Interview with Arte Tracks

This is just a video still. To watch the video, please follow the links below.

Last month, the team of Arte Tracks came for a visit to my studio. The short piece they have produced has been released to YouTube. Unfortunately embedding the video is blocked, so I just post a link to YouTube.

The German version is here
https://youtu.be/gAwQTnK9OxY

There is also a dubbed version in French
https://youtu.be/uM1SbbVyVTA

Sorry, no English version available.

Medusa and the Taint of Child Pornography

In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa is a monster that looks so terrifying that gazing at her face turns everyone into stone. This even works when once her head has been cut off and is utilized by Perseus as a weapon. I find this story quite fascinating in that it envisions something that is so terrible that even gazing at it briefly taints you beyond hope.

In a way, I would like to draw some parallels to the concept of child pornography in our current cultural environment. I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but child pornography is almost the only thing on the Internet, where merely looking at it is something that is illegal. Maybe it is the only thing, where this is true. There are quite many things, like gore, violence or racist acts, where looking at it might not be too good for your career, but looking at it is more classified as “bad taste”. So, there might be consequences for you, but maybe not direct legal ones. Currently there seems to be a push to move images and videos from certain terrorist groups into a category similar to child pornography, but we are not fully there yet.

But what is it about a certain image that could be so tainting? Please note that I am not talking about the terrible acts that are perpetrated while creating these terrible images, but rather the gaze that looks at them. This is the issue that baffles me. Especially, once we look at the laws that cover it more closely. In Germany, for instance, there is no need for the image to be a photograph of a real person to be classified as child pornography. It could be a fully fictional drawing and the law would regard it as similar to photograph that documents a rape. But the drawing would be the perfect example of a victimless crime. Right? There is no victim that could be associated with such an image and therefor the incriminating aspect must lay within the image itself.

Currently, there are other examples that point in a similarly strange direction. In the US, for instance, teenagers have been prosecuted for having nude images of themselves on their phones, taken by themselves, while they were still underage. Again, I find it quite difficult to point out the victim here.

Under these rules, sharing this image here might be illegal. By the way, that wonderful little Adonis would be me. Normally I would believe that I have every right to decide if an image of me can be shared or not. But oddly, the law seems to believe that there is a gap, that separates me from my underage-me, that cannot be bridged. Somehow the image of me seems to be closer related to this earlier self of mine than me myself.

Wikipedia taught me that, for some time in the US – until the Supreme Court invalidated the law –, porn was considered child porn, when the actors looked too you. For instance, by dressing younger or having braided hair. Again, something that can not easily be explained with a certain victim in mind. It is as if the depiction of violence in Hollywood would not be seen fully different from the real violence it might refer to.

I am not writing about this, because I believe child pornography should be easily accessible. There is far too much suffering involved in these images for me to request that. But I find the way our society deals with these images very fascinating. There seems to be an odd power associated with images themselves. Even some people I was talking to, argued that the reason why these images are buried under so many layers of taboo, might stem from the “fact” that looking at them might tempt pedophiles into committing more of these horrendous acts. But this is the argument that is almost always been used. Violent computer games are supposed to bring you closer to the violent acts. Watching porn might make you a sexual pervert. And so on. I believe that watching sports on TV does not really help with your general fitness. Maybe on the contrary.

To be honest, so far, I have not put too much effort in researching the whole issue, but until this point, I don’t think I have encountered a study that supports the “fact” my friends were stating. Maybe there is extensive research done in this field that points to precisely this conclusion that I am just not aware of.

Sure, the issue that differentiates this topic from others, is that it is children we are talking about. Terrible things are done here to some of the most innocent members of our society. At least that is the wording that is normally been used. But almost all victims of crimes are innocent. So, how can a child that is been raped be more innocent than a woman that is been raped? Maybe cruelty towards children is something that creates easy political consent. Something I have learned through Bill Bryson is that the first organizations working against cruelty towards animals predate similar organizations against cruelty towards children by many decades. Just as a side note.

But to me that still does not fully explain the unique role images play in this very special field.

What bothers me though is the fact that this level of illegality keeps me from researching some topics I am quite interested in. Quite a few of my projects deal with visual environments at the fringes of our visual culture. Surveillance and terrorism, for instance, both react to the developments within the broader visual language, but remain somewhat distanced. The images terrorist groups use for their propaganda want to become as visible as possible, but society fights to keep them secret. On the other hand, the images that are the result of surveillance operations, very often try hard to remain inaccessible. This is a very simplified summary, but maybe child pornography is something of both worlds. It has its niche audience, for which it tries to be as accessible as possible, while at the same time it has to remain perfectly invisible.

