Whether or not the YouTube shooter’s videos were inspired by Klimt’s explorations of dark facets of femininity, did they deserve to be demonetised for not being ‘advertiser-friendly’?

+ Nasim Aghdam - Adele Bloch-Bauer SC postgutenberg@gmail.com

Left: Nasim Khagdam, who killed herself after wounding workers at YouTube’s headquarters; right: Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)

left Gustav Klimt's Judith; right Nasim Aghdam - SC - postgutenberg@gmail.com

Left, detail from Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901; see below); right: Nasim Aghdam, her neck ornamented like Judith’s

[ Note added on 12. 4. 2018:  An earlier version of the text reflected a mistake in several early news reports: Nasim Aghdam does not appear to have left behind a husband in Iran, in fact, or to have ever married. ]

Social media giants are entering worrying territory when they interfere with the self-images that people are taking pains to devise online — people not accused of hate speech, aggressive political extremism or terrorism. One obvious conclusion from last week’s nightmare attack on helpless YouTube workers by the would-be assassin, Nasim Khagdam, is that social media sites have to start weighing potentially profound psychological effects of changes in their rules for participation and algorithms.

Another conclusion is that forensic psychologists assisting in the investigation of the 37 year-old Iranian shooter’s motives and state of mind might want to glance at a 1907 painting by the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. Might. Reader, be warned: most of this post is an exercise in speculation and conjecture intended as an illustration or example. We’d like to suggest a line of enquiry: can social media serve the deeper human needs that some users are trying to satisfy on these platforms when the ‘business model’ of the companies that own them makes attracting advertisers their supreme objective?

As we were watching clips from the fitness-promoting, animal-rights and vegan-advocacy videos Aghdam had been posting on YouTube, in which she is the only human being on-screen, we were overcome by a strange certainty that we had seen her before. Not just her face but the particular dress she is wearing in one clip. Not a face in a crowd or belonging to a fellow passenger in the same train compartment somewhere but in a close-up. After a mysterious flash of association, we found replications of Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on the net — a picture that last changed hands, in 2016, for $150 million. And there she was. That is, the woman Aghdam seems to have been impersonating in a video — whose topic was exactly what, we cannot say, because she was speaking in Farsi.

Look at the first set of images we have pasted in side-by-side. Aghdam, in the screen-grab on the left, has arranged her hair not unlike Bloch-Bauer’s in the painting on the right, above eyes and eyebrows that are strikingly similar. Now look at the pattern of the fabric clinging to the shooter’s body and note that it appears to have been directly inspired by the mosaic that Bloch-Bauer was not actually dressed in. The garment in the picture was an invention of Klimt’s, and as you might expect of a leading exponent of both the Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles of painting, the motifs on it are heavily symbolic. In The Age of Insight, a present from a friend we suddenly remembered downloading into our Kindle three years ago, we re-read the explanation by its author, Eric Kandel — a neuroscientist who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 2000 — that the ‘small iconographic images on Adele’s dress’ are meant to be ‘symbols of male and female cells: rectangular sperm and ovoid eggs.’ Both women are wearing strappy evening dresses that are not dissimilar, even if Aghdam’s is not dripping gold leaf and has only a velvety hint of luxury about it.

It is unlikely that Bloch-Bauer herself interested Aghdam beyond the curious physical resemblance between them that could have sparked her original interest in the picture and its artist. The portrait’s subject was a rather boring, rich, society woman married to the Viennese banker and sugar manufacturer who commissioned it. She looks vacant, verging on bored. By contrast, anger is virtually the only emotion Aghdam’s face expresses in one video clip after another — when it is not determinedly blank and unsmiling — and she seems intent on cloaking her messages in an aura of deadly seductiveness.

judith and the head of Holofernes WIKI

Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901)

But what could sexuality possibly have to do with protecting small animals like the anxious grey rabbit she is holding in some of her tableaux, or with explaining the joys of veganism to the unconverted? Nothing. What it does fit, though, is Klimt’s obsession with not just seduction but malign feminine eroticism. You do not see this in the portrait Aghdam apparently sought to mimic, but in another painting for which art experts say Klimt borrowed Bloch-Bauer’s face and expressions — and whose subject was a female killer. This was Judith, from the Bible, a pious young widow who deployed her beauty to lure a general in an army bent on conquering her people into sleeping with her, and after he falls asleep, uses his sword to lop off his head. The Wikipedia entry for Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) describes the expression on her face as a blend of ‘voluptuousness and perversion,’ designed to convey ‘the greatest degree of intensity and seduction.’

