fisher, et al. Yay! Did I ever send you Hurley's article on folk horror he did for The Guardian? So freaking good. As are both his books.

    1. I don't think you did, but I'd love to see it! And, yes, AYinTC and Fisher have been in my rotation - AYinTC on my playlists and on the website, Fisher haunting my brain. I can't get him out. And I'm okay with that!