The Blind Eye and the Vision Machine

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The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, North Dakota, USA.
Became operational September 1975, deactivated eight months later.

This text is based on a talk given at a symposium the London College of Communication on January 14th 2016 to mark the opening of The Forest of Things. This talk and draws together a few different ideas I’ve been thinking about over the last year around the status and place of the photograph today, and expands on some of the darker implications of algorithms and photography which I first speculated about in An All Seeing Eye. In The Forest of Things, the graduating show of the the 2015 masters degree in Photojournalism and documentary photography is at London College of Communication until January 22nd.

Empiricism, the belief that knowledge comes from direct experience, has been at the heart of western understanding for several centuries, and in turn the human eye has been at the heart of empiricism, sight valued above all other senses. The camera was conceived of as a sort of mechanical extension of that sight, which replaced some of the demands on the living eye to be physically present at an event, and which opened up knowledge which was beyond what the human eye could perceive unaided. But the camera still ultimately depended on the living eye to interpret and understand the images it produced. What I would like to somewhat provocatively suggest is not only is this is now changing towards an ever greater emphasis on the computational analysis of imagery, but that we are perhaps unwittingly also preparing the groundwork for us to be permanently locked out of the role of seeing and interpreting, whether we want this future or not.

Soon after its invention photography was readily integrated into a range of authoritarian structures. The camera satisfied the expansionist desire to know all and control all, by apparently offering us the possibility of unlimited seeing all through it’s photographs. With more time the camera of course also became part of a broader, more democratic culture, as a tool of reflection and expression. It seems a very contemporary angst that this democracy of the camera has given rise to a world where there are too many images, but it is not a new one. The Weimar cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer decried what he called the blizzard of images, and the way that this storm challenged photography’s ability to bestow meaning. Kracauer’s world was very different one from our own, a world where I would say technology and technological progress still seemed to offer the possibility of an almost omnipotent vision, an all seeing eye encapsulated in the blind stare of high technologies like the Cold War radar system featured above. Today we live in quite a different world, one which is so inundated with imagery as to make Kracauer’s blizzard of images seem like a light frost. But the fact of photography’s abundance, so often quoted, so often fretted over, is I think not nearly as interesting as the form those images take.

In Kracauer’s time the image was a material object, significant in that the image could truly be said to be a trace of the thing it recorded. Because of this materiality it was also something which was inherently visual, the photograph could be held and viewed in the hand. Today neither of these things can be said to be the case, digital technology has democratised photography and made possible an explosion in quantity, but it has also led to a more profound change in that the massive bulk of images are no longer really physical nor visual, they are alphanumeric data, pure information, inherently not visual things. I think this fact is significant insofar as it is increasingly causing photography to intersect with one of the other technologies which is defining our age, the algorithm. Photography had tended to be difficult fare for algorithms, partly because of it’s material form, no longer an issue in the digital age, but perhaps also because of it’s complexity and subjectivity. In the 1980’s, thinkers like the French philosopher Paul Virilio began to anticipate the coming of vision machines, essentially algorithms which could not only see but also understand images. Facial recognition was an early example of this, but the efforts involved were often huge and the results often crude. Today we are seeing algorithms that are ever more capable when it comes to sorting, sifting and understanding visual material, and have that material readily available in massive quantities to practice on. Up until now many of these algorithms have only been demonstrators, and appear rather like parlour tricks, more often amusingly inept than threatening. As they reach the real world their roles are for now are mostly supplementary, so far supporting people rather than supplanting them.

But even in this role these technologies pose interesting questions about the extent to which they are not only guiding and advising us, but also shaping us. As much as we feedback into and refine the algorithms we create, perhaps they are starting to do some similar to us. When man gazes into the machine, the machine gazes into man. It has been suggested that the result of algorithms playing such a prominent role in social platforms is that they are increasingly serving to shape interpersonal interactions which they have no business being involved with. In the case of dating websites it has been said that computers are now breeding people. These ideas have particularly strong implications in photography’s old stomping ground, the repressive realms of policing, intelligence gathering and warfare, major growth areas for automated technologies that reduce the intensive manpower needs of these fields, and offer to remove the personnel of the security services from harms way. Given the huge advances and investment in these areas it seems to be only a matter of time before technologies which are able to search, fix and kill without human intervention features of a battlefield somewhere. Indeed I suspect that one day we might look back at the era of piloted drones with the same sense that we now regard the early pilots of the First World War, as something which is quaintly romantic in it’s crudeness and it’s dirty violence, in contrast to the cold, distant killing of today, or tomorrow.

