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The Hyperreality of Global Democracy and the Reality of a Void and Illusionary Enslavement

This is the basis for a paternalistic, master vs. slave relationship, which, presented as democratic, reinforces forms of dominance and control. It could be defined as the hyperreality of global democracy: the continuous reiteration of a faulty democracy.
Lanfranco Aceti

Issue #69, June 2004

Spare Parts Containers

If tomorrow I were to invent a machine able to make gold from pollution, I wouldn't be able to profit from it because claims to pollution ownership would be filed immediately.

The reasoning behind this unorthodox introduction lies in Virilio's theory that we are bombarded by visual pollution and that there is an enslaving digital strait-jacket imposed on our visual system. Therefore I decided to collect images of visual pollution and make an installation with them. The installation focuses on commodification of individuals, on the fact that we have been reduced not only to merchandise (that happened in the '60s), but to expendable and replaceable parts of consumption. This process is rooted in a constant debasement of humans, deprived of moral and ethical 'values.' It is a separation characterized by the abandonment of individual identity for that of 'object.' We therefore reach the level of 'remainder,' as Baudrillard might put it.

We don't exist as indivisible individuals, but as parts left over. We are no longer 'cars' but mechanical parts that, mass produced, have null value. Recently I read an interview with a man who sold his kidney for $2,500.00 and was now attempting to explain that in the present circumstances he would ask for much more. The market price had risen since he sold his kidney.

Spare Parts What struck me as interesting was the fact that the man now no longer existed as an individual, but as the remainder of the individual who he once was. He was just a 'useless' remainder of the container that once stored something valuable: a kidney. His role in society, as a spare parts container, had been played. Once he sold his kidney, his commercial value had dropped. By his own admission, unfortunately, he only had one kidney left, and he couldn't sell that. But couldn't he really? He was just an object; his worth was not as an individual, but as a container, with the value being the spare parts stored within. At least that is what he implied by selling part of himself and what the buyer had evidenced by making the purchase.

Postmodern Commodification

Hence, I decided to look into this mix of illegalities, visual pollution and extreme commodification. This work inspired the installation 'A-Void Travel' (Leeds 2003), which, referring to the travel of humanity, represented the commodification of the individual to the extreme. An example is Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851), a slave who gained fame by having himself boxed and shipped from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Similarly, in the installation --A-Void Travel-- I wanted to reduce individuals to boxes. Reduced to a box, on one side plastered with a collage of visual images, a collection of identities numbered, named and packaged, the travel of these visual representations of 'boxed humans' had begun.

Since an area of my interest focused ontransfer and hybridization between media practices, a logical progression was to move the installation from the 'real' into the 'virtual.' At this point I realized that the extreme reality of the virtual world had not just become a formula of control, but one of inhibition, leaving no space for humanity to express itself.

In this context the media representations of superficialities confirm Baudrillard's theory of the simulacra and the hyperreal, two embedded characteristics of our contemporary postmodern living that represent total loss of meaning and reference.

Some of the concepts I decided to analyze were the void and absence of meaning in postmodernity; embodiment from the real into art and virtuality; the idea of identity and its representation in virtual space; and alternative forms of engagement and interaction. The resulting project was built as a digital community space where the interaction between the individual and the box evidenced a matrix of possibilities and interventions.

WWW.SLAVES4SALE.COM is not a place where commodification is restated, but a paradoxical locus of renegotiation. It is a place where, through the dissection and merchandising of humans, social issues, lives and dreams, some kind of constant may be evidenced. This analysis was inspired by a re-reading of Primo Levi's autobiographical story of survival in Nazi concentration camps, If This Is a Man. Starting from the assumption that an ever-more absolutistic society denies the existence of unframed and uncategorized identities, this project attempts to offer the opportunity of creating individual digital identities. The identities, though, come already numbered, a process that, through the social digital context, presents a familiar procedure as an innocuous constant. Numbered digital identities are displayed and wait for someone to fill them.

Visitors are offered the possibility of breaking the criteria of standard incorporative approval and attempt to reframe the approach to reality, digital and non-digital, following experimentation and reflections on art categories. No longer conforming to a database, but to emotive and emotional responses, the visitor can relate to one of the digital boxes available on the web-page. The criteria for filling out an application form are based on emotive responses to the images, remembrances and personal histories. But this interactive approach is open to criticism inasmuch as the operational framework has been implemented by the creator from the project's inception. Therefore freedom to operate is limited to restraints within a preordained system.

To supersede this problem, often observed in pseudo-interactive works, I left a possibility for visitors not just to choose the theme, but to negotiate strategies and modalities of transfer of the experience into the real. A 'slave' leaves the virtual domain and becomes a document of daily reality. The website thus generates an encounter and negotiation between people for the realization of a project related to a particular themed box. Once the 'slave's story' is removed from the Internet box and transferred into reality each situation becomes a documented 'real video' interaction between the 'slave' and 'buyer.'

