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.