French socio-anthropologist and art critic Jean-Paul Fourmentraux’s interdisciplinary research focuses on the political and anthropological issues of contemporary arts and technologies. He has published studies on Net Art, the post-media era and digital identities. He spoke to Sandrine Lambert, anthropologist at Laval University in Quebec, about his recent book “antiDATA: digital disobedience”.
Sandrine Lambert: Many artists have demonstrated the flaws in machines or reappropriated them for other applications. In what ways can these actions be considered political acts against a global surveillance system?
Jean-Paul Fourmentraux: My book antiDATA, digital disobedience focuses on the evolution of representations, applications and uses of technology, by observing these mutations in art. From this perspective, we need to remember that the Internet was originally designed as a horizontal space, fiercely attached to freedom of expression, openness and creativity. It was invented as an autonomous and alternative medium, independent of state-owned monopolies such as postal mail, telegraphy, telephone, as well as other media such as newspapers, radio and television.
In the early 1990s, the Internet was a singular playing field for hacker movements—a politicized promoter of low-technology and a digital inheritor of Hakim Bey’s theoretical Temporary Autonomous Zones. Like the pioneering ideologies of counterculture, cyberspace offered a new environment for a nomadic lifestyle, free from hierarchical and commercial control—a sort of libertarian utopia that favored both creative space and media activism.
But half a century later after its invention, the Internet seems to be dominated by a few big private corporations that profit directly from exploiting it. The best known are Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft (GAFAM). In this context, nations themselves are collaborating closely with these companies, exploiting the Internet to better control their societies, as the GAFAM empire is largely based on the collection of raw personal data.
This trend was highlighted in 2015 by the philosopher Ignacio Ramonet, and later by other authors including Shoshana Zuboff and Bernard Harcourt, who analyzed from very different political aspects the emergence of Surveillance Capitalism. Indeed, since the early 2000s, the Internet has become increasingly centralized, and is currently one of the most powerful tools used by both state and commercial institutions to implement strategies of vigilance and social control.
So much so that it’s hard to distinguish between state surveillance and media platform surveillance. This is Ramonet’s thesis, which he believes leads to an Empire of Surveillance: online, all facts and gestures are resources to be monitored, recorded, filtered, analyzed, etc. In this sense, the disaster of the Internet—or “accident” as Paul Virilio would say—is to increase mass surveillance of citizens.
In France, the Intelligence Act of 24 July 2015 declares that, with advance permission from a judge and following a simple decision by the Prime Minister, it’s entirely legal for investigators to wiretap French citizens. Automatic detection of suspicious behavior is reason enough to authorize the deployment of spyware that tracks and records in real-time all of an individual’s online activity. It only requires installing an “algorithmic black box” directly within telecom operators, Internet access providers and Web hosting servers. This allows authorities to track all exchanges and browsing history on Google, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, etc.
Of course, these platforms are also expected to cooperate by automatically detecting any suspicious data on their own. So in this context, maintaining fundamental democratic rights of citizens—freedom of expression and judgment, control and preservation of personal image, privacy and digital identity—is indeed a political battle.
In your opinion, are the mechanisms of surveillance and control implemented by certain digital technologies more problematic than before?
Your question already highlights the plurality of contemporary forms of surveillance, which are no longer limited to institutions (such as the 19th and early 20th century ones analyzed by the philosopher Michel Foucault), but are now based on more mobile and intrusive technologies. The current surveillance empire uses cameras, drones, facial recognition, while exploiting our DATA: the multitude of traces and digital information that we leave online, that are recorded, scrutinized and measured with the objective of predicting and modeling our behaviors.
The jurist Bernard Harcourt insists on this succession and intertwining of surveillance regimes, from the disciplinary societies theorized by Foucault, to the society of spectacle studied by Guy Debord, to the “open sky” societies of control analyzed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. But rather than being in opposition, today these different surveillance regimes seem to come together and cohabit, maintained by recent digital applications that induce a new form of self-surveillance.
However, I would draw attention to the opposition between “surveillance strategies” and “sousveillance tactics”, in the literal sense of the term sousveillance as defined by Steve Mann (1998 & 2003): an inverted panopticon that invites citizens to use digital devices to “watch from below” and foil the various forms of state or commercial power to which they are subjected or of which they are victims.
They may sometimes be consenting victims, but most often in spite of themselves, due to a lack of clear and solid understanding of the economic and political implications of the technologies they use. For me, sousveillance is two-fold, both political and performative; it is one of the “reflexive” tactics that involve using any means available to foil monitoring systems. More precisely, it involves reappropriating all the tools that habitually serve surveillance societies in order to turn them against those who survey and embody the power of the “panopticon”.
It’s important to underline this primary definition of sousveillance, as the term is often misused to refer to self-surveillance by citizens monitoring their daily lives. While Bernard Harcourt qualifies this as “overexposed”, it’s still a case of (self-) surveillance, and not of sousveillance as defined by Steve Mann.
