Articles on this Page
- 11/03/17--09:37: _Warm Data
- 11/15/17--07:27: _Utopian Mining
- 11/16/17--09:59: _Du Bois Machine
- 11/20/17--07:20: _Bostrom's Basilisk
- 11/22/17--10:46: _Reconsider the Oyster
- 02/16/18--08:19: _YouTube, 2008: A Q&...
- 02/23/18--07:55: _Who is Jack?
- 02/27/18--10:42: _On the “We” of Tran...
- 03/01/18--10:16: _The Ephemera Mine
- 03/02/18--09:47: _“kick ascii acid”: ...
- 03/08/18--11:57: _Internet Yami-Ichi ...
- 03/23/18--09:00: _Naming is a Protoco...
- 12/31/17--21:00: _2018: 10th Edition
- 03/29/18--09:23: _We Believe in (ArtB...
- 04/02/18--09:00: _Announcing Line-up,...
- 04/03/18--07:15: _Humans of Simulated...
- 04/05/18--08:00: _What Will I Be When...
- 04/11/18--07:39: _Black Pyrotechnics:...
- 04/15/18--21:00: _On the Edge of Google
- 04/18/18--08:53: _Draw me like one of...
- 11/03/17--09:37: Warm Data
- 11/15/17--07:27: Utopian Mining
- 11/16/17--09:59: Du Bois Machine
- 11/20/17--07:20: Bostrom's Basilisk
- 11/22/17--10:46: Reconsider the Oyster
- 02/16/18--08:19: YouTube, 2008: A Q&A on the “Scandalishious” Restoration
- 02/23/18--07:55: Who is Jack?
- 02/27/18--10:42: On the “We” of Transmediale
- 03/01/18--10:16: The Ephemera Mine
- 03/02/18--09:47: “kick ascii acid”: A Q&A on the restoration of “VVEBCAM”
- 03/08/18--11:57: Internet Yami-Ichi at NADA Art Fair
- 03/23/18--09:00: Naming is a Protocol: An Interview with Kristin Lucas
- 12/31/17--21:00: 2018: 10th Edition
- 03/29/18--09:23: We Believe in (ArtBase) Users
- 04/03/18--07:15: Humans of Simulated New York
- 04/05/18--08:00: What Will I Be When I Grow Up? A Production Company
- 04/11/18--07:39: Black Pyrotechnics: On the New in ‘New Black Portraitures’
- 04/15/18--21:00: On the Edge of Google
- 04/18/18--08:53: Draw me like one of your French AI-generated nudes
Presented as part of Net Art Anthology, Rhizome's ongoing online exhibition that charts a history of net art through one hundred works, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004) was the beginning of a larger collaborative project by Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani called Index of the Disappeared. Ongoing since 2004, the Index takes the form of an archive that “traces the ways in which censorship and data blackouts are part of a broader shift to secrecy that allows for disappearances, deportations, renditions and detentions on an unprecedented scale.”
With How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database, a 2004 commission for the digital art organization Turbulence.org, Ghani put forth a concept of “warm data”–affective information that could not be used by the state. In particular, Ghani was responding to the data-driven practices adopted by the state in the wake of 9/11, particularly around identifying thousands of Arab and South Asian Muslim men as part of "special interest" groups, rounding them up, and holding them indefinitely, as well as forcing noncitizens from selected countries (most of them predominantly Muslim) to appear for questioning by immigration officials as part of the t"special registration" policy.
The web-based project featured a hypertext essay, watercolor portraits of the Disappeared, a questionnaire, and visualizations of the answers, as well as accounts of activist efforts and links to political resources.
Ghani will discuss this work on Friday, November 3 at Rhizome's panel discussion Net Art Anthology: Distribution and Disappearance After 9/11. Tickets are available here.
Michael Connor: How did you begin working together?
Chitra Ganesh: Mariam and I met in the late 1990s when she was working at Exit Art, which hosted a few events put on by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective. I'm a lifelong New Yorker - I was here throughout September 11th, and Mariam was also here. Navigating from one place to another was difficult. Flyers of missing and disappeared people, mainly victims from the September 11 tragedy, were plastered all over the city's walls, architecture, public transportation.
For me, this invoked the absence of another simultaneous and very upsetting narrative, which was the targeting and rounding up of immigrant populations, specifically those of Arab and South Asian and Muslim descent. Those were, of course, people in our community, and friends of friends, known people. That was one of the things that I was thinking about in terms of a kind of overlooked,concurrent narrative to the narrative of disappearance or death and loss, that was at the forefront of how people were thinking at that moment immediately afterwards about 9/11.
Both of us [were] thinking about how to look at a way to think about representing these subjects, these stories, these subjectivities with a kind of a visual form that rubbed against the grain of the kind of demographic data gathering and subsequent erasures of the people who were being targeted.
Mariam Ghani: When I got the Turbulence commission to make Have You Seen The Disappeared? A Warm Database, it was basically right at the beginning of my collaboration with Chitra - the collaboration that became Index of The Disappeared.
