In the previous episodes of EXTREME LAND Luca Marullo (Parasite2.0) interviewed Andreas Angelidakis, m-a-u-s-e-r, Aristide Antonas and Matilde Cassani, with the aim of to understanding the moment of transition architecture is experiencing nowadays.
In this fifth part Marullo interviewed Swiss graphic designer and researcher Simone Niquille, which practice investigates the representation of identity without a body, the digitisation of biomass and the increasingly omnipresent optic gaze of everyday objects. She has written a column on technology, body modification and privacy for Sang Bleu, is part of design research collective Space Caviar in Genova and is Tutor at the Architectural Association.
Luca Marullo: Your practice comes from your studies in graphic design and from your experience as a researcher. You recently took part to Space Caviar, which focuses on design and architecture. Your work spans on various fields, from politics to new technologies, architecture, art and social media. How does this look on contemporaneity comes about? Are there any figures or practices that you took inspiration from?
Simone Niquille: As a teenager I was obsessed with mechanically operated photo cameras. Specifically with the chemical developing and printing process, spending long nights in the darkroom. The hands on workflow was full of space for manipulation and fiction, while photography theory has debated ‘truth’ and ‘visual accuracy’ in depicting reality since it’s invention. I was drawn to the possibility of creating a subjective narrative through objective material (if such exists…). A sort of docu-fiction really, as I later learned through the work of Jean Rouch, Chris Marker and Chantal Ackerman. I had this fantastic Italian lady as film theory teacher in college who believed in dreams on screen. There’s many to name that have influenced my thinking… Errol Morris, Sandy Stone, The Kroker’s, Hito Steyerl, Daniel and Vinca from Metahaven…I will never forget experiencing Pipilotti Rist’s large scale projection ‘Ever is Over All’ as a child when I really wasn’t sure what I was looking at but that didn’t matter. Optics and capturing devices dual agency as tools of observation and fiction is at once enchanting and frighting. 4k GoPro’s mounted to cats and dogs, the world’s longest selfie stick, fingerprint authentication in our smartphones. We are relying on capturing devices as prosthetic selfs — it allows us to be information, here yet there. All people contain multitudes.
LM: From your website we can read that you’re interested “in the representation of identity without a body”. Today this seems a common condition. A profile on a social network maybe represents us better than our corporeality. I’m interested in the way this identity can be built, also in a faked way. I’m thinking about multiple identities experiments from the ’90s, like Luther Blissett and his actions as well as Hakim Bey. Could you tell us about this? From where does your interest in this topic come from?
SN: I learned most of my photography skills on an online forum. This is early 2000. I’d scan and upload my prints to get feedback, ask questions etc. There was a voting system to elect the ‘best’ photos into a virtual gallery. My uploaded photos were all linked to a profile created at sign up. The forum was great, it felt like a place I’d go to, not physically, better than that. An instantly and remotely accessible community built on a shared passion regardless of the members physical location and corporeal identity. After a while however I got suspicious of people’s feedback, I felt they weren’t critical enough. I deleted my account and made a new one under a different name uploading the same photos. The freedom to create as various different personas was liberating and inspiring. The constructed profiles became part of the work, part of the ‘portfolio’. It taught me about the impossibility of ‘one true identity’ and the power of multiple truths.
I think the body itself will become a rather antiquated way of defining the individual. A perceived identity is a form of shelter that can be exchanged, encrypted, sourced, evolve by embedding narrative and fiction; identity as endless unpacking .zip folders.
LM: What’s your relationship with social media? We have totally assimilated them, since now they’re part of our daily lives. Do you think we can still talk about a clash between social media and real media? How do you imagine them in the future?
SN: The french philosopher Gaston Bachelard speaks of reaching a ‘space of elsewhere,’ an ‘intimate immensity’ by transcending reality through daydreaming and imagination. Fully aware of sounding romantic I like to think of the Internet as an intimate immensity. I participate in forums, mailing lists and use Twitter. It’s initial appeal was as a 140 character bastard child of both, now it’s growing a memory of it’s own to tell me what I have missed… Forums and mailing lists have been some of my most valued resources of information and community. Social media which demands a persistent and ‘official’ identity in its TOS is rather an identity management systems first, social platform second. Like Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy or categorizing of it’s members via gender and relationship status drop down menus. A verified Twitter identity suddenly sounds limiting. I believe the possibility to transcend the self is intrinsic to technology. A series of relationships between decentralized identities exchanging information through various layers of geographic jurisdictions. Intimate immensity needs the collective, the multitude and Youtube videos of 100 or less views.
LM: Inside Space Caviar you realized an essay movie called “Fortress of Solitude” talking about the effect that new technologies will have on the domestic landscape on the future vision of an intelligent house. It develops through a surreal dialogue between a woman and her house.