So, what is the visual culture of child pornography? How does it develop over time? How do the perpetrators depict themselves? Since my uninformed idea is that these videos serve as a kind of perverted trophy, I would believe that part of the thrill comes from the self-representation of the preparators in these images. How do they do it? Do they pixelate themselves in certain ways to let everyone else know that they are the creator of a certain video? Do the use watermarks or logos?

I would be interested in finding out, but I might never will be able to.

Islamist Propaganda might be the New Child Porn

Ever time and era in human history had its rules regarding the prohibition of images. And there have always been perfectly good reasons for why these rules had to be enforced. Still none of these rules held true forever and so if we have learned anything, we should come to the conclusion that our own perfectly good sounding reasons might be up for question as well.

I had a conversation yesterday on my work regarding ISIS videos. The two nice guys I was talking to both argued that these execution videos should be prohibited to spread. They even argued that depicting these gruesome acts falls in the same category as child pornography. I think there are quite many things wrong with this argument.

Child pornography is a strange thing indeed. This seems to be the only material that could get you in real trouble on the Internet by just looking at it. I am not talking about sharing, buying, storing, but rather just looking at it. (Please keep in mind that I am writing this from a German perspective.)

So it seems to me, that the two guys I was talking with, are not the only ones that try to throw “beheading videos” in the same basket with child pornography. I believe, I have heard similar attempts from several politicians in the past. They are aiming at islamist propaganda, but call it “beheading videos” – sounds much catchier if you ask me and makes the public easier follow their lead. Of course, no one wants beheading videos and the fact that the huge majority of islamist propaganda does not contain beheadings becomes a mere side note.

I am not saying that this material – child pornography or islamist porn should be treated as any other pictures or videos online. But I would like to question the idea of prohibiting certain images in themselves. Criminal acts should be prosecuted and so therefore should be those people, who produce and share, sell and buy these videos. But merely criminalizing the shear encounter with these images is wrong. They might be breaking any moral codes we have, or do not fit in any of our multitudes of ideas, of what should be considered good taste, but just by making most people avoid looking at something, won’t make it go away.

To me the “child porn” argument seems one of last resort. Something I even learned during the conversation I had. First the two guys I was talking with argued with “bad taste”, something very generic. Later they tried the argument, that decapitations should not be shown, since these videos are violating the privacy rights of those executed. Well, of course they do, but I find the bigger violation to their privacy the fact that they have been executed in the first place. I have yet to encounter a single image from the death camps of the Second World War, where peoples faces are blurred. I find it extremely important to give these nameless victims at least a face. It is hard to look at, but so is this form of brutality in general.

It might not be necessary for everyone to look at these images – child porn or beheadings – but for the society as a whole, it might be important to really know what is out there to fine tune our response. Personally I find the mere idea of child porn so disgusting, that I have no intention to even look at this material. I encountered some in the past by accident and to me this is enough. But there have to be people working on this material and I would definitely want to see a talk or presentation on the way these images look, or how they evolve over time, where they draw their inspiration and if a response to the growing pressure from the criminal justice side can be found in this material.

“New” is a bad criteria for quality

Recently someone complained that my book on the Stasi images was already three years old and therefore might not be of great interest anymore. This is precisely the thinking that keeps me from mentioning any creation dates for my projects on my website. First of all, let’s look at the Stasi project. Many of these images – if not all – are over thirty years old, most of them had been in the archive for twenty year without anyone taking notice and then the three years, since my publication makes them loose their value and importance? That seems strange to me.

We all know the hunt for the new, that might in part be fueled by an ever faster new circle. But it feels wrong to me, if this takes a hold in the art world. I know of course that many art works do not age well and do in fact loose their relevance after some time. But three years seems quite a short life span.

Personally I don’t really care about how old a certain of works is, what matters to me is if it still has relevance for my artistic process right now. How does it go together with my newest ideas? Sure, after some time I loose interest in the things I have done earlier, but still since many of my works share a common underlying topic, an older project might still be valuable to a new one. And sometimes old projects become gain in importance due to the creation of something new.

This is why I do not want to participate in this game of “how old is it”. Sometimes I am forced to participate, but I try to avoid it.

 

The best censorship remains invisible

I had a strange experience today. I did a quick layout for a small booklet I wanted to print, with parts of my works on terror. Nothing special, in fact I am not good in layout work and that is something I do not really enjoy. But I need some printed material with this new stuff, to apply to some things in the future. So I uploaded the PDF yesterday in the evening and this morning I received an email telling me, that my order has been canceled. The email stated, that my content did not comply with the philosophy of the company. Call it what you want, but I think someone thought that this work should be censored.

