JESSIE ROBERTSON // How not to be seen: the political aesthetics of opacity, 2011-2014

In the wake of the widespread political uprisings of 2011 and the con­tinuing fallout from the 2013 Snowden revelations, mass data surveil­lance has become impossible to ignore. While our online data is contin­uously sieved and monitored by states and corporations, spat back at us in an unceasing barrage of online advertising, our body’s data is also the subject of increased scrutiny. To own a passport and to travel require us to surrender records of our fingerprints and irises (at the very least), and our faces are captured and mapped continuously by the vast network of CCTV cameras which police both public and private space. The hellish gaze of others has never been as far reaching as it is now. The internet, remotely piloted drones and biometric technologies form a mass-scale transparency network, the power and influence of which are expanding and evolving constantly.

In reaction to this a number of American and European artists are choosing to explore an aesthetics of ‘opacity’, evasion and nonex­istence as a means of testing and challenging biometric surveillance technologies and practices of governmental and commercial control. This shift towards opacity is not about disappearing (or in the case of the internet, going offline), but rather it is the conscious negation of rec­ognition and readability. Opacity is, essentially, hiding in plain sight, and might be achieved online through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or In Real Life (IRL) by wearing a mask or clothing that conceals your identity.

Whilst some artists have explored opacity through the use of encryption and the deep web, as well as the formation of alternative networks that exist outside of the mainstream internet – for example the Deep Lab Collective and Julian Oliver – others have concentrated their attention on more physical responses to biometric surveillance. This article focuses on the latter, and considers Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-2014), alongside works by Hito Steyerl, Adam Harvey and Leonardo Selvaggio which all employ various techniques of masking and concealing the face. The shift towards opacity that these practices explore is radical and important, but it is not without tension. Through a critical engagement with the artworks, this article aims to unravel and problematize the aesthetic shift towards opacity, considering questions of privilege, race and accessibility in the hope of getting to grips with the potential of opacity as a politicised rejection of mass data surveillance.

The aesthetic transition to non-visibility and opacity was anticipated by artist and theorist Zach Blas through his project Facial Weaponization Suite, which he began two years before the Snowden leaks. The work was partly inspired by the rigorous biometric screening of protesters and the prevalence of masks during the Occupy protests of 2011.

The project addressed and critiqued the inequalities of biometric surveillance and the enforcement of societal norms through community- based mask-making workshops in the United States, in which ‘collective masks’ were modelled from the aggregation of participants’ facial data, which could not be read or detected by biometric facial recognition technologies. These masks were then used in performances and public interventions. The suite includes four masks: the first in the series, titled Fag Face, explores the use of biometrics to determine sexual orientation, the second explores blackness in relation to militant aesthetics, biometric racism and the idea of ‘black’ as that which ‘informatically obfuscates’ in the USA, another explores feminism in relation to ‘concealment and imperceptibility’, and is inspired by recent veil legislation in France, while the final mask of the suite investigates the deployment of biometrics at the US-Mexico border (Fig. 1, Fig. 2 and Fig. 3).1

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite
Fig. 1. Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – May 31, 2013, San Diego, CA, photograph by Christopher O’Leary, image courtesy of the artist.
Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite
Fig. 2. Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – November 20, 2013, New York, NY, photograph by Christopher O’Leary, image courtesy of the artist.
Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite
Fig. 3. Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – May 19, 2014, Mexico City, Mexico, photograph by Christopher O’Leary, image courtesy of the artist.

Facial Weaponization Suite forms part of Blas’s concept of informatics opacity as a ‘tactics of non-existence’ on which he has written extensively.2 The concept is based on the complex and shifting paradigm of transparency versus opacity and Blas invokes post-colonial thinker and poet Édouard Glissant to formulate his critical position. Although Blas has contextualised his theoretical approach in a number of articles, it is worth reiterating Glissant’s rationale for transparency versus opacity and how it pertains to the current socio-political condition in order to clarify Blas’s own theoretical position.3

The idea of making things visible is heavily embedded in the history of surveillance practices and wider state control, but the emphasis has shifted from the panopticon threat of permanent visibility in Michel Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ to a mass informatic visibility enabled by the aggregation of personal data. ‘The computer’, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues, ‘that most nonvisual and nontransparent device – has paradoxically fostered “visual culture” and “transparency”’.4 Software, according to Chun, is the very effort of making something that is intangible visible; it ‘translates between computer-readable code and human-readable language’.5 The internet, despite early arguments for its networked anonymity, is no exception. As Boris Groys asserts ‘the unobservability of the internet is a myth’, it is by its essence a machine of surveillance. It is a place in which the human subject is originally constituted as transparent and only from this position of total transpar­ency can the subject’s secrecy begin to be technically concealed through passwords and encryption.6

Transparency is not simply the act of making things visible as a means of control. In his seminal essay ‘For Opacity’ (1990) Glissant defines transparency as the basis for ‘“understanding” people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought’.7 Glissant draws on a key point here, which is the idea of transparency as a tool of reduction and standardisation. He states: ‘in order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidarity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce’.8 As part of his work on colonised identity and creolisation, Glissant repeatedly rejects the worldwide spread of transparency and the projection of western thought as a means of evaluating people, instead championing a global political project of creolisation – the mixing of people and cultures to form new cultural identities, which refuse western transparency as standardisation.