Those words fit the persona Aghdam adopted for her videos — and if there was any actual connection between that choice and the picture, YouTube’s managers could hardly have been expected to perceive or understand it. Did she choose it before or after they enraged her by demonetising her videos — that is, cutting off payments she had been receiving from the company for advertisements that appeared with her productions posted under the user name Nasime Sabz?

Perhaps we have missed the answer in some news report to the question of when she became the chronically infuriated woman in her videos. We suspect that she was angry even before the shock of her demonetisation; and that her fury about her life and fate found an outlet not just in making her videos for the causes she championed, but in the chances her YouTube creations gave her to escape her actual identity and circumstances when she let Klimt’s fixations take over her imagination, what Kandel describes as quintessentially male ‘nightmares about […] the relationship between sex and aggression, life and death.’

YouTube is said to have de-linked her videos from its money-making scheme for users of its site — or ‘content creators’ — because they were not ‘advertiser-friendly.’ The decision apparently followed from a change of users’ terms and conditions by the company in 2016 that distressed a number of other small-scale, independent producers like her, according to Recode. Before that, she does not appear to have been subjected to any constraints on her choice of material. In the weeks before she shot and killed herself at the end of her rampage at YouTube’s headquarters, Aghdam claimed that Google, which owns YouTube, had also made it impossible for her audience to find her web site with some obstruction resembling a ‘page not found’ dead end. In the absence of any statement about their relationship with her by either company, so far, it looks as if her accusation could have been justified.

The managers who effectively shut her down might have had no conception of what separating this YouTube user from her ability to earn money from her uploads and communicate with her audience meant to her — or could mean to someone in a position like hers, about which they are unlikely to have known very much before she died. By various accounts, she had been living in Southern California with her grandmother for some years after she left Iran, where her family was part of a persecuted minority, followers of the irenic Baha’i religion, which teaches that all the world’s religions have a common source. But in America she had soon become at least as unhappy as she was in her homeland.

As no occupation or vocation has been mentioned so far, nor any details of her education, she might not have had the benefit of any of these to anchor her to reality and connect her to embodied — as opposed to virtual, online — fellow human beings, other than members of her family. She could barely speak or write English. The reports that she slept in her car on the nights after she left Southern California for her journey to YouTube’s headquarters near San Francisco suggest that she was acutely short of cash and perhaps had no credit cards.

All in all, it looks as though her small success as a minor YouTube celebrity with a following mostly in Iran could have been the one bright patch in her life. Then YouTube pulled the plug on it, and she was swallowed up by darkness. Several reports quote her brother saying that she had complained endlessly that YouTube ‘ruined her life.’

There are almost certainly millions of other social media users whose internet presence is now essential to their sense of themselves; at least as important as Aghdam’s was to hers. Each presence is an interweaving of personal history, dreams, hopes, personal quirks and the great unconscious, the source of inspiration for the most sublime works in the history of art. Don’t lesser, even strictly aspirational artists deserve respect for what their creations mean to them — and to be free to display them online without consideration of their commercial usefulness?

Several of this tragic shooter’s videos look like crude, unpolished tributes to the more repulsive creations of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali. Other influences are detectable. The Aghdam persona strongly resembles Frida Kahlo’s in self-portraits by that painter, whose unibrow gives her an even angrier aspect. Would such artists have been permitted to earn whatever revenue they could on YouTube while still struggling to make their names and before the initial public reaction to their visions — intense revulsion — was succeeded by acceptance and even amused affection? Like Aghdam’s videos, the creations of the Surrealists and Kahlo were and still are commonly described as ‘bizarre’.

We doubt that answering the questions in this post should be left to executives at technology companies. They are crying out for public debate. In the meanwhile, policy makers for social media platforms should certainly consult psychologists and psychiatrists when they draft or contemplate alterations of their rules for users. Or, if they already employ these, perhaps consider hiring better ones.

