White Wigs, Black Masks: On Surveillance Pop

White Wigs, Black Masks: On Surveillance Pop

White Wigs, Black Masks: On Surveillance Pop

The cameras no longer look at us because we’re famous; we’re famous because they look at us to death.


Better than most, Andy Warhol grasped the mutations in the image world of hypercapitalism, an empire compelled increasingly to survive on appearance. Eventually we would all be seen, gaudy, glorious and without depth. This dream is coiled within the extraordinary screen tests taken in Warhol’s Factory of Billy Name, Bob Dylan, Ingrid Superstar and others, reel beyond reel. Fame became universalized and hollowed out, no longer Hollywood exception but everyday equivalence. This was the future, circa 1965. The advance toward the condition of the icon and the logotype was not charged with dread. It was the opposite, even: we would be stars, objectively.

This epochal transformation would be enabled by the industrialization of appearance, its mass production. It is a peculiar idea of democracy, visible only from the glinting recesses of the downtown scene—but an idea nonetheless. We would fix the Gini coefficient of fame. The cameras would not look at us because we were famous; we would be famous because the cameras looked at us. 

This has all come true, but inverted in the camera obscura of our days. The screen test is a chronic condition: traverse any self-respecting traffic intersection, government or corporate building, the subway. There are 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom; according to Forbes, approximately 30 million surveillance cameras have been sold in the United States since 2001. There have been, too, the recent revelations of government spying on journalists, and the knowledge that every phone conversation and e-mail is now preserved for loving attention. We need no longer imagine a future in which we are everywhere and always appearing. Everybody is a star. 

Warhol must have understood fame, absolute appearance, to be a kind of death-in-life; he was himself a walking memento mori, rictus grin and wig pale as Carrara marble, the signature of the visible on the dead letter of modernity. Surveillance pop moves toward death. Drones are only its most obvious manifestation, as are services for the management of one’s digital afterlife.

What then could life be in the thicket of lenses launched by state and capital—especially for those caught up in the meshes of power, which is increasingly bent on disciplining people toward compliance, once the direct purchase of social peace becomes too expensive for staggering economies? Surely this must explain the extraordinary delight so many people took in Pussy Riot’s pop art balaclavas brightening the soleas of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It was thrilling even for those of us with little understanding of the political significance of the Russian Orthodox Church, and its partnership with Putin’s corporate security state.

It was scarcely a bid for invisibility, however. “Punk Prayer” was entirely invested in appearance, albeit of a different kind. The iconic masks reappear all too swiftly, now with unicorn appliqués, in Spring Breakers. The film’s young miscreants match them with “DTF” sweatpants borrowed from MTV’s Jersey Shore, a different story of ubiquitous cameras, pure image and celebrity. That this pairing makes sense is a verdict. It reserves some skepticism for Pussy Riot, for the global fame of attractive, camera-ready rebels, and how appearance was on their side in a way that it will not be for the subjects of your average stop-and-frisk. 

The common understandings of pop culture pit it against daily life, against concrete political struggles that exist beyond the play of images. It is escape, relief, opiate, at best a test where the contradictions of reality seem briefly to admit of resolution while cash changes hands offscreen. 

And yet: we are all famous now. The technologies of total celebrity, as well as the social forces that have made them profitable and desirable, unfold into habits and expectations of how to be. Pop as worldview, as the baseline experience of expecting always to appear, provides an opening for the remaking of public space, private space, political space. 

Take Camover. As millions of BioShock Infinite and Red Dead Redemption players know, anarchism is haunting videogames lately. Camover is a bit different: set first in Berlin and then one city after the next, it requires neither console nor controller. It is a videogame brought back to life; players go into the streets with the goal of disabling and collecting actual surveillance cameras to be displayed later in online videos (so the game is scored; so proceeds the commingling of daily life and pop). Gameplay, as you would expect, still requires certain equipment, such as black masks.

Thus we might come to understand the tactic of the black bloc, which has achieved such infamy these last years, as itself a kind of pop culture. Not because those who don the anonymizing balaclavas are famous, or believe in a struggle in the realm of images, but because this is an inevitable position within the universalized fame of surveillance. It is Warhol’s wig in negative. From the moment that daily life becomes a screen test, the black mask is inevitable. Every surveillance camera makes anarchy more compelling, more joyous. Pussy Riot’s Day-Glo glory adds a flourish, but the logic is immpeccable.

It matters little whether you like black bloc or not, whether you harbor perfervid fantasies about who is under those masks. It is a relentlessly sensible response. It is remarkable, in fact, that it is not far more prevalent, that we are not every day surrounded by growing armies of anti-Andys wheeling like swallows through the twilight of empire. Remarkable, that is, if we are to believe in the human urge toward escaping the mesh, eluding the compulsion to be a complicit and productive citizen. You know, that thing about which movies are made.

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