The Unobserved Platform of Observation
AI generated images materialised as Ambrotypes.
Wet collodion glass plates.
12x18 cms each. Series of 36.
This project is inspired by the historical research of scholar Barbara Alice Mann. It reflects on her ways of problematising indigenous history and identity as invented by the precursors of Western academy.
In her study Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds Mann cites fieldwork journals written in the first person by leading anthropologists. In these diaries, they would describe the sanguinary procedures and fantasies that conducted their daily work. From the 19th century onwards, anthropological research comprised raiding native burial grounds, stealing bodies directly from the battlefield, or perpetrating massacres so as to “collect specimens”, among other “practices”.
The procedures of these scientists were not captured photographically. With no apparent existence, they are not featured in hegemonic historical narratives. This erasure is foundational to coloniality: the invisibilisation and denial of the violent infrastructure subjacent to the world-system imaginary.
Polo’s artistic research strove to capture such anthropological dealings. They can be regarded as the “zero-point hubris: the unobserved platform of observation from which an impartial observer is able to establish the laws that govern societies, history and life”. [Santiago Castro Gómez] Such an unobserved platform produced the mirage of neutrality, yet it is situated and embodied in the white, European, heteropatriarchal male sublimated by the modern/colonial project.
Today, Artificial Intelligence is capable of generating appearances of photographic records. Confronting this technology entails understanding its rootedness in the anthropological methods devised to legitimise the colonial order of domination. It was in the 19th century when experimental branches of anthropology, such as eugenics and phrenology, developed the system of mathematical computations and anatomical measurements that gave birth to statistical science. Consequently, statistics was made to serve the invention of race in its “scientific” modality, so as to prove the purported biological inferiority of entire peoples and thus condone their genocide, dispossession and subjugation.
This same statistical principle systematises the standardised rendering of AIs. The images generated by AI no longer need external input, they produce statistically regulated “syntheses” of the visuals amassed by the internet. Such an operation reproduces and propagates dominant normative averages – or hierarchical socio-political categories instituted by the modern-colonial project– magnifying their disciplining inertia.
For the above-mentioned reasons, Polo states that Artificial Intelligence was born in 1492.
In this project the artist worked experimentally and critically with the image-generating AI Midjourney; challenging its logic and making use of its lapses to produce exercises in documentary photography that would visually recreate passages of fieldwork journals or historical accounts compiled by Barbara Alice Mann.
How can Midjourney visualise operations for which it lacks online (and offline) repository? How can this AI portray the workings of early anthropology which, having always remained outside the field of vision, decide what we see?
- The title of this project comes from the study of Santiago Castro Gómez: La Hybris del Punto Cero. Ciencia, Raza e Ilustración en la Nueva Granada (1750-1816). Bogotá. Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. Instituto Pensar. 2004.
- Barbara Alice Mann. Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.