In the contemporary digital moment, this standardisation can be understood first and foremost in terms of biometric technologies and citizenship. Biometric facial recognition algorithms have become increasingly widespread, not only in state surveillance and border control practices but also in mainstream technology and social media. From full body scans at airports, to Facebook’s photo tagging algorithm, biometric control has become commonplace and widely socially accepted.

These biometric algorithms adhere, however, to Glissant’s concept of the ‘ideal scale’ and are often inherently hostile to difference or ‘otherness’. As Zach Blas explains, they require ‘normalizing techniques’ for indexing human activity and identity, which are then used as prototypes for catagorisation, governance and control’.9 For example, biometric technologies are known to have difficulty identifying individuals with dark skin, and often struggle to identify the gender of black females, whilst some fingerprinting devices are unable to read the hands of Asian women and iris scanners are often unable to accurately read the irises of cataracts sufferers.10 Blas sees these societal normalisations as ‘gross reductions in identification, where identity is reduced to disembodied aggregates of data’. As a result of this, he states, ‘minoritarian persons are rendered uncomputable because their difference, or alterity, cannot be digitally measured’.11 The desire to challenge and reject these ‘reductions’ and ‘normalisations’ is therefore at the heart of Facial Weaponization Suite and Blas’s conception of ‘Informatic Opacity’.

Opacity as ‘Nonexistence’

If transparency can be understood as standardisation and reduction as a means of control, then opacity can be read in direct contrast. For Glissant, ‘the opaque is not the obscure’, but rather that which ‘cannot be reduced’.12 The right to opacity, he argues, is not about enclosure within an inescapable state of tyranny or dictatorship, but rather it is the right to an existence within a complex position of individuality or ‘singularity’.13 Opacity as the right to a singularity displaces the demand of difference for transparency; it enables a position of accepted obscurity, which cannot be reduced to a transparent understanding. Glissant goes on to assert that ‘if an opacity is the basis for a legitimacy, this would be the sign of its having entered a political dimension’.14 The concept of opacity arises throughout Glissant’s writings, first making an appearance as early as 1969, and can be understood within the context of a post-colonial politics and creolisation as a rejection of the global projection of western thought, in favour of an identity of opacity which refuses specific reduction or categorisation. Though Glissant was critiquing an earlier moment, his analysis is now more urgent than ever given the scale of western surveillance.

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite
Fig. 4. Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask, October 20, 2012, Los Angeles, CA, photograph by Christopher O’Leary, image courtesy of the artist.

Blas’s concept of informatic opacity builds on these ideas and was formulated during his work on Fag Face, the first mask of the Facial Weaponization Suite series, which was inspired by the use of facial recog­nition technologies to determine sexual orientation (Fig. 4). The work was triggered by a 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which tested people’s ability to identify homosexual men from photos of their faces. Blas argues that studies like this one endorse LGBTIQ stereotyping and promote a visibility that ‘attempt[s] to control, monitor and police’.15 In reaction to this stereotyping of homosexual facial qualities, Blas’s Fag Face asks:16

“[w]hat are the tactics and techniques for making our faces non-existent, how do we flee this visibility into the fog of a queerness that refuses to be recognised?”

Rather than engage in the activist tactic of gaining visibility through recognition, Fag Face identifies with a queer politics of the non-recog­nisable, a politics of escape that is ‘anti-state and anti-recognition’. This politics of ‘escape’, Blas asserts, expresses a desire to exit current regimes of control and to cultivate forms of living otherwise.17

This politics of escape translates through Blas’s aggregated data masks as a weaponising of the face. By wearing the Fag Face mask, gen­erated from the biometric data of many queer men’s faces, participants become what he terms: a ‘faceless threat’, ‘the queer opaque’. The Fag Face mask is a mutated face, which cannot be read or parsed by algorith­mic technologies. This collective face makes the wearer unrecognisable and therefore uncatagorisable to facial recognition technologies, which claim to identify the faces of terrorists, activists, homosexuals or undocu­mented immigrants. The wearer of the mask is still physically present, they have not hidden or disappeared, but their facial data – what makes them readable and transparent – is cloaked.

The paradigm of transparency versus opacity on which Blas draws is, however, riddled with complexities and tension. A major dif­ficulty is that we have been encouraged to understand visibility as a con­dition of freedom. In Precarious Life (2004)Judith Butler explains that within our standard frameworks for considering humanisation, there is a general assumption that ‘those who gain representation, especially self-representation, have a better chance of being humanized’, whilst those who ‘have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, regarded less than human, or indeed not regarded at all’.18 The idea of visibility as a humanizing concept is particularly challenging for refugees, undocumented migrants and those within the prison system who are denied visibility and hidden from public view. Those without visibility have no means of gaining repre­sentation and therefore the majority are forgotten by society, reduced to faceless numbers within an over-crowded system.

Mass data surveillance has problematized the widely-held asser­tion that visibility brings freedom, because now we are acutely aware that our supposed ‘freedom’ in fact comes at the cost of our privacy and this is encouraging those with the means and knowledge to choose an aesthetics of invisibility. But there is a clear paradox at play in this shift toward opacity. Although the rejection of visibility, despite its humanizing qualities, in favour of non-visibility is a radical refusal of state and corporate surveillance, it is not one that is available to all. In order to choose opacity, you must already possess a certain level of visibility. Prisoners, the homeless and undocumented migrants (to name just a few) are unseen, they have no opportunity for self-representation – their invisibility is forced upon them.