Chains - Courtesy Robert S. Mallozzi, University of Alabama in Huntsville, and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. This happens with all the restrictions of reality, illustrating that the virtual representation of a form of 'slavery' is actually an easier task than the real representation of contemporary slavery in a daily social context.

This pseudo-social process is a form of categorization and becomes not just a form of slavery but a function of an objectifying society. One's self is represented by objectifying icons: the ring of the mobile phone, emoticons and other representations. These are objects and they are becoming indissolubly intertwined with the shaping of individual identities.

Note the effect that these icons produce. From an original smile :) to a schizophrenic totem pole-- #^%&*@$:-)#:o\:o/:o\:o/:o|| the representation of the digital icon has moved into a new complex realm, the definition of identity and persona. The objectification of the individual through status symbols has now been stepped up to the level of icons, which are not really dispensing status on the individual that buys them, but are elements of an identity that need to be acquired in order to be seen as individuals.

What we are actually acquiring is enslavement to the object representing our identity. Being impersonalized by icons, objects in themselves, does not bestow the charm of status on people. This is the result of reducing a persona to an object, its interrelation with another object becoming that of propriety and value.

Digital Self-enslavement and Revelation

In Heretical Empiricism, Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini explained the impossibility of recreating a distinction between the individual and the object when both are modified, assimilated, and homologated in the same language. When this concept is juxtaposed upon Baudrillard's analysis that the masses neither "need nor desire meaning or information -- that all they ask for is signs and images," then the discourse of digital enslavement becomes more dramatic. The masses, meaning us, are determined as individuals by signs. These signs, bestowed on us by icons, have diluted our existence as personae. It would be easy to say that we have been reduced to objects, but in reality we are empty containers, selling ourselves physically, morally, psychologically and emotionally, only to become 'remainders.' The status that we are seeking is indissolubly linked to the icon and is not transferable to the masses still attempting to buy it, and with it, an identity. It is the icon that keeps devouring our personae in order to exist, assimilating our own existence.

Therefore, the boxes in WWW.SLAVES4SALE.COM become a metaphor for an empty persona, reduced to the status of a remainder, a functional object as long as it exercises its consumerist purpose.

This structure of induced self-enslavement provides the impression of a fake Western democracy that, in order to affirm its reality, presents itself as the most real of democracies. But this staged and over-done performance will manifest itself in due time as unreal when the hidden agenda becomes apparent.

It is almost impossible for us to wake up from this 'world media performance,' as Baudrillard explains. What is needed is a form of revelation, tragic and dramatic. This brings to mind Caravaggio's painting The Conversion of Saint Paul, where St. Paul is depicted as having been struck from his horse and blinded by the light of revelation.

More recent cinematic forms of revelation of truth appear in the films The Twelve Monkeys (1995) and The Matrix (1999), movies where the realization of the truth is powerful and dramatically maddening. This can be viewed as a representation of the hyperreality of the global democracy, the false pretenses of its prophecies that are, despite all, bought and sold in world media as the most real and truthful of democracies.

It is a representation that masks reality and presents it as a meaningless form of enslavement, one that portrays the loss of freedom as marginal. An illusion of enslavement is presented as a marginal deception, hiding both loss of our individual 'personae' and constant commodification processes that reduce individuals to disposable remainders.

This is the basis for a paternalistic, master vs. slave relationship, which, presented as democratic, reinforces forms of dominance and control. It could be defined as the hyperreality of global democracy: the continuous reiteration of a faulty democracy.

Manacles imageThis is opposed to the reality of a void and illusionary enslavement, which, being sold as non-existent, can actually operate undisturbed. Having the illusion or the sensation of being enslaved is not as strong an emotion as actually being owned as a slave. Or is it? This control of minutiae, of the void, and of the illusion of representation presented as the control of 'nothing,' is what determines and shapes our relationship within an evermore digitized society. A society is made up of controlled signs, symbols, and icons.

But it is a society where, generally speaking, the 'boxing' is a display: entities are boxed, and the box, now filled, is offered for view. Recent examples are David Blaine's suspended performance in London over the Thames, or the glass box placed in Trafalgar square from which 12 live art performers read, continuously, 24 hours a day for a week, from On Kawara's One Million Years. condenses the issues of enslavement into a showcase, a project in development, where each slave is 'freely' allowed to grow into something larger than a simple project, by becoming an activity of representation and documentation of alternative forms of realities. It is a project where our 'mass paranoid' analysis of reality on the boxed identity, which as such are mutilated and partial forms of representation, can be expressed. But at least, according to Pasolini, even if it is just a hunch, it is worth following. The boxes are left empty to testify that something may be left out there, a 'useless' remainder, with which to fill them up.

Lanfranco Aceti is an artist and researcher at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London.

Copyright © 2004 by Lanfranco Aceti. Chains image courtesy Robert S. Mallozzi, University of Alabama in Huntsville, and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. All rights reserved.