Oh, them young folks!

At a conference on photography recently, some people were complaining about the apparent state teenagers were in, when it came to their media consumption and interaction with the world online. I immediately felt old. I wondered if I had already reached the point in my life where I am surrounded by people complaining about them young folks. I recently turned 40, but somehow, I expected that I might experience this clash between the generations for some more years either from the other side or as a neutral bystander. But maybe I have to get used to this debate, since more might follow in the years to come.

I am bad in remembering quotes, maybe because I am too easily triggered by certain buzzwords, but some in the conference were addressing their concern that young people today might have just become too easily influenced by advertising and they were following the promises made blindly. It was something to that note. That brings me back to something I find extremely important not to forget. In general, other people are not more stupid than you are, even though from your perspective, reaching this conclusion seems very easy. Maybe it has something to do with our survival instinct and with the way evolution has shaped us. There might be some variations in the level of stupidity in some people around you, but as a whole, every generation seems equally cursed.

Bashing other generations is certainly not new, there always seems to be something older and younger generations do that can be considered offensive.

To address some of the concerns voiced by the people at the conference:

Maybe young people are media savvy. I guess, even more so than any other generation. Maybe they understand the way advertising tries to influence them. Maybe it is something the feel good to live with. Maybe some don’t get every miniscule detail yet, but that might be OK as well. Judging the generation I grew up within … we ourselves have not really proven to be the highpoint of human development. There are as many morons in my generation as in any other. And in some aspects of life, I might easily be classified as a moron myself. No one always shine brightly.

Maybe they want to chose they own gender roles. Maybe some of these roles might appear to older people as if they were making a step backwards. Maybe some of them are happy to appear more conservative. That is the way they choose for themselves. I see this only as an issue, once they themselves try to pressure others into their set of classifications.

Being Guilty in War

Most countries still commemorate their soldiers that have been killed in the wars they have fought. Even though in Germany, this is done less openly, there are still monuments for the soldiers killed in the First World War in almost every town and city and quite a few graveyards for the soldiers of the Second World War. A couple years ago, the German Army opened a new memorial site for those who have been killed since the foundation of the Federal Republic. Other countries are far more open about that and some, like the US, even celebrate their veterans on special holidays.

Maybe the most famous war memorial is the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. It bears the names of 58000 soldiers who had been killed during the Vietnam War – on the American side. These soldiers are named. Not named – at least not on this memorial – are the two to four million others who have become victims of this war. At least half of them civilians. That is a strange ratio. 58000 to 2 Million.

What if every war memorial would read something like “To the brave soldiers who died fighting for their country and to the people they have helped to kill.”? Of course, that would cause a huge outrage. People tend to look at some wars as something justified and therefore at some soldiers as fighting for a just cause. Others believe that many soldiers had been forced into fighting and were just following orders. And the soldiers, by giving their own life, made the biggest sacrifice possible and that should be admired. Right?

I think that defeating the Nazis during the Second World War was the right thing to do. But innocent people were killed on all sides of the war. And some of those, who did the killing should be looked at as criminals. And that is true for fighters and soldiers on all sides. We seem to have this very black and white view on some historical events. The things, the Nazis did, seem so outlandish, that many people believe, that this serves as an excuse, for everything those fighting them did. But that is just not true. Even while fighting the devil, you are still able to commit crimes yourself. This is even true for some actions that could not be avoided. Maybe, while fighting for his own life, a soldier just had to kill some bystanders or another soldier who did not really pose a threat to him. Maybe there was just no way to avoid it. Still, as a society, we should never be able to find a real excuse for his actions. Killing always has to be outside the norms. It should never be overlooked.

I understand, that this is difficult to cope with, since in a society that still lends many of its moral codes from the Bible, we expect there to be some kind of a clear distinction between good and evil. One has to be able to choose good and avoid evil – how else would one be able to enter Paradise? But this clear distinction might not exist in real life. You can be forced to serve in the Army. You can be morally conscious while fighting and always take the utmost care not to harm civilians. You might be able to avoid killing anyone. You might serve in a unit far away from any fighting. And still, you participating in war means that you are aiding in the killing of innocent people. As long as your side wins the conflict, you seem safe from any prosecution. This is not the point I am trying to make though.

Justifying some forms of violence against certain groups or individuals is precisely what has fueled war for millennia. Some killings seem justified, while others seem outrageous and call for revenge. Countries and societies try to find justifications for their actions, but maybe there are some things that are just not justifiable. And at that point we might want to rethink our culture of remembrance.

To those graves and memorials for soldiers, we might add memorials to all these unnamed widows, families, orphans, parents, friends. Memorials to those merely wounded, those who were not willing to participate and those who lost their sanity while fighting. And we might add memorial sites to those killed in our name, no matter if the war seems justified or not. No matter, if we won or lost.

War should be considered outrageous and inexcusable. We should not attempt to look at it merely through a single perspective. It is too easy to fall for certain justifications and excuses. After September 11th, America did a lot of harm all over the world. American soldiers killed many innocent people. Yet this should not prevent us to approach these American soldiers with compassion. Many of them have become victimized themselves. Even those who became killers. There are many people who are just victims. Pure and simple. And then there is a whole greyscale of people who are in part victim in part perpetrator.

Maybe each and every society, participating in armed conflict, must question its own role and responsibilities. I am not calling for a toothless democratic system. I am myself willing to protect the values I associate myself with, even with violence. I am calling for a more open approach in our attempt to understand the reasons for conflicts and what makes people kill one another.

The Metrics of the Art World and why Art Schools resemble a Cult

When it comes to the importance of a contemporary artist, two different metrics seem most important. The first metric deals with financial success, this tries to take into account sales through the primary market (sales directly through the artist and through a gallery or agency), and through the secondary market (mostly sales through auction houses). Since most participants in the primary market are quite secretive, when it comes to business details, measuring financial success relies heavily on published auction results.

The other way the success of an artist is measured is by looking at how widely his or her work is presented. But not every exhibition is equally valuable, and the field is extremely diverse. Is it merely participating in a group show at a small privately organized off-space? Or is it a solo show at a major museum, curated by an important curator?

There are multiple magazines and websites that offer their own rankings. Some rely more on the first metric, some on the second. Even though there are many intersections, some artist feature more prominently in one metric, while others shine more brightly in the other.

Very often, the artist CV, the paper trail that keeps track of exhibitions and collectors, seems almost more important than the work created by the artist. In most months, the CV available on my website is downloaded dozens of times. Many of the projects on my site receive far less attention than that. To be honest, when visiting the website of another artist, I frequently look at their CVs myself.

The importance of these metrics is deeply enshrined in the art world. Pretty much on each level. Even at art school, people frequently discuss, whether a certain artist deserves his position in a certain ranking, or if his work might be over- or undervalued. Every library of every art school is filled with books on precisely those artists who rank highest in these metrics. It seems quite natural to accept all of this, since every available piece of evidence seems to point to them being extremely important. But the whole thing is complete nonsense.

The art market is precisely that – a market. And an extremely manipulative one. Gallerists and investors push certain artists. Curators follow the pack and show those artists who seem to get more attention than others. Museum directors expect blockbuster shows and choose blue-chip artists. And the audience fells hip, when attending a show of an artist whose name they have heard before. There is little real development involved, it feels more like a mixture of a self-fulfilling prophecy and blatant manipulation.