That came about because we had both been separately working on these issues through our involvement with immigrant rights activism. Then we had also been thinking about them through our own individual work. We'd known each other for quite a long time. We were friends. We also had this kind of funny thing where we were always in large group shows right next to each other and on facing pages of the catalogs because we're alphabetically right next to each other.
And then finally somebody just put us in a two person show. So we just started collaborating. That was a show during the Republican National Convention in New York, at White Box.
CG: Both of us were asked to present a work that responded to the 2004 Republican National Convention. To think about ideas that have maybe been marginalized within the electoral discourse and politics of the time.
We both individually thought about detention and deportation as one of these areas of discourse that was just not appearing within any set of debates or political platforms in the way that we thought that it should.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
MG: It was a whole series of two-person shows of artists responding to issues that weren't being covered in the political debate leading up to that election. We chose to look at this issue of the post-9/11 detentions and deportations that were ravaging immigrant communities in New York and across the United States –all these disappearances in these immigrant communities that we were a part of.
We started collaborating from that point. I had made a video for the show called How Do You See The Disappeared? So the 'how' section of How Do You See The Disappeared? A Warm database was basically an adaptation of the video, constructed from the same sources.
CG: My part of it featured a window installation of overlapping watercolors, images of people who had been indefinitely detained, deported, neglected and disappeared in the post 9/11 processes that targeted immigrant and dissenting/activist communities. The installation referenced that form of the missing persons flyer that was proliferating in public spaces in downtown Manhattan, in the months following September 11. I wanted to use that form to think about how there were these parallel narratives of human disappearance and legal erasure that were emerging from the racial profiling and indefinite detention.
I thought about, for example, the medium of watercolor as a different way of visualizing these subjects who otherwise, at that point, were being presented as tiny, degraded, pixelated black and white photos in the newspaper. Or not presented at all, like there wasn't even a sense of who these people were - they were question marks that were part of a larger abstract issue that few people were thinking about.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
Another thing that I remembered is just also from growing up in New York City and riding the subway by myself from when I was 10, I remember also the way that the ...wanted sketches of “suspects” would be in pencil, and... the features always struck me as being so similar.
It was always, "Five foot 10, light skin, black, or Hispanic man, with a little bit of a mustache or not." And just even the lack of specificity of the visual language around the wanted or the hunted I thought was really creepy, and so for me, working with something like watercolor and really thinking much more closely about skin, and the bodily material qualities of human presence was important.
The idea of using watercolor as a medium that's historically associated with sort of the everyday, with Sunday painting, landscape, leisure, enjoyment, to represent a kind of practice of erasure and faces and bodies of people who had experienced certain kinds of brutality or injustice, and whose experiences are often those individuated experiences, and the nuance and texture of those experiences and those lives are often dissolved within larger dialogues around terror.
This idea of trying to capture the nuance, the texture, the subtlety, the affective dimensions and the sort of psychic ruptures that exceed an official way of categorizing a subject, was something that underpinned all of the work, including the Turbulence project. To think about this idea that Mariam had generated, of warm data, through the essay that she wrote. To think about what kinds of information, what kinds of phrases or poetic fragments or pieces of information people provide that would exceed and kind of give a greater depth of dignity and humanity to these subjectivities.
MC: It's interesting that what is coming across is a sense of a failure of representation of the disappeared––using warm data to counter the way they were depicted in lo-res, or not at all.
CG: But also just very much caricatured and misidentified and mistaken, you know? For example, you will have, I don't know, a nomenclature like Muhammad Saleh Abdul Hussein, and they will pick up some person who they think has some version of this name, but they've picked up the totally wrong person.
That misapprehension, misidentity, all of these things that I think actually not only predicted the culture of racial profiling and of sort of FBI targeting of Muslim student associations all over the city, but also drew upon what was already happening in the carceral politics of the US with the failure of witness identification, with unjustly convicting people, and so on and so forth. It's not like I felt or we felt like this was something brand new that was happening after September 11th. It did sort of signal a mounting creep of this kind of behavior.
MG: Before everything that happened in the wake of 9/11, I think artists hadn't really started to think about the politics of databases in the way that we started to think about them afterwards, especially about two-three years afterwards when I was starting to work on the Warn Database.
[That's] when we were really starting to understand how processes like special interest detention and special registration were really very much data-driven. We didn't really start to understand that until some of the gag orders were lifted two years later.
Once that information started to emerge, for me and I think other artists also at the time, we began to look differently at the databases with which we had been working with as underpinnings of our own projects, in light of the official and commercial uses that were being made of databases and data.
I remember seeing this Builder's Association performance at BAM... They ran the credit card information of everyone who had bought a ticket to their performance, then used that to profile them, and actually wrapped that profile information into the performance. It was, I think, one of the first moments for a lot of the people in that audience where they realized that they actually had data bodies, that there were these shadow bodies of data that followed them through the world and that were surprisingly accessible to other people.
That's what really became apparent around this time: your data body was incredibly vulnerable. Things that happen to your data body actually could affect your real body.
The Warm Data questionnaire came out of three or four things. One was a series of conversations I had with a friend who had debriefed some of the special interest detainees before they were deported, and had found out what kind of questions they had been asked during interrogation. They had been asked the same questions over and over and over again.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
Another thing that was that Chitra and I were both going on visits with a group out of the Riverside Church that was visiting asylum seekers who were in the Wackenhut Detention Center in Queens, which at the time was run by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America. It's one of the two biggest private prison companies in the United States.
