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The Safety of Damocles

In modern times, long-held beliefs about the “authenticity” or originality of the self have been challenged in many arenas, including art, science, and philosophy. The word authentic is often defined by its synonyms “real” and “genuine.” Though both these terms are abstract, the term “authentic” is meant to be the antithesis of abstraction: the “real” as in the “real me” or a “real experience.” Technological developments from the telephone to cyberspace seem to reproduce yet fundamentally change the self, deconstructing, encoding, remaking it in the very processes of using these technologies.

In 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell’s voice successfully reached Watson in another room, subjectivity itself was in effect altered — an alteration that is now so commonplace that we take little notice of it. When the first photographic portraits were made in the mid-nineteenth century, the results were often so startling that many of the images were ordered destroyed by the sitters. We also know that when Europeans took their cameras to other lands, they encountered people who felt the making of such an image of the self was tantamount to stealing a soul.

Maun’s The Safety of Damocles explores the acceleration of this vulnerability and malleability of identity in the present digital age. The piece presents three video monitors, one large and two small, suspended together from the ceiling. The large monitor displays body parts commonly and scientifically used in identification — teeth, eyes, hands and fingerprints. Superimposed over this image is text and visual data, such as graphs and statistics, that offer another form of identification.

The small LCD monitors, shielded by hand-crafted wooden casements, allow only one viewer to look at their images at a given moment. Upon looking in at one of these monitors, the viewer confronts an image of him/herself peering into the wooden shadow box. This image is produced by a surveillance camera mounted above the monitor. The second small monitor continuously, and confusingly, plays taped images of others looking into the first monitor. In the space, the viewer is surrounded by ambient sounds of technology, including modems connecting, low drones and clickings, and telephones dialing. This array of images, sounds, and experiences reveals the matrix that is identity in our age at once configured by so-called “original” experience, information, and technological reproduction.

This array of images, sounds, and experiences reveals the matrix that is identity in our age at once configured by so-called “original” experience, information, and technological reproduction.

Ultimately this work asks questions about the possibility of retaining a notion of authenticity in the face of such routine shifts in identity. The title, The Safety of Damocles, refers to an ancient contemplation of the precariousness of power and happiness — two elements certainly tied to identity. Damocles, a courtier of Dionysius the Elder (c. 430-367 BC) of Syracuse, Sicily, once remarked to his sovereign about the grandeur and happiness of rulers. Later, Dionysius placed Damocles beneath a sword suspended by a single horsehair, thus demonstrating the vulnerability of all identities and destinies.

For Maun, the question of the safety of our identities is neither new nor intrinsically connected to technologies. Rather, the new technologies he examines revivify stories like that of Damocles for us, highlighting, as Dionysius did, the need for heightened self consciousness about the very nature of our identities and the ever present instability of them.

The Safety of Damocles was made possible by a grant from Intermedia Arts and the Jerome Foundation. The piece was presented as part of Art in Space XI in 1997/98. Also featured in this exhibition were new works by Stephen Mohring and Ana Lois-Borzi.