Enacting Opacity

The questions of privilege that surround this shift towards opacity and the art world’s increasing interest in privacy and surveillance have not bypassed Hito Steyerl, whose spoof instructional video How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Education .MOV File (2013) playfully considers our various options for invisibility (Fig. 5). The work is, in part, a continuation of Steyerl’s work on image proliferation and her now famous article ‘In Defence of the Poor Image’ (2009), but the focus shifts in How Not to be Seen, as the instructional video lays out the low-resolution image as space in which to become ‘less visible, or more ambiguously figured’.19 The idea of image resolution as a space to become less visible is inspired by abandoned aerial photo calibration targets in the Californian desert, which were originally used in the 1960s and 1970s to test the resolution of airborne cameras. Much of the video is filmed on location at one of these sites, and the instructional video is interspersed with information about these targets and the new pixel-based standards of resolution introduced in 2000, which rendered the grey scale photo calibration targets redundant. The video’s automated voiceover asserts that resolution determines visibility: it calibrates the world as a picture.

Hito Steyerl artwork
Fig. 5. Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, HD video, single screen in architectural environment, 15 minutes, 52 seconds, Image CC 4.0 Hito Steyerl, image courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, copyright DACS.

Whatever is not captured by resolution is invisible. The rest of the video is structured as a series of ‘lessons’ on how not to be seen, including: ‘how to make something invisible for a camera’, ‘how to become invisible by becoming a picture’ and ‘how to become invisible by disappearing (into a gated community)’. Steyerl’s focus on ‘how not to be seen’ is important. As well as mirroring the tropes of ‘how to’ ‘how not to’ YouTube tutorials and selfhelp articles, How Not to Be Seen centres on a specific reading of opacity as ‘non-existence’. In Steyerl’s somewhat absurd lessons in how not to be seen, her various explorations of disappearance and invisibility are never centred on actual disappearing. Rather, they achieve invisibility by merging with a green screen or wearing a morph suit or veil, which entirely conceals the body. Steyerl’s invisibility is one of being erased by the swiping movement of a touch screen phone, of becoming smaller than a pixel or literally becoming a pixel or by wearing a pixel-sized and -shaped box over one’s head.

It rapidly becomes clear as the instructional video unfolds how­ever, that in order to disappear, one must be reasonably wealthy. In les­son 4 ‘How to disappear by becoming invisible’, the voiceover suggests living in a gated community or being in an airport as possible ways of becoming invisible, over a back drop of a 3-D rendering of a utopian gated community with ‘multiple tier security’, filled with luxury apart­ments and a high-end shopping mall. To live in a gated community is a privilege of only a small and particularly well-off percentage of the world population, immediately setting invisibility as a luxury, something that we must be willing to pay for in order to enjoy. This gated com­munity betrays an ominous tone in the video, predicting a future where the rich remain protected from surveillance and are afforded privacy behind impenetrable security gates, while the poor live on the outside, with nowhere to hide. Furthermore, the idea of becoming invisible behind the walls of a gated community brings us back to this problem of opacity as a choice. Those who can afford to, choose to live in walled gated communities, which allow them a certain level of privacy and security. Those who are incarcerated within state and privately run correctional facilities, or stranded in makeshift refugee camps in Greece and Calais, also live behind the walls of a high security, ‘gated community’ – a space that not only denies them visibility, but in some cases, employs opacity as a punishment.

Prototypal Faces

The opacity that Steyerl promotes in How Not to Be Seen, is, like Blas’s informatic opacity, concerned with ‘hiding in plain sight’ and is a concept explored in both Steyerl and Blas’s works predominantly through the masking, hiding and cloaking of the face. This focus on the face is part of what Blas has termed an explosively emerging ‘global face culture’, which is exemplified by biometric facial recognition devices and the ‘ever obsessive and paranoid impulses to know, capture, calculate, categorise, and standardise human faces’.20 In this age of biometric power and control, the meaning of the face – what it is, does and communicates – is, according to Blas, continuously redefined.21

Blas’s idea of ‘global face culture’ is anchored in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theory of faciality, laid out in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), which it is worth reiterating here for clarity. Deleuze and Guattari argue that ‘faces are not basically individual’, rather, they define zones of frequency and possibility which neutralise any expressions or features that do not conform to what Deleuze and Guattari term, ‘appropriate significations’. The face, they argue, forms the ‘loci of resonance’ in which the sensed or mental reality is made to conform in advance to the dominant reality, without which, the form of subjectivity would remain empty.22

