Five Videos: Zach Blas/Queer Technologies' Escape

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Five Videos is an online series "hosted" by Rhizome, in collaboration with FACT, responding to the Liverpool Biennial's theme, The Unexpected Guest. Each week throughout the Liverpool Biennial, a new artist will curate five videos about hospitality. This week, Zach Blas (Queer Technologies) considers escape as radical hospitality:

The art of escape is the art of constructing an indeterminate form of energy from the encounter and interference with a regime of control. The art of control is not to destroy this energy but to transform it to a new form of energy, one amenable to regulation.

—Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos, Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century

 

Escape figures as a crucial tactic of resistance against neoliberal governance and contemporary forms of oppression. Escape is a multiplicitous gathering of concepts, practices, sensibilities, acts, and affects; these variations on escape have been named exodus, desertion, nonexistence, illegibility, and idealism. Importantly, escape not only expresses a desire to exit current regimes of control but also to cultivate forms of living otherwise, or living autonomously. Escape, I would argue, is about radical hospitality: it is a collective attempt—aesthetic, conceptual, political—to eradicate forms of control, exploitation, and domination, which just might make the world more hospitable to all. 

Escape can be a leaving behind or withdrawal, such as various art schools and autonomous universities like The Public School and SOMA. Perhaps these gestures are best described by The Edu-factory Collective as an “Exodus from the Education Factory.”

Escape also relates to tactics of imperceptibility and illegibility, focused upon evading informatic capture. Media theorists Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker have recently described the current century as an “era of universal standards of identification,” referencing technologies that bind identification with locatability, such as biometrics and GPS. “Henceforth,” they write, “the lived environment will be divided into identifiable zones and nonidentifiable zones, and nonidentifiables will be the shadowy new ‘criminal’ classes–those that do not identify.” In The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, they hypothesize about nonidentifiable action, suggesting that “future avant-garde practices will be those of nonexistence.” Such tactics stress the development of techniques and technologies to make one’s self unaccounted for. Anonymous’ own social media networking site Anon Plus and artist Sean Dockray’s “Facebook Suicide (Bomb) Manifesto” evoke such an imperceptible escape as they strive to depart from social media networks that data-mine, market, police, and surveil. 

Escape takes the form of refusals against normative and oppressive logics, calculations, and measurements, often rejecting structures of legitimation and recognition from the state. Consider Against Equality’s queer critique of gay marriage, a refutation of the institution of marriage as heteronormative and perpetuator of economic inequality.

If escape is a politics, then it is one that positions itself against forms of political representation. Political theorists Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos state quite clearly that politics must be a refusal of representation. What this suggests is that a politics of escape concerns itself with autonomy and transformation, changing the very conditions of political and social possibility while fleeing neoliberal control.

I have chosen videos that articulate an art of escape in these contexts. While these works might at first seem disparate from each other, they illustrate the broad, coalitional potentiality of escaping. Notably, this is not an exhaustive list of the possibilities for escape today, but these five videos do make visible some contemporary itineraries of escape currently under way.

Amyl Nitrate’s Feminist Lesson on Art, Life, and Desire

 

Whereas in the disciplinary era sabotage was the fundamental notion of resistance, in the era of imperial control it may be desertion....This desertion does not have a place; it is the evacuation of the places of power.

—Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire

 

In Derek Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, 1970s Britain is in a post-apocalyptic state when Queen Elizabeth I is transported to see the future of England. Groups of punks roam the city of London, and early on in the film, we get to watch what appears to be a lecture in a feminist autonomous classroom. Amyl Nitrate offers the female students a lesson on making one’s desires become reality. She points out that if one does this, art is no longer necessary, but of course, what the film actually reveals is that art is the very thing that drives political and social transformation.

This film had a tremendous impact on me as a teenager, and this scene in particular has always stuck with me. There is the obvious fusion of aesthetics and politics around pedagogy, which links to histories of feminist artistic education centers, like Womanhouse. I also can’t help but connect this to the work I’ve done with The Public School in Los Angeles and Durham; this scene almost reads as a prototype for these more recent experiences I’ve had with radical pedagogy and exoduses from the university.

