Text - Measurability in the transparency era
Text about the art work of Carsten Becker on observation, surveillance and control, by Tamara Branovic
Measurability in the transparency era
Tamara Branovic, 2017
The concept of transparency opens up possibilities for unlimited observation, thus enabling oversight, surveillance and control.¹ But what if this ability to control leads to excessive optimisation, addictive behaviour and power play?
Carsten Becker’s multimedia long-term project deals with precisely this mechanism of complete transparency and its potential for total monitoring and control. Becker’s installation includes two components: several silk screen tablets entitled “Activity Tableau”, and a programmed graphic presented via a website, entitled “Past Nor Present”. Carsten Becker has been documenting his daily working hours since the year 2000 as a digitalised data set. Each year’s results are transferred into a pattern based on programmed vector graphics, linked to the compound elements within the colour spectrum of light, and printed as a silk screen.
Purple magenta is employed as the colour of the first tablet, representing the initial period of measuring and illustrating Becker’s working hours. It combines dots of different sizes to a seemingly arbitrary grid. Variations in the dots’ radius represent the different time periods Becker spent working. The larger the dot, the longer the work day. Each area void of colour refers to work-free time periods. Each composition holds a maximum of seven vertical and 53 horizontal rows of dots. Any emerging uniform pattern would point to a consistent and regular work process, resembling the daily routine of a robot or machine. Empty spaces on Becker’s first tablet, generating a heavily fragmented image, served as a prompt for him to question his work ethic in the course of the ensuing years. On the following tablets, ever expanding dots are juxtaposed to each other, serving as a testament to phases of intense productivity, very much in keeping with the principles of capitalist society. According to the sociologist Max Weber, the rise of capitalism went hand in hand with the development of the strict work ethos of the emerging Protestantism of the time. Luther’s reformation may therefore be regarded as the birth of our achievement-oriented society and the economic development it has enabled.²
Becker’s main interest lies in the measurability of human activity, with its potential market value and economic importance directing consumer behaviour via the evaluation results of digital data sets. Digital exhibitionism – the detailed public display, or “sharing”, of our lives – creates the transparency that facilitates insight into, and the modification and regulation of our behaviour. The pattern of Becker’s work reveals and defines itself like a thumb print. Yet it is only he who has an emotional connection to this representation of his work ethic, not the recipient. Each year, each image, reveals itself and unravels like a diary for the artist. In the eye of the beholder the images remain a riddle, a code, which in effect may only be judged from an ethical or aesthetic perspective.
Past nor Present
A programmed graphic image combines analogue and binary interpretations of Becker’s work. Presented in a hybrid format, the past can be experienced as a part of the present. The screen serving as an image carrier is positioned vertically in analogy to the silk screen tablets, echoing the pulsing rhythm of Becker’s work performance. The images are observed on the screen in chronological order, dot by dot. A dull tone is heard, its volume synchronous with the radius of each round surface. The rhythm of Becker’s work is made audible, like a heartbeat through a stethoscope. However it is far from the monotonous sound produced by a pump operating at a regular beat. Without the visual component one would perceive the tone as such but recognise no pattern or system. The seemingly arbitrary sequence of tones is comparable to an experimental “techno-beat” of electronic music.
On perceiving the audio and visual components in unison, our senses are stimulated by sound as well as shapes of varying sizes and colours. The periods without sound mark times of silence – free time, which, lacking any kind of monitoring, may lead to either a sense of relaxation or emptiness. The recipient of the installation is unable to aurally or visually experience these free moments, which carry a positive connotation for Becker in real life. Instead they trigger anticipation in the recipient, along with the assumption that something ought to happen. In effect the expectation is that “work” ought to be done.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, our view of society has been increasingly one through the “enframing of technology”.³ From a dialectic point of view this development cannot be judged either as positive or negative. Becker’s point indeed is not to illustrate a pre-determined opinion. Instead he captures the ambivalence inherent in today’s society that leads to the questioning of both the purpose and impact of current developments, including the concept of transparency. He questions the “rhythmus téchne”. Technical progress and digitalisation have led to a blurring of boundaries, and have a direct influence on our emotions, via téchne.
Becker consciously translates his personal data into a well-known colour spectrum, the universally recognisable colour scheme of the rainbow. Initially bearing a positive association, this coded system conceals a paradoxical message: it is aesthetically pleasing, yet also dangerously exploitable. An object initially perceived as decorative may be turned into a threatening symbol of control, monitoring, surveillance and power.⁴
A desire to create a structure or pattern of our actions compels both Carsten Becker and our society in general to constantly optimise their individual presence. This “neurotic” pressure to perform is showcased by certain role models who have managed to establish themselves through perpetual self-marketing – the so-called branding phenomenon – via social media channels. In this way, society strives for achievement at all times, be it through professional or private activities. It is prepared to voluntarily exploit itself.⁵ This pressure to perform results in extreme addictive behaviour, which calls for constant commitment and input. It represents a new type of “material value”.⁶
Translation: Nadine Ott
¹ The term “panopticon” is used by Chul-Han as a means to describe today’s society of collective control. See Chul-Han, Byung: The Transparency Society. Redwood, 2015.
² See Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York, 1930.
³ See Heidegger, Martin: The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York & London, 1977.
⁴ Carsten Becker is referring to the playful Google symbol. Operating behind this is a corporation owning one of the biggest data stores in the world, used for commercial purposes. See also Chul-Han, Byung: The Transparency Society. Redwood, 2015.
⁵ See Chul-Han, Byung: The Transparency Society. Redwood, 2015.
⁶ The term “human material” refers to the military application of humans, whose services, and in effect lives, are exploited as a means to an end. In addition they are utilised for the purpose of capital growth and as an integral element of the capitalist economic system. See Marx, Karl: Capital: Critique of Political Economy. London, 2004