How can we make visible the violence that is happening around us and at the same time address the ethical questions that arise from the portrayal of violence in the mass media? This is exactly what artist, philosopher and programmer Leonardo Aranda makes visible in his project »Gore Devaluation Tool« for the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic »Violent Consumer Media« curated by Dani Ploeger. Aranda asks how technology can become a political gesture to problematize the circulation and valorization of these types of images and to seek methods to counter them. In our interview with the artist we talk about the relationship between technology, theory and art in addressing the aesthetic, ethical, and political values of our consumer media.
Schlosspost: In your proposal you refer to the term »Gore Capitalism« as described by the philosopher Zayak Valencia. Could you explain more about this term and your thoughts on it?
Leonardo Aranda: The term Gore Capitalism is used to describe one of the current facets of capitalism in which death itself becomes an integral part of the processes of reproduction of capital. That is, where the body and the destruction of bodies becomes merchandise. In this sense, the term is close to Achille Mbembe’s term »necrocapitalism,« but goes beyond this, arguing that extreme violence and its crudeness is not something in conflict with the logic of neoliberalism or modern state, but it is an integral part of these, since the theatricalization of violence supports the processes of financial market speculation and justify new forms of political control. At the same time, this position points to the construction of particular forms of subjectivity of this form of capitalism, which Valencia calls »enraged subjects,« which are characterized by being immersed in an episteme of violence, where work, social belonging and the possibility of social ascent are subsumed to a logic of violence.
From my point of view, Zayak Valencia’s proposal is one of the most interesting in understanding the type of violence in which Mexican society has been submerged in the last decade, since it shows the absurdity of the official narratives that try to explain violence as the result of a confrontation between the state and the drug cartels, where the victims are collateral damage; and on the other hand, it assumes the challenge of understanding this phenomenon without moral overtones that explain violence in terms of barbarism or through the mythification of criminals. In this sense, this term provides conceptual tools to understand violence from the systematics in which it is produced and reproduced, also giving the possibility of locating it not as a local phenomenon, but as the result of global processes of advancing neoliberalism and its new forms of value production.
»For the current project, the challenge has been to find ways to counteract the dominant forms of representation of violence, as well as its circulation, which makes use of highly graphic content to feed consumption while generating cultural forms that perpetuate such violence.«
SP: Your work touches on this very sensitive subject, the visualization of torture, executions, and how the mainstream media is used as a tool to publish these images. The power of the mainstream media in this sense is the increased circulation, reaching out to a wider audience and spreading fear. How did your thoughts on this issue originate, and how does your proposal respond to this?
LA: The issue of how to show violence has been at the center of several of my works, through the tension that appears between the importance of making visible the violence that happens around us, while addressing the ethical issues that emerge from showing violence directly, in relation to the desensitization of people, the commodification of violence, the spread of fear, and the revictimization of people affected by such violence. Put in other words: I do not want to numb myself to violence, but at the same time, I don’t think seeing the image of a corpse every time I pass a magazine stand or open a social network provides information or tools to better understand what happens around me. In this sense, in my recent projects I have been exploring ways to make violence visible without resorting to its reproduction. In Monument to the disappeared [www.monumentoalosdesaparecidos.cc], for example, I work with an archive of around 35,000 missing persons, who are represented by voicing their names, in a search to combat abstraction and oblivion, but at the same time looking for alternative forms of representation that dignify these people. Another strategy that I have used in this sense is cartography, so for example in The war is not against drugs, is against people [http://medialabmx.org/leonardo/guerranarcomorelos.html] I seek to make violence visible while challenging official narratives about it.
For the current project, the challenge has been to find ways to counteract the dominant forms of representation of violence, as well as its circulation, which makes use of highly graphic content to feed consumption while generating cultural forms that perpetuate such violence. Here the thesis is that this result is not a collateral effect, but it points to the collusion between media, government and drug cartels, increasing the de facto control that these groups have over the population, at the same time justifying the State’s expansion through the growing military presence in the territory. In part this thesis is demonstrated by the content of the images themselves. In many images, for example, we find selfies of the sicarios, images of the armed groups with a character kneeling at the center, staging the capture and humiliation of some rival, or similar images that tell us about the development of a visual culture typical of these media.
