“Masks4ALL” – a Czech campaign, a MIT AI specialist’s support of it, and the new “solitary facelessness”


This video clip by the Masks 4 All campaign originated in the Czech Republic. Masks 4 All was founded by a group of scientists, investors, and designers, among them a particle physicist, a specialist in chemistry and aerosol physics, a microbiologist and virologist, a population protection expert, and a bestselling author and science popularizer. The campaign’s website explains: “On March 14 (two weeks since the first confirmed case), a speaker, writer and social media influencer Petr Ludwig made an educational video on the importance of wearing masks, not as a protection for yourself but to protect others in case you are unaware of being sick and are not showing symptoms. The video cites a study by researchers from University of Cambridge which concludes that surgical masks are 3x more effective than home-made masks, nevertheless they recommend home-made masks as a last resort when surgical masks are not available. As of March 22, the video had 560k views and was shared and promoted by many other Czech influencers. As the shortage of masks provided by the government continued, hospitals reached out on social media and asked if people may be able to sew a few masks for them because they were running low. In an unprecedented show of support, many people started making masks, not just for the hospitals but for everybody. The effort was both individual – people making masks by hand sewing or on a sewing machine at home, and organizational – theaters, non-profit organizations, small business and factories which normally produce clothes, linens, accessories redirected their efforts into full-time sewing. Local companies were sewing in bulk, supplying hospitals, senior citizen homes, the police or firemen. Masks were delivered to hospitals or to friends and neighbors who would often find them in their mailboxes. In some areas, people created  ‘trees’ where they would put available extra masks that were up for grabs for others.” Photographs upladed to the website show examples of the sites of making DIY masks (untypically featuring a male seamstress) and ways to distribute them in the neighborhood:


Lex Fridman, who recorded and uploaded this video about the Masks4ALL initiative is an AI researcher at the MIT and beyond (beyond meaning, among others, close to Elon Musk and Tesla). Fridman is a visible promoter of his own research and person via Twitter and other channels. In one of his tweets (from 2018), he revealed his Russian-American itinerary to US patriotism: “24 years ago I immigrated to the United States: from a skinny Russian kid with a soccer ball to an American scientist at MIT. I’m proud of what this great nation stands for, from its founding to its tumultuous journey in becoming a symbol of freedom and innovation to the world.” On his website, Fridman makes available his work on human-centered AI, deep learning, autonomous vehicles and robotics. His case might be considered an interesting example of how AI research, pandemic awareness and grassroots campaigning can meet on unexpected territory – territory now shared by allies of Elon Musk and DIY initiatives such as Maskbuilders:





There is a lot to be said (and there has been a lot said already) about the enormous shift in the perception of the face mask in the course of the pandemic. Any (official or unofficial) ban on wearing face coverings, from anti-Muslim rejections of the burqa to the interdiction of the bandana of street protesters, any hidden or open racist/orientalist attitude towards “Asians” sporting respiratory masks in public is being suspended for the time being. Stories about national and local facemask identities abound.

In a – beautifully illustrated – article for the South China Morning Post, from March 22 of this year, Fionnuala McHugh has written about, “How face masks have become part of the Hong Kong identity:” “Hard though it may be to believe, there was once a time when no one in Hong Kong wore a mask in public except for a laugh. Unless you were unfortunate enough to find yourself in hospital, masks were for jokers. (Or the Japanese – along with onsen and bonsai, they were considered part of that country’s arcane customs.)” But with the first SARS epidemic in 2003 these times of masklessness were over. “In its desperation for armour, the city turned to masks. Then, as now, they were in short supply. Then, as now, there wasn’t strong evidence they gave full-on protection. Even if you wore them continuously in the outside world, the virus could still scythe you down at home: the single worst cluster, in Amoy Gardens, in Ngau Tau Kok, killed 42 residents via their bathrooms. But a belief took hold that masks would protect you, even if you wore them dangling from your ear or clasped under your chin or damp with the germ-laden moisture of your own breath; and that psycho­logy has never left.” In the aftermath of the SARS crisis, the government of Hong Kong wanted their citizens to take off the masks again, they were considered detrimental with regard to tourism, and a hindrance for face recognition and police surveillance. The demonstrations of the past months however had entailed the return of masks of all kinds, as the protestors were trying to protect themselves from the very surveillance policy that had the citizens of Hong Kong discard their masks. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has all but muted the pro-democracy movement.

“And so the city,” writes McHugh, “retreats into its solitary facelessness. Masks remind me of childhood hospital stays and para­militaries and I fear them. They convey something uncanny, less than human. Often these days, I walk from Kennedy Town along Victoria Road – a thoroughfare that commemorates a crown – past the graves of 1894’s plague victims and the memorial arch of the old Tung Wah Smallpox Hospital, as far as the cemetery. The visitors emerge swathed and blank; the only faces to be seen are on the gravestones. All the way, the pavement is lined with fallen cotton-tree blooms, like scarlet shuttlecocks; and pale blue masks that have been wilfully discarded as if any sense of community has gone.”

The retreat into “solitary facelessness,” however, may have different faces, depending on local histories and previous exigencies. Building a global network of solidarity amid the crisis can surely be best served by the acquisition of the very practical DIY mask. Making a popular movement out of sewing and wearing masks in parts of the world where these habits are still unknown, is surely no longer exotic or even abject, it certainly has some work ahead of it, as the mask is in dire need to be implemented properly and widely. For to be unmasked here is really to find the villain of the piece and to remain masked is for the rest of the cast and its audience in the theatre of life to be able to face each other again in a safer future. TH


March 30th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

A  word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”

October 26th, 2021

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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