Deleuze and Guattari’s concern for the inhuman qualities of the face correlates closely with the algorithmic nature of biometric technologies. Settling on the analogy of the machine, Deleuze and Guattari’s faciality becomes the ‘faciality machine’ – the social production of the face, which performs the facialisation of the rest of the body as well as its surroundings.23 The faciality machine operates on a binary system; the facial unit is always constituted in relation to another: ‘it is a man or a woman, a rich person or a poor one, an adult or a child, a leader or a subject, “an x or a y”’.24 Assuming a selective approach, it judges whether a face passes or not, on the basis of the elementary facial units.25 The abstract machine of faciality rejects faces that ‘do not conform, or seem suspicious’.26 Deleuze and Guattari argue that the face is not universal; rather, it is typically European with broad white cheeks and black holes for eyes.27 If the original face is ‘your average, ordinary White Man’, then, according to Deleuze and Guattari, ‘the first divergent types to be reject­ed by the faciality machine’ – because they do not conform to the fea­tures of the ‘original face’ – will ‘always be racial’.28 Racism, they assert, does not detect the other, rather, it disseminates ‘sameness’ until those who resist identification have been wiped out.29 Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of the face as ‘typically European’ is particularly pertinent when considered in relation to biometric technologies. Surveillance studies scholar Simone Browne, who has collaborated with Blas in workshops about Facial Weaponization Suite, argues that biometric technologies are designed to detected ‘lightness’ and therefore rely on certain algorith­mic practices of ‘prototypical whiteness’ alongside ‘prototypical maleness’ and ‘prototypical able bodiedness’.30 This notion of prototypical white­ness corresponds to Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the selective approach of the faciality machine – the social production of the face – as that which favours the standardised face of the European white male over those which do not conform to the ‘norm’.

But there is an underlying tension inherent in the favouring of lightness and whiteness by these biometric technologies, because it is young black men who are most often the targets of surveillance and stopped by police forces and make up a disproportionate percentage of incarcerations.31 White middle-class males, on the other hand, although the most readable to biometric algorithms, are the least likely to be the subject of targeted surveillance. These technologies are created to iden­tify all individuals and detect ethnicity, gender and age, but by prescrib­ing to a system of prototypical white maleness, they fail to detect the very individuals they are designed to surveil. They inadvertently mask them. This seems like a major contradiction, but in fact it highlights the value that has been placed on visibility in contemporary western society. People who are not immediately visible and readable to biometric tech­nologies are perceived to be a threat, whilst people with readable, white European and American features are, to a certain extent, protected by their visibility.

Blas’s Militancy, Vulnerability, Obfuscation mask from the Facial Weaponization Suite series directly addresses the ‘racialising of surveil­lance’ and the historic favouring of prototypical whiteness through the exploration of what he terms the tripartite conception of black­ness: the favouring of black in militant aesthetics, black as that which ‘informatically obfuscates’, and biometric racism. The mask was created in a workshop at the Performative Nanorobotics Lab at the University of California San Diego in 2013 in collaboration with students, whose combined biometric data the mask represents. The participants staged tableau vivants and public interventions around the university campus, which dramatized the different, yet overlapping shades of blackness that the mask invokes (Fig. 6).32 The centrality of the idea of black as that which ‘informatically obfuscates’ within the mask not only renders the wearer opaque but also plays on the racial biases exposed within biometric algorithms. The mask reclaims algorithmically unreadable blackness as a ‘weaponised’ tool of opacity, a space of ‘nonexistence’ which refuses catagorisation. This is reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari’s demand for an ‘escape from the face’; a rejection of the selective and standardizing operations of the faciality machine and a dismantling of facialisations in order to become ‘imperceptible’. If the face is a politics, they argue, then the dismantling of the face is also a politics: ‘it is the same as breaking through the wall of the signifier and getting out of the black hole of subjectivity’ in order to become ‘clandestine’.33 Building on this call to ‘dismantle the face’ by becoming clandestine, Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite engages in what wearable computing pioneer, Steve Mann, describes as ‘sousveillance’, or as Simone Browne terms it in relation to blackness, ‘dark sousveillance’, which is the appropriation and subversion of the surveillance tools of our social controllers.34 Blas’s work engages in a contemporary exploration of dark sousveillance, using the biometric illegibility of blackness as a mask, which not only hides the wearer’s face but also highlights the racially biased approach of biometric surveillance, which favours whiteness.

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite
Fig. 6. Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Militancy, Vulnerability, Obfuscation, tableau vivant, San Diego, CA, June 7, 2013, photograph by Tanner Cook, image courtesy of the artist.

It cannot, however, go unnoticed that the participants with whom Blas created this mask are predominantly white, and his decision to develop the mask in a privileged academic institution such as the Performative Nanorobotics Lab at the University of California San Diego seems somewhat out of touch with the politics of racial bias explored in the mask; particularly with the young black males who are so often the targets of unprovoked police stop and searches. This exposes a wider problem in regards to the art world’s recent investment in themes of surveillance and privacy. The artists and curators that are engaging with these themes are predominantly (although by no means exclusively) white and male. They are simultaneously the most readable to biometric algorithms and yet the least likely to be subject to surveillance. It is their readability and therefore visibility that enables them to explore an aesthetics of opacity, whilst the very unreadability of black males marks them out as a perceived ‘threat.’

Hito Steyerl artwork
Fig. 7. Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, HD video, single screen in architectural environment, 15 minutes, 52 seconds, Image CC 4.0 Hito Steyerl, image courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, copyright DACS.