Thinking about it, I find the way these metrics make their way into the academic setting of the art school troubling. Let’s face it, a vast majority of graduates will never make it in neither of the two metrics. Hardly any artist makes his or her living from selling art. And almost no young artist is ever going to have a huge solo show in a museum. This is true for the most brilliant and talented of the graduates. Only a handful ever make it and when judging their work, the whole thing seems extremely random. And yet, these lists and metrics – consciously or unconsciously – shape the debate on what artists one should look at and emulate. Even though the chances are quite slim that students at art schools will make it in these metrics, this is precisely what these institutions ask for, when recruiting their teaching staff. Imagine a business school that is only able to get five percent of their graduates in business positions, but their teaching staff looks as if everyone is going to make it. This is absurd.

By surrounding students with teachers that made it in these metrics and by constantly referring to artists that made it as well, it becomes a promise. I have spoken to quite a few art school teachers in the past and they all claim that they are trying to address this issue with their students. They also tell me that they are frequently confronted by students who tell them that they try to be rich and famous. It seems as if the way they address this bears little fruit. I also remember my own ideas and dreams, while studying. Now, I feel ashamed of how naïve I was, but no one really showed me an alternative approach.

Like a cult, there was only one possible way for salvation. Just look around you. Everyone you see has found the promised land. You had to hope and to try to emulate the path to success already taken by others to make it in the end. If you are not sure of how the whole system works, don’t be scared. No one understands the system, so just try to blend in and emulate the people that came before you. Maybe you are one of the chosen few.

I am not saying that there are not always a few artists who are going to make it this way and that their work should not be looked at. But focusing on these few seems odd.

Trying to look into the future, things seem somewhat bleak for the classical role of the artist. Everyone nowadays carries a camera around and, oh my God, do people use them. What was once a certain style, a handwriting, developed by artists over a whole career, has now become Instagram filters. Simultaneously, publishing your creations and sharing them with the world is now built right into the tools you use for their creation. These things were long two separate steps, but today sharing has become the driving force behind creation. Everyone creates, and everyone shares – and the world is drowning in images. But the ability to share with others is not limited to people who use the camera, built into their phones, as their creative device. Being creative in general has become part of a modern middle-class lifestyle. And who might blame them? Trying to express yourself is nice, and this is precisely what drives young people to apply to art school. At least that is what most applicants tell during their entrance interview.

I know so many artists who feel miserable, since they have neither made any financial success, nor is their work presented in exhibitions. Many even stopped producing art, since the whole enterprise seems to be entirely pointless. Even though all of them were once praised at art school for their talent and creativity. Even I myself quite frequently feel the need to say, “fuck you all” and stop doing whatever it is I am doing. Judged by cult standards I am a failure and salvation seems out of reach.

The art market is, in its current form, highly unpredictable and seems to care about art mostly as something that can generate revenue. While in art school, having a B-ranking gallerist visit your class, should definitely not be considered the most important day in the semester, but the way I remember it, many people do. The same is true for curators. There are many curators who are doing a wonderful job, nevertheless they have to follow their own agenda. Some feel the pressure of market forces who partly dictate their work, others are driven by other factors beyond their control. And even the most open minded and careful curator will never be able to detect each and every talent, let alone be able to give every talent ample space in upcoming exhibitions, to make their voices truly heard.

When talking about this issue with friends, I encounter resignation. The common remark is that there is just nothing one might be able to do. Some start to talk about all the stuff they have tried to kickstart their career. But maybe all of us try to tackle the issue the wrong way. When talking about raising a certain amount of money to buy a stand at an art fair or when talking about this new concept for an exhibition someone is planning. Even when talking about novel ways to get the attention of a collector/gallerist/curator… we are always merely talking about how to play the metrics game. But these metrics themselves are the issue. And the system they represent.

Maybe at art school it might be possible to teach students that these metrics are actually not that important. I truly believe that the role of the artist within our society will change in the coming years. It must. As mentioned, almost everyone now has the potential to express him- or herself on a public stage. I am not even talking about creativity expressed by AI systems. How long is the aura granted by art schools able to stem against this development?

Art schools should take their role as research institutions far more serious than today. Some schools have programs implemented, but all too often these are focused on an MFA or postgrad level. This does not go far enough. I believe that research should be a key element from the very beginning of one’s studies. And this should aim very high. When a student manages to better understand a certain issue or topic through his or her work, that should be the metric for success. No matter whether the respective work is ever shown or not. No matter if it is ever bought. Damn, no matter, if there results actually a tangible thing from the research. A real object or image. If something is better understood, that alone should be counted as success. Everything else, shows, sales, interviews, should be a mere byproduct. Maybe this way graduates find it easier to define their role within society, without having to rely on the unreliable art market.

I take research as a given term that can certainly be found in many of founding documents for art schools on a university level. But this should not be understood as a call to bring established research structures into the art world. Classical academic research certainly carries its fair share of systemic issues. Research papers need to be written and peer-reviewed in a certain way. Dissertations focus on miniscule sub-issues, take years to write and no one ever reads them. A whole new set of frustrations. No, this is not worth being copied at art schools.

I have no clear vision of how exactly something like this might look. It certainly includes an interdisciplinary approach, that tries to work with as many other fields as necessary. Maybe young artists would have to give up some notion of freedom and liberty. I say notion, since the liberty experienced at art schools quite often is an illusion. For once – as mentioned – the whole system operates under the vague influence by outside forces anyway. And what is this idea of liberty truly worth, if it leads most participants to frustration? It is not as if one would have to give up all freedom and liberty, but once in a while one should let others determine the direction a certain project takes. Personally, I have spent some time as an exchange student in Chicago. The system there was very different from the system in Berlin. Very much like a school, with classes one had to attend, courses that could be failed and homework that had to be made. Quite an extreme contrast and maybe too extreme. But while there, it didn’t feel like I had lost all my liberties. On the contrary, personally this was the most productive time I have had while being a student. And to me that felt extremely good.

Being more school-like isn’t what I mean, when calling for a more academic approach. It rather has to do with each artist’s own approach in creating his or her work and how this is being taught at art school. Schools should put more emphasis on the question how artists might find success once they have graduated and how this success might be defined. Reading all these statistics about how few artists will make their living through art after graduating just does not help. True, there is little we will be able to do about the financial success or about the path into big museums, but then why should we care about these metrics? I am not saying we should ignore them and merely conclude that the ship is sinking and that there is nothing we can do about it. This seems to be the current approach.

In engineering, failure is something most people can agree upon. If a rocket blows up during launch, we might derive some knowledge from the event, but overall it clearly looks like a failure – Elon Musk’s PR department might attempt to spin it otherwise, but let’s discount that. Success or failure in fine arts on the other hand is something that is mostly defined by how every single artist feels about it. Sure, you will find an audience that tells you how pretty things are or journalists who praise your approach. In the end though, one has to believe them to make it count. And I am arguing that we are all trained to look at the wrong things, when it comes to outside evidence for the failure or success of our works.

With this we also have to rethink the role artists play within society. Most higher education in Western Europe is founded by the public. This is true for art schools as well. Naturally society expects something in return. Right now, this comes in part in the form of established artists who have graduated from these institutions. There is a lot of finger pointing going on. Young artists point to the institution that has trained them as proof of some kind of quality and once an artist has established himself, art schools refer back to show what kind of quality and success they deliver. Little to no pointing is ever done towards the nameless hordes that might have graduated in the same year as the important artist. The idea seems to be, that the overall success rate might seem bigger, if you only mention success and no failure.