Sousveillance has nothing to do with the trend of capturing and (over)sharing images of everyday life by people who accept to concede an increasing amount of their own privacy to online platforms. Sousveillance is “vigilance from below”, shedding light on the obscure strategies of online platforms and government that violate and exploit these data. The point of sousveillance is to survey these surveillance systems and the authorities that control them.
You emphasize the reflexive and experimental aspects of digital disobedience. How can these tactics of resistance, tricks and hacks deployed by artists and hacktivists open emancipatory paths for all users?
I choose to observe the interconnections between arts and technologies on a symbolic level, where new esthetics emerge and stimulate our imagination. But I also believe that art can play the role of whistleblower. As pioneering users of new media technologies, artists offer us reflexive and critical perspectives on our technological ecosystems.
Not so far back in history, along with experimental film and video art, what was called “archeology of media” consisted of revealing both the material infrastructures and the social determinism of media technologies. It was the same case with Net Art, which in the mid-1990s challenged and disrupted the Internet ecosystem, excavating and dissecting the machinery of media in order to examine both its esthetic and political issues.
It’s no coincidence that Net Art developed on a massive scale as early as 1996, with the works of Heath Bunting (UK), Oliana Lialina and Alexei Shulgin (Russia), Vuk Cosic (Slovenia, co-founder of the Internet mailing lists Nettime, Syndicate, 7-11 and Ljubljana Digital Media Lab) and others. Net artists criticized non-democratic regimes, advocated hacktivism and cyberfeminism, laying the groundwork for online art.
In this first Internet age, the collective artwork Carnivore, presented at the Ars Electronica festival, was a hacked version of the DCS1000 software used by the FBI for online wiretapping. Josh On of Futurefarmers made an anti-imperialist version of video games whose mission was the war on terror. Heath Bunting subverted the media communications of large financial corporations. The Yes Men and RTMARK hacked the communication strategies of large insurance brokers. The European collectives ETOY deployed several actions in the political and economic battles of Internet domain names (DNS, Dot.com), initiating a sort of information war in the fields of e-business and new financial exchanges such as NASDAQ.
By the age of Internet 2.0, the works of the Italian artist, hacker and activist Paolo Cirio maliciously criticized the use of new media technologies for uncontrolled power, at a time when transparency had become the new principle of our contemporary societies. Cirio invites us to consider the notions of anonymity, privacy and democracy. His work Face to Facebook (2011) presents 250,000 faces—from one million stolen Facebook user profiles processed through facial recognition software—sorted by facial expression and published on a custom dating site. It’s a large-scale warning against the risks of sharing sensitive personal information.
The French artist Christophe Bruno renews the figure of the artist as parasite by tackling the tools and practices of the collaborative Web and social networks. His first series of works, Google Hack, is a systematically critical, prospective, often comical reappropriation of the functions and uses of Google’s search engine. Bruno claims that Google has become an unparalleled surveillance tool, economically spurred by tracking the private lives, preferences and identities of its users in order to analyze and predict trends in art and society.
His iconic Human Browser features a series of Wi-Fi performances in physical space. An undercover actor joins group conversations, where his responses and contributions take the form of the real-time text flow of Google search “results”. By voicing the search results through a text-to-speech application, the Human Browser is subjected to Google’s responses to queries posed by its entourage, possessed by the algorithm that dictates its behavior, directs its dialogue, and formats its emotions. Going against expectations, Bruno’s work uses irony and mockery to call out people’s resistance or credulity.
Based on the examples in your book, how do art performances and hacktivism subvert the depoliticization of techniques and renew technocritical approaches?
From my very first studies on Net Art (2005, 2010) I saw the ideology of innovation challenged by infra-political practices that aimed to foil technical systems. These artists (or collectives) assert themselves as “parasites”, borrowing hacker modes of operation to implement an art of technological discomfort, digital piracy, incidents, bugs, viruses.
These art practices, which have a long history of technocritical approach (Jarrige), use well-known anthropology tactics—bricolage (Levi-Strauss), ”braconnage” (de Certeau, Scott), sabotage (Agamben)—that have gained new resonance in the online world. Beyond the parody aspect, this powerful “art of doing” engages the public (through public awareness, digital public space) and aims to take on a political form. This is where disobedience comes in—not as a posture, but through systems and practices, objects and sleights of hand.
In antiDATA, I distinguished various operations—sousveillance, tactical media, speculative design, statactivism and archeology of media—incarnated and implemented by the artists Trevor Paglen, Paolo Cirio, Julien Prévieux, Benjamin Gaulon, Christophe Bruno, Samuel Bianchini, Bill Vorn, the collective Disnovation.org and the duo HeHe.
