Imperceptibly Dirty – Zach Blas


Dirt often evokes information trails, the pursuit and gathering of information – getting the dirt on someone, as they say. Today, getting the dirt might likely be for security or marketing purposes, where information is sought legally, illegally, or extralegally, by a variety of governments, persons, and private institutions. Perhaps D.I.R.T. (Data Interception by Remote Transmission) is a paradigmatic example, a Trojan program from the early 2000s that allowed US law-enforcement to surreptitiously monitor a suspect’s computer as well as upload evidence to it. D.I.R.T. highlights the tactics at play in contemporary tropes of dirty political battles: get it any which way.

Google, Facebook, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, WikiLeaks, and Anonymous are all implicated in such hunts for dirt, that is, the retrieval and dissemination of information for various political causes and beliefs. Notably, there appears to be at least two kinds of this dirt: governments and private corporations collect and aggregate data on the public for criminal and marketing purposes and beyond, while activists and whistleblowers unearth the dirt on governments, private corporations, politicians, and CEOs, among others. Undoubtedly, the desire to get the dirt grows with the production and encryption of information today. Yet, within this messy mixture of dirt, dirty information, databases of dirt, all moving through cycles of exposure and concealment, there also appears to be a particular political desire to become imperceptible and illegible, to make the dirt dirty or dirtier, one might say. In this instance then, imperceptibility suggests evading mechanisms of dirt collection, informatic capture, and data aggregation, but this also takes the form of a powerful political excess that defies quantification or informationalization to such applications of capture. Imperceptibility is a use of dirt that masks, black-boxes, camouflages, makes an unrecognizable mess of it all.

Dirt is, of course, an unclean and contaminating matter, a substance resistant to stable compositions of size, scale, and volume. Perhaps the phrase “imperceptibly dirty” can be used to suggest those political actions and tactics that use information mined and gathered (the dirt) – as well as the mechanisms doing the aggregating – in antagonistic ways to further evade participation and interpellation into a neoliberal regime of calculation, classification, and recognition. Certainly, these desires to evade detection span from the left to the right of the political spectrum, but I want to focus on actions that protest against exploitative and undemocratic uses of dirt gathering, actions that refuse to become perceptible to state and corporate control by tactically manipulating and subverting dirt of all kinds – digital, material, conceptual, aesthetic, and political.

Imperceptibility and Network Exodus

In Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century (2008), political theorists Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos explain that imperceptible politics is about existing outside representation. For them, representational politics is a form of policing, a neoliberal trap that fallaciously proposes that by being included or recognized by the state, one will become a rightful subject of democracy and equality; thus, imperceptible politics is not about state inclusion or recognition but escape, refusal, and the construction of new, amorphous bodies, materials, styles, and ways of existing. Similarly, artist Jaime del Val’s “Devisual Manifesto” (2011) argues for a distinction between seeing or perceiving and visualizing technologies. He writes that our culture of visualization is a culture of control, and therefore, devisualization disorients visualization’s tools for recognition and identification. Devisualization, del Val claims, redefines perception and recognizable reality. Prescient in light of Del Val’s diagnosis, media theorists Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, in their book The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007), have described the current century as an “era of universal standards of identification,” referencing technologies that bind identification with locatability, exemplified by biometric technologies and GPS. “Henceforth,” they write, “the lived environment will be divided into identifiable zones and nonidentifiable zones, and nonidentifiables will be the shadowy new ‘criminal’ classes – those that do not identify.” They further hypothesize about nonidentifiable action, suggesting that “future avant-garde practices will be those of nonexistence.” Their tactics of nonexistence stress the development of techniques and technologies to make oneself unaccounted for. Black Bloc protests and Hakim Bey’s writings on the temporary autonomous zone could both be considered tactics of nonexistence.

Imperceptible politics, devisualization, and nonexistence are crucial conceptualizations for exploring the imperceptibly dirty in social media networks, digital identity management platforms, and data mining software, the technological systems where today’s dirt wars play out. For example, in the wake of continuously fluctuating terms of agreement regarding data collection, marketing, and privacy policies on social media sites like Facebook and Google+, artists and activists are devising exit strategies from these commercial networks. While les liens invisibles’ project offers a Facebook suicide service and Anonymous has constructed its own social media networking site Anon Plus, artist Sean Dockray’s “Facebook Suicide (Bomb) Manifesto” (2010) more directly evokes the imperceptibly dirty. Dockray writes:

When someone disappears from Facebook, does anyone notice? Does this software retroactively invalidate all of the marketing data that has been collected from the account? […] The answer isn’t silence, but noise! Suicide on a social network is a matter of introducing noise into the system. It spreads viruses and misinformation. It makes things less interesting for others. It disrupts the finely calibrated advertising algorithms on which suggestions are made – for friends, groups, institutions, ideas, and so on.

