Paranoia Chic : The Aesthetics of Surveillance

OUR VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE WORLD is continually scanned by electronic technologies. The paranoid state is not the exception, but the norm. Its claims of conspiracy and persecution seem ever more justified in the Postmodern, post-contemporary, post-millennial world. There is a reemergence of a new kind of paranoia in fashion photography, design and advertising: Paranoid Chic, or the aesthetics of surveillance.

In 1928 Salvador Dalí posited the paranoid state as a critical tool in his surrealist revolution. His paranoid critical method (PCM) was a strategy to engage the world, viewing objects with heightened awareness, to "systematize confusion" and to "contribute to the total discrediting of the world of reality." As with many styles, trends or "isms," Paranoid Chic emerges in fashion, only after it has appeared in other more radical forms. The critique of rationality posited by Dalí, here returns as an aesthetic. Fashion, as system of appropriation, adaptation and aestheticization, takes the state of surveillance as its given and the paranoid individual as its subject. Packaged and marketed, the fashion system transforms a condition into a commodity.

A billboard in Times Square epitomizes Paranoid Chic. A couple in an elevator is oblivious to the camera. They are caught up in a slouchy embrace. Above the image is an image of a surveillance camera - presumably the camera that recorded the image below it - creating a kind of surveillance diptych. Surveillance is a given, it is everywhere. Surveillance is sexy. Big Brother is watching, so you have to look good.

Looking through an issue of Wallpaper, "The stuff that surrounds you" (sounds paranoid to me), examples of Paranoid Chic abound: clothes, advertising campaigns, graphics, interior designs, product designs. Design is going paranoid. Clothes and products are survival equipment, padded, strapped, sleek and transportable. Graphics are instructive, disjointed. Interiors are sparse, bunkers for the impending disaster.

Estee Lauder’s ad for futurist lipstick shows a startled Elizabeth Hurley. Zoomed in and slightly washed out by the lights, her mouth is just open, suggesting surprise. Her eyes are wide open, staring at the camera, but also through the camera. She’s looking at some threat beyond. She’s not smiling. She’s not inviting; she’s scared. Anxious and overexposed, Hurley represents the paranoid condition in all of us. The camera is intrusive. Its images are voyeuristic. They offer glimpses of other lives. Celebrities exist in the glare of the lights and in the overexposure of the camera. In a sense, the glare is sexy. Hurley’s startled look is the overexposed look that we desire. It is the look that we purchase.

Wallpaper’s fashion spread "Things to make you safe" displays urban outfits on models photographed in martial arts poses. "Kicking off, chop till you drop-brush up on your martial arts," shows a male model - "Goatskin vest, by Gucci. Long-sleeved T-shirt by Comme des Garcons. Vinyl trousers, shoes, from Jil Sander" reads the copy - in a series of Aikido poses: kicking, crouching, punching. "Fend off stalkers...keep the paparazzi at arm’s length... Wallpaper special branch offers necessary protection." In "Stand by me. Keep your own company with a burly bodyguard," a man in white is shielded by a headset and sunglasses clad bodyguard. The protectee - "Cashmere coat, by Gucci. Vinyl trousers, by Jil Sander" - looks intently through an open door, as the protector - "Protector, by Excel Protection. Suit, by Hugo Boss. Black T-shirt by Comme des Garcons. Sunglasses by Versace" - gestures defensively at the photographer. The paparazzi make the star. The desire to be a star is the desire to be pursued. To be hounded is glamorous. Surveillance is sexy. Paranoid Chic is a kind of exhibitionism. "I know you’re looking at me." It is a willed pathology of persecution.

Red Kamel Cigarettes employs a pulp detective fiction drawing to show how their cigarettes engender paranoia and pursuit. A seated woman holds a pack of cigarettes and looks over her shoulder at two goons in hats, gloves and overcoats. The ad reads "Damn it all, the Red Kamel pack had blown her cover. Liz wondered if she could get a smoke in before they grabbed her." Pursued for smoking Red Kamel, the product gives Liz away: it makes her stand out persecuted for pleasure. You want pursuit. You can buy it with Red Kamel.

A Versace watch is displayed prominently on the wrist of a woman wearing a sequin dress. The image is not glossy. It is grainy, as if the lazy pan of a surveillance camera captured it. The woman, her elbow raised, seems to be fending off an attack by a shirtless black man. The lighting suggests a parking garage or a service corridor. Her dress suggests a cocktail party. Out of context, but wearing Versace, she’s the object of unwanted attention. Her heavy eye shadow makeup anticipates the bruises of the impending attack. Her raised elbow, her only fortification, is precisely the gesture that highlights the watch. The product is privileged through the act of defense.

Fire & Ice depicts a woman in a puffy jacket staring intently to her left. Viewed from below, the ceiling seems to be a waffle concrete slab, possibly in a parking garage or an institutional building. The low level of light suggests that it is night. The woman’s intent gaze seems to be alert, ready for an attacker or stalker. The text reads "Adapt to your environment. Brace yourself for the elements - urban and otherwise with the latest sportswear series by fire and ice." The environment is hazardous you need sportswear. The commodity is the equipment that will protect you. First buy fear, then buy its paraphernalia.

A two-page Salem cigarette ad consists of a black page with a circular die-cut window. In the cutout is visible a distorted wide-angle image of a man in a suit, hat and sunglasses with his fist raised as if knocking on the door you are peeping though. The man’s dress suggests a gangster or loan shark coming to collect money. Turning the page reveals the image is a reflection in a necklace, where the other reflections show the same man dancing. The necklace is worn by a blue lipstick wearing, Salem cigarette smoking, long-nailed woman. The image taken out of context turned the dancing reflection into a menace. "It’s not what you expect" reads the text on the inside page - its much worse. Peering through the peepholes in our lives, locked behind closed doors, the ad locates us in a dark defensive space. The wide-angle lens distorts the messages: Salem cigarettes, menacing man, dancing man. In the barrage of signals, the paranoid lens paints a grim picture.

Gilles Delueze argues that we no longer live in a society of discipline (as defined by Michel Foucault) but in a society of control. Conventional structures of vision and power are replaced by structures of information, credit and control. Although we occupy a highly media encrusted world, the primary means of control are not visual. Surveillance is outmoded. Control occurs on different levels: through credit checks, career moves and medical histories. The fashionability of surveillance is nostalgic. It is a will to return to an acutely visual world. Stripped of any functional surveillance, Paranoid Chic operates on the level of aesthetic.

Paranoid Chic is the look. It replaces the superwaif and heroin chic; its subjects are distracted, anxiety ridden, pursued and glamorous. Its paraphernalia is strapped, padded and portable. Seducing with images of fashionable body armor and defensible space, it is the stuff that surrounds us. In a world saturated with visuals, the products of Paranoid Chic commodify the chase.