But what if artists start to redefine success in a way that does not deliver tangible results of that kind to society? There are already quite a few politicians that continuously question the amount of money spent on educating people in fields like fine arts. The return already seems quite limited and, in the future, it might diminish even further. Here, a more active role taken by art schools in contemporary debates might certainly help. I was talking about some of the looming changes earlier in this text. These changes, like the developing creativity within AI systems or the fact that everyone nowadays publishes his work on the same platforms as professional content providers – just to mention two -, are not just going to have an effect on fine arts, but on society as a whole. Many professional fields just come to realize how vulnerable their position actually is.

To me, the strongest selling point for fine arts was always its position slightly outside established structures of communication. Over time, society seems to struggle constantly to develop the right way to approach certain topics and ideas. The changes in speech are quite obvious, certain words come into fashion or fall from grace. But underlying these changes in language are changes in perception at a very fundamental level. Art was always playing a role in these developments. This might have to do with the role of the artist as the jester in society. While everyone had to speak and think in the agreed upon fashion, the artist was able to look beyond the limits of the accepted and poke around. Art can therefore provide a testbed for new ideas and developments. But as long as art stays focused mostly on itself and tries to fill in the nonexistent role of the “avantgarde”, arrogance might spell doom.

I am having issues with the idea of the “avantgarde”. It is the claim that art might storm ahead and open up new fields for society. This is not what I meant, when talking about poking around. Society does not move in a straight line, nor is art able to predict further developments. All art can do is to try things out. If there is enough poking, some of the stuff discovered might even become relevant, but that is mere chance. Most of the claims artists have made in the past, have left little traces beyond the inside of books on art history. Avantgarde feels like “told you so”, by people who make every possible claim beforehand.

It seems difficult for many fields within academia to open themselves to other fields. Sometimes there seem to be common interests and a cooperation seems sensible. But more often it is unclear what the direct benefit of a cooperation might be. Often, funding leaves not enough space for experiments. In countries like the UK, it has become relatively normal though, to open big research projects to artists. This is precisely what art schools should actively try to develop further. Artists as mediators between different fields.

But the way I have experienced German art schools, this might mean that one has to overcome the internal pressure from art students themselves. If you ever wish to see a human hornets nest in action, you should try to give art students the idea of limiting their creative freedom in any way. Best not to disturb an art student in its natural habitat. That is sarcastic, but that might in part be what makes it so difficult to prepare art schools for the future and help young artist cope with their shitty existence. Only working on the stuff, you feel like working on (the students) and not trying to come up with stuff for young artists to work on (teachers) is the path of least resistance. Maybe even the path of no resistance. The last time a professor at an art school ever told me to do something particular was on the day I did my entrance exam. After that no one ever gave a shit. That was absolutely not what I had expected. To be honest, I felt offended. I really expected people to teach me things. I was eager about that. But no. After some acclimatization I managed to blend in by becoming lazy.

I get the call for freedom to some extent, when talking about grad students. They should be able to try out the real live after graduation, while still being in the protective environment of the art school. But this call goes beyond that and seems to include everyone from the first semester on. Art school taught me almost nothing of value for my live now. I have realized that by now. Did I have a good time? Sure. I had a space to work, the tools to work with and no outside pressure to come up with plan-B, since I was already attending one of the most prestigious institutions. But I constantly doubt that this was in fact the right decision. In retrospect, I would have loved someone forcing me to learn stuff and find my role in the structures of society outside the narrow art world.

Since having students take care of themselves is so convenient for the teachers, it might be a lot for them to simultaneously come up with stuff to teach and face the uproar by students who think you try to limit their liberty by actually force them to do something. But someone should try it.

The adorable victim

I have seen wildlife documentaries in the past, where some of the animals have names. That has nothing to do with mama meerkat naming her children, but with the filmmakers trying to connect us closer to the animals shown – hopefully we might not switch to something more interesting. The weirdest example was a computer generated “documentary” on the lives of some dinosaurs, were some of the pixels were named. The thing that made it especially weird, was the fact that this film tried hard to appear like a documentary. And that was the claim it was making. Of course, the whole thing was following a scripted storyline and so do these other “documentaries”. Very often in these films, the “main character” animal, that is being shown, is in fact a series of animals that look alike and whose combined actions make for a nice narrative. But I am wandering off.

Naming an abstract character makes it easier for us to connect. We feel closely related. We seem to know it as a being. We really hope that meerkat Robert isn’t going to be eaten by this hungry looking hawk, otherwise we would be devastated.

“Robert”

At the moment of writing, there is a big media frenzy in Germany, about the murder of a young women. She was fourteen when she was killed and the male suspect in the case happens to be a refugee. A Muslim refugee. Especially the last snippet arouses politicians and pundits on right. Name and image of the victim are all over the news and I find that troubling.

When these things happen to children or teenage girls, the media keeps repeating the victims name and the age, very often accompanied with a cute image and other details, that make the story more relatable. The victims seem so pure and so innocent, so the crime must be especially outrageous.

But this creates different classes of victims. Let’s assume the victim in the case was not fourteen, but forty. Not cute, but slightly ugly. Not relatable, but a drug addict with mental health issues. Would she then be less of a victim? Unfortunately, society would treat her that way. Her killing would cause less of a public outrage. Police might not invest the same amount of manpower and media would hardly find time to report her death. It turns out there is a whole hierarchy of victims.

But there is a second element, that determines the value of a victim. It is the perpetrator. This is very similar to the cultural makeup of the victim (but reversed). Male or female, old or young, attractive or ugly, these determine how the case is perceived. If it is perceived at all. There is also a cultural trend involved. Different eras value different traits in perpetrators differently. For some time, it was drug addicts that apparently made the worst of the worst. During the Nazi era it was Jews. And today, the young male Arab makes the perfect boogieman and therefore creates the victimest victim.

But the fact that not all victims are treated the same way can be very dangerous. When frontpage after frontpage is filled with the names of certain victim and their images, society becomes excited. Few members of the society start looking for statistics to see, how a certain crime is reflected in the broader trend within society. They rather feel encouraged by the outrage machine and follow the pack. And politicians try to gain sympathies with constituents by demanding immediate actions themselves.

Looking at the way different victims are treated, one can conclude a lot about what is wrong with society. For the longest time, sexual crime was in part blamed on the victim – this is still the case in many parts of the world and quite certainly in many minds in the west. This was reflected on the way these crimes were reported and still are. Racial prejudice and prejudice against minorities as well can be derived from the way victims are treated. In the US, for instance, crimes against African American is certainly underreported, while crimes against whites fills the news far more extensively. In some cases, like the killings amongst poor blacks in and around Chicago, the lack of presence of these crimes indicates that part of the media is entangled in active victim blaming. If spoken out aloud, or merely believed silently, the believe seems to be that many of these victims are to blame for the crimes they have fell victim to. This leaves out the wider social picture completely. Why are these people poor? What makes them to resort to violence? And so on.

Overreporting certain events is always dangerous, since this can easily shape the way things are perceived within society. Not the real events count, but the perceived ones. And when this serves as the basis of our actions. If most of the focus is on few instances of violence and crime, little action is taken to address the bigger issues. Maybe we are not any longer living in an era of enlightenment, but an era that is defined by outrage. The louder someone yells, the more real things seem and the more action they demand.