Scientists using famous paintings to open doors to their minds, inviting us in: part 2

Douanier football game on slide


Dr. Josef Penninger at ideacity05 in Toronto with, above: Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Football Players’ (1908); a ‘genetically modified’ fruit fly with human teeth. Below: lovestruck fruit flies with Rousseau’s Eve (1904); Frido Kahlo’s ‘The Two Fridas,’ fronting for ACE2, the protein molecule subverted by the SARS virus. -- Slides by Barry Dickson in screen shots by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Dr. Josef Penninger at ideacity05 in Toronto with, above: Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Football Players’ (1908); a ‘genetically modified’ fruit fly with human teeth. Below: lovestruck fruit flies with Rousseau’s Eve (1904); Frida Kahlo’s ‘The Two Fridas’ (1939), fronting for ACE2, the protein molecule subverted by the SARS virus. — Slides by Barry Dickson in screen shots by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 03.12.39

Frida Kahlo 'The Two Fridas' 1939 slide
part 1 is here

In the third picture, those are amorous, genetically modified, gay female fruit flies on the blue plates beside a section of Eve and the Serpent, a 1904 work in the ‘modern primitive’ style by the French artist usually referred to as Le Douanier — customs official — Rousseau.

What are they doing there? If you are a research scientist who wants to tell an audience of non-scientists about geneticists learning to stop deadly pandemics like avian ‘flu in their tracks — a story that encompasses the behaviour, in laboratory mice, of the snappily named protein molecule, Angiotensin Converting Enzyme or ACE2 — you would do well to shock them with a true account of how your research team changed a different creature’s entire sexual orientation by manipulating a single gene.

Especially if this is an audience that knows that there is no such thing as a ‘gay gene’ or set of genes controlling the sexual behaviour of human beings — people being a bit more complex than fruit flies — your preamble about tinkering with l’amour in the insect world will guarantee that everyone stays awake without intravenous infusions of caffeine.

That is exactly what Dr. Josef Penninger – scientific director of the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMBA) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna — did ten years ago at ideacity05, a conference of adventurous thinkers in Toronto (whose 2015 version, coincidentally, starts tomorrow.) As you can see on YouTube, he swept away all resistance to his lecture on recent developments in genetics with his first slide — ‘So that’s a typical fly, a genetically modified one …,’ in which the beast has shiny human teeth, which instantly sent a rumble of laughter through the crowd. The dentures were the gift, with a little help from Photoshop, of Barry Dickson — a fellow-scientist and at the time, IMP colleague, from Australia — who had appeared one day to make a request. ‘He came to me and said, “I want to study all the genes which control sex,” and I said, “Sounds good.”’

It hardly needs saying that Josef — as Dr. Penninger introduced himself, a few weeks ago — is a born populariser, in addition to being a scientist on the bleeding edge of medical research. He is probably most renowned, among his peers, for his work on the prevention and suppression of breast cancer. This has won recognition from the U.S. Department of Defense – an Innovator Award – which might soon have to lend him one of its morbidly obese military transporter planes to carry the many honours and awards that he, like Dr. Lawrence Steinman — featured in part 1 of this post — has been heaping up.

So there is Josef, explaining how modifying the ‘skirt-chasing gene’ named fruitless by its Australian discoverer can ‘completely rewire’ a fly brain. ‘This is males chasing males,’ he says about a slide in which inky black smudges appear to be dancing in a sort of orgiastic conga line. Before you have a chance to get over your surprise, he makes a flying leap from flies to explaining that the SARS virus that raged around the world scaring everyone silly in the early ‘00s made its victims ‘basically drown in their own lung fluid.’ His team of investigators ‘looked into the heart of a mouse,’ and soon found that ‘if you shut down the protein ACE2 in mice, they get absolutely unbelievable lung failure.’ Back to SARS in humans: ‘So the next question is, why the hell [did] SARS become such a lethal virus? … Why is it that SARS killed 10 per cent of the people [infected with it], and mind you, under the circumstances of modern medicine?’

Once you get over his fearless, endearing, German-accented rendering of his thoughts into English, you notice that the antics of his laboratory animals in his slides are accompanied by reproductions of several well-known paintings. Is this just another scientist enlisting art to ‘jazz up’ his work, a painter friend of ours enquired, in email reacting to part 1 of this post last week — a correspondent who also remarked, bravely, ‘Molecular biology? Bah, nothing to it!’. Obviously, the answer is, no. Not least because the lab coat-clad can always use Photoshop or some other tool or scheme to create splendid diversions — such as Josef’s bravura Dance Your Phd. performance of the chicken dance in a YouTube clip posted at gonzoscientist.org to commemorate his 1990 thesis, ‘Analysis of thymic nurse cells in the chicken.’

