By Craig Epplin
I went to the Portland State campus today with two objectives: pick up books from the library and see Mariano Pensotti’s Sometimes I think, I can see you, an outdoor installation comprising a screen and a writer filling it with text. I arrived at the plaza where the work was in progress. The first thing I saw on the screen was the description of a couple, and yes, there they were, chatting on a bench and sharing lunch. I wondered if there would be more to it. I wondered if I would stay long or grow tired of reading and matching the writer’s observations to the reality around me. I walked closer to the screen.
But then I got distracted. I ran into a friend and sat down. We began to talk—about our jobs, books, the perils of expertise, the ineptitude of the state, music, etc. I was engaged, but not by Pensotti’s work. It was just something happening in the background, the occasion for a chance encounter. I glanced occasionally over my shoulder and saw more writing about the people and go-carts and streetcars that passed through the plaza. I spent about an hour there, but I didn’t read much of the writing. I mostly just sat and chatted.
We generally know what it means to attend a performance. We arrive and file in, turn off our cell phones, watch and listen, applaud. Other dynamics–in a gallery instead of a theater, for example–are more informal, or they demand our participation. Pensotti’s work doesn’t fit these molds. To watch it is unexciting and to participate in it means doing nothing, hanging out, walking by, simply allowing yourself to be registered by the writer seated at the laptop. If you know the work is taking place and if you’re feeling narcissistic, you might wonder if you’ve made it onto the screen. It’s something like the feeling of walking into a gas station and looking around for the security camera.
That’s why I think Pensotti’s work matters greatly. It models a situation we all live in: that more and more often we are watched as we pass through public spaces. And it reveals at least some of the complexities inherent in that reality. In a state of surveillance, we feel ourselves intruded upon. We know that we are leaving traces of ourselves everywhere, that those traces are being collected by large corporations and used for commercial purposes, and furthermore that the state has fairly unfettered access to them. It’s the feeling of living in a panopticon, and people are right to fight against it.
But at the same time, this feeling names a fiction: on the side of the observed, the paranoid fantasy that everything about us can be monitored, and on the side of the observer, the fantasy of completing the process of capture. Pensotti’s work unveils this fiction. Sure, our social existence is increasingly modeled as data, but that data isn’t all-encompassing. It can’t be. 0s and 1s can’t capture the bubbling, churning desires and movements that make life in common what it is. Big data interpellates us as numbers, but those numbers are a poor stand-in for all of this that’s happening all the time. It’s real and powerful, but also fake and feeble. The doubt expressed in the work’s title—I think I can see you, and only sometimes—hints at this truth: that no, in fact, you cannot see me.
I’m curious to go back to Sometimes I think, I can see you. I’m curious to see new forms of fiction generated by the talented writers taking turns at the computer. Their work generates a fragmentary form of capture, which, this work reminds us, is the only sort possible.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor of Latin American literature at Portland State University and an editor at Rattapallax.