So, what could be done? Do we really need to know the names of crime victims? I think it depends on the crime. When the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews, these were not random victims of violence, but rather their identity made them the target. It is important therefore to show the extend with which they were victimized. It wasn’t just banker or capitalist, artists or communists, but rather ordinary people like you and me. Like you and me and everyone we know – that is the important part. And that is precisely the thing that makes the scale of the Holocaust so unbearable. Focusing just on the Anne Franks of the Holocaust would be the wrong approach to come to this conclusion. With Anne Frank, people relate to her, since she seemed to be cute. We would love to protect her. Maybe the thing that has the more lasting effect would be, if we’d all find someone we could relate to, since he or she is like us. The sheer number of victims makes these easy, when looking at the Holocaust as a case study. Six million individuals? Certainly, everyone finds his or her older twin.

When talking about regular crime I can not see the reason, why we should know too much about the victims. It is clear that media will always focus on some “prominent” cases. And therein always lies the root of a new form of injustice. There is always going to be bias in reporting crime and this bias utilizes the identity of a victim to promote a certain agenda.

The way certain crimes are reported can make us complicit. I have talked about this before, when discussing the way executions by ISIS and the like are covered by media. Western victims get a special treatment, both by ISIS and by Western media. ISIS victims get a “VIP treatment”, where their deaths are staged in the most elaborate manor possible. This is precisely done to gain the attention of media outlets. And they fall for it. There are background stories on the victims published, they are named, family and friends are interviewed, and so on. The full packet. Local victims are rarely named, neither by ISIS nor by the media – if their deaths are ever covered in the media at all. They are seen as mere numbers and – the lack of coverage gives the impression of putting at least some blame on the victims. Being killed is what you ought to expect, when living in a war zone. Right? Wrong. A victim is a victim.

I really appreciate projects that try to find a way to present all victims of a certain form of violence equally. This can be seen around police violence in the US, for instance in the “Police Shootings Database”, that is being maintained by the Washington Post. This project tries to list all the known instances of people killed by police in the US. It does provide some background information on each case – if this is available – but it gives each case the same amount of attention. This enables us to see the scope of the whole issue and not merely one individual tragedy.

From a database like this, we could really come up with actions to take to tackle the real issue. Of course, each family suffers and to many the death of a child might cause more pain than the death of an adult. To society, both deaths should have equal value and if there are four children killed in any given year, but four hundred adults, the two demographics should not be judged equally.

As long as we accept the treatment of some victims as special cases, there is plenty of room for populists to instrumentalize these cases for their political gain. This is precisely what happens in Germany at the moment. Young beautiful girls and children have to be protected from crazy men from the east. That sounds all too familiar and it seems as if these prejudice stem directly from the teachings of Goebbels. The death of these women is terrible, and their families suffer, yet the way this is being instrumentalized is so much more dangerous for our society as a whole.

The attention given to this form of violence against a certain category of women feels somewhat like these old stories about the damsel in distress, that needs special protection from a white knight – in these cases the white knights on the right. Some of them even call themselves “knights”.

Who curates identity?

I am quite sure, that Angelina Jolie exists, and I hope she is doing great. I pick her as an example for all these random celebrities whom we all seem to be very familiar with. I try to address a bigger and more general issue though and she merely serves as a placeholder. A convenient placeholder nevertheless, since there is quite a lot of material for me to illustrate my point. This here is not about gossip – I have very little knowledge in that field -, but rather it might be about images, media and identity.

I mentioned the program DeepFake earlier this year. This is a piece of software that enables the user to exchange the face in one video with the face of a different person. Depending on the quality of footage used, the power of your computer and the time you allow the algorithm to calculate, the results can be quite convincing. Especially considering the fact that this software is pretty much still in its infancy. The key point one has to understand is that this is different from Photoshop or the like. The software isn’t merely pasting one picture over another. It rather produces a fictitious new image that replaces the old one. The gestures, facial expressions, lighting and colors are matched.

This is quite a big leap and I guess like with all big leaps this one is here to stay. So, we might try to figure out how to react and cope with it.

I think about this quite a bit, which certainly is noticeable by the fact that I this is already my second text. Please excuse if I, in part, repeat myself, but I am just intrigued.

The most prominent way this software is still being used is to produce porn with the faces of celebrities. I should issue a caveat here. The fact that this software is used for this purpose has created the most uproar and gave this issue some visibility. At the same time – and that is somewhat odd – is the fact that this software is used to produce porn, somehow seems to be sign of quality. Or something, the creators find worthy pointing out. There might be some porn out there, that claims to be “real” footage, when in fact it is produced with DeepFake. That would be hard to find, since you can not prove a negative – so you can not prove that there is no fake hiding between the real stuff.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I am not a porn connoisseur. But the fact that DeepFake porn is out there is quite obvious. And that is the odd point I am trying to make. There is a number of sites that have the DeepFake label in their name – and even on sites like 4chan or 8chan these videos are labeled as deep fakes. Maybe it is for legal reasons, something I doubt, taking into consideration, that the way these sites appear, the whole thing looks shady enough. Maybe it has to do with something else. Since this technology is so new, it might generate more excitement, if you claim to show something that is a high-quality fake, than pretending to show something no one would believe anyway.

A screenshot of one of the sites that share DeepFake videos. The pixelation is by me.

The question what exactly arouses people online isn’t interesting to me though. What is interesting is the fact that this brings up the issue of identity. And not just identity of Hollywood stars, but identity in the 21st century and how it is being curated.

Much of the outrage that is being caused by these videos has to do with a violation of rights of the famous women. (Very little is said about the porn actresses, whose faces are removed and whose work is therefore invalidated, but that is another story.) The outrage goes so far that sites like Reddit work hard to take these videos down. But of course, stuff like that will always find its niche online.

What exactly is being violated here? Let’s forget for a moment that most of these videos seem to be labeled as fake. These videos seem to claim to show someone who isn’t really present in the videos. Someone who did not participate in the production.

This is NOT Angelina Jolie, but rather this is an image from a DeepFake video.

Who exactly is Angelina Jolie?

I find it fascinating to look at her in this respect. Oddly enough, her Hollywood career was kicked off, when she played the lead character in the first Lara Croft movie. She did earn her living with acting before and was quite successful at it, but Lara Croft made her especially famous. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” from 2001 was the movie version of a quite successful game franchise, that had started in 1996. Back then, video graphics were not what they are today, but that didn’t keep the computer-generated figure from becoming a sex symbol.

When Jolie played Lara Croft, her appearance was made to match the figure of the video game character. Especially the enormous boobs in the game, that had gained some notoriety, had to be matched. Wikipedia tells me, that this was done with the help of padded bras.

On the left the way the character looked in the first game. In the middle the way this was depicted by Jolie. On the right how this has then influenced later versions of the game.

But the role then defined the public image of Angelina Jolie for quite some time. And her appearance in the movie had an influence on the way the character Lara Croft was depicted in later versions of the game. Jolie had to match her appearance to the game character, which in turn had to match its appearance to the way it was portrayed by Jolie. Also, Jolie and Lara Croft were then intermingled in the public perception of what Angelina Jolie is as a human being.

The way Jolie was presented in this movie and its sequel from 2003, certainly helped to strengthen her public image as a sex symbol.

A CGI rendering of Jolie from the movie Beowulf.