Veiled Faces

While Blas’s work dismantles the face through aggregated data masks, Steyerl demonstrates a series of different examples of facial concealment as a means of ‘escaping’ the face. But it is Steyerl’s use of the veil as a tool for concealment that is particularly pertinent in the current political climate. Towards the end of How Not to Be Seen, a group of figures in green-screen shaded burkas are shown spinning in circles on the cracked resolution target where much of the film is set (Fig. 7). The figures are semi-transparent as if they will become fully invisible at any moment. Later three veiled figures reappear on the resolution target, spinning and dancing along to the video’s soundtrack When Will I See You Again (1973) by the Three Degrees before one of the figures suddenly casts off their veil to reveal a full body morph suit in the same shade of green-screen. Steyerl uses the heavily loaded religious and cultural object to add to the ambiguity of the film’s narrative.

Adam Harvey, ‘Anti-Drone’ Burqa
Fig. 8. Adam Harvey, ‘Anti-Drone’ Burqa, Silver-plated rip-stop nylon exterior, black silk interior, designed by Adam Harvey and Johanna Bloomfield, modeled by Tate, photograph copyright Adam Harvey 2013, image courtesy of the artist.

The veil also appears as a tool for opacity and invisibility in Adam Harvey’s collection of Stealth Wear (2013)a set of garments that render the wearer undetectable to thermal imaging from drone surveil­lance. The collection includes an anti-drone cap and hoodie as well an anti-drone hijab and burka (Fig. 8). The pieces are made out of light-weight nylon, using a silver coating to reflect the wearer’s thermal body heat and conceal him or her from the view of drones. Harvey’s Stealth Wear is directly inspired by the burka and the hijab, veils which partially or totally cover the wearer’s face and body. Harvey contends that if cer­tain religious dress employs face covering, then why cannot similar ideas be employed as a means of counter-surveillance?35 The drone, he suggests, has taken on a God-like, all-seeing presence in the skies, and the Stealth Wear garments are an attempt to deflect this all-seeing presence, protecting the wearer’s face and modesty from its view.36

Steyerl and Harvey’s use of the veil as a tactic of non-existence is not incidental. Its cultural and political symbolism has been particularly contentious since 9/11, with the veil and its wearers becoming the targets of sweeping generalisations, racial bias and heightened surveillance in the western world. Although Islamophobia has heightened in the wake of the September 11 attacks, western misgivings and misderstandings surrounding the veil are deeply rooted in colonial history.

In the 1986 essay ‘Under Western Eyes’, Chandra Mohanty highlights and calls into question a common generalisation within strands of western feminism which links the practice of veiling to the ‘assertion of its general significance in controlling women’. Mohanty points out that while there may be formal similarities in the veils worn by women in Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, the ‘specific meaning’ attached to the practice of veiling varies heavily according to the cultural and ideological context.37

Mohanty gives the contrasting examples of Iranian middle class women veiling themselves during the 1979 revolution in solidarity with veiled working-class Iranian women and in opposition to western cultural colonisation, and the mandatory Islamic laws in place in Iran at the time of her writing in 1986, which dictated that all Iranian women wear veils as part of the ‘true Islamicization of Iran’. The meaning attached to the veil is clearly very different in each of these historical contexts; the first is a revolutionary gesture, while the second is a ‘coercive, institutional mandate’. The western assumption that the practice of veiling is indicative of the ‘universal oppression of women through sexual segregation’ is, Mohanty argues, not only wholly reductive, but also denies the complexities of meaning that the veil holds within different contexts.38

Deepa Kumar agrees with Mohanty’s assertions in the 2012 publication Islamaphobia and the Politics of Empire, stating that the Islamic veil is ‘seen ubiquitously as a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression’ with ‘the logic that Muslim women are oppressed and therefore need to be rescued by the West’ continuing to hold ground post 9/11.39 Conspicuously absent from this veil/oppression discourse, as Kumar shrewdly points out, ‘are the voices of Muslim women themselves, who could construct an alternative narrative – one which speaks to a self-conscious choice made by autonomous individuals’.

Such a move, Kumar asserts, would ‘entail a shift in terms of discussion: instead of being portrayed as voiceless victims, Muslim women would need to become actors capable of changing their own circumstances’.40 Although the alignment of the veil with female oppression is a recurrent theme within western discussions of Islam – heightened by the strict rule of the Taliban in Iraq and the rapid rise of Islamic State across Syria and Afghanistan in which the wearing of the veil is enforced – the controversy surrounding veiling in western countries is also steeped in the growing obsession with transparency and visibility.41 The veil is perceived as a threat because it hides the face, and therefore the visible identity of the wearer, rendering them unreadable to both surveillance cameras and humans. This perceived threat of the veiled, covered face to western culture was cemented by law in 2011 when it became illegal for women in France to wear the veil outside their homes, under a law which banned the total covering of the face and body in public. Belgium and parts of Italy passed similar laws banning full face covering in public in 2011, and at the beginning of 2015 Chinese authorities banned women in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang in which almost half of the population is Muslim, from wearing burkas, or rather 蒙面罩袍, which translates literally as ‘face-masking robes’.42

Visibility is promoted by the west as a symbol of ‘freedom’ and so it is unsurprising that the non-visible, partially or totally covered faces of women in the Middle East have come to be perceived by the western media as oppressed, controlled and without a voice. As we have seen however, the bared, visible face is not quite as ‘free’ and ‘humanized’ as we have been led to believe. In the age of mass surveillance, a visible face is a biometrically detectable and readable face, which – although we remain free and are encouraged to bare – is one that is captured multiple times each day by cameras and carries a plethora of personal details and data. Instead of being oppressed and masked by the burka or hijab, west­ern subjects must come to terms with the veil of surveillance that now enshrouds us. This makes both Steyerl and Harvey’s choice of the veil as both a symbol and a practical device for counter-surveillance and opac­ity all the more interesting and begs the question: what are the implica­tions of these (western) artists co-opting the veil, a religious and cultural object with such nuanced, complex and often misread symbolism?

