Contextualizing ‘How Not To Be Seen’
Surveillance Culture

In 2013, growing surveillance and growing anxiety in the zeitgeist about late capitalism joined and culminated in a cultural moment of visibility–anxiety. Despite a surveillance/control dialogue going back hundreds of years, How Not To Be Seen could only be the product of this particular moment.

I will show this in four parts. First, I will establish the anxiety around late capitalism and the society of control. Second, I will establish the anxiety around growing surveillance. Third, I will establish that particular moment and its visibility anxiety, and use other works to show its currency. Finally, I will show how How Not To Be Seen itself exemplifies this moment through these anxieties.

Our contemporary surveillance discourse began with Jeremy Bentham’s design and attempted construction of a panopticon: a prison in which inmates know at any moment that they might be being watched. In Discipline and Punish, 2 Foucault wrote about the transition to a disciplinary society, in which the mechanisms of control become so efficient and effective that they spread from its edges and gradually enmesh themselves with its whole. In a disciplinary society, you move from one disciplinary institution to another: school to the army to the factory, occasionally the hospital or a prison.

one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine’, to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism’. Not because the disciplinary modality of power has replaced all the others; but because it has infiltrated the others,

A decade later, Deleuze wrote an essay, Postscript on the Societies of Control,3 in which he responded to Foucault. He wrote that we were transitioning from Foucault’s disciplinary society into a new, even more insidious society of control. In a society of control, the school army factory hospital and prison are all part of the same intermingled mass. Ike’s military—industrial complex

The old monetary mole is the animal of the space of enclosure, but the serpent is that of the societies of control.

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything–the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.

Coming into 2013, resistance to the society of control was growing. In the US and at large, The “Tea Party movement”, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, and the ensuing movement provide examples of the growing anti-government, anti-corporate, anti-society of control sentiment.

A 2014 essay called We Are All Very Anxious: Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It,4 published by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness declared that “In contemporary capitalism, the dominant reactive affect is anxiety.” The society of control uses anxiety to amplify its power.

Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localised locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.

All experience in a society of control is mediated by anxiety. The Gulf War started the same year the Cold War (and its fear of nuclear destruction) ended, started the path towards 9/11, and marked a beginning of 25 years (and counting) of international fear of Islam. Just as the Cold War brought tons of development into targeted surveillance, 9/11 brought tons of development into mass surveillance. The Wall Street Journal5 reports that the market for surveillance tools grew from almost zero in 2001 to nearly 5 billion dollars in 2011.

With all this surveilance around, people started to want not to be seen. We can find evidence of this in a few places. Interest in Bitcoin, a new currency sold on anonymity and non-reliance on centralized banks or control surged, as cryptocurrency captured the attention of the media. In their widely cited 2013 report, Youth Mode6 trend forecasting group K-Hole showed that the new cool was predicated around blending in. Around not being seen. The youth of today want to assert sameness, not individuality, to avoid detection.

It’s more subtle than that, though. We don’t all always want to be invisible. Constant surveillance removes our ability to choose when and how to be seen. To create and control our own image. Kate Crawford7 writes that,

the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough.

How Not To Be Seen emerged because our relationship with visibility is complicated. it stands among a group of works from tbis period that engage with this idea of visibility, peering into all its nuance and complexity.

How Not To Be Seen is not the practical guide it claims to be. Like Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance work, first seen in DIS Magazine,8 which suggests “highly stylized makeup” as a sort of personal camouflage and in so doing reveals the pervasiveness of video surveillance, Steyerl enumerates the impossible set of conditions that would allow one not to be seen: “to become invisible, one has to become smaller or equal to one pixel.” The absurdity of it is enforced by the absurd pixel-headed dance sequence that follows.

Trevor Paglen creates stock footage of the invisible bodies controlling society—surveillance infrastructure, NSA buildings, etc.—so that their stories can be told. Like Paglen’s work, How Not To Be Seen works to make the invisible visible. To expose hidden aspects of our relationshio with our visibility.

Another class of works in this category is those that expose video captured for or by machines rather than people, and thereby question what it means “to be seen” in the first place. How Not To Be Seen, Harun Farocki’s earlier Eye Machine 9 series, Chris Marker’s Stopover in Dubai, and Timo Arnall’s Robot Readable World10 all work to some extent within this mode.

We Are All Very Anxious tells us that, “As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge.” By talking about resolution targets, Steyerl reveals not only the extent of our surveillance, but also its physicality. As Deleuze showed us, the society of control is amorphous, difficult to pin down. But it is made of tangible, physical, understandable bits. How Not To Be Seen makes this invisible  visible.

The early 2010s marked a crucial moment for visibility anxiety. The twin anxieties around the society of control and around surveillance came to the surface and pervaded our art, culture, and discourse. How Not To Be Seen is fundamentally tied into this cultural moment.


Arnall, Tito. “Robot Readable World,” February 2012.

Consciousness, Institute for Precarious. “We Are All Very Anxious.” Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It Is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It, April 2014.

Crawford, Kate. “The Anxieties of Big Data.” The New Inquiry, January 2014.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59, no. 1 (1992): 3–7. doi:10.2307/778828.

Farocki, Harun. “Eye/Machine I, II and III.” Video Data Bank: Video Data Bank, January 2003.

Fong, Greg, Sean Monahan, Dena Yago, Chris Sherron, and Emily Segal. “Youth Mode.” Vol. 4. NYC: K-HOLE, 2013.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: Panopticism. Edited by Alan Sheridan. New York, 1977.

Steyerl, Hito. “How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File.” Artforum, 2013.

Valentino-Devries, J, J Angwin, and S Stecklow. “Document trove exposes surveillance methods,” January 2011.

  1. Steyerl, “How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File.”

  2. Foucault, Discipline & Punish: Panopticism.

  3. Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control.”

  4. Consciousness, “We Are All Very Anxious.”

  5. Valentino-Devries, Angwin, and Stecklow, “Document trove exposes surveillance methods.”

  6. Fong et al., “Youth Mode.”

  7. Crawford, “The Anxieties of Big Data.”

  8. Harvey, “Anti Surveillance.”

  9. Farocki, “Eye/Machine I, II and III.”

  10. Arnall, “Robot Readable World.”