To return to Paul Virilio, in an interview given the same year as the publication of The Vision Machine, he spoke of reading a science fiction novel about a world where cameras had become so ubiquitous that they were now even being inseminated into flakes of snow, which were released on the world, seeing everything there was to see, and leaving no blind spots. When asked what he believed we would dream of in a world so saturated with imagery and the machines that produce them he responded that we will likely dream of being blind. What I would like to suggest to you is that perhaps we are starting to reach that point, where images dominate our world and confound our understanding so much that the thought of blindness might even start to feel like a relief. But we have also perhaps begun to move past it, and perhaps we are responding to that overwhelming feeling by starting to relinquish the task of to interpret and understand, and passing this burden on to the machines. We are allowing these algorithms a part some of the most important, powerful roles our societies have, and I’d suggest we are also starting the process of locking ourselves out, as machine vision develops in forms which are beyond our perception, as machines are built to see with technologies designed primarily for the understanding of other machines, not human eyes. Vision is no longer just mediated through technology as with traditional photography, technology is now overtaking and replacing our vision, with our partial our assent. So what I’d like to leave you with is the idea that we maybe now face a choice, between on the one hand the desire to shut down our senses to this incomprehensible storm of imagery, to delegate the role of interpretation and judgement, and on the other hand the need, the responsibility, and the burden, to see.

Review – Bunker Archaeology by Paul Virilio

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Technical limitations sometimes define outcomes in photography as much as things like aesthetic considerations or political agendas. Early photographers were limited by the nature of their medium to static subject matter even in depicting subjects like war which we normally think of as very dynamic. The advent of new technologies gave rise to new possibilities of representation, showing war in all its unfurling speed, however this new dynamism sometimes created new problems of its own. It’s interesting to see how in recent years some photographers have returned to representing the relatively static elements of conflict, like fortifications, sometimes in direct response these new problems, or in an attempt to reveal what dynamic representations sometimes miss. Gus Wylie, Simon Norfolk, and David Galjaard all spring to mind as examples.

With this in mind I think it’s interesting to return to something of a precursor to this approach, Paul Virilio’s 1974 book Bunker Archaeology, long out of print but reissued several years ago by Princeton Architectural Press. Normally I wouldn’t feel up to the task of reviewing the work of Virilio, but this book is both brilliant and sufficiently overlooked for it to seem worth trying to draw some attention to. Bunker Archaeology is part photo book, part architectural philosophy, part travelogue, and part work of history. Growing up in northern France during the Second World War the coast was always off limits to Virilio. At the time the occupying German army were constructing a vast network of fortifications along the coast, intended to prevent an expected allied invasion. This system of bunkers, gun emplacements and obstacles known as the Atlantic Wall was intended to turn occupied Europe into a veritable fortress ringed by steel and concrete.

That invasion came as predicted, and these formidable defenses exacted a heavy toll but were ultimately overwhelmed. The war ended, the bunkers were for the most part forgotten. A decade or more later while on holiday in Brittany, Virilio found himself drawn to these squat concrete masses that surrounded him, and which his countrymen seemed for the most part to refuse to even acknowledge. Many sought to forget the four years of German occupation, but these indelible concrete markers on the landscape refused to disappear. Rather than look away, Virilio looked closer, beginning an exhaustive investigation into the Atlantic Wall that would occupy most of the next twenty years. Approaching his topic through photographs, architectural plans, coastal maps and essays, the resulting book is a strange and brilliant meditation on the relationship between space, memory and experience.

The first half of the book contains a series of essays, exploring the Atlantic Wall from several intellectual tangets which will probably be recognisable to anyone familiar with Virilio’s other writings. In The Fortress for example he ruminates on the psychological effect of existing within fortified Europe, how the desire to fortify reflected very fundamentally the nature of German ideology, that it was based in the land (‘Blood and Soil’), while being largely indifferent to questions of the air and the sea. In The Monolith he muses on the architectural ambiguity of the bunkers, comparable perhaps only to funeral monuments or border markers, and what the unique characteristics of these constructions said about the nature of modern war.

The second half of the book contains black and white photographs of the bunkers themselves. Approached for the most part with a detached, comparative approach resonant of with the Dusseldorf school or the New Topographics, for anyone who knows Virilio primarily as a theorist these pictures will come as something of a revelation. Through his camera the fortifications are revealed as bizarre neoliths and totems, a family of related structures, subtly different in their details, evolving in response to circumstance and necessity. A number already are beginning to be absorbed back into the dunes, another totters atop an eroded bank, preparing to tip and fall. All have the aura of something dark and unspeakable, primordial nightmares in concrete.

