[-empyre-] Leo: Intro, Identity as Tech, Questions

leo selvaggio leo.selvaggio at gmail.com
Wed Feb 3 01:29:01 AEDT 2021

Hello all!

Thank you Empyre for welcoming me into your digital space and to
Renate and Tim for inviting me. In many ways, my practice and its
concerns echo that of Ben Grosser, whose work has helped shaped my own
thinking on the matter of social media discourse.

As a little bit of an intro to my practice, I have been working with
the idea that the working model of personal identity, specifically in
the face of a globalized and digital world, has shifted dramatically
from one of personal authorship to that of distributed authorship for
about 8 years now. This was spurred by observing the performance and
curation of identity for the consumption of others on social media
platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. Inspired by the
open-source methodologies of distribution, I launched a now defunct
project in 2012 called YouAreMe.net. The web-based project posted the
user name and password for a variety of my social media accounts so
that people could be “me” online as if my digital identity were a
kernel program that I was giving others access to work on, improve,
and share back with me. This project began my creative research into
this idea of identity as tangible material that can be hacked and
manipulated by others. We have real-world examples of this in Twitter
doxing, in which hundreds if not thousands of people can imprint a
negative association (for better or for worse) onto a person so much
so that it overpowers and replaces the individuals’ ability to assert
their own identity. Throw in all the marketing algorithms that Ben and
Renate have described earlier and it's plain enough to see that who we
are in this world anymore is only partially within our own power.

Like Ben, I became very concerned with the state of surveillance and
how data from silicon valley social media platforms were being used to
feed into both federal and state governmental institutions. Ben’s post
made me think of the recent article by Shoshana Zuboff in the New York
Times [1] in which she coins the term “surveillance capitalism” to
describes the shift the societal vision of the U.S. to an all-knowing,
total information awareness state post 911. In the article, she argues
that you can not have both surveillance capitalism and democracy. She
also describes that the first fall was the allowing of companies to
treat data created by individuals as property. This is an idea I chose
to exploit in 2014 while a graduate student at Columbia College
Chicago in a project called URME Surveillance, in which I developed a
photo-realistic 3D printed prosthetic of my face for the public to
wear in surveilled space, thus attributing their actions as my own in
facial recognition databases. Like Ben, I am interested in
obfuscation, but in terms of tactics, URME Surveillance [2] may be
better described as using a disinformation strategy. While the
prosthetic does protect the wearer’s identity (obfuscation), if it
goes undetected, then it also produced disinformation about the
identity “Leo Selvaggio” within the system, such as my extrapolated
height, gender, gait, location, etc. In this way, the continued
performance of my identity by others in public spaces could produce
enough disinformation to call into question facial recognition
technologies efficacy. Disinformation can be a tricky tactic and it
won’t work in all scenarios, but it has the advantage that the system
you are trying to fight will often replicate your intended effect for
you without ever knowing it has been compromised.

URME Surveillance has caused me to reassess my own identity,
especially because I am a white-presenting cis-male. Until white
privilege is dismantled, at its best, URME Surveillance asserts that
perhaps white male privilege can be distributed to others, because
nothing is more invisible to surveillance than a white man in a suit.
This has lead me to recontextualize my working model of distributed
identity into working with the idea of identity as a technology. In my
case, by detaching my person from my face, a container was made, a
technology to be used by others. This is what I am exploring today.

This brings me back to social media and the recent popularity of
digital mimicry. Lipsynching, reacting to viral dramas, dances, etc on
platforms like Tik Tock and Snapchat is an important area for
discourse as users of those platforms are becoming living memes as
reenactors of cultural signifiers, many of which are attached to an
individual identity. In this digital meme phenomena, the source
material is no longer attached to the individual that created it, but
rather it has become an infused vessel that others inhabit, or a
technology, much in the way that theatre or wearing a Guy Fawkes mask,
each imbuing the actor/wearer with the signifiers of the part they are

This brings me to my most recent project, Apologize to America [3], in
which I have used an Augmented Reality snap chat filter to invite the
public to apologize for the many atrocities Trump is responsible for.
These are not deep fakes, but rather a collection of performative
videos that emphasize the need to hold him accountable via a tactical
media strategy, much like the Yes Men have with the BP oil spill.
Trump is so much more than a person. He is a signifier of right-wing
white supremacy, and in that way, he has weaponized his own identity
into a technology that mobilizes the worst of America. This project is
an all too poor attempt to retool that technology to create a
speculative, if not fantastical world, in which we collectively show
the world what he should be held accountable for.

I really didn’t mean to write this much as just context, hahah! But I
should say I am interested in learning from the group this week, what
successful collective actions that you have seen on social media? I
can think of a few: Women’s March, BLM, the recent GameStop/redit
actions, etc. Which inspire you and what do you think have lead to
their success?

I would also be interested to hear from those who actively disrupt
algorithms and what your strategies are?

Lastly, I would love to hear perspectives on if working within social
media platforms, in ways that Ben and I do, is fruitful or fruitless?
Do we need to abandon social media for the sake of dismantling
surveillance capitalism? If so, how do we rebuild or decontextualize
the non-capitalist functions of social media that have become embedded
into our way of life?

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/opinion/sunday/facebook-surveillance-society-technology.html?referringSource=articleShare&fbclid=IwAR2TfatXF3OEOpwq57cMXruaTcUbSNmtT57U36V2-s9H6Kpvjd7sXS_UBfw

[2] http://leoselvaggio.com/urmesurveillance

[3] http://www.apologize2america.com/

Leo Selvaggio
Independent Interdisciplinary Artist
MFA- InterArts Columbia College
Founder of URME Surveillance

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