During the course of the residency an event occurred that gave me a lot of clarity about the place that the project occupies in relation to mass media and the problems related to the representation and circulation of violence. A woman named Ingrid was brutally murdered and dismembered in Mexico City. Police photos of this incident quickly leaked to the press, and went viral. The spontaneous response of thousands of women was to use the hashtag #ingrid to publish images of flowers or similar objects, thus preventing the dissemination of the original images and replacing them with images that paid tribute to the deceased. The gesture was first and foremost an effort to prevent Ingrid’s revictimization and the spread of fear. My project acts in a similar arena, looking for creative ways to combat violence. The project is primarily intended as a political gesture to problematize the circulation and valorization of these types of images and seek methods to counter them. The tool in this sense, rather than having a totally utilitarian purpose, seeks to be the trigger for a broader discussion about the use of images and the representation of violence.
SP: For the Web Residency you propose a »Gore Devaluating Tool« that offers an alternative to blocking the violent images of the Mexican cartels that are shared online. How is the tool designed, how does it function, and what are the possibilities to use it?
LA: The tool is designed to be an Internet add-on, which automatically replaces highly graphic images of violence in some news sites, blogs, and social networks, with images of art history, specifically belonging to the period of Mexican muralism. The decision to use these images as a replacement has to do with the historical importance that these images had in forming a national image of Mexico in the early twentieth century, as well as its subsequent circulation and valorization within the art market in later decades. Many of them portray violent episodes in the history of Mexico, while generating an aesthetic identity that seeks to generate a narrative about modern Mexico.
In technical terms, this tool uses a machine learning model, trained through thousands of images extracted from the blogs and news sites that are being blocked by the add-on, to identify and classify such images. The images are grouped into eight categories: murders, dismembered, slaughtered, armed groups, selfies of sicarios, selfies of sicarias, executions, and cartel’s blankets with messages. Once these images have been identified and classified, the extension uses an algorithm to search for replacement images, according to the category in question, from an image repository created for the project.
Currently the tool is available only for the Chrome browser, but in its future stages of project development will also be available for Firefox. To install it, you only need to go to the Chrome extensions section and search for the project.
SP: With the blocked images you build an online archive. Can you explain more about this archive, how people can navigate through it and why was it your decision to show these violent images that are actually being blocked by the tool itself?
LA: In fact, this is one part of the project that was modified during the course of the residency, precisely because during its development, the idea of showing these images, once they were replaced, became more problematic. In the beginning, this part of the project had the logic of making the tool’s internal work transparent, and thus demonstrating the logic and biases of the technology itself. But as the project progressed, this premise took a backseat, in the face of the ethical decision to make these images completely invisible, with no opportunity to reemerge. Although it is part of the project’s objectives to summarize these images, the answer to how to open this archive, or if it should be opened at all, is something that will arise in the project’s later stages.
SP: Your work is often at the crossroads of artistic practice and academic research. How do you see these two areas intertwined and how is it expressed in your current projects?
LA: For me there is no clear separation between academic research and artistic practice. It is not so much that these areas are complementary, but that they are different faces of a similar impulse to seek answers to certain personal, aesthetic, and political concerns. In this sense, for example, academic research usually tends to be a place from which to problematize certain themes, find analytical schemes or conceptual frameworks that help me see different facets of a problem, but at the same time, this problem is not something that is answered from theory, but from the possibility of action, and artistic practice as one of those places of action. In this sense, my theoretical inquiries tend to be somewhat sui generis, not only for nourishing a wide range of references, but also for being directed away from the questions and spaces that the academy itself poses and always towards the possibility of orienting towards practice.
In the same way, my artistic projects always evolve in an investigative way. I never start a project having a total notion of the results of the project, but rather through a series of questions, intuitions and interests, which are developed throughout the project. In this sense, each project tends to have a very sharp learning curve that forces me to learn new techniques and to make progress in my own conceptual assumptions. These processes of transformation are organic, which feeds on the tools that are incorporated along the way, the intuitions that become certainties, and the process that materializes in different choices about the piece.