First it is worth considering how Steyerl and Harvey simulta­neously uphold and cast into doubt the heavily gendered history and symbolism of the veil and how the veil is perceived in a western con­text. Harvey’s anti-drone hijab and anti-drone burka do clearly maintain their gendered association. Although designed in a gender-neutral silver colour and heavily modernized – the burka has a zip down the front and a peaked cap – both items are modeled on the Stealth Wear website by a female while the anti-drone hoodie is shown on both male and female models. Designed to be functional and wearable, both are clearly targeted at female wearers and buyers, and seem to uphold the veil as a feminine item of clothing. However, as seen from above on a ther­mal imaging camera, the gender of the wearer is obscured by both the burka and hijab, with only a pair of legs visible under the dark cloak of reflected body heat.

Similarly, on seeing the dancing veiled figures in How Not to Be Seen, the assumption is immediately that these figures are female. This assumption is upheld by the other figures that appear in the video that are clearly gendered, despite their only partial visibility. However, on second glance the gender of the dancing veiled figures becomes less clear. Because we cannot see the figure underneath, the burka leads us to assume their femininity. But in this playful spoof instructional video we can be sure of nothing. This sense of ambiguity is heightened when one of the figures casts off their burka to reveal not their identity but a full body morph suit. The figure now appears to be male, but with the morph suite covering the figure’s face, we cannot be totally sure. The burkas cast an intentional ambiguity over the figures, refusing to reveal their gender, age or ethnicity.

The use of such a culturally and politically loaded garment as a means of refusing state visibility by these artists directly confronts the image of the veil as a symbol of oppression that has been so carefully cultivated in the western world and in some contexts confirmed and perpetuated by recent Islamic extremism in parts of the Middle East. Harvey’s anti-drone burkas and hijabs, along with Steyerl’s dancing burka-clad figures contest the conventional western notion that a bared face is a free, ‘humanized’ face. Each of these works appropriates and re-casts the veil – whose wearer is often the victim of racially profiled surveillance under the umbrella of anti-terror initiatives – reframing it as an object of sousveillance.

It is important to acknowledge that in the west the veil, in a similar way to the racially biased biometric negation of blackness, concurrently renders the wearer’s face unreadable, or at least partially obscured, while identifying it as a heightened target for surveillance. It must be considered, then, that although these works utilize the veil in a highly politicized way and highlight the heavily generalized notion of ‘non-visibility = oppression’ that the veil has come to represent for many in the west, they do not seem to fully account for, or take into consideration, the extensive complexities of the veil in its various forms and the women who chose (or who have no choice but to) wear it.

Falsified Faces

The banning of the veil in some countries and the more widespread state banning of masks suggest the perceived threat of ‘facelessness’ and serve to complicate the wearability of Blas and Harvey’s artistic interventions of masking and facial opacity. Leonardo Selvaggio’s project URME (2014) attempts to navigate this issue of legality by creating a mask that is in fact a fully ‘readable’ face, visible only as a mask on close inspection. Inspired heavily by both Blas’s masks and Harvey’s CV Dazzle (2010)a hair and make up system devised to evade facial recognition technolo­gies, URME is a 3-D printed resin mask, created from a 3-D scan and photo rendering of the artist’s own face. Selvaggio argues that while Blas and Harvey’s projects render the face unreadable to machines, they fail to acknowledge the social aspect of surveillance in their work and do not take into account the issue of human to human surveillance, which has not only become prevalent, but actively encouraged in the west particularly since 9/11, and indeed long before then.43 Alongside this, while the Facial Weaponization Suite masks actively draw attention to the wearer, promoting a very visible refusal of biometric surveillance and machine readability, the URME mask is in fact detected by surveillance cameras as a fully readable human face rather than a mask.

The idea behind the work is that rather than hide our faces, we should substitute them with the faces of others, blurring and confusing identities, in order to protect ourselves from surveillance. This blurring of identities and physical features has obvious legal and social conse­quences, which is why, for the time being, the only face available on URME is the artist’s own. While the long-term goal of the project is to develop a database of people willing to share their face with others, the project is currently limited to just one face. URME invites members of the public to assume Selvaggio’s identity, either by wearing the 3-D printed mask or the cheaper, more disposable paper alternative.

Selvaggio labels the URME masks as ‘products for the public good’.44 He is quick to point out that the ‘products’ are not sold for profit, but rather at cost price; although the 3-D printed resin mask, priced at $300, is too expensive for many, the paper mask costs just $1 and can also be downloaded, printed and assembled free of charge. The project therefore aligns itself conspicuously with socially engaged prac­tice, rather than marketable fine art objects and is intended to make the avoidance of biometric facial surveillance accessible to all, regardless of their wealth or technical knowledge. It is therefore, immediately acces­sible to a wide audience and does not insist on wealth as a condition of opacity – as is demonstrated in Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen.