In 2007 she starred in the movie “Beowulf”, which was entirely 3D generated. Here, Jolie might have acted in from of a greenscreen or in another way to track her motions, but her entire appearance was recreated with the help of software. Not as elaborate of a setting as a program like DeepFake would allow, but still not really real. Like makeup and lighting alters the appearance of an actress in a movie, here too did the CGI create an image that matches our expectation of what the actress should look like.

When Full-HD TVs became common, I read an article somewhere that was talking about issues some actresses had, with the high resolution. Until then it was possible for them to hide imperfections in their skin with makeup. Now, the article claimed, this would no longer be possible, since the makeup would be visible. I am quite sure that our media environment is fucked up enough that these concerns were valid. It is interesting though, since an actress, this might have affected, always had these imperfections. These were just not an issue, since they could be hidden. Someone could make the decision to hide them. Our perception could be controlled. The lack of controllability seemed to frighten people.

The same could be true here. Jolie and/or her agents try to control the way she is being perceived. But isn’t perception something that should be under the control of the person who perceives?

The way Jolie is supposed to perceived today, is a mixture between her humanistic work and her being a projection screen for products.

As I have mentioned, I am not really following gossip, yet Angelina Jolie and her PR department still have managed to leave an impression with me. Part of it has to do with her acting career, but then there are also snippets of “news” about her. I am not going to talk about these news stories here, otherwise Daniel J. Boorstin is going to rotate in his grave (I love this guy and I have written about him here  http://blog.simonmenner.com/?p=54 ). Still, a person, I have never met, and know only through highly edited and manipulated works, has managed to create an image of her in me. And now it seems important to keep the editing in the control of the people who did the editing in the first place.

Maybe Angelina Jolie is the nicest of people and does wonderful aid work – more of the stuff I was told -, but to me, there is little difference between her and let’s say Mickey Mouse or Nike. To me, she is a brand. And I guess to her PR agents too. And brands are about money and therefore they must be protected and controlled. Yet to me, the more important issue with DeepFakes is one about identity and whether there is something like that, that could survive the developing digital age. I believe that the key question is not, whether it is OK to produce fake porn of someone. To most people the answer here seems quite obvious, since the material created easily breaks many common norms. But what if the material created would be truly creative? What if it would be something new? Or a work of fan fiction? What if someone was trying to extend his or her image of the figure of fiction “Angelina Jolie” to something amazing?

There is a person Angelina Jolie somewhere out there. But this real person has little to do with the work of fiction I know as Angelina Jolie. Who owns the rights here? And how much am I allowed to work with this fiction as found footage? To use a term commonly used in contemporary culture. When these fictions press hard into our daily lives, through movies, interviews, adds, news articles, to what extend are we allowed to push back? When stories are told over and over again, it is a normal human response trying to change these stories or to add to them. Famous characters in history have constantly been reinvented and not only by their respective PR department, but by individuals who turned away from their role merely as members of the audience.

Sure, when talking about the changes made to earlier famous characters, much of this reinvention took place posthumously. But that had to do with a limited bandwidth for information in earlier societies. It took time to process new characters and knowledge of stories spread slowly. Things have changed quite drastically. We need to be able to respond to these artificial figures we constantly encounter. And I think it does not really matter, if a person is dead or alive. When Angelina Jolie plays an historical figure in one of her movies, I am equally disconnected from her, the real person, than from the figure she portrays.

Thinking about this, it seems quite absurd to see the outrage that is caused, when actresses seem to be misrepresented by some other entity. Representing other characters is pretty much what defines being an actor. I am quite certain, that most historical figures might have a hard time recognizing themselves in the way they are portrayed in movies and TV. When Jolie acts in a movie that is loosely based on the life of Alexander the Great, the way she acts has very little to do with the person she depicts. Using a Mideastern sounding accent does not really help – she is still speaking English. Someone like Alexander the Great was at least as careful, when it came to the way he was publicly perceived than most celebrities today – heck, he named twenty cities after himself.

Alexander the Great the way he was depicted in antiquity and the way Hollywood depicts him.

Identity is always a construct. Even if it comes to the way, we ourselves perceive our own identity. And identity is never something fixed. If money or power is involved, the whole thing becomes an issue of branding. Caesar Augustus, preventing busts of him being produced, that show him in old age, and Adidas going after Chinese companies, that produce sneakers with four stripes, are at their core similar attempts to control the outside image. But too much control by a few who enforce it on many, quickly becomes an act of expropriation. If I am not allowed to respond to images I am faced with, by taking these images and alter them the way I seem fit. The potential image, I would have created, is taken away from me. My creativity is hindered with the excuse to “protect” the creative output of someone else.

I said that I was going to push aside the issue with stating clearly that a work is a DeepFake, but maybe this is too important. DeepFakes are works of fiction – whether we like this kind of fiction or not. And even though an algorithm does the work, there are still creative. DeepFake still needs humans to make many of the decisions, but this software is in a very early stage of its development. From all we have learned in human history, tools like these are not going to go away and they just become more and more advanced.

When people started understanding the full potential of photo editing software like Photoshop, the reaction felt quite similar to what we are having now with DeepFakes. It seemed as if things are going to get downhill from here quite quickly. This did not happen. There had been the hope in the beginning, that every last edited image would be marked as such, for the audience to easily distinguish. This did not happen, and few people seem to mind. Why?

More and more I have come to believe that this has to do with a changing attitude towards images and maybe even reality as a whole. No one expects images, shared on Instagram for instance to be authentic. Everyone is aware of the filters that come with the app and with the fact that people tend to share the more flattering images. Not capturing reality does not seem to be a glitch, but rather the main goal. The whole thing is about curating the narrative you are trying to develop. Maybe photography was always merely a tool to illustrate our stories and never really able to capture them. Maybe we were just living with the hope that photography might help us getting a connection to the world, that certainly must hide out there – somewhere beyond our reach.

With the raising artificial intelligence, there is less and less of a refuge left for humans to feel special or chosen. It seems as if every profession is going to see a fundamental change, once AI enters the workspace. We must get used to the idea of AI being creative. That might be especially hard for people like me, who define much of what they are in society through their creative work. Ignoring the development doesn’t help though. I get it, ignoring stuff seems to make it disappear at first and seems to delay its onset. When it becomes too evident to be ignored, we might just not be prepared, and the realization comes as a shock.

A hard drive and a jar of random genes

Space flight finally makes the big news again. That certainly has a lot to do with clever PR from new private space companies. There seems to be a renewed space race and people are thrilled about it. I am too. Launches can be watched live. Cameras show every absurd angle of the rockets mid-flight. The whole stuff just seems to be extremely cool and many people want to join the hype. It has been a while, since the last person set foot on another celestial body, so it seems to be about damn time to aim higher than just the moon. A manned trip to Mars finally seems to be in reach and beyond that merely a question of time and stamina. And, of course, these trips must be manned, what would be the point of it otherwise? Here, I guess, we are touching a field I am extremely interested in: authenticity.

When looking up to the moon, it gives a warm feeling imagining that someone – a real human being – has been up there. Touched it – at least to the extent that is permissible by the surrounding vacuum. Has set his eyes on it. That makes one dizzy and proud. How far has humanity come? But why the hell should I personally give a fuck? It wasn’t me that had been up there, and if it would have been me, the same problem would arise for you.

