The endlessly visible glut of information online has not disciplined us. As online subjects we have not been afraid of being tracked, even as we become more aware of who and how our metadata is being collected, and this lack of fear has not produced disciplined subjects. Artist Hito Steyerl articulates with striking insight how relentless the drive towards online presence has become. As we increasingly produce endless amounts of visual and verbal statements to validate our digital existence, we are
… realized online as some sort of meta noise in which everyone is monologuing incessantly, and no one is listening. Aesthetically, one might describe this condition as opacity in broad daylight; you could see anything, but what exactly and why is quite unclear. There are a lot of brightly lit glossy surfaces, yet they don’t reveal anything but themselves as surface43
It seems certain that even if it were possible for images to truly reveal something about their referents, the aspiration toward transparency is a trap. The Internet has wrought a kind of “opacity in broad daylight” as Steyerl claims, where anything we want to see is visible but meaningless. How then does such a critique of the assumed transparency of the public sphere press itself into artworks, and photographic practices specifically? The concern is not for artworks that attempt to visualize the invisible or hidden but that must address the problem that visibility itself is an ideology, one powerfully tied to the contemporary global order. A critique of transparency then seems possible only when artworks are considered beyond the formal, aesthetic frames of the image.
In the years following 9/11 questions around the limitations of visual representation have been widely addressed, and the role and power of images interrogated.44 However, the parameters of this inquiry seem to now be shifting. As photographs are increasingly freed from their role as representational objects and are now digital processes, images have become an important component of global networks of communication and dissemination that are operative beyond vision. Image production now happens automatically, or sometimes algorithmically. Images that we might think we have ownership over are no longer truly ours; we have relinquished our rights to images for the ease of transmission and communication offered by image-based social networks. Within a hyper-visual environment, the ways in which images are used and engaged has shifted so definitively away from the tangible, material of a printed photograph that we can no longer think of the photograph as a representation, as an index of an event or place.
Whereas Rancière’s longstanding examination of the intersection of aesthetics and politics places him within a discourse that firmly roots questions of representation within questions of political violence,47 for Galloway the impossibility of representation is precisely that neither political nor aesthetic representation is ever possible. He identifies that “one of the key consequences of the control society is that we have moved from a condition in which singular machines produce proliferations of images, into a condition in which multitudes of machines produce singular images.”48 One camera does not produce many images, but many cameras (or computers, or smartphones) produce one image. This is a situation where photography no longer records an event but is instead a process or accumulation of many microevents; it does not track a unified point in time, it opens onto many. Photography is not the actual or metaphorical click of the shutter but is instead the instantaneous uploading, tagging, geotagging, searching, facial recognizing, networking, sharing, and filtering of images. This networked image landscape is one where innumerable machines produce not individual, varied, differentiated images but singular images, images that conform to societal codes and conventions.49 For Galloway this proves that “adequate visualizations of [the] control society have not happened. Representation has not happened. At least not yet.”50
Representation has a constitutive relationship with its mode of production, and such production is no longer based on a creator–apparatus–viewer relationship. It is increasingly evident that to make something or someone visible, to produce or make public from multiple sources a singular image is not to produce or generate power. In contrast, Galloway argues, “the point of unrepresentability is the point of power. And the point of power today is not in the image. The point of power today resides in networks, computers, algorithms, information, and data.”51
This is an unusual position since historically vision has been tied to representation through the image. But Galloway’s is an argument against the possibilities of visualization full stop. Where Butler and Azoulay might argue that the signs in the image cannot be considered in isolation from each other, that is they cannot be considered free-floating or unmoored from their referents and that they must actually mean something even if they do not appear to. For Galloway the signs, symbols and imagery that we use to attempt to make data visual, to attempt to make visual sense of so much unending, infinite data, can only appear to forge a relationship with any determined meanings. For him there seems to be little or no power in images, despite their massive proliferation. The generation of power resides in the notion that the image is a screen, which is a front for real power that exists in networks, algorithms, data sets, and relationships of information. These systems of power are yet to be made visual or visible in any meaningful way, and the attempt to make visual systems of power is indeed a pressing one. The question remains not only whether representation is possible, but also whether it can locate and visualize power at all, particularly when political and visual representation is being continually denied across many discourses.
Returning to photographic art practices, it is clear that for Simon’s and Paglen’s projects to be made comprehensible in scope, there must be a way for the images to carry signification. As such, both Paglen and Simon use extended, detailed captioning to direct viewers outside the framed image by pushing against the very limitations imposed by the frame. To see one of their images without an understanding of the context of the project would be to reduce the image to aesthetics only, since the fuller and external spaces of the image would not be legible. Is one possibility for overcoming the failures of photographic representation to navigate between images and texts? Might the use of language also help to articulate questions around data, where language is once again achieving a place of primacy as users learn increasingly various coding languages in order to access different layers of digital communication software? For both Simon and Paglen, without the grounding of extended or specific captions the viewer would be speculating at the research, labour, or people that preceded the image. With the addition of the caption, the limits of each project become less abstract and more concrete. While resisting didactic meaning, both artists are navigate a line between revelation and concealment, between opacity and transparency and it is through the caption that this negotiated border becomes most discernable. Indeed, the troubling of the relationship between image and text is one that both Paglen and Simon hinge their practices on, since without the texts or captions, it would be impossible to assign meaning to these largely abstract images.
Photographic theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen claims that the “interactive combination of text and photograph is typical of Taryn Simon’s work; it, rather than photography, is her true medium.”52
The tiny texts crafted to accompany the images are intentionally placed to be read in conjunction with the image, so that the two have equal weighting. This strategy “shifts the burden of assigning that meaning from the artist to a viewer, making us all complicit in the act of signification, and indeed in the histories we are asked to witness.”53 This is no small burden for the viewer, and this is precisely the type of responsibility in viewing that Azoulay’s civil contract of photography calls upon us to acknowledge. If the viewer is, as Batchen suggests, obliged to become complicit in the act of signification, then the question of what is knowable and seeable is an urgent one. The image reveals its contingencies not because the viewer can read anything into it, but it is a contingency based in part upon an individual being able to navigate between visual and linguistic texts. What results is “a photography that proffers transparency [and the] utopian promise of liberal democracy, but then renders that transparency opaque, even reflective.”54 Paglen and Simon may both “proffer transparency” in their working methodologies, but their highly aesthetic images hypnotize us with a luminous glow, obscuring more than they are able to reveal. It is precisely this dialectic between transparency and opacity that is operative in the negotiation of image and text. The caption must bring with it the political motivation of the image.
How then can we visualize subjects as wide ranging as border policing, surveillance systems, drone attacks, economic inequality, environmental catastrophe, late capitalism, global finance? This is the overarching question with which Paglen and Simon concern themselves, in projects that interrogate the limits of photography and representation during a contemporary moment where the definition of photography, as a medium, a practice, and a process, is in continual flux. While the images of such subjects come to be largely symbolic, when we attend to the images in context, through language or texts that point to outside sources, we begin to address the contingency of the image without being didactic. The questions addressed throughout this paper may appear specific to photography as an aesthetic and artistic practice, but ultimately they have much broader implications in an era that privileges communicational transparency to the point where certain freedoms and values are being severely limited. As visual forms of communication become the most prevalent forms of social media–and the trend towards imagesharing sites like Instagram and Tumblr offer evidence of this shift–the currency of this form of exchange is the ability to store and manipulate data in ever expanding, seamless, and seemingly invisible sites. How information is presented, represented, and understood in a networked era are questions only beginning to be fully addressed.