The current singularity of the project, however, casts it in an unsettling light. It is difficult not to view the multiplication of the art­ist’s own face onto the faces of others as a somewhat narcissistic gesture, despite the artist’s intentions that the project be expanded to include other faces. But more worrying perhaps, is that by encouraging people to assume his own face, Selvaggio suggests we adopt a form of standard­ized counter-surveillance, which is exactly what Blas’s agregated data masks refuse. Although it is possible to view the mask as a revolutionary gesture of protest, in which protesters reject their own faces en masse and instead assume one united face, there is something troubling about being asked to assume the face and identity of another person, and this is only amplified when this single face and identity is adopted by many people wearing the mask simultaneously.

What is most problematic about Selvaggio’s mask is the fact that it depicts the wearer, whoever they may be, as a white male, an example of prototypical whiteness. It is difficult not to associate Selvaggio’s masks with earlier discussions of biometrics and racial bias, and more specifically Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the face as that of ‘the white man’, typically European with ‘broad white cheeks and black holes for eyes’ which Selvaggio’s project perpetuates.45 When considered in relation to the enforced sameness and standardization created by many people assuming one face, Selvaggio’s masks come worryingly close to Deleuze and Guatarri’s conception of racism, which, they assert, does not detect the other, but rather, disseminates ‘sameness’ until those who resist identification have been wiped out.46

This reading of Selvaggio’s work could also be applied to the look of the Vendetta mask (popularised by hacker and activist group Anonymous and prolific during the Occupy protests), which despite its revolutionary status draws parallels with the characterisation of the normative face as white and male.47 Masks, Deleuze and Guattari contend, assure the construction of the face – the ‘facialisation of the head and body’. The mask, they argue, is now the face itself; it is the ‘inhumanity of the face’.48 The mask, rather than becoming a place to ‘escape’ the face, has become the face. Although it hides individualising features and enables anonymity, one could argue that both the Vendetta mask and Selvaggio’s URME masks retain normative facial features, which seem to echo and reaffirm the elementary facial units of ‘prototypical whiteness’ and ‘prototypical maleness’.

Although Selvaggio’s masks are problematic, a closer reading of these white-faced masks in relation to the earlier discussion of the unreadability of blackness might intimate greater complexities around these questions of opacity, race and privilege. As we have seen, the white middle class male, although the most readable to biometric algorithms, is, in fact, least likely to be the subject of targeted surveillance. The very whiteness of Selvaggio’s masks enables the wearer to use both the biometric readability and perceived privilege that the artist’s face portrays as a space behind which to hide in plain sight. The mask perpetuates and destabilises ideas of ‘safety in whiteness’ based on the ideas of prototypical whiteness and maleness which suggest that the person least likely to be subject to surveillance is a white middle class male wearing a suit.49

Although heavily influenced by Facial Weaponization Suite, the URME masks take a very different approach to the concept of ‘global face culture’ and the mask as an anti-biometric tool of counter-surveil­lance. Selvaggio’s project presents a real, readable face behind which the wearer can hide, while Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite insists upon the mask as an active rejection of visibility and biometric facial control. Blas’s masks are not intended to go unnoticed, they are not simple tools of counter-surveillance; rather, they are a symbol of protest. By wearing masks, Blas and his participants make their faces common and become a ‘faceless threat’.

The affordable nature of Selvaggio’s masks highlights an uncom­fortable tension apparent in Blas, Steyerl and Harvey’s work. As I have alluded to throughout this article, there appears to be a clear correlation between opacity and privilege, which arises repeatedly in the works dis­cussed. Steyerl criticizes the fact that maybe a way to become invisible is to live in a gated community, Harvey’s Stealth Wear protects you from drone surveillance at prices ranging $500–$2,300, and Blas’s weaponis­ing masks use complex biometric coding and reconfiguring as well as requiring 3-D printing technology, which are simply inaccessible to the majority of the population. Harvey, when challenged on the pricing of Stealth Wear, contends that ‘privacy is a luxury item’ and the garments, created using silver thread, are simultaneously editorial fashion pieces and counter-surveillance art objects, and should be valued and priced as such.50 He later adds however, that although privacy is a luxury, it is one that should be afforded to all.

For the time being, however, with surveillance becoming increasingly sophisticated and widespread, the shift towards opacity remains an option for only a select few. It is the white western mid­dle class who have the means and privilege to become opaque and to hide from cameras, which is ironic because although we are all victims of mass data surveillance and biometric algorithms are coded to read whiteness and lightness, the privileged white are the people least likely to be subject to targeted surveillance. The wealth and privilege evidently required to achieve this opacity exposes an uncomfortable question: if you cannot afford the opacity laid out by Steyerl in How Not to Be Seen, do not have $2,000 to spend on an anti-drone hoodie and are not in the position to (or do not wish to) draw attention to yourself in public using CV Dazzle or wearing a Facial Weaponization Suite mask, is the affordable, white-faced mask of Selvaggio or Guy Fawkes your only option?

Although these works are not without tension and uncomfort­able paradox, the highly politicised subject of surveillance on which they draw is one that now affects us all. The shift towards opacity that these artworks explore is an important one, and by revealing and exploring the realities of mass biometric surveillance, each of the works contrib­utes to the ongoing conversation on mass surveillance. Opacity as nonexistence exposes the standardisation to which we are reduced on a daily basis and opens up the possibility for a renewed conception of collective appearance; one whose identity hinges not on the readability of the biomass, but on its faceless anonymity.