The pictures brought back by astronauts from Apollo missions, are stunning. And to some extent they let us picture ourselves in these situations. It is great PR work and enables us to dream, even though almost none of us will ever set foot on another planet. And here is the key point I am struggling with. Why should anyone ever travel to another planet and if they do, what exactly is it, that we as humanity are sending to outer space?

Don’t get me wrong, I am entirely for an expansion into space. It sounds like a logical step to me. I am questioning some of our ideas behind manned missions though.

What exactly is it, that we are trying to send to space?

Is it a way to gather information? Well, with the increasing pace AI is developing, why would we need “real” human beings for that? Sure, astronauts take the nicer selfies on the surface of mars, but other than that, the information an astronaut sends back to me, is on some very basic level indistinguishable to me from the information sent back by a computer-controlled rover. Both sets of data rely on my imagination for me to be thrilled by it. It is both equally abstract to me. But we remain social beings, that easily feel as if the actions and experiences of others are our own. That might be the key point here. Technology outpaces our little monkey brains, but we still expect that the stories about far and distant places are told by hunters and gatherers who travelled there in person. So, oddly enough, a picture taken by a fellow human being still feels more authentic than a picture taken by a camera that controls itself.

It seems as if we only value events and things that are perceived by ourselves. This is understandable, since our own horizon is always limited by our perception. Things like language and writing are so important because they extend our reach. Yet there always has been so much more going on than anyone was aware of. The frustration this has created is quite old. At least as old as the question whether a tree that falls without anyone around makes a noise. We tend to need our perception in the equation for things to really take place.

Let’s face it though. This was never the right way to look at things – maybe the only one we could fully understand – and things are changing drastically. If we are looking at the amount of information that is being processed today without any human interaction or attention, we come to realize that we are already being left behind. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but rather it now becomes merely more obvious. It came as a shock, when we realized that there might never be any polymaths again. Polymath as someone who has a understanding of all available knowledge a certain era could provide – an idea that was especially popular during the renaissance or maybe during our romanticized view on the renaissance. But I wonder if someone like Galileo would have survived on his own on a desert island. Could he have fed himself? Or did his knowledge not include basic concepts of hard labor?

Even Galileo would have missed almost everything around him. Humans just work that way.

Even if Galileo would really have had a perfect understanding of everything, how would other people have benefited from that? Galileo did write books, sure – and some of his texts got him into deep trouble -, but most people did not read them and the information they were containing was quite limited. If you know something I don’t, you might teach me some aspects of your knowledge or you might make me benefit from your knowledge in indirect ways, but your direct experience can never be shared.

So, if you land on Mars, your own experience of the situation is limited and even more limited is your ability to share your experience with others – even with fellow astronauts who join you on your journey.

Saving Humanity

But maybe the key reason for manned space travel would be to save humanity from looming doom, by expanding out to space and therefore, limiting the chances that all of humanity might be whipped out by a single catastrophe on a global scale.

What exactly is this “humanity” mentioned here?

The most basic understanding of humanity might be “all humans”. Sending everyone to space would leave Earth empty. Maybe we should, instead, select a few ambassadors to represent what humanity is – I wonder how that might go. When the US sent 20 white men to the Moon, they thought of them as ambassadors for humanity. That selection makes little sense from today’s perspective.

So, if we try to be more careful, who choses these representatives? And what would be the characteristics they should fulfill? Sure, after some decades, the group of people living somewhere other than Earth might be big enough to be a good enough representation for human society, but that is not the argument I am trying to make.

We have long reached the point, where “humanity” has little to do with actual humans. Humanity might be the knowledge we have accumulated, rather the genes we carry. This move away from humans as the key factor for society and global culture is certainly going to accelerate in the future. The stuff we would like to preserve might in fact have little to do with people like you and me. Why then should we care so much in sending little me or little you to the stars? Might not a hard drive and a jar of random genetical material be the better choice?

Again, when we say that we are afraid for the fate of humanity or life in general, most of us actually mean that we are afraid for our own life’s. Maybe the ones of our children and pets. But beyond that it becomes utterly abstract. I am not saying that humans are not worth preserving, but if we want to send intelligence and life to other planets, for them to being colonized or fertilized, maybe sending a couple thousand humans might not be the most reasonable choice. Sure, preserving my own genes would be the decision I would make – that is what my genes ask for. But would that be the best way to move forward? I doubt it.

Like so many generations before us, we are witnessing the future from the point of a spectator that won’t participate in the fun stuff. I guess that this is OK. I don’t like it either.

Things are changing all around us. Technology has become part of evolution and this accelerates the pace at which things move forward. We might feel left behind, but that is not new in the cycle of life and death. Maybe we are going to reach the point, when we – as human individuals – are just not a key part of future developments anymore. It must have been a terrible sight for early humanoids in the African savannah, when they were witnessing the next evolutionary step in the form of other humanoids carrying sticks.

The question of change

I was at a conference recently, that dealt with questions around visual culture. During the discussions, quite a few people were talking about the way new developments in communication or image creation change us. That made me think.

Humans, on a biological level, have been quite slow to change. Our lifespan is too long to enable evolution to push us forward at a very high pace. That did not really matter, since the environment in which we are living was relatively stable, if looked at globally. Sure, there have always been plaques and catastrophes that brought humans to the brink of extinction, but these, almost always, were quite local events. As far as we know it, only once in our common history (70.000-80.000 years ago), was humanity as a whole very close to vanish. But it didn’t.

We were able to compensate every change around us with the size of our brains and our ability to function as a group, rather than merely as a collection of individuals.

Now, it seems, that the world that surrounds us, has gained speed, when it comes to change. But that change in technology, science, communication, is a change that happens to us, rather than something that emanates from us. We are affected by these changes, but the question is, whether we are changing ourselves. That I doubt.

I believe that we are getting to see our own limitations, when the world around changes drastically, and we notice friction, when we are not able to adapt at a similar pace. The growing friction could be understood as us changing. We are basically still these fearful creatures, that are hiding in a cave, afraid we might get eaten any moment now. And sure, we know how to make fire by now, but the whole thing is still deeply troubling and from time to time feels like magic.

Deep Fakes

When people started to realize the full potential, a program like Photoshop could have, it seemed as if a revolution was on the horizon. Our trust in photography as evidence could not be rescued and a dark age of uncertainty would emerge. Some time ago, I was talking to a judge who told me about meetings and conference they have had back then, where they were discussing the bleak implications. It seemed, as if there could be no other possible outcome than to get rid of photography in the legal system altogether. But what might be there to replace it?

In retrospect, digital photography in general and photo editing software like Photoshop in particular, did have an influence on how photography is being used. But contrary to the fears, the role it plays is bigger than ever. Even in courtrooms and the legal setting.

I mention this, because I had a déjà vu recently. At the moment, there is quite a lot of fuzz about a piece of software called Deep Fake – since it has “Fake” in its name, there has to be fuzz about it in the media. This program relies on deep learning algorithms to automatically replace the faces of persons in videos, with the faces of other people. The software manages to match the facial expressions and lighting. Some of the results are more convincing than others, so there is definitely room for improvement. But undoubtedly the software will improve over time.

Naturally the first usage people have found for this new technology is porn. It always is porn. The faces of celebrities have been used to replace the faces of people in porn videos. As said, some of the videos are more convincing than others.

