Swarm Aesthetics

By: Matthew Battles
November 23, 2011

While the debate about citizen journalism is engaged in the mainstream media and professional journals (for a thought-provoking summation of the case, see Quiet Babylon), the question is already being decided in the streets, and no amount of professional handwringing will alter that course. To paraphrase Stewart Brand, we’re already journalists — we might as well get good at it. It’s worth wondering how images gleaned from swarming mobile devices act on our imaginations.

That catoptical sousveillance has its own aesthetic is notable in itself. It’s not merely documentary, but fragmentary. Its images are tesserae in a distributed mosaic, and the literacy normative to such images must begin with an acknowledgment of their incomplete nature. They’re also perpetually unfinished; unlike the flash-of-insight modernism of mid-twentieth century photojournalism, these images are figured and worked post-hoc on the gordian assembly line of the internet meme factory. We browse these pictures like raw data, surfing them for signification. Their total aesthetic effect (but it’s never total, rather it’s always unfolding) is shaped emergently through shares, likes, blog-posts, and mashups; in aggregate they pick out resonances, add colors, suggest outlines. Take this video of polish security forces double-timing it to the scene of recent street actions in Warsaw:

The advent of citizen-flown surveillance drones signified by this video is remarkable in itself. But of the number of such videos captured by latajakacamera, this one trades on its resonances with cinematic marches —

The resonances are implicit, nascent; we limn them accumulatively.

The best encapsulation of the aesthetic of omniveillance, however, is found in the sheer abundance of mobile recording devices now held aloft at any scene of civic unrest. Laid aside in the already-iconic scenes from last week’s events at UC-Davis, images of a smartphone-wielding crowd slowly advancing on a phalanx of cops are as striking as any of the outtakes from that already-iconic event. The power salute of a frustrated civil rights movement gave way to the flower brandished by the hippie, which in the 1970s became the burner’s bic lighter held aloft. Now, the raised fist of revolution clasps a mobile device; the upheld smartphone is quickly becoming a chief image in the iconicity of renewed public discourse. It’s a symbol that also produces and transmits symbols; the deep, implicit fungibility of semiotic exchange is now RL-instantiated.

Here is the new scene of the dialectic: regimens of physical control clashing with the possibilities of networked autonomy. It’s an economy of answerability, with cops cast as avatars of the corporeal, while the smartphone-wielding protesters seek to extend online liberty into 3D space. Maybe this is why the violence is at once so extreme and so symbolic. While protesters and police in Egypt’s Tahrir Square fight pitched battles amidst broken bodies and smoking cars, clashes in the US are taking a baroque, operatic shape, a pattern of hieratic, capsicum-laced call-and-response. But the violence is no less real for this — whole worlds are at stake.