[1] Zach Blas, ‘Facial Weaponization Suite’, Zach Blas (Published n.d., Accessed 31/10/2016,­jects/facial-weaponization-suite).

[2] Zach Blas, ‘Escaping the Face: Biometric Facial Recognition and the Facial Weaponization Suite’, Journal of New Media Caucus, 2, 9 (Published 2013, Accessed 31/10/2016, http://median.newmedia­ escaping-the-face-biometric-facial-recog­nition-and-the-facial-weaponization-suite); Zach Blas, ‘Informatic Opacity’, The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, 9 (Published 2014, Accessed 31/10/2016, http://www.joaap. org/issue9/zachblas.htm).

[3] See Blas (2014); Blas (2013).

[4] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, ‘On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge’, Grey Room, 18 (2004), 26–51, 27.

[5] Chun, 44.

[6] Boris Groys, ‘Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive’, e-flux, 45 (Published 2013, Accessed 31/10/2016, http://www.e-flux. com/journal/art-workers-between-utopia-and-the-archive).

[7] Édouard Glissant, ‘For Opacity’, in Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher eds., Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture (New York and Cambridge, MA: New Museum and MIT Press, 2004), 252–257, 252.

[8] Glissant, 252–253.

[9] Blas (2014).

[10] Zach Blas, ‘Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Comuniqué’, Zach Blas (Published n.d, Accessed 31/10/2016, http://www.

[11] Blas (2014).

[12] Glissant, 254.

[13] Glissant, 253.

[14] Glissant, 255.

[15] Blas, ‘Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Comuniqué’.

[16] Blas, ‘Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Comuniqué’.

[17] Blas, ‘Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Comuniqué’.

[18] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2006), 141.

[19] Michael Conner, ‘Hito Steyerl’s “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File”’, Rhizome (Published 2013, Accessed 31/10/16, http://

[20] Blas (2013).

[21] Blas (2013).

[22] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi trans. (London: The Althone Press, 1988), 168.

[23] Deleuze and Guattari, 181.

[24] Deleuze and Guattari, 177.

[25] Deleuze and Guattari, 177.

[26] Deleuze and Guattari, 177.

[27] Deleuze and Guattari, 176.

[28] Deleuze and Guattari, 178.

[29] Deleuze and Guattari, 178.

[30] Simone Browne, ‘Dark Sousveillance: Race, Surveillance and Resistance’, Digital Praxis Seminar (Published 26/10/2015, Accessed 31/10/2016,­

[31] Nigel Morris, ‘Black people still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police than other ethnic groups’, The Independent (Published 6/8/2015, Accessed 31/10/2016, http://www.independ­­ple-still-far-more-likely-to-be-stopped-and-searched-by-police-than-other-eth­nic-groups-10444436.html); Jeff Guo, ‘Police are searching black drivers more often, but finding more illegal stuff with white drivers’, Washington Post (Published 27/10/2015, Accessed 31/10/2016, https:// wp/2015/10/27/police-are-searching-black-drivers-more-often-but-finding-more-illegal-stuff-with-white-drivers-2); Nicole Puglise, ‘Black Americans incarcer­ated five times more than white people – report’, The Guardian (Published 18/6/2016, Accessed 31/10/2016, https://www.the­

[32] Blas (2014).

[33] Deleuze and Guattari, 188.

[34] Browne.

[35] Adam Harvey in conversation with the author (27/02/2015).

[36] Adam Harvey, ‘Stealth Wear’, AHPROJECTS, (Published n.d, Accessed 31/10/2016,­jects/stealth-wear/#faqs).

[37] Chandra Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, in Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres eds., Third World Women and The Politics of Feminisim (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 51–80, 67.

[38] Mohanty, 67.

[39] Deepa Kumar, Islamaphobia and the Politics of Empire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 45.

[40] Kumar, 45.

[41] For example see: Valerie Tarico, ‘Is the Hijab a Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?’, Huffington Post (Published 18/2/2014, Accesed 31/10/2016, http://; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, ‘As a Muslim woman, I see the veil as a rejection of progressive values’, The Guardian (Published 20/3/2015, Accessed 31/10/2016, https://www.the­ mar/20/muslim-woman-veil-hijab).

[42] Lily Kuo, ‘China has just banned the Burqa in its biggest Muslim city’, Quartz (Published 12/1/2015, Accessed 31/10/2016, http://

[43] Leonardo Selvaggio, ‘Surveillance as Art Practice Panel’, The College Art Association Conference (New York, 11/2/2015).

[44] Leonardo Selvaggio, ‘URME Surveillance’, Urme Surveillance (Published n.d., Accessed 31/11/2016, http://www.urmesurveillance. com).

[45] Deleuze and Guattari, 176.

[46] Deleuze and Guattari, 178.

[47] Deleuze and Guattari, 176.

[48] Deleuze and Guattari, 181.

[49] Selvaggio (2015).

[50] Adam Harvey and Alex Gallafent, ‘NYC Designers Create ‘Drone-Proof’ Clothing’, Public Radio International (Published 5/2/2013, Accessed 31/10/2016, stories/2013-02-05/nyc-designers-create-drone-proof-clothing).