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The Image is Changing: Impacts on Alienation, Surveillance, and the Music Documentary

Present.Perfect. (Shengze Zhu, 2019)

By 2022, it’s been estimated that there will be 45 billion cameras on Earth, more than five times the estimated population in the same year. While many of these cameras are embedded in consumer products such as cars, refrigerators, or televisions, or part of extensive CCTV surveillance systems, many still remain as products that serve their original function of allowing an individual to make images, whether that’s with a DSLR or a cellphone camera. Most of these images will never be seen—a flash of pixels built out of code that appears and then disappears into the digital netherworld.

But for billions across the planet, image-making has been democratized, and this transformation has happened near-overnight in comparison to the spread of the Gutenberg press, of mass-produced pens and pencils, of typewriters, and any other inventions that have enabled the mass to create their own ‘signs’.

To facilitate the distribution of these images, multibillion-dollar corporations have flooded empty spaces of the world with seas of servers that allow billions of people to access these images. Founded in 2005, YouTube, now a subsidiary of Google, which is in turn under the corporate behemoth that is Alphabet, has grown to see over 300 hours of video uploaded every minute. Facebook boasts over 2 billion users across Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and their titular platform.

Furthering the scope of these rates is the fact that neither Facebook nor YouTube are allowed to be legally accessed in China, the nation boasting the world’s largest population. Nominally referred to as an ‘authoritarian communist’ regime (though functioning in the global capitalist markets), image distribution in China is facilitated through state-operated servers providing access to social networks such as WeChat (over 1 billion active monthly users) and Weibo (described as China’s Twitter), as well as the support needed for livestreaming platforms, which have seen an incredible spike in usage in China during the second half of this decade.

In the Western world, Twitch (a subsidiary of Amazon) is the leading service solely dedicated to livestreaming (though YouTube and Facebook provide strong platforms for the activity) with more than 15 million daily active users. This number is dwarfed by the Chinese livestreaming equivalents; platforms such as Douyu and Huya (companies with significant investment from TenCent, the same conglomerate that owns WeChat) help facilitate a Chinese livestreaming industry that reached 422 million users by 2017.

Present.Perfect. (Shengze Zhu, 2019)

Shengze Zhu’s Present.Perfect. (2019), is a documentary that combs through just a fraction of these streams, as Zhu sifted through over 800 hours of footage from a number of livestreamers and edited them into a montage that is a potent meditation on the ever-changing relationship between man, image, and, of course, capitalism—the system directly responsible for the unprecedented availability of image production, distribution, and consumption.

Zhu’s film focuses on a specific subsection of livestreamers. While many ‘anchors’ are attempting to utilize their platform to gain Internet fame and reap the earnings, some users use digital spaces as a means to overcome their isolation and connect with other humans. Among the anchors Zhu cuts between are a man with a face badly disfigured from burns, a woman working in a textile factory, and a man who dances for the camera in public places. These are individuals often isolated by the influence of global capitalism, whether that’s being forced to sew solitarily for bottom-end wages or being unable to enter a workplace because of physical disfigurement that is socially alienating.

Censorship has a major underlying role in the types of images that are acceptable for streaming in China. Regulations force anchors to register their livestreaming accounts to their government name and Citizen ID, and government agencies are in place to monitor the images and take action if content unsanctioned by the government is pushed out into cyberspace. A telling moment occurs in Present.Perfect. when the dancing man attempts to livestream his routine from underneath a bridge. The man, who usually performs in parks and public squares, is confronted by a government official who threatens to call the Department of Urban Management on him, saying that his belongings will be confiscated, while further unsaid threats loom underneath the warning.

Present.Perfect. (Shengze Zhu, 2019)

The scene serves as a reminder that these images are distributed under the modern surveillance state, which exists in both ‘authoritarian communist’ China and the ‘liberal democracy’ that is the United States, where a number of branches (NSA, CIA, FBI, etc.) of the police-state engage in overreaching surveillance on its citizens and while outright censorship is not as frequent an occurrence, incidents have consistently emerged that highlight the postmodern surveillance state that monitors the corporatized internet landscape dominated by social media.

On October 12th, 2019, The Fader broke news that the NYPD had sent a letter to Rolling Loud, the largest hip-hop music festival in the world, requesting that 5 New York City rappers (22GZ, Casanova, Pop Smoke, Sheff G, and Don Q) be removed from the performance line-up, citing risks of violence. The move served as a reminder that the ‘Hip-Hop Police’ subsection of the NYPD very much exists, and actively targets and surveils members of the hip-hop community. Rappers who emerged during early less Internet-dominant generations such as Jay-Z, Ja Rule, and Cam’Ron were policed in radically different ways, but with the rise and fall of Bobby Shmurda in 2014, it became clear that the NYPD was focusing their attention online in order to target rising hip-hop artists. In a news conference announcing the charges, James Essig, head of the department responsible for the arrest, said Shmurda’s songs and videos were “almost like a real-life document of what they were doing on the street.”