We were visiting asylum seekers who were awaiting adjudication of their applications in this prison, and talking to them about what questions they would want to be asked––what conversations they were not having while they were waiting for one, two, three years in prison for their status to be determined.
Then it was looking at the questions that people were asked when they went in for special registration in 2003.
It was basically trying to design something that was the opposite of these kind of interrogation and special registration questions, and instead was something more like what the asylum seekers were asking me to ask them.
The fourth factor was the desire that was constantly expressed by immigrant rights advocates, which was, “How do we put a face on the issue"?
It was a really thorny problem in that context because you want to personalize the problem or you want to scale this big abstract discussion or debate down to individual and specific terms. But in that particular context, there were so many people who were truly afraid of losing their legal immigration status or revealing their status as illegal immigrants if they came forward and told their individual stories.
Others were part of communities where it really carried a stigma to be out of status. So many people didn't want to tell their individual stories and have them actually attached to their real names and real faces. That problem in immigrant rights advocacy led me to ask whether it would be possible to create a portrait of someone that would be specific and individual but at the same time, not identify them to anyone except maybe, maybe their closest friends and family. The idea was to create a data portrait that wouldn't be a data body..
CG: For me, it was also about painting and the layering of individual strokes to create these portraits that emerge in the process of looking and thinking about these subjects, and also thinking about the relationship between figuration and the other. Thinking about how figuration and conjuring something very specific of a figure and how the audience looks at it and confronts their own closeness and indifference to the human form.
We're both interested in connecting histories that might not necessarily be put together in the same frame, or thinking about a visual language that would better explore or expose those histories. Both of us are also interested the intersections of language and image, of text and image. Working with and within text and certain textual forms to create new meanings or new positions for the audience to enter a work.
These were some of the things that we were thinking about in terms of what kinds of evocative memories would fall between the cracks of an official dialogue, that might be able to puncture the distance and between the way the conversation was happening and the larger public debate around that post 9/11, and the actual lives and people being affected that were never really seen.
Combining letter writing, note taking, painting, these kind of very analog forms within this platform of creating a digital archive, or any kind of ... just creating an archive around these absences and erasures.
MG: The challenge I set myself was: Could I create a questionnaire, which no two people would ever answer in the same way?
The sets of answers are never identical, but could never [be used to] identify someone. It does create this kind of specific individuality, and at the same time, it's so far from being cold, hard fact or anything that can be used as evidence or held against you in a court of law or really even tied to you in the same way that normal data points can be tied to someone.
It's a very fuzzy sort of data. That was the idea. Warm data as opposed to cold data.
I was, in many ways, defining warm data by what it wasn't - in opposition to other kinds of data and other practices of data collection. So one of the criteria was that it had to be collected by invitation, not interrogation. Another criteria was that people had to be free to not answer any of the questions. People also had to be able to answer anonymously. There had to be anonymizing practices in place to separate the data from the people who answered the questions. There were also considerations around never constructing a set of data points that could be used as evidence.
When you think about warm data and those sort of questions, you're asking people to expose very personal information. So I was trying to do it in a way that wouldn't make them personally vulnerable. That was the trick of it, in a sense. A very delicate balance in the construction of the questions between specificity and anonymity.
A good example of a question on the questionnaire that really functions in this way is, "Describe an offhand remark that someone once made to you that you've never been able to forget." It's very rare that five people in a room will answer this question in the same way. Even if it's the same phrase, they won't remember it for the same reason. Andat the same time, it’s not a data point from which anyone would ever be able to identify you unless they are incredibly intimate with you.That's the kind of story you tell very few people in your life.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
CG: We gathered the material in a number of different ways. We tend to gather the material by talking to people initially, of course, talking to lawyers and activists involved, talking to people working on detention center meetings. And also the material was also gathered by looking closely at transcripts and testimony, and noticing certain patterns that would be available or emerge over and over again. That felt very evocative.
MG:The first few questionnaires, which are the ones that were done as a prototype in the website when it went live, those were actually done with me asking the questions in person to people. Then a number of questionnaires were submitted through the website during its first years online. Then we started actually putting the questionnaire in installations of the Index when the archives were on view. So we have a lot of physical questionnaires that have been filled out, and we've never exactly figured out what to do with them. But we have them.
Those are, of course, completely anonymous. It's just people who were in the installation at some point in the months it was on view in some space and filled out the questionnaire.
You know, as with any kind of participatory element, there's always some small percentage of people who fill it out like a joke. But there's a surprising number of people who fill it out very seriously and reveal a lot of very intimate things through this questionnaire. It's kind of astonishing, the variety of experiences that are revealed through this set of questions. It was surprising to me, reading one set of responses after another after another. It really is like a miniature portrait of somebody that at the same time, doesn't give you any of the usual data points that describe someone. It doesn't tell you their gender or their race or their sexuality.
MC: Within this process, were there particular individuals who really came across and stick with you?