Comparing the Penninger technique with the Steinman approach to intertwining art and science, and thinking about what we’ve gathered about what art has meant to each of these scientists, we found ourselves considering that …

• Including art in expositions of science makes such a colossal difference to us civilians, the great unwashed, that it is amazing that this is not done routinely in teaching. Techniques could range as widely as between Dr. Steinman’s respectful ‘Chers collègues’ style, in his Charcot lecture, delivering a precise exegesis as structured as a Bach fugue, and Dr. Penninger entertaining non-scientists, concealing the years of grinding effort that produced the work he describes behind a seemingly improvised set of riffs, and merely suggesting by juxtaposition, rather than explaining, how they relate to his chosen set of paintings.

• Whereas pictures as intriguing as Mondrian’s trees or Rousseau’s effete football players (above) mean instant entrapment, the following example of the usual attempt to engage non-scientists in a science problem is – certainly for us – a colossal waste of time:

Many a physics graduate student has gnashed her teeth in frustration over the mathematics of general relativity. Perhaps she should try envisioning a flat, boundless desert, with rocks of various sizes scattered across its surface, whose mass creates dips of various depths in the sand. A sturdy canopy looms over that desert, stretched tightly over a skeleton of tent poles linked by bars, matching the rises and dips in the sand beneath it. The desert is all the matter and energy in the universe, while the canopy is the geometry of space-time. The poles and bars are the equations of general relativity, connecting the stuff of the universe with the shape of the universe. As Halpern writes: “Mass and energy warp space-time, telling it where and how to curve. The shape of space-time, in turn, governs how things move within it.”

That is a clip from an otherwise gripping read, a review by Jennifer Ouellette of a book by Paul Halpern about the competition between Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger to solve the biggest and most fundamental problem in physics. Our typical, yawning reaction to bait like this is, if you find the problem interesting, by all means meditate on it yourself and let me know when you’ve got the answer.

• We would not be surprised to find a study confirming our suspicion that many of the most creative scientists have been interested in art for most of their lives. Josef — described in a surpassingly literary profile in Esquire as ‘the son of Austrian farmers’ — said, by email, that he had ‘actually studied medicine and art history’ at university. Though he was diverted from his education in art, he explained, ‘my first scientific work was about Renaissance architecture in early 16th century Spain, e.g. the palace of Charles V in the Alhambra.’ In a spare, exquisitely restrained, affecting memoir about their father**, Dr. Steinman’s sister Louise has also described their mother, who, growing up poor in New York, would ‘escape the hot tenement on East 11th Street and stroll through the galleries of Greek statues, a woman of leisure alone with classical beauty’ — at which point we must mention that post-Gutenberg met this determined escapee’s son long ago through someone with extraordinary, laser-cut cheekbones, brought up in the art-steeped Russian cultural tradition.

• The most rubbery-brained, resourceful scientists seem drawn to art because they are interested in virtually everything. At the gathering at which we had Josef for a neighbour, someone sang a Schubert song based on a poem by Goethe we had never heard of, ‘Der Erlkönig,’ (The Elf King) — after she outlined its account of the ride through a forest on horseback, with his father, of a small boy who becomes the victim of a supernatural being, and dies in the last verse. ‘No, no, it is a wonderful poem!’ Dr. Penninger insisted passionately, when we expressed our dismay about this theme. ‘We all had to study it in school!’

• Being an intellectual omnivore, switching attention, might work something like discontinuous ‘interval training‘ for the brain — in the way ‘interleaving’ is being found to enhance learning in mathematics and science. A recent New York Times report said that …

… studying mixed sets of related things — paintings, birds, baseball pitches — greatly improves people’s ability to make quick, accurate distinctions among them, compared with studying as usual, in blocks. Others have found the same improvements when the items being mixed are specific kinds of problems, like calculating volumes, or exponents.

A growing number of cognitive scientists now believe that this cocktail-shaker approach could improve students’ comprehension of a wide array of scientific concepts, whether chemical bonds, parallel evolution, the properties of elementary particles or pre-algebra.

This was how Josef concluded his ideacity05 talk — clicking an image from Austria on-screen:

So here is this beautiful building in Vienna which has a very beautiful Klimt painting inside — the Beethoven Frieze — and … on the top, it says, ‘Every time has its art, and all art must be completely free.’ So I think that every time has its science, and all science must be completely free. … We live in a great time. Let’s use our science to do something good for people. Thanks.

** The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War, Louise Steinman, 2008.