Even though it does not really show on the surface of society, there seems to be something present underneath, that almost resembles mass hysteria, when it comes to anything terror related – or maybe even Islam related, since too many people have a hard time to distinguish the two.

If we look at the works in question, we might definitely not be able to agree on the quality or even if the work is interesting at all, but I think that it is certainly not braking any laws. Does it brake moral codes? Maybe. But should that be an issue?

I am certain that the person who had to check this PDF saw something Islamic and that did raise the red flag. But lets be clear, I ordered merely 10 copies of the publication, since that is all I need, and that would be a very shitty propaganda operation. Its like dropping five leaflets on North Korea.

OK, in the end I wrote them an email and some hours later, someone left a voicemail message, stating that they thought about it and would print my booklet. So no censorship in the end. But what if I did not write an email? My material would not have been printed of course. And maybe next time, I would have thought more thoroughly about the content I want to print. That would be the beginning of self-censorship. Even now, I have the feeling, that I would look at my layout differently next time. Sad.

Since I am doing a lot research on this kind of material, I watch and collect a lot of it. When I became interested, at first, I wondered where this material could be found. And how should I go about accessing it? I started researching TOR and other forms of surfing the Internet anonymously. Should I purchase a VPN or not? But the more I thought about it, the more I became angry with myself and the situation. As far as I know, it is not illegal to research these things. I am not involved in the making of these videos nor in the distribution of the material itself. What I am doing is research work. Many people might consider what I am doing bad taste, but I think it is important.

So I decided not to hide my tracks and not to use anonymous services. If I end up on some kind of government watch list, this would proof that the system currently is broken.

Why is society so afraid of propaganda? Propaganda is not too different from advertising and we all would agree that watching an advert does not really make you buy a certain car. Otherwise people in debt could always sue car companies for making them purchase cars, they could never afford.

By prohibiting access to this material, it is not going to go away, it just becomes far more tempting for some people. But the more damaging part is that by removing this material from the common consciousness, you remove it from public debate. And that lets people freak out once they encounter a small glimpse. Most of the ISIS material online is boring or unimportant. And then there is some brutal material and maybe a tiny fraction could be considered dangerous. But by blocking all access to all material, everything is labeled the same way … and it becomes far frightening.

In fact there should be public screenings of this material, combined with public debate. Once you inspect this material closely, it quickly starts loosing its aura and reveals things it is not meant to reveal.

Why some drones make a buzzing sound

While I was watching a documentary about drone strikes in Afghanistan, I noticed that some of the drones shown made buzzing sounds. The sound they make is comparable to the noise of a lawnmower – in fact, when I looked into it, it turned out that some drones use motors that have similarities to the ones used in lawnmowers. At first I did not really notice but then I though, well that is odd, wouldn’t it be much better to have them as silent as possible? Well, they are somewhat advertised as the silent killers that could strike anywhere. Plus it shouldn’t be too difficult to make them silent.

But the more I think about it, the more do I come to the conclusion that the buzzing sound is not due to an accident or due to some technical limitations, rather that this sound is part of the way this weapon system is supposed to work. The noise serves as a constant reminder that the threat created by these drones is real and might strike you at any time. In a way I can see parallels to the footage produced by terror groups that show successful suicide attacks. Uploading a video to Youtube does not make your next suicide attack more successful, but by using this kind of PR channels, you are causing terror beyond the actual reach of your suicide attackers.

This is the aspect that fascinates me a lot, while thinking about how contemporary conflicts are fought. Many of the most prolific weapons used today try to be invisible – like suicide bombers, drones, IEDs, computer viruses -, but their reach is always limited. Therefore there seems the need for them to be as widely publicized as possible. That way they manage to enter our perception. The threat becomes omnipresent.

I think I mentioned this in an earlier blog post, but big brother might be happy if you think he is watching. He could never watch everyone, but once you feel his gaze, you might control yourself.


I wonder if sound designers are involved in the production of these drone engines. Do they ask people to respond to different kinds of pitches? Or do they consider, which wavelength might work best and could be heard farthest? Toying with peoples perception is as brutal as aiming weapons in their general direction.

The lack of terrorist mouse droppings

“You can not prove a negative”

For quite some time I thought the sentence above was a widely used English saying. More recently I looked into it and found that it actually is a quote by James Randi, the American magician and skeptic. Very brilliant guy. So I might have to tone down my appreciation for the English speaking world and raise the one I am feeling towards James Randi. The sentence sounds very trivial and Randi is certainly not the first one to understand the concept – Russels Teapot points to the same conclusion -, but I find this idea to be absolutely crucial for many of the problems we are facing today.