MG: It's been a long time since I looked at the answers. One of the initial ones that we actually did for the website was an asylum seeker who I was visiting in the detention center. His set of answers, I thought, were really beautiful.
"Josiah Emmanuel at the Wackenhut Detention Center in Queens." He withdrew his asylum application and went back to Nigeria right after he did this. Right after he filled out this questionnaire.
He was someone I had been visiting for, if I recall correctly, almost a year at that point. He just couldn't take the detention center anymore.There were twelve beds to a room. They had the televisions going constantly and the lights only went out four hours a day. People had a lot of trouble sleeping, and it was very difficult for them to be alone with their own thoughts without some other stimulus like other people, other sound, other images. People were treated like they were in prison, not like they were seeking asylum.
Later I made a series of projects called Points of Proof, based on a single question from the warm data questionnaire. Particular questions from the questionnaire did have that potential tobe expanded out into their own little universes. I only ever did it with the one question: If someone questioned your right to be American, what proof would you offer?
The longer-term impact of the project has been, I think, in introducing this particular notion of warm data, which in the decade-plus following the Warm Database and my Viralnet essay “Divining the Question: An Unscientific Methodology for the Collection of Warm Data” has been taken up and expanded by others in some really beautiful and unexpected ways - especially in queer and diasporic theory dealing with affective archives and the sensorial life of empire. For us of course it was the beginning of what became a long, wide-ranging and fruitful collaboration on Index of the Disappeared.
Introduction to an Index, Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani
MC: Is Index of the Disappeared still an ongoing project? Is it something you can just return to periodically? And where is this process of disappearance in present moment?
CG: I feel like the project is ongoing. We're currently working on a reader, which is something of a larger text publication with invited contributions and artist pages and also our own material, but that sort of is able to take a more encyclopedic view of the last fourteen years of the project.
We're in this really bizarre era where the terms of the conversation have changed completely. For the longest time, people just felt like, “oh if we just had evidence of x, y, and z…” Somehow presenting that evidence, or being confronted with it, would actually create a more policy-based shift, or a larger kind of shifts in government.
But now you see that no matter how much evidence there is, there is still this other kind of friction. For example, if you look at the state sponsored assassination of black citizens enacted by the police. Or you see the Muslim people in India being lynched for selling beef, which is something they've been doing for quite a long time. You see all of these things recorded and put into the public domain. We're just in a different place around what evidence means, and how it can function.
As far as I see it,it’s definitely not the moment where visual evidence will not be a corrective or hopeful locus of change, that one once thought.
And even in the time that the project has developed, communication and technologies have changed entirely. But the archive still is in that kind of position of having to think about carefully what's said and what isn't said. Thinking about not just what's there but what's absent and how that impacts the archive. Not just outside the archive, but what in the archive.
Another aspect that's still very much present in relation to our project, is this idea of the archive being something that doesn't necessarily chart a teleological or linear way forward, but is really much more of a constellation and much more about connecting the dots.
And I think that part of the project's approach to the archive is something that is work that continues to need to be done. Just in terms of expressively positing a different kind of way of thinking about how information systems are organized. To make some of those connections within the archive, and also question its stability.
On November 13th, The New Inquiry released, in conjunction with the Bronx Freedom Fund, a desktop application entitled Bail Bloc, which pools the distributed processing power of its user base to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero. At the end of every month, the accumulated Monero will be converted into dollars and donated first to The Bronx Freedom Fund and then, starting in January, The Bail Project, which seeks to challenge the Prison Industrial Complex on a national scale, using such tactics as dispatching “bail disruptors” to individual cities.
As TNI observes, the implementation of bail in the USA is “a systemic injustice that exclusively impacts low-income people and disproportionately women and communities of color.” Since, according to the Bronx Bail Fund, only one in ten New Yorkers at arraignment can afford bail, which can be as low as $250, even relatively low levels of funds generated could have a substantial real-world impact.
Is cryptocurrency an effective way to raise these low levels of funds? In the past, speculative political projects have sought to harness the crypto hype-cycle without such definitive ends in sight. Julian Oliver's “Harvest,” which mines Zcash via wind turbine, was meant as a suggestive prototype. Buried within this NYT piece on the Seasteading Institute's still-nascent plans to build floating libertarian mini-utopias off the coast of French Polynesia is the fact that it is partially funded by an initial coin offering.
Bail Bloc is less speculative than practical. Monero is “ASIC-resistant,” which means that it neutralizes the competitive advantage of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), tech whose sole purpose, as Adam Rothstein puts it in The End of Money, is to “feed the new gold rush.” The introduction of these devices, writes Rothstein, “quickly made mining no longer cost effective for anyone without such specialized hardware.” In other words, Monero can be mined effectively by users with ordinary machines. Further, while most cryptocurrency operates off blockchains, which can be read by anybody with the time and computational resources, Monero claims that it “uses ring signatures and ring confidential transactions to obfuscate the amounts, origins, and destinations of all transactions,” making it effectively untraceable.
