Hillit Zwick

The intertwined nature of political power and the Internet can be closely observed in the development of online social networks. Social networks create a specific context through which entities interact, thus constructing a collective social sphere—a virtual, large-scale, captive audience that can be easily moved, motivated, or manipulated. This represents a new political formation through the old dialectic of human relations and technology.Situated alongside this political formation is a disruptive potential, tasked with dismantling the entrenched structural cohesion of the networks, in order to offer a glimpse of that which eludes us, the invisible. The transformative potential of such a disruption, when enacted, can be catastrophic and creative at once: It can threaten to destroy an existing narrative, and it can, simultaneously, become normative. The Internet in the age of corporate capitalism has provided the perfect breeding ground for such disruptions to play themselves out several times over.

One such disruption was enacted by mass surveillance, which has so quickly interwoven itself into daily existence. Politics, power, the right to privacy, narrative, behavior, identity, and language have all been shaped and morphed by the rupture from a utopian vision of voluntary, online, social participation, with a momentum and speed that only twenty-first century capitalism can provide. Where are the counterforces, the resistance and subversion to this teleology?

Empire Front, an installation of photographs taken from the social media accounts of American soldiers stationed in U.S. bases abroad, offers a glimpse of a very different kind of disruption to the dialectic, one that offers a redemptive possibility through the institutional critique it evokes. The work, made by artist Atif Akin in 2015, comprises over 600 Polaroid-format images displayed in a large-scale grid format, stripped of their color filters, and dimmed into green-gray-brown tones reminiscent of military fatigues and maps. From afar, the grid of photographs looks like a topographical map of a war-zone. Seen from closer up, these Instagram photos of American soldiers resemble classic war documentation. They join a long tradition of photographic representation of America on the front lines of war, a tradition that includes tintypes documenting soldiers and battle scenes during the Civil War; glass-plate negatives of World War I; and the extensive 16mm documentation of World War II. Alongside this grid of photographs is an animation of panning aerial views, taken from online satellite imaging services, of the bases where the soldiers are serving, and from which they share banal tidbits of their daily lives, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Turkey, Kosovo, and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

US military deployments abroad constitute a significant part of American engagement with the international community. Beyond iPhones and Hollywood flicks, therefore, Empire Front provides a rare, bird’s-eye view of what our presence abroad looks like. These are the real individuals, gestures, and scenes that the world encounters through uniformed Americans. The images also provide a coherent picture of contemporary American style and perception, showing how we respond to, absorb, celebrate, or reject cultures different from our own: one photo shows a young, female American soldier wearing a kaffiyeh, the traditional Middle Eastern headdress, repurposed as a scarf; another image shows an American soldier posing happily with local children; and yet another image shows an American shoe store at a mall in Kuwait, suggesting a bit of home found abroad. Every image has a caption, authored by its photographer, and these captions are alternately descriptive, critical, humorous, ignorant, aware, happy, scornful, or regretful.

Each photograph on display was taken from the public pages of Instagram users with a search algorithm freely available in the public domain through the application programming interface. The algorithm identifies and grabs images using specified geographical referents, in this case known U.S. military bases abroad, as shown in the accompanying video. And therein lies the disruption to the dialectical structure: Akin reaches into the archive of images, organized by the logic and interests of Instagram (as the application’s Web site puts it, “Instagram is a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures”), and leverages the utopian aspects of the technology in order to turn the Lacanian gaze away from us and onto a political formation—in this case, the American military establishment. The artist redefines the space and logic of images uploaded for personal use yet made publicly available, by re-contextualizing the network in which they exist. By making use of the invisible metadata embedded in each photo, Akin negates the personal aspect of uploading an image and exposes its potential for meaning and action far beyond the personal. He, further, dispenses with corporate aesthetics and machine language by stripping each image of its pre-programmed color filter (an effect that Instagram associates with transforming the image “into a memory”).

Akin re-presents, in Empire Front, that which we are not (necessarily) supposed to see—the machinations of the military, a traditionally non-transparent institution—through the innocent, collective participation of individuals in self-exposure. In Akin’s newly formed network, we find ourselves, in fact, “surveilling” the military, exposing the inherent vulnerability of the military’s tools (soldiers), stripped of their power (not in uniform, sometimes naked), and turned onto themselves (via the camera). We find ourselves looking at the invisible, understanding contexts outside the logic of the (Instagram) network, questioning institutions, power relations, and, perhaps, ourselves. Most importantly, Akin’s work enables us to participate, briefly, in the internal politics of the technological sphere to which we contribute. Which other invisible networks can be uncovered by means of the data and metadata we share online? And, notably, which narratives can be constructed and reconstructed from these networks, instantiating new modes of thinking?

The ease with which the daily lives of soldiers can be accessed through those mechanisms created to put private lives on display for personal and commercial use is at once nefarious and redemptive. In Empire Front, Akin offers a hermeneutical perspective on the immense traffic of online digitized images, identifying the critical role that metadata can play in breaking through the dialectics of networks and institutional powers to form a new set of relations, thus cracking open the narrow logic and functional context that defines social networks, and allowing for a fresh paradigm of (visual) progress to emerge.

Hillit Zwick is a writer and art critic living in New York. She worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1997-2006, and holds an MA in Modern Art and Critical Studies from Columbia University. She currently oversees a portfolio of programs for a private family foundation including a contemporary music residency.