SN: ‘Fortress of Solitude’ was part of a commissioned research and exhibition we’ve done at Space Caviar for Biennale Interieur Kortrijk in 2015. The larger context of the film is the title of our research: ‘The Home does not exist.’ ‘Fortress of Solitude’ questions our understanding of ‘Home’ in a time of AirBnB, sensing technology embedded in architecture and the financial crisis nullifying any chance of owning ~private property~. The film’s narrative develops over two different layers simultaneously; a chat conversation and a voice over. The chat conversation starts out gleefully between the inhabitant of the house, a single mom, and her home. The mom is grateful that her house is helping her out in the household. Towards the film’s end however she starts feeling jealous of the house for getting to spend time with her child while she is working long hours to be able to support them both. The conversation highlight the bind we find ourselves in. To be able to afford our home, we rent it out on AirBnB, essentially paying with our privacy. The film is set in private home’s interiors as well as a few select none-inhabited locations such as the Nagakin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, Huis Sonneveld in Rotterdam or a renovated mountain fortress turned luxury hotel in Switzerland. The limitation to film private home’s interiors was part of the script as an exercise. I couldn’t just ring a stranger’s bell (I did try that a few times to no avail)…instead I travelled with AirBnB, choosing the apartments by their advertised features “Smart Lock!!”. ‘Fortress of Solitude’s sequel should probably be recorded entirely through unsecured IP cameras. I’m curious to our seemingly blind trust in technology. Installing cameras in our intimated spaces, watching our home-alone-dogs and babies in real-time on our smartphone without checking if the connection is secure, while a stranger asking to film inside one’s home is an intrusive gesture.
LM: Could you tell us about your project Domestic Anxiety?
SN: Domestic Anxiety is an evolution of my project Realface Glamouflage, a collection of all over print Tshirts to dazzle facial recognition software. The prints are collages of celebrity lookalike faces. One print for example looks like a shirt of many Michael Jackson’s, when really there is no ‘real’ Michael Jackson on the Shirt. The prints play and confuse with the machines (and our) understanding of identification. Facebook, iPhoto, Google Photos all offer a ‘people’ sorting mechanism option, searching for the same face in a set of photos and bundling them in a collection. Information in an image that previously could have only been identified by a human being can now be analysed through machine vision and applied pattern recognition. The recognition algorithms need to be trained to function, in iPhoto as well as Facebook this means that the user needs to identify and label people depicted in their photos at least once. In 2014, as part of the Snowden leaks, the Guardian reported on ‘Optic Nerve,’ a mass surveillance program by British spy agency GCHQ intercepting Yahoo video chats and collecting web camera screenshots. In the documents GCHQ states to use the collected face database to develop and train face recognition algorithms. ‘Domestic Anxiety’ is thus a set of bedsheets and pillow cases covered in facial recognition dazzling prints. The bed, I realised, is the ultimate space of intimate convergence between technology and the body. We Skype with long distance relationships, binge on Netflix, live-stream our sleep on YouNow all watched over by the laptop’s camera.
LM: I’m really interested in understanding what happens when our relationship with what is virtual comes to a critical afterthought stage. Hyper-connection resistance phenomena start to rise. The dream of an Internet as new fluid limitless space to rethink utopia seems dead. I’m interested in finding new encrypted spaces in reality, forgotten urban deserts, that could host what cyberspace couldn’t fulfill. With Parasite 2.0 we’re working on these topics and on the construction of alternative maps of deserted encrypted territories. Could you tell us about the concept of Crypto Architecture, which, along with Joseph Grima, you’re going to work at Architectural Association?
SN: Crypto Architecture is a way for us to work further on what we developed with RAM House. RAM House is a domestic structure which lets the inhabitant manually control the flow of information by opening, closing and shifting the structures walls. Closed, the structure is a faraday cage, completely blocking all signals. No need to switch on airplane mode on the phone. We are interested in architecture evoking rituals of privacy. An incentive to develop RAM House was an article on policing strategies in the US which reported on the use of ‘through-the-wall’ laser to get an image of the inside of the house without entering (and without a search warrant). Through-the-wall lasers are used to scan architectural structures for humans. Originally developed for the battlefield they have found their way into the arsenals of domestic police forces. In Crypto Architecture we are questioning the wall as architectural privacy device. It might offer privacy from visibility but not from invisible wavelengths. How can architecture perform as the fundamental primitive hut in an age of electromagnetic communication? Wifi, phone, Internet of Things devices’ signals can pass through walls and leak personal information without the inhabitants knowledge. In the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto of 1992, Timothy C. May argues that over the Internet ‘two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable…’ Looking at this today, the ‘Net has draped itself over and nested into our homes and everyday not as anonymous communication infrastructure, rather we are naked, constantly pinged to verify. Can’t we, with our bodies, it’s behaviour and attributes, influence or even design our data output. Similar to RAM House and it’s walls allowing for manual control of information flows, the body is in power over it’s own representation. The aspiration to translate and capture the living breathing into numerical identifiers could thus be disturbed, we meet in the intimate immensity.