How Not to be Seen: Glitching the Matrix
The resistance to the control society is imagined as being invisible, opaque, and sentimental in contemporary arts. While there are various works of art that imagine resistance to control, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Education .MOV File by Hito offers a satirical look that both explicitly and inexplicitly discusses what resistance in the age of digital technology could look like. The film never mentions discipline, control nor surveillance, but various symbolisms and references point to a deeper interpretation of ‘not being seen.’ It creates a satirical atmosphere to the film as an educational video is supposed to be easy-to-understand and instruct things that one cannot understand or do right away, but the instructions are too simple to need any explanation (such as to make something invisible for a camera, go off-screen) and cryptic (such as attention to a USAF resolution chart) at the same time. However, by being cryptic and opaque in fashion, the medium serves as a message of resistance to the control society.
In Postscript on Control Societies, Gilles Deleuze’s analysis suggests how the state of invisibility and opaqueness could resist the digital nature of control. The text explains that ‘control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers, where the passive danger is noise and the active, piracy and viral contamination.’ In this context, the noise is inaccurate information that could pile up over time and lead to miscalculations, which can be accomplished by being invisible and opaque. On the other hand, ‘piracy and viral contamination’ are more direct attacks on the system (cyber warfare) that either circumvent the code-protection that is the ‘digital language of control’ or vandalise the accumulated information that functions as bare-bone to control mechanisms.
In the film, the analogue photography is depicted as constant, enduring, and invariable. The film takes place at a 1951 USAF resolution chart in California which was used by the military to calibrate satellite camera lens; for decades, the resolution chart ‘moulded’ the camera for aerial photography. Similarly, sites of confinements — such as families, hospitals, and prisons — in a disciplinary society moulded individuality of each body. Until it was decommissioned in 2006, the resolution chart was not modified, hinting at its enduring and invariable nature. It intersects with the disciplinary societies that are, according to Deleuze, ‘long-term, infinite, and discontinuous.’
On the other hand, the digital photography, which replaced the analogue technology, is presented as ever evolving. For instance, the narrator mentions that the photographic resolution was improved from 12 metres per pixel in 1996 to 1 foot per pixel in 2013. In the film, cloaked actors wearing a cube over their heads mock a pixel chart which was quickly made useless by rapid improvement in technology, pointing at the fact that the digital photography is not bound by resolution charts (moulds). It is a metaphor for the control society, which is ‘short-term and rapidly shifting, but at the same time continuous and unbounded.’
While the film uses symbolism to demonstrate the contrast between disciplinary and control societies, it also casts negative light on lack of individuality in control societies through non-diegetic sounds. The film is narrated by a monotonous robotic male voice and a similarly robotic female voice. Humorous words like ‘women over 50’ and horrendous words like ‘annihilated, eliminated, eradicated’ are all pronounced with the same emotionless tone, which creates a sinister atmosphere. At the same time, the background music is dull and repetitious, which at first gives a feeling of progression but over time starts reinforcing the ominous climate. Then at the end of lesson 5, When Will I See You Again by The Three Degrees is played, which carries 70s pop upbeat rhythm and lyrics comprising only questions. It lets us reminisce about the old disciplinary society in which ‘rogue pixels’ who defied the control find freedom and individuality in, while also posing concerns about the ever-changing control society. The lyrics such as ‘Will I have to wait forever?’ and ‘Will I have to suffer (suffer)?’ juxtaposes with the preceding voiceovers in its emotionality while the lines now have a different interpretation from romanticism — one of resistance (‘wait’), uncertainty (‘forever’), fear for the future (‘suffer’). Furthermore, it supports Taeyoon Choi’s notion that ‘there were gaps between these spaces of discipline, unregulated and unorganised areas where “everyday life” could take place … [but] contemporary society lacks such zones for free association’ as mentioned in Notes on the Control Society.
While the film uses symbolisms, non-diegetic sounds, and juxtapositions to insinuate the dark side of the control society, the lessons hint at various methods we can weaponise invisibility and opaqueness. Lesson 1 sheds light on how we are obsessed with feeding the control mechanisms with new information and/or our personal data. The methods of hiding, removing, going off-screen, and disappearing oppose our temptation to take pictures and post on social media. In lesson 2, the instructor advises to scroll, wipe, erase, shrink, or take a picture to be invisible. These are smartphone gestures that removes content from the screen. By doing so, one resists ‘machine interfaces, operating systems, and content that are designed to maximise addiction to communication,’ and cybernetics ‘that produce value through monetising our attention span’ as described by Choi. The addicting nature of social media is emphasised by hypnotic animations behind the demonstrator through keying in lesson 2. In lessons 3 and 5 film suggests us to be invisible by becoming a picture which is opaque, 2D (shows something from one perspective), and easily manipulated. In that way, our biometrics, identity, and emotions cannot be seen to the control mechanisms, allowing us to maintain our individuality and freedom as demonstrated by cloaked actors dancing and having fun.
The idea of disappeared people becoming ‘rogue pixels’ is like Deleuze’s idea of noise being a passive threat to control. By deliberately hiding information from the system, refusing to participate in feedback loop that feeds the control, and concealing one’s identity through masks, one can create noise in the system of control that is fuelled by information, the film argues. By combining a deep implication and simple instructions, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File tells us how we can take back our individuality and resist the control society.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies.” In Negotiations, 177–82. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Choi, Taeyoon. “Notes on the Control Society.” Accessed March 29, 2021. http://taeyoonchoi.com/poetic-computation/control-society/.
Steyerl, Hito. How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File. Artforum International, 2013. https://www.artforum.com/video/hito-steyerl-how-not-to-be-seen-a-fucking-didactic-educational-mov-file-2013-51651.
This essay was written as a coursework for UC Berkeley. Any sort of plagiarism will be strongly condemned.