A clear example of this process can be the Gore Devaluating Tool itself. Here, there was already a previous investigation on the representation of violence, necropolitics, Gore Capitalism and the drug trafficking culture in Mexico. However, the project’s thesis was presented more as intuition than certainty. The project forced me to navigate more analytically between this universe of images in which the project focuses, to understand more concretely its forms of meaning construction, as well as its circulation, to understand the project’s technical viability. This analytical exercise also allowed me to find aspects of these images that I had not previously conceived, and that made me reconceptualize the type of violence that is constructed in these images within a wider spectrum that includes, from the most obvious and graphic forms of violence, to the more theatrical construction of the representation of sicarios and armed groups. The similarity between these images denotes not only self-referential cultural production, but a series of values that also expand the meaning of violence and that reproduce extremely macho and violent gender roles. Similarly, the technical research process determined the limitations of the project itself. Some things that seemed important during the initial technical implementation were relegated to the background, as the project matured conceptually. At the same time, as a clearer exploration and learning about the internal work of the technologies with which the project works, a lot of possibilities and challenges that had not been raised at the beginning of the project opened up.
SP: In today’s society, technology is not only used as a tool for the online distribution of violent images, but it can also counterbalance the distribution of these violent images, as in your project, for example. How do you see the role of new media technologies as possible options for offering alternative approaches to today’s mainstream media? And how do you envisage a future with new media technologies?
LA: From my perspective, technology always presents two potentials: a potential that amplifies political control and violence, and a liberating and emancipatory potential. This happens not only with new technologies, but it has been something that has been theorized even from media technologies such as photography or radio in the early twentieth century. What makes it possible for technology to play any of these roles has to do with a variety of factors that range from social organization around such media, to the possibility of their collective appropriation. This appropriation can be present in multiple forms, but in any case, it points to a relationship with technology that allows its aesthetic, ethical, and political values to be opened and transformed from those that were originally designed.
»Some theorists suggest that the moments of greatest creative and political potential of technologies are at the time of their emergence and at the time of their obsolescence. I prefer to reverse this logic based on temporality, towards a logic based on spatiality, and think that the greatest political and creative potential is when a technology is within a social fabric, in contrast to when it is outside of it and is imposed hegemonically from the outside.«
However, the most important thing when thinking about the potential to counteract mainstream media has to do with working with technology in a tactical and situated way. While in certain contexts using media such as artificial intelligence or machine learning can be of some value, in other contexts a simple paper poster can do the job. In this same sense, it is worth thinking about technologies within a broader ecology, in which different messages are signified, amplified and reinforced depending on the different media in which they circulate.
As for the future of the new media, my vision is somewhat pessimistic, precisely because the appropriation of these is increasingly limited, in part by the very sophistication of the tools. In this sense, while it seems that more and more artists have access to work with technological tools of different types, it is clear to me that the range of options that artists have is to some extent limited, which is evidenced by an artistic production that is homogenized regardless of geographical or social context. In this sense, I am concerned that artists play a dangerous role in relation to new media, in which, rather than critically positioning ourselves in relation to technologies, we have been given the role of introducing and giving some meaning and values to them in a celebratory way. Some theorists suggest that the moments of greatest creative and political potential of technologies are at the time of their emergence and at the time of their obsolescence. I prefer to reverse this logic based on temporality, towards a logic based on spatiality, and think that the greatest political and creative potential is when a technology is within a social fabric, in contrast to when it is outside of it and is imposed hegemonically from the outside.
SP: Looking back at the web residency period, how was your experience?
LA: My experience within the residence has been extremely positive, since it has given me the time to focus on this project and start its process of development. For times it has been a hard time emotionally, given the content of the project and the time that I have had to devote to seeing and analyzing the images it deals with. It has also been a time of intense learning that has forced me to quickly review techniques in which I little prior experience. But I can say that in general it has been a great experience, in which I have had great support from the residence team and Dani as curator, and I have enjoyed knowing and hearing about the different projects and work processes of the other residents.
The interview was conducted by Sarie Nijboer.