"Making art is like a bridge to the gods" Bafic's new book goes beyond the social media panopticon
The interdisciplinary artist takes woo down a wormhole of machine vision, mortality and digital documentation
words Megan Wallace
Originally from the Midlands but now mostly existing online, Bafic is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice explores what it means to be human in the digital age. He's perhaps most associated with moving image work, such as 2016's ICA installation Processing Procession - his breakthrough piece, which saw him take grainy, CCTV-esque footage of the public and project it back at the viewer. Since then, he's diversified his practice: working on documentaries exploring the creative process behind major cultural artefacts, such as the late Virgil Abloh's first Louis Vuitton collection and the first solo album from Radiohead's Ed O'Brien.
Much of the artist's work grapples with the blurred boundaries between representation and reality on the one hand, and documentation and surveillance on the other. This meta approach to his craft can be seen across his scopophilic music video for rapper Jeshi's "Daydream" and the meditation on time within his documentary Sub Eleven Seconds, depicting American star sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson as she prepares for the US Olympic trials.
His most recent project is the Warning Book, a printed manifestation of his ongoing Warning.Camera project: a living artwork which exists on an Instagram page by the same name, and sees individuals taking pictures of themselves in interaction with a yellow sticker bearing the words "Warning! Smile, we're on camera". In this new, physical format, hundreds of pictures have been downloaded from the original social media page before being reproduced alongside (sometimes erroneous) alt text describing how each image is seen and deciphered by a computer.
The Warning Book poses heavy questions about self-surveillance on social media, the potentials of machine vision and the purpose of self-documentation online. To unpack some of these themes, woo called up Bafic at his studio for a twisting and turning conversation in which the artist occasionally scribbled thoughts on a Post-It note, referred to the thinking of a dead theoretical physicist and looked back at the history of technophobia from the creation of the printed press to now.
Congrats on the release! How did the Warning project come about and why did you decide to turn it into a book?
The Warning.Camera project came off the back of a group art exhibition (a May 2019 iteration of the Drawing a Blank project curated by Ben Broome). I started giving warning stickers to people and then I made the Instagram account. As I started to work with it more and more, I thought it'd be good to make it into a book. I hadn't seen anything like it before as a photo book.
Some of your best-known work, such as Processing Procession, explores surveillance. Would you say that Warning.Camera and now the Warning Book explores surveillance too? Perhaps more the ways we are complicit in our own digital surveillance?
It's an element of it, but it's not the whole thing. I'd say it's a sort of swinging pendulum between "surveillance" and what that is but also documenting yourself and your life and the people around you. Surveillance is quite an easy, obvious thing to tap into if you're someone that makes things: I know the headlines, I know the conversations around it. At one point, London was the city with the third-highest number of CCTV cameras in the world.
But now an entity or a company or a government doesn't need to tap into CCTV. I don't think that's their-go as much anymore. It's become more about these things in our pockets, our camera phones. In one way, that's quite heavy and systematic, but then it's also true that we use this tool to document intimate moments: birthdays, hanging out with friends, drunken nights, emotional days. I keep working on and delving into those two sides.
This project is also about our relationship with images and our relationship with ourselves. That is, the external versus the internal and how that's reflected through images, everything from photography to painting to the outside world. Everything is an image.
You mention our relationship with images. How do you think that society's view of images and the visual has changed in the past 10 years, as social media has progressed?
It's become closer. What I mean by that is that even 10 years ago, we would look at images and video and it always felt far away: whether it was something that went viral or an incident on the news. Now, you could see something happen in the street and there is a chance you will see it again because someone's filmed it. The distribution of images and moving image has definitely gone up, how far images can get copied and pasted, duplicated, replicated, cropped, edited. I think that's partly to do with what hard-drive space was 10 years ago versus now. Now you get like one terabyte in your pocket whereas 10 years ago, you got one terabyte on your laptop.
Some of it's got so close that you wouldn't even categorise it as images, it's just there, like an emoji. When you think of imagery, you think of photography like medium format photography or SLR photography. But with [an image or video taken on] a phone, it just feels like reality.
Do you think that we lose something when we document our lives like this? Are we less in the moment?
That's the narrative we all know, but I'm not sure. Even the other day, we saw the moment where LeBron James became the highest-scoring NBA player of all time and there were those amazing photos of the crowd where they all have their phones up except Phill Knight, who co-founded Nike. The conversation around that was that the other people in the crowd weren't living in the moment, because they were recording it on their phones. I don't know if I agree, because how many times have you filmed something and you've been looking at the thing and not the screen?
When you look back at what people were saying when the printing press was invented and books started circulating, some of the quotes sound like they could be said today about phones. We project our collective fears onto new technology. In 50 years' time, there's going to be something else and people are going to be like, "why can't we go back to when we were on our phones?" I'm telling you, that's going to happen!
It's interesting, the suggestion that we waste our lives by documenting it online. If anything, we document our lives online because we're grappling with mortality and we want to leave some kind of record.
Yeah, we take photos of moments because they're fleeting. We document things, we paint things because everything in life just happens and then it's gone. Making art is like a bridge to the gods because we think it can live forever.
In the Warning Book, images are accompanied by unedited alt text that has been provided by object detection technology, which is sometimes inaccurate. What do you think this says about human versus machine perception?
There was this theoretical physicist called Richard Feynman who talked about the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something and I think that's the difference between humans and AI. Because someone could say, "Well AI can't smell" but who's to say they won't be able to in future? At some point, I'll be able to digitally send the scent of a bouquet of lilies or I'll be able to click a button and physically feel the sensation of touching a cactus. And I'm sure AI will be able to download emotional feelings too, but that doesn't mean it knows what any of this is.
As a final question, what's your approach to research within your practice? Speaking to you has been like a Wiki wormhole or having about a million tabs open at once.
A really profound thing for me is that I've been surfing the internet since before tabs were a thing. And I remember when tabs became a thing, it was a game changer. It unlocked a whole way of viewing the world because I could be listening to Lex Luger rap instrumentals but reading about the idea of flow at the same time. So it really just comes from reading and talking. Someone will say something and I'll be like, "What's that? That's interesting" and making a mental note of it. If I remember it, somehow it will come up again like maybe in eight years' time and I have to go find it in my head. The core thing is just staying curious and asking questions and not being afraid to say that I don't know.
You can buy the Warning Book here.