One of Gerhard Richter's mirror paintings on display at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, France. Image Source: View on Canadian Art.
Imagine a mirror, presented to you as a piece of art. Hanging in a gallery, the art would superficially deliver a message about itself. But this art piece would not be about itself. The artist had devised this piece to turn its viewers into objects, while the artwork became the viewer, or subject. The painting-as-mirror would be actively, perhaps even aggressively, looking back at its viewer. In this case, the viewer should wonder not about the artwork, but upon what or whom is that artwork gazing? Everything in the reflection would direct attention and questions back upon the viewer. In the style of the 1970s' minimalist movement, this was the conceit of Gerhard Richter's mirror paintings (thanks to -C.). Richter's sheets of colour-coated glass reflect the viewer. Richter's paintings "have secrets."
Now consider that the mirror's nature as an inert object with innate power might only become apparent once it is covered, or the light on it changes or disappears. Without light, Richter's mirror paintings become matte, dull, flat surfaces. The mirror, when covered, betrays its dangerous nature because we are no longer mesmerized by what we see in it. When it loses its power to reflect back at the viewer, to transform the viewer into an object, the viewer is reminded, brought to conscious awareness, that he or she has been watched. Add light again and the mirror gains agency and becomes a subject gazing actively at the world, with the world looking back at it. But at that very moment, the viewer in the world gazing into the mirror is mesmerized, and forgets the true nature of his experience, mistakenly thinking that he is the agent of action.
This power play is true of all mirrors, which is why some cultures require mirrors, or even reflective television screens, to be covered during sleep or after someone in a family dies. When Richter made a mirror into a piece of art, he manipulated superstition and embedded that message into an art piece, an object with cultural value. By putting mirrors into art galleries, he made us start to understand how mirrors reverse perspective and power. We think we are looking at mirrors, that we are agents with power when we gaze into them. But they are the real agents of power, and they are looking at us.
The metaphor of the mirror's power is paralleled in our interaction with computers. Consider how many times in a day you turn off a computer, tablet or smartphone, and find yourself staring at your reflection. When the screen is lit, the computer's true nature as a mirror is concealed. We gaze upon the screen, seeing ourselves as powerful online actors. Meanwhile, the screen gazes at us; it is an instrument of surveillance, recording our conscious and subconscious interests. Everything we do while the screen is lit produces information about us to form a virtual profile. Here are some of my earlier posts on computer surveillance and autonomous virtual identities inside cyberspace. Over the past five years, these topics have become increasingly grim:
- The Indiscernible (17 November 2010)
- Military Doppelgaenger on Social Networks (7 March 2011)
- An Extratemporal Experiment between the Virtual and the Real (26 May 2011)
- Internet Shadows in Broad, Sunlit Uplands (2 June 2011)
- Nosce Te Ipsum (7 June 2011)
- Workplaces in the 2020s (31 May 2012)
- Assuming We Don't Die Tonight (12 September 2012)
- PRISM's Millennial Omens: The War over the Internet Begins (8 June 2013)
- Whose Internet is It Anyway? Generation Y Responds (21 June 2013)
- The Balkanisation of the Internet (1 August 2013)
- Decryption, Public Trust and Civil War (11 September 2013)
- Who Watches the Watchmen? (9 December 2013)
- Counter Surveillance Society (28 February 2014)
- Breaking Newspeak's Faustian Bargains (3 March 2014)
- Upgrade to Your New Personal Assistant (29 July 2015)
- Ashley Madison's Fembot Mirrors (15 October 2015)
- Remote Camera Hacks (27 October 2015)
The above video inspired different responses. On the pro side:
On the con side:"We're on the cusp of the transhuman culture and soon we must make a radical leap in our frames of reference. The line between 'human' and 'machine' will blur and eventually disappear. The line between 'artificial intelligence' and 'non-artificial intelligence' will blur and disappear. Eventually the line between the physical 'here' and physical 'there' will become irrelevant. Our methods of processing and understanding information will be radically different. Humans (and other life as we know it) of today will eventually be viewed as we now view the the elements of the periodic table."
The fact that ideas like this are now around at all, when the Internet has only been widely available for some 20 years, and in full force for about a decade, promises a surreal state of affairs. It is not surprising that a crisis of consciousness would grip an infant high tech society in which everyone is addicted to mirror-gazing. The user turns off the computer to be greeted by the ghost of the self, to ask: who is the subject, and what is the object here? Who acts, and what is acted upon? Where do we situate ourselves when we are both voyeurs and objects of surveillance? Are we willing slaves or anarchist revolutionaries, or are we victim-revolutionaries, and so on. We need to understand mirrors better, their cultural and mythological weight, and the moral and philosophical messages about how they work. Upcoming posts in this series will explore these questions."LOL in the thumbnail of this video, Nickola looks like the dumbest guy ever. I guess that's how his family survived communism. Because of the way they looked, nobody could accuse them of being intellectuals."
See all my posts in the series, Awaken the Amnesiacs.