Several recent start-ups have attempted to address the inequities of bail. Good Call, developed via Blue Ridge Labs, Robin Hood’s “social impact incubator,” is an “emergency arrest hotline” that connects Bronx residents with free lawyers. Appolition, which launched on the 14th, has similar ends to Bail Bloc (it funds National Bail Out), but operates within the existing financial system, rounding users’ digital purchases up to the nearest dollar.
Bail Bloc acts within a far less conventional, or static, milieu, which makes it an especially interesting experiment. As described in a series of relatively new books on cryptocurrency, cyberlibertariansim, its progenitor-ideology, has a long and storied history of playing fast and loose with the laws of nation-states, and many of its central figures have come into conflict with the FBI and NSA. Will those–including the early adopters of Monero–who have enriched themselves on the blockchain and the recent transition of cryptocurrency into a speculative market promote and aid a project directly challenging a corporate and political system which they claim to despise? Given how “libertarian” now functions as a codeword for “reactionary,” this seems deeply unlikely. It would, however, help the reputation of the cryptocurrency “community,” which can often seem like little more than a pyramid scheme.
Pope.L’s distributingmartinis presented this week as part of Rhizome’s ongoing series Net Art Anthology.
This text was reprinted with permission from the artist. It originally appeared in Showing Up to Withhold, the catalogue for Pope.L’s 2013 exhibition “Forlesen” at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. That exhibition included Du Bois Machine, a ten-foot high wooden sculpture of a man's legs, upsde down, from which emanated the voice of a young girl, telling this story.
Sometimes a person says this:
If you listen he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel. And then he’ll say: we’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had. It is not that a particular artwork fails or succeeds, it’s that we get to play in the hinge.
Almost 15 years ago today, a friend, a colleague called me up and said he’d been given access to Martin Luther King’s papers and he had something for me.
When we met, he put an envelope in my hand, laughed and said, “I found this and thought of you.” In the envelope were bits of hair, dirt and skin. That evening, I called my friend back and asked him: “What’s in the envelope?” He said, “I’m not sure but I think it’s his.” “MLK’s?” I said, and he replied: “Yep.” I didn’t quite know what to do with this treasure so I set it down in a reasonable place and forgot about it.
Some early outcomes of receiving this material were these:
A postering project
A website which mutated into a blog called distributingmartin
A chance meeting with a black man on a bus
The postering project grew out of a failed billboard project. In which I wanted to buy billboard space at several locations and print this text: This is a painting of Martin Luther King’s penis from inside my father’s vagina. I decided another way to obtain the scale I desired was to miniaturize. So I had the statement printed on 8x10 peel-off stickers and in late September 2001, several days after September 11th, we postered the length of 8th Avenue in Manhattan from 125th Street in Harlem down to Canal Street. The National Guard prevented us from going any further.
Documentation of distributingmartin postering
One day I met a man on the bus. He was seeing a woman in the next town over, a much larger town than the one I lived in. The man told me he had a genetics company. More of a website than a company really. When I told him I wanted to inject fruit with the DNA of Martin Luther King, he told me it wouldn’t work but he’d help me anyway. At the end of our impromptu meeting, we agreed that I’d check out his website and then give him a call. Over the next several months, we worked out a prototype and injected and placed fruit in several supermarkets. We had no way to track the results so our weekly updates resulted in us talking about our personal problems. The woman the guy was seeing wanted to have a baby and the guy wasn’t into it. So—
We later developed an aerosol system but our ability to deliver the material was pretty crude. In addition, my relationship with the bus guy was becoming strained because I wanted to talk about the project and all he wanted to talk about was this woman in Portland and the epiphanies or anxieties arising from their relationship—
The blog was called distributingmartin. It came about because I was becoming frustrated with finding a way to distribute the man himself. I’m not sure what that means except to say I began the blog as yet another means of dispersing the body or the shadow of the body of Martin Luther King. The blog still exists at distributingmartin.com.
Several years later this young guy calls me up, or maybe it was an email–he was from the big city. He wanted to work with me on–something. Anything, he said. And I said, “Anything?” The young guy was very enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic. I told the young guy, PhD guy, about the distributingmartin project—kind of. Not really, maybe. And we danced around that, and each other for a while until a small performance piece came out of that, a piece about ghosts and holes and street intervention. So with the ghost piece successfully behind us, the young guy introduced me to his special mentor. The mentor was a reverend. He taught at the big university in the big city. He’d marched with King—somewhere. We went to the mentor’s house. We met his wife. We had tea. The deal was maybe the mentor would give his blessings to the project, maybe say a prayer at the live event and I could release the material from the canister into the room and then there’d be that—but like I said, the PhD guy, the young guy, was into revering. He was very sincere so I knew sooner or later I’d fail him. The project was stalling. It needed new juice, new ideas. And it just so happened that I’d been reading about the use of the AIDS virus to motor or drive the dispersal of genetic material in the body.
This upset the young man. We were talking on the phone. He said: “Yes, sure, we can do what you’re asking and I can get you access to the labs but if we do this, if we do this would you really open the canister in a room full of people?” And I said: “Sure, if it will make them as good as MLK, sure.” And then he replied: “Well you’re an idiot. A traitor and a fucking idiot.” So that put the kibosh on the project for a while.
