Surveillance-Camera Shy? Jam Big Brother With Pixelhead

Artist Martin Backes has created a handy bit of “media camouflage for the Internet age.”

So much for those creepy Guy Fawkes masks that Anonymous likes so much. Surveillance chic has just gotten weirder. If you’re worried that Google Street View will catch you on camera the next time you go grocery shopping, you might want to don Pixelhead, a creation of Berlin-based multi-media artist, Martin Backes.


The headgear, which Backes created in 2010 but recently made available for purchase, is based on a balaclava that’s been adorned with a pattern consisting of an enlarged, pixilated image of Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany’s Minister of the Interior. (Friedrich, by the way, is the guy responsible for anti-terrorism, data security, and all things identity-based, like passports and ID cards). You can’t actually tell that Pixelhead is based on a specific person; the pixels are blown up to such a degree that the wearer’s head resembles a blob of crackling TV static. The mask is dizzying to look at, and that’s the point. “It’s media camouflage for the Internet age,” says Backes.

In Pixelhead, Backes has created an object that uses the tools of surveillance, like cameras and digital imaging, to make such surveillance impossible. He was motivated by questions about the changing definition of anonymity. “The social consequences of giving up our privacy aren’t foreseeable yet,” he says. “Whether it is voluntary on social networks, or involuntary through digital industry surveillance and state control.” He says a lot of people don’t realize that Facebook is collecting and logging the details of our daily lives or that our smartphones so easily allow third parties to track our movements. “Walking is publishing,” he told me, and this makes him wary.

Backes wanted to know if I’d seen Minority Report. The movie is set in 2054, but Backes says his government already has the ability to observe individuals via CCTVs installed in public places. “They can see whether you look suspicious. They can identify you, then look up whether you have a criminal record, and send police to get you.”

Paranoid much? But just last year, the hacker group Chaos Computer Club took the German government to task over its use of Trojan horse spyware. The government was using the software to search the computers of suspected criminals, which CCC claimed violated the Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling on computer privacy. Chastened, the Minister of the Interior (the same guy whose face Backes used to make Pixelhead) called on the German states to temporarily suspend their use of the spyware. The issue remains unresolved, especially in the minds of many Germans.

Pixelhead has been on display in a Berlin gallery, and now Backes has made a limited edition of 333 balaclavas, which he is selling through his website. (Masks cost 150 euros, about 195 U.S. dollars, plus shipping and handling.) They are fashioned out of a glossy, elastic fabric, similar to materials used for certain beach sports. Backes won’t say how many he’s sold so far, only that “there are still some left.”


And who is actually wearing Pixelhead?

“Everyone can wear it,” Backes says, sounding skeptical. “If they want to.”
I asked Backes if he’d ever consider putting on his balaclava before leaving the house.

Backes pauses. When he finally answers, it’s as though he’s never actually considered this question. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “Why not?”

About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.