The endless game between the self and the apparatus

 for the publication Gkoutziouli K., Christofi M., Varela M. (eds). Heath Bunting. How to build a new legal identity. A close look at Heath Bunting’s work and the workshop in Athens. Athens: Frown Publishing

Heath Bunting, The Status Project: How to build a new legal identity

“A subject is that which results from the relation and – so to speak- from the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses.”
Giorgio Agamben, What is an apparatus

Agamben frames as an apparatus anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions or discourses of living beings. He does not refer therefore, like Foucault did, only to discipline, to confession or to the panopticon but actually to any apparatus that connects to power. Computer, cellular telephones, navigation as well as language itself are, for Agamben, apparatuses. Our fight with them gives birth to processes of subjectification, from which the cellular phone user, the web surfer, the writer, the activist, etc. are produced. These apparatuses have a boundless growth in our time allowing our subjectivity to disseminate with them. [1]

This thought of Agamben is re-confirmed and completed today, if we think of the presence of the numerous digital networks and take into consideration their power as well as the price being paid for the possibilities offered. What could then be the ideal example of a contemporary apparatus, if not every system that serves communication, collaboration, mobility, intimacy and money transactions among a multitude of users over the world? Millions of thoughts, interests, needs and desires, skills and disposabilities are every day distributed across the immaterial space of networks; through this process identities are shaped and mentalities are being registered. Social networking profiles, shopping cards, IDs and passports of biometric data are different examples that, thanks to the condition of continuous connectivity and ubiquitous technology, form an apparatus of apparatuses based on a network of networks. The functionality of this apparatus is two-sided; every information one seeks for is being registered; every uploaded file cannot be deleted; every connection being established leaves behind its trace. The other side of the promising networked self, which supposedly defines today’s subjectivity, is the data body; an object of surveillance and control.

This condition actually is not a new one. In 1988, Rodger Clarke had already invented the term dataveillance to describe the systematic monitoring of people’s actions and communications through the application of information technology. [2] Through constantly evolving mechanisms of data collection, the data body was born, the immaterial side of the self that, without being easily perceived, can facilitate its identification. Data related to one’s person health, education, work, financial condition, communication, mobility and social relations are being recorded and preserved as their data body. It is the “fascist sibling” of the virtual body, a much more highly developed virtual form, and one that exists in complete service to the corporate and police state” as the Critical Art Ensemble wrote in 1995 [3] or an expression of “the new barbarianism”, as Manuel Castells wrote in 1996, “made out of the fundamental opposition between the net and the self”. [4]

But could one also assume, returning to Agamben’s and Foucault’s definition of the apparatus, that the data body is the ultimate product of biopower? Informatics was anyway used as a method to apply biopower already in the 18th century, with the appearance of demographics and statistics aimed to control the population. And if man then as a living being became the focus of interest, and life itself became controllable and measurable with the excuse of security and prevention, then what has today changed with the new data body? Don’t we have to face similar excuses for the aggregation and control of our data? Aren’t similar mechanisms of control and normalisation placed between the living being and its processes of subjectification? Perhaps, the most crucial question is to what extent these mechanisms and their processes are really being perceived by the users/ citizens?

Heath Bunting’s Status Project could be approached as a study on these questionings. Since 2004, the creator has been researching the data identities that are produced beyond our control. Having created a database with over 10.000 entries and a list of 50 maps as portraits, he presents how our movements, our transactions and our actions are being monitored. He raises questions regarding the aims being served and the arbitrary conclusions being made, while also examining the possibility of their subversion.

Stating that identity today consists of the human being, something that reflects the living being of Foucault or Agamben [5], the natural person, which is one’s data body, and the artificial person, which connects to legal entities or corporations, Bunting focuses on the capacities and potentialities of each person. He creates portrait maps and he then invites the viewer to observe them and question what ultimately and unavoidably defines one’s data body. Multiple interrelations and intersections form portraits of real people or categories of subjects, taking as a starting point their potentialities. Focusing on what one is “able to…”  every capacity, every potentiality turns into a trap through the apparatus itself. What does it mean to be able to have access to the Internet, to have an email address or to be a mobile phone user? When is someone characterised as a terrorist, a Christian, a drug user or a conformist?

Biopolitics is based on the potentiality of the multitude. The adjective  “able to” which is being purposefully repeated on the Status Project maps, reflecting the different data that it can associate with, offers examples and presents how potentiality is being processed by the apparatuses. Therefore, if something is different nowadays, compared to the 18th century term of biopolitics introduced by Foucault,  this is that today the body is the focal point of interest for the sum of its physical, mental and affective capacities. “This life, this body, is what contains the faculty, the potential, the dynamis” as Virno writes. [6] What is important, is the potential dimension of human existence, not only for the apparatus trying to capture it but also for  identity, which fights for its formation.

Identification is not necessarily reduced to identity. [7] Identity, based on the potentiality of human existence, can never be captured in its entirety. The representation offered by the data body may present one or several possible sides of it, but never its entirety. Because there is no apparatus that can capture a life that is in excess. No matter how sovereign power seems to be, it always at the same entails its resistance. Opposite to the concept of biopower, Hardt and Negri, detect the emergence of bio-potenza, the power of creation that will resist to the sovereignty and normalisation of life forced by biopower. [8] Or, according to Agamben opposite to the power of the apparatus, one can find the possibility of profanation, of the creation of anti-apparatuses that can reclaim what the apparatuses have appropriated. [9]

Bunting moved towards this direction, as he did not only create a database and numerous maps; he also used such a strategy and built an anti-apparatus in order to question the validity of today’s databases. He created a software that produces identities and offers them for sale. So what if all data submitted are arbitrary? How close or how far are they from the “real” image of one’s data body? Which is the “real” image of the data today anyway?

Could it be, as Flusser once wrote, that freedom is found when playing against the apparatus? [10]

Heath Bunting – How to Build a New Legal Identity from geckomedia on Vimeo.


This research has been co-financed by the European Union (European Social Fund – ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program “Education and Lifelong Learning” of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) – Research Funding Program: Heracleitus II. Investing in knowledge society through the European Social Fund.

Notes and References

[1] Agamben, Giorgio (2009). What is an apparatus and other essays. Translated by David Kishik and David Pedatella. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, p. 14

[2]Clarke, Roger (1988). “Information technology and Dataveillance” in Commun. ACM 31,5 (May 1988), pp 498-512, also available at

[3] Critical Art Ensemble (1998). Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, Eugenic Consciousness,

[4] Castells, Manuel (1996). “The net and the self. Working notes for a critical theory of the information society” in Critique of Anthropology, 16: 9, p. 31

[5]  Foucault has written that the same way the discipline of sovereign power addresses the body, the new non-disciplinary power, bio-power, addresses man as a living being, as a species. Agamben, based on the artistotelian framing of the living being, did not share Foucault’s  belief that this is the passage to modernity but he expressed the belief that both powers can coexist, particularly studying the state of exception and the condition of bare life, that deprives one from her/his rights.

[6] Virno, Paolo (2004). Grammar of Multitude. Translated by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson. Los Angeles/ New York: Semiotext(e), p 82- 83

[7] Amoore, Louise (2006). “Biometric borders: Governing mobilities in the war on terror” in Political Geography, Political Geography 25, p. 344

[8] Thomas, Owen (2010). “Whose biopolitics is it anyway? Power and potentiality in biometric border security” in In-Spire Journal of Law, Politics and Societies (Vol. 5, No. 1), pp 72 -90

[9] Agamben, op cit., p. 18

[10] Flusser, Villem (2000). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaction Books, p. 80

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