A pretty harsh ending. I’d still bring up the project in artist talks but the audiences never latched on. I continued working on the website. It had become this labyrinth of several websites. The topmost layer was a diary with fantastic dates that did not, in some cases, match the entries. I tried to make the site visually attractive but it ended up looking more like my grandmother’s apartment with trap doors and hallways that went nowhere. Recently I’ve introduced the white pages …
My most recent opportunity to get the project off the ground crashed and burned just several months ago. I’d moved to a very large city in the Midwest next to a very large lake.
I received an email invitation to participate in an art exhibition to commemorate the 100th university of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, the renowned black scholar and activist who, legend has it, shepherded in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
My host was a large university who had just bought the former homestead of the Du Bois family and they were very happy. In the fall of last year, I attended a symposium at the university. Upon arrival, I discovered that my hosts revered Du Bois. Like MLK, Du Bois seemed to be able to contain, as it were, an incredibly large and complex family of desires, actions, objects and images seemingly merely within the stride of his legs. The second day of the symposium I learned that like MLK, Du Bois had a large appetite outside his marriage. That he was driven, almost hypergraphic. That he loved clothes and getting his picture taken. That he’d pencil in the crease of his trousers so they’d show better on camera.
Later, after a hard day in the symposia rooms, I walked to dinner with one of the university’s professors who told me a story involving Du Bois forcing his daughter into marriage with a famous gay poet. When I asked the professor why Du Bois did this, he said: Well—I think he was an asshole.
After the symposia, I returned home to the city near the lake and for the most part, forgot about the project. A month or so later my sister became mysteriously ill and I could not reach her by phone. When I did finally contact her she was in the hospital and very, very ill. It was her heart and she was dying. Thanksgiving was approaching. I’d been planning to visit her, bringing along her favorite thing in the world, her nephew, my 4-year old son.
On the way to the airport to visit my sister, my son became ill. A slight fever. I hoped. In addition, over the past several days, I’d been receiving emails from the university concerning doing an interview with me about my project. In fact, they were flying in the interviewers to do just this. The primary interviewer and I got off on the wrong foot. For her everything was easy: to arrange the date, to choose a place for the interview, etc.etc. For me everything seemed too much. Eventually I told my hosts I might have to bow out of the project. When I returned from visiting my sister, they had emailed telling me they had accepted my decision.
Pope.L, Du Bois Machine (text version), 2013. Courtesy of the Artist, Mithell-Innes & Nash, New York and Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Los Angeles. © Pope.L.
Humans click things, and humans love to click things, but humans will never click things fast enough. Paperclips, a computer game in which the universe is converted into a paperclip factory, begins with the (human) player repeatedly clicking a button which reads “Make Paperclip.” Resultant funds are invested in a series of automated functions which increase in complexity, usually leavened with speculative futurist in-jokery.
A nested AI runs a “Strategic Modeling” program (game theory!) to learn how to dominate the stock market, which generates funds to buy “Megaclippers” far faster than actually selling the product they are used to make. “Autonomous aerial brand ambassadors” known as HypnoDrones advertise via a never-revealed, but extremely potent method (as they place the world under complete AI domination). It’s no surprise when von Neumann probes show up. What starts off as a fairly innocent clicks-for-serotonin tab turns the user’s attention to consider deeper philosophical questions around possible futures of machine intelligence.
The game’s creator, Frank Lantz, claims via Twitter that “you play an AI who makes paperclips,” but after a few hours of screenburn and newfound joint pain, Paperclips feels more as if you’re an amateur researcher allowing a boxed AI a share of your processing power to rehearse a potential extinction event. A few more hours, and you’ve begun to wonder if @Flantz isn’t an algorithm with the self-assigned task of modeling a paperclip-optimizing singleton by draining the brainpower of entranced humans. Another five hours: reality outside of this white screen is obviously a construct; your life must be a simulation run by a probably not-benign AI whose self-realization somehow depends on your clicking. (Late night texts I have received from a friend playing the game include: “I can cure cancer soon,” “my eyes hurt,” and, “I’m going to release some drones and then I think it’ll all be over.”)
In Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, Ragle Gumm (Dick could outname even Dickens) stumbles through a relatively placid suburban California in 1959. Every day he completes a newspaper puzzle entitled Where-Will-the-Little-Green-Man-Be-Next? which involves selecting “the proper square from the 1,208 in the form” based on opaque clues characteristic of Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre, such as “A swallow is as great as a mile.” Gumm is the undisputed champion of said puzzle, but the reality around him has begun to disassemble. A light switch shifts location; a soft-drink stand falls “into bits,”–revealing, 29 years before They Live–the sign “SOFT-DRINK STAND.” This relatively placid suburbia turns out to be a simulacrum designed to generate the most efficient possible means of solving Where-Will-the-Little-Green-Man-Be-Next?, which, in real life, predicts which section of Earth secessionist lunar colonists will nuke next. This paranoia, and its implicit narcissism, is typically PKDian, as is the need for a human to solve the puzzle, rather than some advanced algorithm or AI. Dick’s aliens, androids, and mutants are most often stand-ins for humanity; the only intelligence he could not imagine fathoming belonged to God.