As I noted at the start of this review, this book in many ways pre-empts several contemporary sub-genres of photography, including perhaps aftermath photography, an approach that often consists of photographers returning to the sites of terrible events in an attempt to crystalise something of that past in photographic form. But unlike this genre, which is often about hinting at histories that remain hidden, Bunker Archaeology tackles the question of histories that remain plainly visible, but are still too difficult or painful to understand or even to actually see. Bunker Archaeology is a remarkable book, a blurring of a rigorous examination of the form and purpose of deeply pragmatic architecture, with a profound and subjective discussion of the past.

Review – Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power at The Imperial War Museum

Northern Ireland, 2006. South-east view of Golf 40, a British Army surveillanceDonovan Wylie

“Alongside the ‘war machine’ there has always existed an ocular ‘watching machine'” argued the theorist Paul Virillio in his 1984 text War and Cinema. With the development of technologies that can deliver a missile thousands of miles with an accuracy of a few meters this watching becomes particularly significant. As Virillio goes on to argue, in modern war seeing and destroying become increasingly closely bound, to the point indeed that what can be perceived is already lost. Surveillance and observation, actual and perceived, have become even more important in the intervening thirty years since this book was written, and these form the subject of Donovan Wylie’s new show, Vision as Power at the Imperial War Museum.

Bringing together five bodies of work shot in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq and Canada’s arctic north, Vision as Power documents an array of examples of what might be termed the architecture of military vision. Starting in Wylie’s native Northern Ireland, the first photographs show part of the vast network of British military observation posts constructed at the height of the troubles, with the purpose of turning Northern Ireland into what one resident described as a vast prison. These hill top towers form a strange mix of contrasting messages, at once camouflaged but also highly visible, secure but also isolated and exposed.

Following this, Wiley photographed the notorious Maze Prison, before and during it’s deconstruction following the Northern Ireland peace process. Photographed with a detachment reminiscent of the Bechers, the pictures included in this exhibition show the prison’s ‘sterile zone’, an empty space akin to a death strip between two high perimeter walls, overlooked by guard towers. Despite its name, the sterile zone appears increasingly populated with weeds and wild plants. Again what makes these images absorbing are the multiple contradictory layers at work in the architecture of this prison, which has to contain inmates, keep them separated and protected from each other, and protect itself from the possibility of attack from a hostile local population.

As is noted in the exhibition, surveillance in Northern Ireland was in some respects a large scale rehearsal for the way vision has been used in subsequent conflicts. Indeed following deconstruction of the army watchtowers many were shipped off to be reused in the new conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is where Wiley went next. The following room contains photographs of Baghdad’s ‘green zone’ showing the ancient looking concrete constructions of watchtowers, blast walls and other architecture intended to variously (and sometimes simultaneously) allow and restrict the vision of allies and potentially enemies. From these very solid, imposing structures Wiley then embedded with the Canadian Army in Afghanistan to document remote military fortifications that are quite the opposite. Often improvised with comparatively basic materials, the short term nature of these outposts is offset against the timeless mountain landscapes that surround them.

The final room consist of a series of photographs of LAB 1, a solitary unmanned radar installation in the Canadian arctic circle. These almost colourless photographs are the most peculiar in the show. They reveal a solitary cold war sentinel perched on an increasingly eroded ice ledge, waiting for an enemy that may never come, or indeed may no longer even exist (although the exhibition text is at pains to stress the growing possibility of conflict over resources in the arctic). LAB 1 also to some extent stands in place in this exhibition for the future of military vision. A future not so much of laboriously manned outposts, but of drones, spy satellites and other automated surveillance technologies. A future of military seeing which both allows vision on a new scale, and makes increasingly difficult any meaningful attempts at the type of counter-surveillance that Wylie is executing by making  these photographs.

And seeing these photographs as an act of counter-surveillance, I’d love to know more about the negotiations and machinations that must have gone on behind the scenes to make them possible. As is becoming evident in the unfolding NSA/PRISM saga, government agencies are often happy to intrude into the privacy of citizens (their own or someone elses), but less happy to find themselves on the receiving end of similar intrusions. As a different perspective on these current debates over surveillance then, but also as an inverted follow up to the Imperial War Museums brilliant 2011 exhibition on the art of camouflage, this show is highly recommended. Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power is on at the Imperial War Museum London untill Monday 21st April 2014.