It’s absurd to even consider a basis for admitting rap songs and videos, forms of musical artistic expression, as evidence for police investigations and legal proceedings, yet the unjust practice is common in metropolitan hubs of the U.S. including New York City and Los Angeles. Jeff Weiss, a freelance reporter for publications such as The Washington Post and Rolling Stone, has extensively covered the case of Los Angeles rapper Drakeo The Ruler, who is currently imprisoned on conspiracy charges, after being previously acquitted of a number of murder-related charges in a case where state prosecutors sought to use music, music videos, and Instagram content made by Drakeo and his collective, Stinc Team, as evidence. Both the Drakeo and Shmurda cases demonstrate the reach of the surveillance state that exists under late capitalist America, and how changes in image production and circulation manifested structural changes in the operations of the American police force, an institution that has historically attacked minority communities at disproportionate rates.

Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967)

Recent changes in image production and circulation, whether it’s musical distribution changing from physical media to a number of digital streaming platforms, an extreme proliferation of music videos due to decreases in the costs of production and distribution, or the ability to have a steady presence on social media, also reveal how the ways in which musicians, especially hip-hop artists, build their veneer of artistry and authenticity have drastically changed. Gone are the days of Don’t Look Back and Cocksucker Blues, where documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Robert Frank followed the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones with bulky 16mm cameras and sound equipment, attempting to extract the verité elements of the moments they spent together. Now, social media content is used in conjunction with music and music videos to create what is essentially a stratified documentary for fans to follow. The documentary form has been democratized and the artist gets to be the director. In an LA Times piece on the impact of YouTube and Instagram on underground hip-hop artists, LA rapper 03 Greedo notes that “Social media controls the music game now, but it also allows us to show the differences between people’s sounds and looks. In L.A., it’s allowed us reveal our real identities—the vigilantes, graffiti writers and gangbangers who are authentic and never follow the rules.”

Of course, the sphere of images in circulation is not always under the control of the artist, but some of the savviest musicians have learned how to adjust in order to create the image they desire. New York rapper Pop Smoke, emerged into prominence in 2019, with his breakout single ‘Welcome to the Party’ currently at over 13 million views on YouTube. Pop Smoke’s presence can be felt all over the city, especially in his home borough of Brooklyn, where the single was the song of the summer, blasting out of cars, at block parties, and constantly queued on local radio stations. However, this wasn’t Pop Smoke’s first time going viral. In a profile with the New York Times, he addressed a video of him getting slapped when he was 13 that was widely circulated on WorldStarHipHop (that has since been removed), accumulating hundreds of thousands of views, and no doubt had a significant impact on his day-to-day life. “I’m glad it happened as a kid…. I realized it’s time to boss up—life ain’t sweet.”, Pop Smoke said to the paper, and his response was also reflected in the media released through his YouTube channel, where the first video posted, before releasing his first song and music video ‘MPR’ three weeks later, was of him allegedly getting a revenge shot on the guy responsible for the WorldStar incident. Since then, Pop Smoke’s ridden a wave of natural charisma and energy through a series of profiles, interviews, and music videos that have led to remixes with prominent artists Skepta and Nicki Minaj, and the circumstances of his rise are incredibly emblematic of a new type of rap star, one who comes of age in an era of extreme media circulation.

Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank, 1972)

While Don’t Look Back can be viewed as a music documentary that shows an artist molding their image, Cocksucker Blues has become a simulacrum for the transgressive music documentary, pulling back the curtain on the sex and drug use of the Rolling Stones. Future iterations such as documentaries on Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain emerged, reflecting the tragic relationship the artists had with drugs; both overdosed on heroin at various points of their career, with Vicious’ incident proving fatal. These films use archival verité footage that reveals the impact drugs and addiction had on these artists and their body of work, and are cited by Chicago rapper Lucki as influential works that he related to, while hospitalized for a Xanax addiction no less, and arguably molded his approach to various forms of media he released to his audience.