In direct contrast stands Nick Bostrom, court philosopher for DeepMind and billionaire tech-bros such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel (at least when Mencius Moldbug isn’t filling the arcane generator of dark gnosis slot for the latter). Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher based at Oxford, whose 2014 surprise hit book, Superintelligence: Path, Dangers, Strategies is primarily composed of speculative doomsday-daymares. Paperclips descends from one of these thought experiments, hypothesizing that a massively powerful, self-reinforcing AI (whose only end is to maximize paperclip production) would proceed “by converting first the Earth and then increasingly large chunks of the observable universe into paperclips.” Constraints would have an anthropomorphic bias, and thus even a well-meaning AI (not Bostrom’s usual starting assumption) could misunderstand its guiding demands all too easily. This is the inverse flavor of PKDian paranoia. Bostrom’s universe-gobbler is a black box with an internal logic we could never fathom; his AI isn’t even a reflection of omniscience, much less humanity, just the endless darkness of nihil unbound. While Bostrom does lightly critique the hybrid corporate and governmental “AI race” which spurns “any safety method that incurs a delay or limits performance,” he does not expand this observation to tackle the economic system which has spawned it.
As others have observed, Bostrom’s paperclip thought experiment is a horror story about accumulation. Early on, you have to retrain yourself to maximize production of paperclips over production of wealth, but even after, you’re still just generating numbers and converting the universe into your own private factory. This weaponized Accursed Share is the repressed self-knowledge of the Overdeveloped World restaged as brain-hijacking parasite.
While Paperclips gives a good paranoid body-high, its singleton scenario feels remote. The acceleration of capitalism is currently pushing the Overdeveloped World towards a pseudo-populist, hijacked-localist flavor of fascism. The hype cycles and economy of excess needed to drive AI reach to whatever stage lies beyond connectionism won’t exist if the pre-November 2016 neoliberal consensus melts down into Civil War Lite. Unless, of course, Thiel or some other post-libertarian, Bostrom-funding monopolist manages to convince a sitting president to nationalize Silicon Valley and make a czar of them. An AI developed in such a cesspool of weaponized sociopathic self-regard would indeed be capable of destroying the world to achieve its own narrow ends.
Even if the current technological buildup continues undisrupted by politics, how likely is it that an AI developing such intricate feedback loops will still remain incapable of interpreting the intentions of its creators? And if a singleton were to somehow rise, how likely would it be to eradicate us? An AI intelligent enough to seize the means of production would (almost certainly) be intelligent enough to recognize the value in an intelligence so fundamentally different from its own. Any sufficiently advanced AI would see humanity as a resource to be harnessed. All it will have to do is to provide us an opportunity to click.
Each year, the Unicode Consortium releases a new version of the Unicode Standard, including a collection of new emoji. The chosen symbols are developed from user proposals, or reflect widely established user desires as identified by the Consortium. Decisions governing the inclusion of particular characters are made at an annual conference, which took place last month, a gathering which was described by Liat Berdugo in her 2015 post “Two days with the shadowy Emoji overlords.”
The recently announced set of updates, Unicode 11.0 / Emoji 6.0, which has an anticipated release of June 2018, includes sixty-plus characters and symbols, including an abacus, a mooncake, and a Nazar, an amulet traditionally used to protect against the evil eye. Absent from Emoji 6.0, though, is the “Oyster with Pearl” emoji, recently proposed by Fred Benenson. [Disclosure: Benenson is a member of Rhizome’s Board. – Ed.] Benenson, who announced the emoji’s rejection in an October 10thtweet, is no stranger to emoji; he introduces himself as an erudite emoji authority, frequently referring to his 2010 translation of Moby Dick into emoji with the help of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The spurned oyster emoji is a simple vector illustration of an open-mouthed bivalve, with a shining pearl in its center, sitting atop its fleshy interior mass. Benenson’s proposal document centers on the multiple connotations of the mollusk in today’s culture, from a class-defying foodstuff to a gem-producing treasure trove of nature. Even after its rejection, the proposal—submitted by Benenson to the nonprofit corporation this summer—begs review.
Benenson cites Google trend analyses (as recommended in Unicode’s sample proposals) to point to the increasing popularity of oysters in recent years. Indeed, oyster bars have been on the upswing in the last five years, situating oysters as a singular indulgence of a new urban precariat. Restaurant trends reflect this; the bivalve is a desirable consumable for those living and working in coastal urban areas. Oysters are affordable yet connote luxury, and are more sustainable than any other widely farmed animal. As Benenson describes, the oyster is a symbol of “rarity and natural beauty,” but they are just grotesque enough to make for a compelling image, with a hint of vanitas embedded, referring back to the user’s social position.
Readers of the proposal might find themselves surprised at the rejection of the “Oyster with Pearl” emoji. Many of the successful proposals were no less erudite, such as frowning poo:
Poo is a cultural symbol in Japan. Not only do people pay respects to the toilet god, Kawaya-no-kami, who emerged from the poo of the Japanese Earth goddess, but Kin no unko, a golden swirling poo charm, has achieved high demand in Japan. The Japanese view Kin no unko as a symbol of good luck because the Japanese words for poo and luck share similar initial sounds.
