by Jennifer Burris
“We were discussing how to arrive, and one idea was helicopter drones.”
The comment appears flippant, and is met with audience laughter. Projected in high-definition against a back wall of the ICA first floor space, the speaker (Mashinka Firunts) is discussing possible ways to begin the event currently taking place. In the video, she is bordered by an empty black frame and lit to the side, both composition and tone evoking the silently breathing beauties of Warhol’s screen tests.
This strategic performance of process and methodology, citation and erudition, anchors Unsearchable, an endlessly digressive evening of questions and questioning that took place at ICA on Wednesday, May 23rd, as part of the group exhibition First Among Equals. Machete Group—a Philadelphia-based union of philosophers, writers, and critics—invited artists Mashinka Firunts and Daniel Snelson to collaborate in a performative lecture that explored ideas related to the database: archiving, searching, classifying, compiling. As Machete Group member Avi Alpert explained in his spoken introduction:
“When God was thought of as the unsearchable, this was the mystical paradox. When the self was unsearchable, this was the paradox of consciousness. Now that the world is searchable, our paradox is to find something that escapes being found.”
Divided into three segments, this search for what remains beyond the database began with the video mentioned above. A montage of 1950s films, original footage, and randomly generated Google searches, this entry point showcased the three performers informally discussing how to construct and order the evening. The following two segments were performed live. Seated at a long table facing the audience, the same three participants, clad in film noir black, took turns stepping up to the podium where they introduced themselves and attempted to clarify (or perhaps obfuscate) the topic at hand. Each explanation was from the vantage point of an assumed “role” specified by their chosen methodological approach to searching. Avi was the “Theorist,” Daniel was the “Archivist,” and Mashinka was a ratatatat detective nicknamed “Narrative.” Rounding out the evening was a rapid-fire questioning directed towards the audience: an overtly theatricalized demonstration of confusion in which most people on the receiving end of a question could do little more than stammer out one-word answers.
If this is sounding excessively meta-analytical, self-reflexive, and contrived—that’s because it was. And that was the point. Playing around and through the adopted rhetoric and confused nomenclature so often evoked in discussions of contemporary art, the event gently mocked such self-aggrandizing critiques and justifications; that little trick of making the question sound sufficiently impenetrable and obscure enough in order to convey intelligence without genuine comprehension being a readymade tool of art and academia alike. Yet the mockery was sweetly done, with humor and an air of inclusion. As one question directed towards the audience by the performers demanded:
“Galloway’s tactics of non-existence seem to figure centrally in all your remarks tonight. If you are, indeed, invested in practicing the aesthetics of non-existence, why can I see you plain as day?”(1)
In this way, Unsearchable appears an appropriated heir to work like James Lee Byars’s 1969 performance The World Question Center.(2) But there is something else, as well, at play. By performing this abstracted opacity, winking to academic language and detective narratives, they also seemed to be performing something much more insidious; which brings us back to drones.
A growing flight of unmanned aerial vehicles deployed primarily in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, drones are used for surveillance and reconnaissance as well as to carry out air strikes. Transmitting live video feeds and still images to remotely located operators, this new wave of military intelligence facilitates a video game mentality towards war. Understood in this wider context of international politics and negotiation, the referencing of drones both opens up the initial impenetrability of Unsearchable while also adding a reverberation of discomfiting meaning for both contemporary art and political compliance alike.
It is impossible to “arrive” on a drone, as Firunts joked about doing at the start of the evening; the machine’s very structure renders the proposal paradoxical. But what is apparently an illogical throwaway in actuality introduces an underlying premise of the performance. The three central characters, or figures, should not be thought of as human subjects but as search agents, operating within the framework of each of their chosen methodologies.
These agents’ indifferent search for the unsearchable also shares a disconcerting similarity to the military’s use of surveillance drones to discover what is, by definition, just as unstable and impossible to find: terrorism, networks, terror. What is produced by this paranoiac search engine, operating through thousands of computerized flight vehicles, is an endless deluge of images and video clips leading to a crisis of information for analysts on the other end.(3)
By playing out these contemporary structures of paranoia and information overload within the camp theatricality of a dinner theater, the performers enact a rigorous cross-examination of the processes of contemporary surveillance and the mechanisms of a perverse governmentality without an immediate referencing of either politics or emotion. As the evening’s final set of questions plaintively put forth: “I’ve heard coded references at this point to almost every imaginable topic: what is it to search? Is there anything that is not searchable? Is there a relationship between searching/targeting and war? Is narrative a mode of liberation? Can you say, definitively, what the major concern of the event here tonight has been?”
No, you could not; and so we go on searching, lost, looking for something to find.
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All images are from Unsearchable, 2012, by Avi Alpert, Mashinka Firunts, and Daniel Snelson. Photos by William Hidalgo.
(1) An Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, Alexander R. Galloway is a founding member of the software collective RSG and creator of the data surveillance engine Carnivore. With Eugene Thacker, he co-authored a book entitled The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minnesota, 2007), which proposes an idea of non-existence as a form of indifference. Seb Franklin describes this notion of non-existence in his article “On Game Art, Circuit Bending and Speedrunning as Counter-Practice” as follows: “It’s not a question of hiding, or living off the grid, but of living on the grid, in potentially full informatics view, but in a way that makes one’s technical specification or classification impossible.” Cory Arcangel is a contemporary artist often discussed within this framework.
(2) “In 1969, the American artist James Lee Byars developed a performance piece entitled The World Question Center. The original idea, which was not brought to fruition, entailed gathering one hundred brilliant minds including thinkers, scientists, and artists together in a room, locking them behind closed doors and inviting them to ask each other questions they had been asking themselves. The final version of this project, produced for Belgian Radio and Television, is a performance piece in which Byars contacts all of them by telephone” (www.ubu.com/film/byars_world-question.html). Many thanks to Kenneth Goldsmith for pointing me to this work.
(3) The effects of this crisis of information have been explicitly, and consistently, skewered in the work of artists like Harun Farocki, whose ingenious films and video installations—from Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) to Serious Games (2009-2010)—unravel the militarization of imaging technologies and perception. Other artists, such as Seth Price, propose opportunities for individual resistance; Price’s 2008 artist book/exhibition catalogue How to Disappear in America provides internet-sourced instructions for the ways one can drop out of a mainstream society and evade law enforcement.
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