While Amyl Nitrate evokes the by now familiar slogan of “art into life,” the scene remains a visceral depiction of deserting into politicized pedagogy.

Jacob Appelbaum’s Digital Anti-Repression and Mobile Security Workshop at Occupy Wall Street

Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy.

—James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Jacob Appelbaum’s workshop meticulously lays out the problematics of informatic surveillance and control as well as potential pathways around them. Desires to escape data-mining, biometric recognition, and GPS locatability often exceed the technical capacities of people to enact such forms of resistance. Thus, to make becoming illegible or nonexistent to these technologies accessible on a mass scale requires immense technical insight and collective action. The Tor Project, one such free software project that Appelbaum has helped develop, attempts to enable online anonymity.

In a similar context, I am currently developing a Facial Weaponization Suite in response to emerging studies that link successfully determining sexual orientation through rapid facial recognition techniques. The suite provides sets of masks for public protest, such as collective masks that allow you to wear the faces of many with a single mask. One mask, the Fag Face mask, is generated from the biometric facial data of many gay men’s faces. This facial data is gathered into a single three-dimensional plane, and when plotted together in 3D modelling software, the result is a mutated, alien facial mask that cannot be read or parsed by biometric facial detection technologies. The Fag Face mask proposes a queer politics invested in escape, illegibility, and refusal.

Electronic Disturbance Theater’s Transborder Immigrant Tool

But what would it really take to lose yourself in the abstract spaces of global circulation?

—Brian Holmes, “Drifting Through the Grid: Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure”

Brian Holmes once explained that the Global Positioning System is an Imperial infrastructure, a military technology that has become rapidly liberalized. In the traditions of tactical media and hacktivism, Electronic Disturbance Theater uses cheap cellphones to guide those crossing the Mexico - United States border to water caches and help centers. EDT has described this aesthetico-political gesture as routing around GPS to arrive at a Global Poetic System, a kind of dérive, a practice they call Science of the Oppressed (named after Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed). The Transborder Immigrant Tool escapes from imperial infrastructures and opens to a radical hospitality that re-imagines citizenship, nationhood, and borders of all kinds.

Dean Spade on Critical Trans Politics

[Queer idealism] is not simply a mode of fantastical escapism but, instead, a blueprint for alternative modes of being in the world....escape itself need not be a surrender, but, instead, may be more like a refusal of a dominant order and its systemic violence.

—José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity

In Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and The Limits of Law, Dean Spade articulates a politics that strives to go beyond recognition, inclusion, or incorporation through law. Spade explains how administrative norms, such as the enforcement of gender categories, produce disastrous results for trans people. Dean’s conception of trans resistance invests in the yet to be imagined and impossible: not more gender categories but the outright abolition of gender categories, not prison reform but the total destruction of the prison industrial complex. Perhaps this impossibility is the moment for escape into queer idealism. 

Surviving and Love in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Nothing is less passive than flight.

—Paolo Virno, “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus”

Fassbinder’s 1974 film depicts a hostile, racist world, inhospitable to those who think, feel, and love differently. I want to end with this scene because it simultaneously emphasizes the affective strains placed on those in political battles as well as the creative drives cultivated during struggles to survive.

While the characters Emmi and Ali might escape their horrible world, in their love and struggle, they bring forth another world. After Emmi suggests that they go away where no one will know them, she states that once they return it will be different, “everyone will be nice to us.”

In Escape Routes, it is suggested that to think and practice escape we must “cultivate the sensibility to perceive moments when things do not yet have a name.” Is this not exactly what Emmi and Ali do as they imagine their world? Whether we call the world that Emmi and Ali will through their love utopia, an instance of queer idealism, or a desertion, they place their bets on a better unknown by attempting to withdraw from oppression.

—Zach Blas