Lucki’s rise began in 2013, around the age of 16 in a Chicago scene bursting with talent, breaking out with singles such as ‘Untouchable Lucki’ and ‘Count On Me’ that extolled the virtues and experiences of being the local plug. His debut mixtape Alternative Trap was released in February 2013 to critical acclaim, though by the time his next project, Body High, dropped in August 2014, his subject matter had made a distinct shift from drug dealer to user to abuser, especially of Xanax. Lucki never shied away from putting his life experiences into his music, and the result is body of work that functions similarly to hybrid autobiographical cinema, with a distinct pre-and-post-Xanax phase that is reflected in the lyrics, delivery, and tone of his music. After taking time off in 2016 to deal with his issues, Lucki reemerged with 2017’s Watch My Back, 2018’s Days B4 II, and the critically acclaimed 2019 project Freewave 3, regarded by many critics as one of the strongest projects of the year, and has pushed Lucki’s star power into new heights.

In the wake of this career arc are a slew of media items online that documented Lucki’s career. He goes from being heavily Xanned out in early interviews to sipping lean and smoking during them instead. On ‘Witchcraft’, a song off his 2014 Body High project, he raps about a girl stealing his drug stash because of his Instagram activity: “She already knew where the stash / Kinda put it on the Gram / I remember Cause she liked that pic”, and though older posts like those are no longer online, they reflect what is the hybrid autofictional body of work that Lucki has built through his music career. At the end of one of his most recent music videos ‘Nascar Dashcar’, the video cuts out as the cops arrive at the shoot. The final shot is pulled from an Instagram Live, of Lucki and others speeding away from the cops, red and blue lights visibly bouncing into the interior of their car. Like many artists to emerge this decade, his documentary is not compiled into a single work, but stratified across the music, social media posts, interviews, and press.

The rollout for Lucki’s latest project, Days B4 III, has also proven to be indicative of his diaristic approach to music and media creation. The EP, released on October 25, 2019, was accompanied with music videos for two songs, ‘4 The Betta’ and ‘Hush Skit’, the latter of which stylizes and emphasizes the pills Lucki’s popping, the lean he’s drinking, and the weed he’s smoking both visually and lyrically, as he repeats “I only sip that – shhhh” in the song’s hook. Also released was a mini-documentary produced with The Fader; towards the end of the piece, Lucki discusses his writing method, stating, “…that’s how you relate to people, you can talk about how great your life is, but people don’t relate… because people’s lives don’t be great… really I make music for me… I guess it’s like a diary”. And Lucki lets his listeners all the way into his diary. On his February 2019 release Freewave 3, he drops heartbreaking lines with incredible candor such as “Got my momma googling lean / Keep sending me kidney stuff”, “I need grandma picture with me / I won’t sip if she near me”, and “Girl why you tripping / That addiction in my genes / Ever thought you’d be in love with a fiend?”. Days B4 III progresses through that time since, musing about fatherhood and relationships on the track ‘TBT’: “Tripping on X, no more of that / All my emotions got absorbed with that / My son asked why my water pink / It hurts cuz I ain’t mean to show him that”. The synth-y electronic arpeggiated chords accompanied with the sparse drums on the BRENTRAMBO-produced track align perfectly with Lucki’s content, tying the presence of pharmaceuticals around Lucki with the sounds of technological advancement.

Lucki

Nolanberollin, like Lucki, is another artist who has emerged from the musical landscape that has been broadly and lazily classified as ‘Soundcloud Rap’, developing a cult following. The platform reflects technology’s impact on democratizing music production and distribution, which has had radical impacts on the formal elements of music. Songs are shorter, structurally varied, uniquely mixed, and the overall tonal effect that the music delivers is prioritized. Because of these factors, Nolanberollin has been able to establish himself as one of the most creative, innovative, and influential rappers to emerge over the latter half of this decade, known for his monotone delivery that submerges you into a world of Bitcoin, prescription drugs, and depression. Also of note is his approach to sampling; he often integrates sounds from video games, building an extremely postmodern soundscape that’s intertextual relationship to the soundtracks of consumer entertainment cannot be ignored. ‘No Russian’, a track on his latest release Ultrabeanman, begins with audio ripped from the start of an infamous mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in which the player must help execute a mass-shooting in a Russian airport, a mission played by millions of adolescents and teens across America. A decade after the release of the game, and innumerable mass-shootings later, the sample has a haunting tone that Nolanberollin and featured artist Levi Carter ride into tone poem that heavily uses the repetition of a few phrases (“analog”, “ay lil beanman keep prescriptions I keep 30 clips”) to configure a soundscape that effectively reflects the impacts of the mass of images that have been transmitted to an entire generation that has grown up unable to escape them.

