Zach Blas is an artist and writer whose practice engages technologies of control and security with queer politics. In his recent works, he responds to biometric governmentality and network hegemony. Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–2014) consists of “collective masks” that cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition software, while Contra-Internet (2014-present) explores subversions of and alternatives to the internet. A lecturer in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, Blas has exhibited and lectured internationally, recently at Jeu de Paume, Paris; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; e-flux, New York; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; and transmediale, Berlin. Blas is also producing two books, Escaping the Face, an artist monograph (Sternberg Press and Rhizome, 2017), and Informatic Opacity: The Art of Defacement in Biometric Times (in preparation). His work has been featured in Artforum, Frieze, Art Papers, Mousse Magazine, Wired, and Art Review, in which Hito Steyerl selected him as a 2014 FutureGreat.
Here, he shares his perspective on the year that was, as part of our annual series, 2016: The Year According to.
2016 may well be the most violent, painful, and destructive year since my birth. That said, I see this list as not so much of a “top 10” but rather a gathering of events, occurrences, writing, and artworks that I find necessary to engage with—both to better understand and struggle against contemporary forms of control and to celebrate and fight for other possible futures that are more livable for all of us here on earth.
Bomb denotation robot used to kill Micah Xavier Johnson
On July 7, 2016, Johnson, a black man and Army Reserve Afghan War veteran, shot dead five police officers in Dallas. This took place amidst a protest over the police killings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, during which Johnson stated he wanted to kill white police officers. In an unprecedented act, which is only one of numerous instances that horrifyingly exposes racial violence against black people in the US, the Dallas Police Department utilized a bomb detonation robot to blow up Johnson, who was in a nearby parking structure. Never before had a bomb detonation robot been used by police officers in the US to execute a person. Johnson’s killing indexes the further transformation of US policing into war, as military equipment is integrated into law enforcement.
Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist
Atkinson’s documentary film on the militarization of the police in the United States is unsettling, to say the least. After attending a screening at the Frontline Club in London this October, I realized my body was aching all over because I had been so tense throughout the duration of the film. The documentary begins in Ferguson in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, and depicts police officers turning into “warrior cops,” aggressively suppressing African-American protesters with an arsenal of military gear. The film also exposes police training seminars that emphasize the use of “righteous violence.” What especially struck me is when Atkinson focuses on predictive policing, which are algorithms supposedly able to predict—and thus prevent—crime. This, of course, leads to older modes of profiling—racial included—sedimenting in new software. In my current studio practice, I am developing a new body of artworks that confronts the informatic nature of policing today, and this will materialize as a series of immersive installations, titled The Prison-House.
“Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year and defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Today, post-truth is popularly used to describe political strategies implemented during the EU referendum in the UK and the US presidential campaign. Consider the outright lie fabricated by the Vote Leave campaign on bus ads, pictured above, that contributed to Brexit; Donald Trump plainly stating that Barak Obama is “the founder of ISIS”; or the proliferation of fake news, provoking incidents like Pizzagate, which involved a man shooting an assault rifle in a pizzeria because of its supposed connection to a child trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton. If truth is slipping away from politics, perhaps artistic practice should make use of this by telling a better lie, in order to reroute us back to democracy—or better, queer utopia.
Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene
Every autumn, I teach an undergraduate class at Goldsmiths on “Feminist and Queer Technoscience.” One of the foundational texts we read is Donna Haraway’s 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” which argues for a feminist objectivity in science. I have read this article more than 20 times, and yet each time I sit down with it, I find it thrilling—I get chills. Needless to say, for me, a new book by Haraway is a major event. Staying with the Trouble had a delayed release in the UK, and I was going all over London looking for a copy. I finally picked it up during a trip back to New York. The book tackles climate change with science fiction, myth, and art, all bound together by what Haraway terms “string figuring.” A striking (and rather queer) claim: “One of the most urgent tasks that we mortal critters have is making kin, not babies… It’s making present the powers of mortal critters on earth in resistance to the anthropocene and capitalocene.”