Many of the videos disappear quite quickly, since they seem to violate the guidelines of the porn sites they are uploaded to. But I wonder why exactly. Is this really a violation of copyright, since the videos are clearly edited from the source material? Or is it a violation of privacy rights? But here, the argument is weird. The outrage these videos cause, is precisely because they do not show the real people. Rather the faces shown are merely based on the celebrities. Sure, the title then claims that a certain video shows a certain celebrity. But this is something that is done constantly. When Sarah Palin, back in 2008, was running as vice presidential candidate in the US election, a whole flood of porn videos was created, where actors posed as Sarah Palin. On the Internet, quite a few videos were marketed as the real deal. But even, if something was called “Sarah Palin real porn”, it still wasn’t Palin, that was to be seen in the video.

These deep fake videos do not claim to be the real deal, but rather they are clearly marked as deep fakes. Sure, over time that might change, but right now even the URL of these websites mentions the fake. People seem quite proud about this new toy and deep fake seems something worth mentioning. So where is the real harm in these videos? Take the Melania Trump video. It is clear that this is not her. And as a matter of fact, it is not her. The body isn’t, since that belongs to some anonymous porn actress and the face isn’t, because this is merely the result of a calculation that was loosely based on some real video footage of Melania Trump.

As a quick side note. At the moment of writing, I have yet to encounter a video, where the celebrity, whose appearance is being used, is male.

Some actors have already begun to get trademarks on their own faces and we might finally have reached the point, where this becomes relevant. So, the liable aspect might be a mere violation of a trademark, yet that should normally not spark too much outrage.

I think the outrage has a lot to do with the current fake news debate. People are just afraid that fake news might become indistinguishable from the reals news. And every report that might support that fear, is amplified. And technology seems quite scary in general. In 2016, for instance, Adobe (the manufacturer of Photoshop) presented a new software Adobe VoCo. This program was called “Photoshop for audio” and lets users create new voice tracks from pre-recorded audio. The clue here is, that the software is able to create entirely new sentences with a voice that resembles the source material.

This is similar to Deep Fake. Source material is analyzed and used to create something new. Since we have become so used to photo editing software, the parallels might be a bit hard to spot, but this is exactly the stuff Photoshop enabled the inept layman to do in his basement. Photoshop made it possible for almost everyone to alter images more or less convincingly. The fact that Deep Fake or Adobe VoCo use deep learning algorithms to some extend is insignificant. To the normal user all three programs are a black box and very few people have a clear understanding, what Photoshop actually does, when its filters or tools are used. Deep Fake automatizes very difficult crafts and so does Photoshop.

We, as a society, have proven extremely resilient to the dangers posed by Photoshop. Never do I get the feedback from friends after posting or sending an image, where they question the authenticity of my post. Debates on the authenticity of images happen, and they happen quite prominently, but taken that Photoshop exists on millions of computers and in every news room around the globe, these debates are quite rare.

Fake news is a buzzword currently, and everything that could support the argument that fake news is on the rise, gets vastly amplified attention. But disinformation, false claims and denial of evidence are not new. They are at least as old as interaction between bigger groups of people.

Sure, the way fake news spreads is evolving, and so are the tools used. But every tool in the media toolkit might be used that way, even pen and paper. And if the tools do not work to your liking, you can always claim that a piece of evidence is false. Denial is the most important weapon for people trying to spread fake news. And for denial, no one needs special skills.

That way, I believe, that the bigger impact these new tools might have in this debate, might come from the claim that they were used in the first place. They will certainly become part of the denial game. Comparable to the way people nowadays claim that a picture is photoshopped and should therefore not be seen as real evidence. This can easily taint every real evidence and therefore it becomes quite damaging.

Using these tools in a fully convincing fashion is always too difficult. With a picture that has been doctored with Photoshop, people always seem to find the source material. Or they spot minute irregularities that give away the fake. I am not paranoid, so I don’t believe that there are too many fake images out there, everyone believes in. The positive feedback someone receives for proving that a picture is doctored is just too tempting, and since these photo editing tools are so widely available, too many people know what they can do and how that then looks like. Someone always spots the fake.

But the danger lies more in the doubt these tools can create. Tools like Deep Fake and VoCo might in the end become household names, just like Photoshop. And when this happens, too many people might expect these tools being omnipresent. Everything becomes doubtful.

 

 

Herostratus on Steroids

The more I think about it, the more I have to realize that many of my works are somewhat problematic in respect to the topics they are dealing with. The same, I think, is true for other works by different artists, dealing with similar topics, so I would like to try to phrase my concerns.


When Herostratus laid fire to the Temple of Artemis in the 4th century BCE, it is said, that he was aiming for eternal remembrance. So, the reaction by public figures to punish him with damnatio memoriae, or the condemnation of memory, seemed quite sensible, even though this attempt has failed miserably. The names of the people that did condemn him have long since been forgotten, yet the name of the criminal lives on.

If we take the story for granted, Herostratus was no terrorist. The people he was aiming for were not his enemies and he was not trying to instill fear in them that other such acts might inevitably follow, he was rather extremely selfish. He wanted his actions to be remembered and his name to live on. If he would have been a member of a bigger group, that threatened similar acts, the story would be different, but he was giving his life merely for his own cause. He wanted to be glorified – sure, he did something most people would have hated him for, but glorification works in the negative as well as in the positive. The arch villain is a hero in of itself.

I guess, there is little real information on the reaction of his contemporaries, but I would doubt that there had been widespread fear that his action could have merely been the start of an upcoming series of similar events. If bureaucracy worked in a similar fashion 2500 years ago, some guards at the temple were reprimanded for their lapse in security, but that would have been it. The guy who actually did it had been apprehended and executed and no one was ever to mention his name again. That was it.

When looking for the right way to deal with contemporary acts of terrorism. Many media outlets struggle and quite a few resort to a damnatio memoriae for our current media environment. The acts themselves are still reported, but certain news sites for instance stopped to show images of terrorists and refuse to mention their names.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/27/french-media-to-stop-publishing-photos-and-names-of-terrorists

If terrorists would be motivated by similar urges than Herostratus, this seems an adequate way to cope with terrorism. But there is more to that, than just the individuals need to leave traces.

For once, the fundamental claim of terrorism is that there are more things to come. Things that are going to strike us out of the blue. The individual terrorist might indeed partially be motivated by the selfish urge of becoming a glorified hero, but the fact that the claim is made, that his actions are part of a wider movement, is essential. Interestingly, this claim is very often not made by the attacker him- or herself, but rather by the group that defines his whole existence through an ongoing series of attacks. ISIS for instance, keeps claiming attacks for themselves that have little connection to the real planning of this group. To the person who feels under threat, it makes little to no difference who makes this claim.

Whether the above-mentioned response, by some media outlets, to retract the names and images of violent attackers, is a valid response, is up for debate. But maybe this response does not even go far enough and the story of Herostratus might teach us some valuable lesions for the conflicts of the 21st century.

Compared to the role remembrance plays in contemporary conflicts, the actions by Herostratus seem almost like child’s play. He wanted his name to be remembered to become immortal, but today it is all about a continuous place in the 24-hour news cycle. He was up for what we would call today 15 minutes of fame, while terror groups aim for a never-ending state of fear.

Today’s conflicts aim at our perception as the crucial battlefield. Terrorism, for instance, only works once it is been perceived as terrorism. If the single acts of murder are understood merely as acts of a criminal nature, the feeling of terror most likely disappears. If a drunken guy stabs some people in front of a club and is then killed by police, the whole thing is merely reported as news. Something that has happened and that is now over. Just something the public might want to know about. If there is a growing number of such incidences, politicians might face some tough questions by their constituents and might fear for reelection. But little else comes of it.