The idea of the sentence above, is that to prove that something does not exist you could never find a positive evidence. The absence of something leaves naturally no trace. So if there is a mouse in your attic, you might find mouse droppings and these could be counted as evidence. But a non-existing mouse would leave no droppings. But the thing is that the absence of droppings could never be considered evidence for the absence of the mouse. Maybe the mouse is too clever and shits somewhere else. The absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence.

But I am not so much interest in mouse poop, but rather this – quite simple – concept might explain a lot. Or better, the problems people are having coping with this concept explains a lot. Why is terrorism so scary? Why does society freak out when a pig somewhere sneezes and dies of the flu?And why do surveillance operations keep growing? Maybe many of our fears come from our inability to deal with the concept on non-existence.

Terrorism is scary, because we are made to believe that terrorists are hiding within our society – and since we could not prove otherwise, the only valid response seems fear.

While working on my Stasi project, I came to the conclusion that surveillance systems actually like this fear created through absence – you can never be sure that big brother is not looking in your direction and therefore you better control you own behavior.

But the same mechanisms might have helped to destroy the system. The Stasi was a massive undertaking. 80something thousand full-time agents and tens of thousands of informers. And this operation kept growing over time. In fact it peaked a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This decline was due to the economic troubles in the GDR and not due to a voluntary decision to take things easier. But why did the Stasi grow? There was not much of a demographic grow – quite the contrary, the population was in constant decline due to low birth rates and emigration towards West Germany. The Stasi grew because of paranoia.

Systems like this one – I would argue – lack the power to question its own existence. You can easily question everything, but questioning your own being and your role within you part of society is hard, the same is true for large scale organizations. So, since the Stasi would not or could not question its own existence, it seemed clear that there must be a threat to society – that was basically the premise for the whole Stasi operation. The idea was that, the West was constantly trying to undermine the system and topple the regime. So all the Stasi needed to do was to find evidence for that.

But as matter of fact, it turned out that most politicians in West Germany and Western Europe were too afraid of instability on their eastern borders and the incalculable risks this instability might bring. Therefore West Germany prolonged the life of East Germany by giving loans and paying ransom for political prisoners. As far as we know now, West Germany never actively tried to topple the regime. Sure, there was support for dissidents, but that was not like funding an underground army. But since the absence of a plan to bring down the regime could never be proven by a surveillance apparatus, the Stasi could never come to the conclusion that the threat they felt was not real.

Poor Stasi guys. How could they have reacted? Once they did not uncover “The Big Plot” for ten years, who would have gotten up to tell his colleagues “Guys, listen! We have been searching for ten years and we did not find any evidence. So lets all go home.”? Of course no one does that, since the guy who desperately wants a promotion, would answer that the enemy is just too clever and therefore the threat is just very hard to uncover. But one day, for certain, evidence will be found, all that is needed is just one thousand new agents. Maybe it is just me, but to me that sounds very contemporary.

It is the same dilemma the NSA, CIA, BND and all the others are facing. Once you come to the conclusion the threat you are facing might be invisible you have already lost. There is no way to find any evidence that gets rid of the fear that you have just created. Maybe the fear becomes weaker, or it is covered by more powerful fears, but it is here to stay.

 

Filming Aniconism

I might repeat myself, when I briefly point out the two following images, but since I find this whole topic extremely fascinating, I might as well do. In the first picture you can see five ISIS fighters during a staged exercise, all wearing action cameras on their heads. The whole video is mostly shot for the camera and part of the normal propaganda one can expect from these sources. But still, you see quite a lot of battle footage that is obviously shot with similar cameras. It just looks somewhat absurd. And the more so, if you compare this with another still from another recent ISIS video. Here you see some guys painting over advertising portraits. The fact that the face of the lady on the left is censored seems almost like the normal thing one can expect in this setting. But the fact that the two other faces (both male) are censored as well, shows that this censorship goes beyond the “regular” misogynistic prohibition of the female image and more towards the aniconistic tradition of some radical versions of Islam. Aniconism, or the religious prohibition of depicting sentient beings, has definitely followers amongst islamists, but filming the act of enforcing this god given rule on video, makes the whole thing appear very strange. Keep in mind that the Taliban were killing photographers for breaking this interpretation of the law. Today, they might still kill people for the same reason, but I guess that this would be filmed and the result would end up on Youtube. It is really about a power struggle and not so much about religious believes. Filming aniconism…. well that is definitely something.

Five Gopros

Aniconism