NBR brings a radically different approach to music distribution, utilizing multiple Soundcloud accounts, as well as Youtube, to add single ‘loosie’ tracks into various locations, and, at times, deleting them, forcing his fan base to create archives reminiscent of the way Dead Heads travelled with the band to record their live sets on tape; beat snippets previewed on his Instagram Live and Stories are often screen-recorded and re-uploaded online by fans. Nolanberollin has also gone through lengthy periods during which his Twitter was deactivated, and has not done an extensive amount of press or interviews, creating a cultlike sense of mystique around the scarcity of his images and forces his listeners to glean what they can almost strictly from his music, a rarity in 2019. Arguably one of the most important impacts of Nolanberollin has had is the way in which technological societal changes have manifested themselves in his lyrical content. In a Passionweiss (a highly influential music and culture blog ran by the aforementioned Jeff Weiss that has covered musicians such as Danny Brown and Frank Ocean well before their rise to mainstream prominence) article highlighting some of the best ‘Soundcloud Rap’ offerings in January 2019, critic Lucas Foster noted that “He’s a new breed, an earlier adopter of the technological singularity… everyone’s gonna be ‘juggin [scamming] off the dark web’.”

And sure enough, the summer of 2019 was the summer of ‘scam rap’, a subgenre which had strong scenes bubbling up in Detroit and the Bay Area, while also scattered across the Soundcloud scene. It kicked off in late June, as Kasher Quon and TeeJayx6’s ‘Dynamic Duo’ went viral online. The song was a tag-team tour-de-force of outrageous lines about committing fraud, with quotables such as “Please hit my DM if you got a bank account” and “I just ordered iPhones, in whose name? My lil’ nephew”, and “Got caught with stolen credit cards but they let me out on bond”. In another Passionweiss piece, critic Lucas Foster once again synthesized the movement’s relationship to late capitalism; soon enough, other outlets such as Genius, Pitchfork, and Complex started covering TeeJayx6, and once he had this platform for exposure he never looked back.

The rapper quickly showed the world that he was a social media savant. After the Dynamic Duo video, best described as a hybrid piece in which him and Kasher Quon flexed stacks of blue-faced bills in designer outfits next to a caged pitbull, guns on view, in a nice-looking 2019 apartment, TeeJayx6 showed the world why his name is his name (a combination of his birthname TeeJay, and the MSR-X6 magnetic credit card reader, writer, and encoder—an essential scamming tool), launching an incredibly aggressive social media campaign through Instagram and Twitter, selling ‘methods’ for scamming, branded as a ‘Fraud Bible’, while also hitting the studio, dropping two more projects in an incredibly short turnaround to maximize the exposure he had and maintain his industry momentum. His online presence turned into an incredible ride through hybrid autofiction as he released videos of himself walking into Wells Fargo’s and coming out with stacks of cash, along with music videos for songs such as ‘Swipe Story’ and ‘Swipe Lesson’ during which he narrates and reenacts scamming methods he’s used to make his money.

“Let me tell y’all ‘bout this one time at Walmart” begins ‘Swipe Story’, a music video that shows TeeJayx6 rolling a shopping cart full of TV’s and video game consoles past unsuspecting employees out to his rental car. On another track, ‘Apple’, he boasts that [he] “can’t even get my haircut no more cause I done scammed my barber”, and stuck to this on all of his social media presence, refusing to get a haircut, growing his hair out, building a meme out of the line, and devoting himself to the performance in all walks of life. Despite these aggressive branding strategies, TeeJayx6 was still extremely aware of the risks he was taking online, flexing his usage of VPN’s and Tor Browser, anonymizing clients for internet browsing, and taking precautionary measures while selling methods, using end-to-end encrypted messaging services such as Telegram. By the end of the year, Teejayx6 had released two more projects (‘The Swipe Lessons’ and ‘Black Air Force 1 Activity’) and garnered recognition from larger publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

And while TeeJayx6 used Telegram to protect himself from the American police surveillance state, the application has also surged in popularity recently in Hong Kong, where protesters use it as a means of mobilizing and organizing against their authoritative Chinese oppressors. The reality of 2019 and the reality of the future is that society is locked into a world full of images, whether they’re deliberately made by actual humans, part of CCTV surveillance systems, or extraneous images captured by consumer products. This overabundance of images exists regardless of culture and political structure, and is accompanied with a structure of surveillance intertwined with the distribution of images.

Present.Perfect. (Shengze Zhu, 2019)

Ultimately, films such as Present.Perfect., which mobilize these images that would otherwise emerge and then pass into the empty digital nowhere, serve as reminders of the world of images that envelope society today, and also ask important questions as to what constitutes a film. Is the experience of slowly watching modern online life get abstracted into a chronologically stratified series of words, images, and data a filmic one? Is a scroll down an Instagram or Twitter feed a short? Does it matter if the individual is a famous musician, or a burn victim in China? And do the images have to be seen to be considered a film? In a world where image production seems to be outpacing all else, there are far more questions than answers, and the impossibility of grappling with each and every image looms over the scope of the issue. It might be that humans no longer make images, but that images make us.