Terrorism, on the other hand, lives from being reported in a different way than that. To fully function, it needs to be understood as merely part of something bigger. As something that might happen again in a different setting, but that has to be understood as part of the same storyline. Terrorists work hard to make their actions seem as if they were connected. But this connectedness is artificial. What we experience as a constant threat from Islamist terror groups in Europe at the moment, is in fact a series of incidences that are quite few and far apart. Even if it were true that most or all of the attacks were orchestrated by the same group, following the same narrative, this struggle has bears little resemblance of an all-out war. But to many people, it feels like it. Why? Maybe because every incidence is talked about over and over again. And this way, the groups claiming responsibility for these attacks are given constant media airtime.

So, when some news outlets decide not to show the faces and names of the perpetrators, this solves only a small part of the issue. The attacks are still given ample airtime – much more in fact, than many other events, that have a comparable number of casualties.

What reminds me here of Herostratus is the fact that terrorism seems to depend on us thinking about it, for it to stay alive. The more we talk about it, the more the whole issue grows and thrives. Oddly enough other issues are quite similar in this respect. Take for instance mass surveillance. Sure, Big Brother could watch you without your knowledge, but it has always been the more cost-efficient approach to pair surveillance with a heavy dose of paranoia in your targets. Have them be afraid and therefore enforce some control on themselves.

In that respect, “knowledge” can be a curse, since what you believe to know, is in huge parts a construct that only exists in our group consciousness. There might be a terror attack any moment or there might be Big Brother watching over my shoulder right now, but the chance that this just isn’t the case is so much bigger. Us, being afraid, easily fills the gaps between accidents or acts of surveillance.


The more attention these topics get, the more important they seem. This is a problem. Not only the classical media outlets do a far too focused job, reporting on terror or surveillance, but it has also become a staple topic in other cultural fields. Movies, documentaries, books, theater plays – I just guess that there are even operas – are dealing with terror. And many visual artists, like me for instance, spend a lot of time drawing even more attention to this issue. The way this is done is very often quite fanciful and therefore gives the whole thing some street cred. Surveillance, war and terror have become cool topics for the coolest kids around.

We might come with the best intentions, but I am not so sure anymore, if we are actually doing a good job. We might have to deal with the idea of us being complicit, when dealing with topics, where the actual danger is not so much out there in the real world, but rather in our internal response. By shedding even more light on these topics, we serve the agenda. When ISIS, for instance releases new videos, people like me instantly flock to them and make them part of the debate.

If it comes to these topics, there should be debate, but the question is, which debate. I have no conclusive answer, but I want to show that I am struggling.

When did the barracks at Auschwitz get the last coat of fresh paint?

I had a conversation recently with a photo student, who wants to do a work on some Stasi related issue. She was mentioning to me, that she was planning on taking pictures in a former Stasi prison in Berlin. Since the Wall came down, this has been turned into a museum. When asked why, she said something about the authenticity of this place and quoted some people that had been imprisoned there saying something like “the smell is very special and authentic, the real smell the place had back then”. To that I say: bullshit.

The wall came down 28 years ago and the prison was closed shortly after. No smell in the world lingers on for that long. No matter what chemicals would constitute the smell, their composition would change over time and therefore the smell would certainly not be “the same” as thirty years ago. Plus, back then, the building was in use. People worked their every day and other people were forced to live in this very building. We all have experienced that the smell of our apartment seems to change, while we were on vacation for a week or two. It might be that the smell did not change, but our perception of it has, but in the long run, we certainly play a role in the olfactory composition of the place we live and work in.

I am not that interested in the mechanics of smells, rather the way this student was talking did remind me of a general issue I am having with the culture of memory.

We tend to expect of certain places of historical importance, to give away part of their story through their outside appearance. A terrible place needs to look devastating to fully trigger our moral switches, and a bad scent certainly helps in this regard. The more devastating a place looks, the more devastating a place it must have been back then. I guess, this can easily become a feedback loop.

When talking to the student, I asked her, what the place looks like right now. I have been there twice myself, but I wanted to hear it from her. Of course, everything looks grey, there are cracks in the plaster on the wall and in some places chunks have fallen off, the furniture looks very outdated, the bathroom fixtures were terrible. How is this authentic? I am quite sure that back, when the prison was still operational, the paint would have been much fresher, cracks in the wall would have been taken care of, and both the furniture and the bathroom fixtures were quite close to what people had at home.

I am not saying that back then this place wouldn’t have been a terrible place to be imprisoned. I am trying to make the point that a place does not need to look terrible to be terrible. Take Auschwitz for instance – just as a thought experiment. There was a time – maybe a very short one, but still – when the barracks were brand new. Maybe they even smelled of fresh sawn lumber, the paint was fresh and maybe the trees outside were in full bloom. Auschwitz at such a moment was as much of a terrible place as Auschwitz at the time the Red Army liberated the place. But it does not really fit our mental image.

Now, when these places – Auschwitz and the prison in Hohenschönhausen – are preserved for the future, much care is taken to preserve the general spirit of the place. But what spirit might that be? I guess it is the spirit we expect to find. If the decision is made to do some work on the place to preserve it for the future, this work is one of restoration, rather than renovation. But wouldn’t a place like the Stasi prison be better off with a fresh coat of paint, that aims to set the place back in time by 20 years, rather than a careful touch-up of the weathered paint that has come to represent the grey image we expect?

This also reflects in movies that try to show the terrors present at these places. To me, this seems quite natural. A location scout is sent to document the place, the movie is going to depict. He or she finds it in a carefully preserved state of despair and comes back with a set of images that depict precisely that. This material then is given to set designers to replicate. If a movie-goer, after seeing the film, visits such a place, the images encountered in the movie tells what the place needs to represent to “feel” real. This is a circle.

A similar thing can be seen in the depiction of inmates. Of course, places like Auschwitz did provide a terrible sight and starvation and murder were rampant and these things did take a toll on the inmates. But there might have been many people suffering, where this did not present itself in a similar fashion on the outside. Well-fed people with clean clothes and tidy faces can be killed and traumatized as well.

I believe that this isn’t merely a question of aesthetics, but this carries with it real life consequences. We may have reached the point, where we distrust a place or situation to be terrible, if it does not appear the way we expect these things to appear. During the current refugee crisis, politicians took the stage pointing out that many of the refugees carried smartphones and had nice clothes. The logic behind that seemed to be that only those in rags with dirty faces could be the ones that had an excuse to flee their countries. Surely, a nice-looking environment cannot be filled with trauma. Right?

This might exactly be the point the US government was aiming for, when creating the new housing at for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the images coming out of this place, look more like a very clean hospital, than a place we’d associate with torture. This is not done by accident, but our expectation that terrible places look a certain way, makes it very easy to fool us. And just because a camp for refugees is made to look nice, does not mean that it isn’t a terrible place.

But back to the smell at Hohenschönhausen prison. I find it fascinating that not just we, the spectators, fall for this trap. But even people who had been imprisoned there alter their memories over time. That way, the place is going to look more and more like the place should look like to suit the terrible things that took place there. I wonder though, how much the growing despair in the outside appearance, is going to influence the way the stories of despair are told – and maybe even the way they are remembered?