Pixelhead – disturbing to wear when looking in a mirror – is designed to raise questions about anonymity and when and how we give that up, whether voluntarily on social networks, or involuntarily via street cameras.
Backes, a digital media artist among many other things, says he has created “media camouflage for the internet age” and a solution for people “sick of photos on sites like Facebook or worried about showing up on Streetview.”
It is based on a photograph of Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a sideways poke at the man responsible for keeping an eye on Germany.
The balaclava does not only hide the wearer’s face – it specifically shows up that disguise in the most modernist fashion.
Friedrich’s features are long gone, thanks to Backes spending the past year and a half “pixellating my ass off” to make the balaclava as realistic as possible, he said.
“It’s supposed to put across the message that you should be aware of what you are doing on the internet,” said Backes.
Walking is publishing
It is also a response to a term used by many digital artists at the moment, “walking is publishing”, meaning wherever a person is and whatever they are doing, cameras may well be watching.
“I tried to think of a way to best convey this, and came up with Pixelhead,” said Backes. “It isn’t meant to be an educational piece, but it is a statement about privacy.”
Even if it is a shouted kind of anonymity, the balaclava does hide the wearer, whether it is worn during a political protest, while dashing to meet an illicit lover or holding up a bank.
Many have also dubbed the mask creepy, something Backes rejects.
“I don’t think it’s creepy though, why would it be creepy?” he said, gesturing to an unfinished Pixelhead splayed out across a table, wood peeping through the eye slits.
Which is creepier – Pixelhead or Facebook?
Perhaps the really creepy aspect is what it has been created to represent – the reign of Facebook, Twitter and Google and how they are changing the idea of privacy, 34-year-old Backes suggested.
“Anonymity is harder, surveillance is increasing and although things like having a smart phone and the internet is great, people do need to know the downsides.”
And this would mean more than Family Minister Kristina Schröder’s “Facebook lessons” idea, he added. Really teaching people the cons of the web requires more than that – and more than just a statement mask.
Backes, who grew up in Bavaria but moved to Berlin to go to art school, is making just 333 Pixelheads. Each one is hand stitched and the final design, which went on display in Berlin earlier this month has attracted considerable media interest.
“It was even on a couple of soldier blogs, which I found funny because I never would have thought of that,” said Backes. One army blog discussed its possible use as camouflage but rejected the idea as too odd.
Pulling on the balaclava feels like slipping behind a screen. “Will you use this photo as your Facebook profile picture?” Backes asked.
“Absolutely not,” I reply, but then begin to wonder exactly how much of me there already was on the internet.