Dockray urges users to like everything, become friends with everyone, and join every group, for it is only then that the dirt gathered becomes null.

Biometric Failure

Today, biometrics have become emblematic of informatic capture, recognition control, and the newest in D.I.R.T. technology. A multibillion dollar industry in security and marketing sectors, biometric companies produce devices like iris scans and facial recognition machines with the hopes of manufacturing the perfect automated identification tools that can successfully read a core identity off the body. Yet, as communications theorist Shoshana Amielle Magnet (2011) has argued, biometric technologies rely heavily on stable and normative conceptions of identity, and thus, structural failures are encoded in biometrics that discriminate against race, class, gender, sex, and disability. For example, fingerprint devices often fail to scan the hands of Asian women and iris scans work poorly if an eye has cataracts. Biometric failure fuels what transgender theorist and activist Dean Spade has concisely labeled “administrative violence,” pointing toward the inequalities that emerge when normative categories are forced upon populations.

Recently, artists have begun to exploit such biometric failures in order to become undetectable to these forms of capture and data aggregation. Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle uses a combination of fashion, makeup, and hair styling as camouflage to escape facial recognition. In response to emerging scientific studies that link successfully determining sexual orientation with rapid facial recognition techniques, the art group Queer Technologies is currently developing a Facial Weaponization Suite. The suite provides masks for public protest, such as collective masks that allow a person to simultaneously wear the faces of many. The Fag Face Collective Mask, for example, is generated from the aggregation of biometric facial data of many gay men’s faces. This facial data is gathered into a single three-dimensional plane; when plotted together in 3D modeling software, the result is a mutated, alien facial mask that cannot be read or parsed by biometric facial detection technologies. Within the last year, Occupy activists and Afghan civilians have been the target of massive biometric data-gathering sweeps by US police and military forces. As persons and publics that deviate from mainstream nationalist agendas become increasingly targeted by biometric surveillance, creative acts of imperceptibility become all the more necessary.

In response to the global biometric project, Magnet writes that “human bodies are not biometrifiable,” they cannot be rendered into a static and stable coded representation. Magnet’s political position insists that the human body is beyond any definitive technological measure, and this opens a space to think another dirt: not dirt as information but a relational materiality, always dirty and contaminated, binding the human, earth, and universe.

Dirty Matters

Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and Tsianos explain that “imperceptible politics involves remaking the present by remaking our bodies: the ways we perceive, feel, act. Imperceptible politics transforms our bodies.” For them, imperceptible politics, which are processes of social change, do not result in a proliferation of differences but rather “a process of becoming everyone […] a unity of multiple singularities.” These authors, like Magnet, evoke the complex material components and agents, both organic and inorganic, that give form to us and the world. They insist on the dirt that materially and politically composes us all and yet makes us irresolutely singular. In the last instance, perhaps the dirt in imperceptible politics is this cosmic material element, beyond any informatic D.I.R.T. that attempts to stabilize, classify, and identify. There is a dirt beyond measure, beyond D.I.R.T., a dirty material transformation – continuous and unending – that is becoming everybody. This is as imperceptibly dirty as it can get.


Anon Plus.

Hakim Bey. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone. (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2003).

Jaime del Val. “Devisual Manifesto.” (2011).

Sean Dockray. “Facebook Suicide (Bomb) Manifesto.” (2010).

Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 2007).

Adam Harvey. CV Dazzle: Camouflage from Computer Vision. (2012).

les liens invisibles. (2009).

Shoshana Amielle Magnet. When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos. Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century. (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

Queer Technologies. Facial Weaponization Suite.

Zach Blas is an artist-theorist working at the intersections of networked media, queerness, and the political. He is a PhD candidate in Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, Visual Studies at Duke University and holds an MFA in Design | Media Arts, University of California Los Angeles. He is the creator of art group Queer Technologies, a founding member of The Public School Durham, a contributing editor for the online journal Version, and co-founder of the queer media listserv Q. Zach has exhibited and lectured around the world, including The Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Banff Centre, Medialab Prado, transmediale festival, Upgrade! Tijuana, the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, where he co-curated the 2011 group exhibition Speculative. Zach has recently published writings in the Viral issue of Women Studies Quarterly, The Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, and Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies. He has also edited Micha Cárdenas’ newly published book The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities. In 2012, Zach will be an artist/researcher-in-residence at the b.a.n.g.lab, directed by Ricardo Dominguez, at the University of California San Diego.