Frankfurt Airport Security Area video
In November, I gave a talk at the Digital Disorders conference at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. On my way back to London, déjà vu stopped me in my tracks at the Terminal B security area in the Frankfurt airport. Among airport workers and agents, security belts with luggage, and a variety of scanning devices, numerous monitors were broadcasting a single video on repeat, dramatizing a young, white German woman and man’s airport security experience. As their bodies—including genitals—are rubbed and prodded, the woman and man smile and flirt with one another, as if their gazes transform the administrative touch of the security agent into a sexual caress. Upon successfully completing their security screenings, they find one another in Duty Free and have a romantic meal together—all before their flights! I had seen this video years before, when passing through Frankfurt in 2013. I find it as menacing as ever, as it normalizes security through heteronormative romance. The video promises that you too may be lucky enough to have such an encounter if you comply with regulations. The entire Frankfurt airport security area, with its many screens and security apparatuses, began to resemble an art installation to me, like some Nam June Paik piece gone terribly wrong. What appeared most pernicious was the placement of monitors playing this security romance video directly above Pro Vision 2 body scanners, as these are the 3D imaging full body scanners that, because of the reductive ways they encourage staff to assess gender, have caused transgender persons to be detained on terrorist suspicions over “gonadal anomalies.” Bizarrely, this security video is on Vimeo, and now that I have access to it, I am developing an installation around it.
The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten & Saidiya Hartman
This year, I found myself intensely searching for material on political imaginaries, utopias, and alternatives. I spent much time thinking about ideas of “the outside,” which is a concept that comes up in a variety of theoretical writings, but I’m quite taken by the versions in queer and feminist thought, such as when J. K. Gibson-Graham argue that there is an outside to capitalism or when José Esteban Muñoz writes about queerness as an escape from the hegemonic present. That said, I was moved by this conversation between Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, as they experiment with thinking and imagining their versions of the outside, through “the black outdoors.” Hartman articulates the stakes of this project well: “The enclosure is so brutal.”
Future Queer Perfect at Station Independent Projects
An exhibition on queerness, utopia, and communism!? All I can say is yes to that! Curated by Olga Kopenkina and Yevgeniy Fiks, the artworks presented utilize queerness as a modality for considering leftist rebellion and utopias of the past. The School of Theory and Activism in Bishkek created an incredible archival project on the Kollontai Commune, a queer communist group from the Kyrgyz Republic. Yevgeniy Fiks’s Toward a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay) consists of text-based carvings that explore communism and homosexuality in the life of Harry Hay, a noted gay rights activist and communist. I am quite fond of the woodcut shown here, but another beautifully states: “Sometimes an agitprop circumstance could overlap with a pick-up ‘Join the union! Join the union! The truth shall make you free!’ And with the employment of a not-universally-noted eye-look, I could connect without speaking ‘Join me in another kind of union! This way lies another freedom!’”
The Empire Remains Shop
I wish I could have attended the majority of the events that took place at this art installation-meets-pop-up shop on Baker Street in London. The Empire Remains Shop looks to the remains—or leftovers—of the British Empire with food, geographies, and exchange, through a vast public program of performances, meals, and discussions. Initiated by London-based duo Cooking Sections, the shop immerses you in questions, feelings, pasts, and futures of the postcolonial. Some highlights: a screening and discussion with The Otolith Group, a “midnight masala” performance by Shahmen Suku (Radha La Bia), and consultation sessions on how to devalue real estate provided by Cooking Sections.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Vapour
In April, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul screened his new feature Cemetery of Splendor at the Tate Modern, along with a silent, black-and-white short titled Vapour. For 20 minutes, thick fog engulfs a village. It is haunting, foreboding, and spectacular to watch. Before the screening, then Tate Modern director Chris Dercon explained that this village, named Toongha, has been the site of violent struggles for land, between residents and the state (and is also where Weerasethakul currently lives). The fog is enigmatic: is it a creeping horror, the fog of war, a safety blanket, or simply the opacity of the world?
Facebook Live stream of battle for Mosul
On October 18, various news outlets, such as Al-Jazeera and Channel 4, used Facebook Live to stream a military operation led by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. This appears to mark the first time warfare has been broadcast live by major news channels over Facebook. The result: more than a million viewers tune in to watch a cascade of emojis glide over images of war—a bombing and a thumbs up. This is undoubtedly what James Der Derian calls the military-industrial-media-entertainment network—a network that looms ever larger today. As images of war and crisis ceaselessly circulate, their inundation into our lives keeps forcing a question: how to engage with them?