Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies

Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies, edited by artist and researcher Bogomir Doringer in collaboration with curator and cultural studies scholar Brigitte Felderer.

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Publisher De Gruyter writes: The contributions to this book explore a phenomenon that appears to be a contradiction in itself – we, the users of computers, can be tracked in digital space for all eternity. Although, on the one hand, one wants to be noticed and noticeable, on the other hand one does not necessarily want to be recognized at the first instance, being prey to an unfathomable public, or – even less so – to lose face.

The book documents artistic and other strategies that point out options for appearing in the infinite book of faces whilst nevertheless avoiding being included in any records. The desire not to become a mere object of facial sell-out does not just remain an aesthetic endeavor. The contributions also contain combative and sarcastic statements against a digital dynamic that has already penetrated our everyday lives.

REBEL YUTHS, Masks, 2011-2013

Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons We Stand Strong, 2016. Photo: Fraser Denholm and Yvi Philipp

I love exhibition catalogues. Most of them give you a colourful overview of a show you’ve had the bad idea to miss. Others, however, do far more than that. They take the print as an opportunity to bring different voices around the pages to dissect and discuss a particular field of research, expanding on the exhibition itself and becoming a work of reference in the process. Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies is of the latter breed.

Faceless started as a duo of exhibitions that opened at Q21_ in Vienna in 2013. The shows investigated the hiding, distorting and masking of the face in post-9/11 visual culture. The practice, set against the backdrop of a massive production of images and a political frenzy to supervise movements, responds to various motivations: a need to regain some control over an identity, to protest against control and surveillance, to challenge mainstream ideas of acceptable bodies, etc.

As the book demonstrates, the strategies adopted to morph and conceal a face are as diverse as they are creative. It’s quite interesting to contrast some of them with the now normalized practice of publishing selfies in which the face has gone through so much (physical) makeup and (digital) filters action that the individual is barely recognizable. Everyone knows you don’t look like that at all in real life but we’ve stopped batting an eyelid a long time ago.

The essays and artistic contributions featured in the book are consistently excellent. Thomas Macho, for example, charts the strategies of facelessness through art history. Matthias Tarasiewicz discusses the zero trust society and the necessity to literally play hide and seek with surveillance infrastructures in order to obtain personal privacy online. Hille Koskela explains how exhibitionism, aided by digital media, has become “the new normal”. Teresa Dillon comments on the violent and material role that CCTV cameras play in urban life. Adam Harvey presents an e-commerce platform entirely dedicated to accessories and tricks for countersurveillance. Rosa Menkman has an eye-opening look at the use and abuse of the faces of (Caucasian) women in the history of image processing.

The best surprise for me, little Margiela maniac, was to find excerpts from the interviews that mint film office had done with members of the Martin Margiela team for their WE MARGIELA documentary. Margiela was an iconic fashion designer famous for the way he shrouded himself in invisibility. He shunned public appearances, refused to release any official portrait and accepted only a few interviews but then they had to be carried out via faxes. He was also a genius at disrupting all the fashion codes.


My recommendation to you would be to get this book if you’re interested in how questions of control&surveillance, identity&politics of the body are explored critically across a wide range of cultural manifestations. Not just in contemporary art but also in cinema, fashion, street culture, sexual fetishism, etc. Faceless manages to put a new, brave and thought-provoking spin on crucial topics that dominate our culture but still deserved to be discussed with intellectual rigour. And a bit of humour here and there.

Just a couple of the many creative works i discovered in the book:

Martin Backes, Pixelhead limited edition, 2010

Pixelhead is a full face mask acts as media camouflage, completely shielding the head to ensure that your face is not recognizable on photographs taken in public places, without securing permission. This piece is inspired by google street view and therefore bridges the gap between the real and virtual world. This simple piece of fabric masks individuals’ anonymity for the Internet age.

Sofie Groot Dengerink, © Google Privacy, 2011 © Google Maps and Sofie Groot Dengerink

Window curtains in The Netherlands are often either left wide open as a protestant statement that there is nothing to hide. Sofie Groot Dengerink‘s series of snapshots from Google Streetview lays bare the digital invasion of our (physical) privacy.

Jan Stradtmann, Garden of Eden, 2008

Shot furtively on Canary Wharf (London’s financial district) in September and October 2008, Jan Stradtmann’s photos reflect the tense atmosphere of the early days of the economic crisis. Everyday situations and gestures -cigarette breaks, phone calls or casual meetings between colleagues- get interpreted and framed as if they had a direct link to the crash.

Vermibus, In Absentia

Ben DeHaan, Uncured

Ben DeHaan’s melting portraits were created with a run-of-the-mill inkjet printers that use ultraviolet light to dry the ink printed on a page, which happens to be UV-sensitive. The ink dries — or cures — almost instantaneously. Unless you disable the UV light which is exactly what the artist did. He then photographed the prints as the ink was slowly dripping down the face of his subjects.

Simone C. Niquille, Here Be Faces, 2013

Pablo Garcia and Addie Wagenknecht, Webcam Venus, 2013

Caron Geary aka FERAL is KINKY, Frontal View No. 2 of White British Female, UK born-‘Feral’, London – Self Portrait, 2007

The book is a special edition of the Social Design department at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.