Trevor Paglen reveals the existence and invisible constraints of obscure infrastructures and systems of mass surveillance (wiretapping, drones, spy satellites, facial recognition…) deployed by the United States government.
Paolo Cirio deploys an ecology of sousveillance that challenges the coerciveness and excessive control of “governing machines”. These works subvert the tools of panoptic surveillance used by those in power: police, government, intelligence agencies, GAFAM, etc. Cirio’s recent installation Capture—a panorama of police officer photo portraits that reflects on the Global Security Law proposal—was censured by France’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Christophe Bruno’s work, a Trojan horse in the Google hegemony, offers us a joyfully cynical parody of our linguistic and visual economies within online platforms. The artworks and workshops of Benjamin Gaulon (alias Recyclism) are a riff on programmed obsolescence. Disnovation.org and Julien Prévieux challenge us to (re)open the “black boxes” of technologies that parasite our daily lives (recommendation algorithms, digital assistants, GPS, etc.), even provoking their collapse and a form of technological degrowth (see Post Growth).
This “critical esthetic” of the digital world is in line with Marshall McLuhan’s intuitions: Art constitutes a counter-environment or an antidote and a means of forming perception and judgment. In this regard, the practices that I chose to examine, somewhere between art and media activism, amplify, echo and transform the playing field of technological innovations and their social impacts.
These projects also consider our digital ecosystem as a “public problem”, in the philosophical sense defined by the American pragmatist philosopherJohn Dewey, who believed that art, like experience, is always transactional, contextual (situational), spatio-temporal, qualitative, narrative, etc. Here, hacking is not only a social and political act, but an esthetic one, implying autonomy, independence, (critical) reflexivity, reappropriation of material cultures (against obsolescence and opaque systems).
Increased security and surveillance, especially in these pandemic times, has also exposed the lack of citizen involvement in decisions that concern them. How do you analyze the current situation in France?
To answer your question, I would be inclined to not separate current Covid-19 prevention measures—whose top-down implementation has taken away many of our basic freedoms—from the issue of police violence, or rather prohibiting it from being captured in images, according to the proposed Global Security Law. A similar problem results from these two concurrent affairs, based on the asymmetrical nature of the powers of surveillance.
We saw this expressed in contradictory Covid-19 directives such as the effectiveness of mask-wearing or the use—or non-use, by officials themselves—of the StopCovid mobile application. An atmosphere of citizen defiance has enveloped the Global Security Law, which could just as well be called the “Global Surveillance Law”. We also saw a battle of images, in photographs and videos, comparing and confronting concurring testimonies. Surveillance vs. sousveillance: two recordings offering contrasting and opposing views of what happened.
Now this face-to-face takes place not only verbally and physically, but also through interposed cameras—eye-to-eye, gaze-to-gaze. Each side is now equipped with a new weapon of sur- or sous-veillance: the mobile camera. This war of images also plays out beyond the physical reach of humans, through the new viewing vehicles of drones and other integrated technical and semi-autonomous cameras. In addition to the ubiquity of cameras in public space, we are now subject to increasingly invasive tracking and facial recognition technologies. In this context, can sousveillance truly be a counter-power? It’s a bit too early to say.
Nonetheless, we can see in sousveillance a commendable reinforcement of democracy, whereby citizens can claim “viewing rights” on actions promoted by the institutions that govern them. This fundamental freedom, currently under threat, is written in the long history of humanity. The philosopher Emmanuel Alloa reminds us that while Plato defended the constitution with a team of guardians tasked with surveilling citizens who were harder to control under the division of labor, this measure was already controversial and posed a new problem: Who oversees the guards? From this point of view, if official actions charged with maintaining both security and public health are effectively serving the common cause, then they too should be subject to public trial and judgment.
antiDATA. La désobéissance numérique. Art et Hacktivisme technocritique, Jean-Paul Fourmentraux, Éditions Les Presses du réel, coll. Perceptions, 2020.
Jean-Paul Fourmentraux, socio-anthropologist (PhD), is Professor of Philosophy and Sociology in arts and media at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. He directs research (HDR Sorbonne) at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), is a member of Centre Norbert Elias (UMR-CNRS 8562) and initiated the Art-Science-Society program at Institut Méditerranéen d’Études Avancées (IMéRA, RFIEA). He is also a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA).
Publications: author of Art et Internet (CNRS, 2005 & 2010), Artistes de laboratoire (Hermann, 2011), L’œuvre commune (Presses du réel, 2012), L’Œuvre virale. Net art et culture Hacker (La Lettre Volée, 2013), antiDATA, la désobéissance numérique (Presses du réel, 2020); editor of L’Ere Post-media (Hermann, 2012), Art et Science (CNRS, 2012), Identités numériques (CNRS, 2015), Digital Stories (Hermann, 2016), Images Interactives (La Lettre Volée, 2017).