In my dissertation from 2013 I close read pieces by David Jhave Johnston, mez and Johannes Hélden among others, with an interest in multimodal analysis and media philosophy.
Back then, I chose to characterize Electronic Literature metaphorically as a literary diaspora in continuation of historical literary avant-gardes. The title of this years ELO conference made me think of e-lit as a new diaspora in itself – a culture, a movement, a family with historical roots, traditions and habits but already with several branches, new subdivisions and blends.
The title of the conference also gave me the encouraging thought that I am still an e-lit scholar, though my current research project “Technologies of the Face in Contemporary Art” belongs to the tradition of visual art and new media art in a broader sense In my paper, I will closely analyze a piece that has proved to be a threshold between my two research projects and explain why.
The installation The Aleph is made by Kim Yong Hun and was displayed in the ELO 2012 Media Art Show. It consists of two computer screens producing the images of two faces. These are composed of 10,000 photographs from the Internet of people’s private photos of faces tagged with the words “Funeral” or “Birthday”. Each pixel borrows a part from a singular photo and it gives a blurred expression in the overall facial image. The collective funeral face looks like a smiling ghost. The work seems to suggest that there should be something in common in the respective joyful and sorrowful expression.
The Aleph thematizes the relationships between faces, identity and data. The work reads all the data, but it is linguistic data arising from the labels of the images placed by the original owners. The program cannot decide whether an image looks like a “funeral face” or not. It is possible for contemporary face detection technology to determine whether a mouth is turning up or down, but the algorithm in The Aleph bases its conclusions on linguistic data. Wittgenstein described how we (humans) never read the face as a sign – we recognize it immediately as sorrowful or joyful, without necessarily being able to describe specifically what features produce these feelings. The machine as interpreter does not have this sensibility (it can only read faces as structures, because everything must be translated into data that can be compared with other data).
I will among other things discuss The Aleph in relation to the German artist Hito Steyerls essay “Proxy Politics”, on contemporary photography and the disconnection of the face on the Internet: “An image becomes less of a representation than a proxy, a mercenary of appearance, a floating texture-surface-commodity. Persons are montaged, dubbed, assembled, incorporated.”
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