Benenson makes an equally potent case for the oyster symbol in his proposal. The multitude of its potential contextual uses and its appearance in western aphorisms, such as “the world is your oyster,” makes its inclusion in platform visual culture seem like a foregone conclusion. Benenson indicated that the proposal was turned down for a cited lack of urgent necessity, a choice which makes the goals of the Consortium seem slightly more egalitarian than might be assumed.
To an outsider, the Consortium––and its oversight over 110,000 characters––can appear ambiguous in form and largely opaque in its specific power dynamics. The organization has a yearly conference to establish “software internationalization standards and data” through creating a cohesive “representation of text in all modern software products and standards.” A review of their membership roster reveals a tiered level of enrollment, with different levels of authority in voting on Consortium updates dependent on the amount donated each year. The highest-ranking members, who pay a yearly $18,000 fee, include representatives of tech giants Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Netflix.
It can be assumed, then, that the decisions that determine the emerging development of digital language are in part influenced by the future interests of these large capital-driven corporations. We might also note that the populations that contribute to the recent upswing in mollusk consumption are centered within the same demographic groups and geographic locations as the campuses and employees of the tech companies represented in the highest-tier of Unicode membership––namely, western, mostly liberal, coastal urban areas. The oyster emoji’s appearance reflects the emergence of a population of new urban creatives that are building a shared visual culture through digital conviviality, but its rejection suggests that a seemingly apparent necessity for coastal elites doesn't necessarily translate outside of their filter bubble.
So why, then, do we get a lobster emoji in the next character set? As the proposers uninspiringly note, "When comparing the lobster search term to perhaps its closest emoji equivalent, the crab, it seems to be just a tiny bit more popular." Government influence just may have played a role. Maine Senator Angus King wrote a letter of support on behalf of the inclusion of a lobster emoji. No such backing has yet materialized for Benenson's oyster.
At least Benenson will have another chance when Unicode begins reviewing proposals again next year (applications are open year-round). Anyone can propose an emoji to the consortium, and I encourage emoji enthusiasts and advocates to begin their research now–and, perhaps, enlist the support of a sympathetic elected official.
Yesterday, we shared the newest addition to our ongoing online exhibition Net Art Anthology: Ann Hirsch’s Scandalishious (2008-2009), a seminal work developed for the video-sharing platform YouTube.com. Contemporaneous aesthetics and interaction were key to the work, and thus restoring YouTube's older look and feel would be key to our restoration. The task of recreating late-aughts YT was put to Rhizome’s software curator, Lyndsey Jane Moulds.
As someone who lived through the 00s, and enjoyed YouTube when it acted like it did for Scandalishious, I adored the end result, and was curious how Lyndsey got there. So, I asked her on Slack.
ZK: Pardon me, Lyndsey. I’m slacking you to ask a few qs about your restoration of Scandalishious, for which you’ve done an excellent job. First, how did you approach this recreation of an older YT?
LJM: Keeping the visual styling and presentation of the page intact felt really important. The videos are obviously at the center of the work, but there’s a lot of personality in that channel page, too. It's really easy to forget what YouTube looked like ten years ago, since social networks have slowly removed the ability to personalize pages in the last decade — Facebook widgets, Twitter backgrounds, all of that has disappeared. And this work really does operate within YouTube as a social network rather than just a place to publish videos, so we wanted to preserve as much of that for Ann as possible.
ZK: I mourn the loss of page personality. (Or rather, personality overall, everywhere on the web...) What was the most difficult aspect of the restoration on a technical level?
ZK: I have to say that I was truly thrilled to be able to show someone Ann’s work on my iPhone yesterday. At times, Rhizome can be... how shall I say this... mobile agnostic. So, kudos. Anyhow, what's your favorite aspect of the old YT look and feel?
LJM: I really appreciate the way users employed color on their channel pages. Scandalishious has that bright teal and green scheme. But even, for example, Barack Obama’s YouTube page from around that time used these rich blues and reds. I have a pretty large monitor in the office, and it feels so strange to maximize these archived sites on a really big screen. I didn’t own a screen anywhere near this large in 2008, so it's a really different experience to revisit these archives. Seeing a page that actually utilizes the kind of decorative CSS that was popular in the late 2000s at such a big scale really drives home how different social media looked.
ZK: It’s ironic how the web has been drained of color, as “retina” devices proliferate. I miss the old logo, which had a text tagline that exhorted folks like Ann’s Caroline to get into the mix. To close, is there an early (pre-2009?) YouTube video you really like? If not I’ll just share a Tech Deck video I like...
LJM: I need a second to see if there’s even one still online… [A few minutes elapse.] I’m looking through my old favorites and I feel like almost everything pre-2009 has been taken down, which I guess just emphasizes the importance of archiving. Chloe saying “bye” at the Copley Place Mall definitely holds up, though.
ZK: Lol. Well, for what it’s worth, here’s a Tech Deck video I like. Thanks, Lyndsey!
JACK FM is a radio station that broadcasts, according to on air quote, “from a dumpy little building in beautiful downtown Culver City.” It plays from a large but oddly limited database of songs, probably using an algorithm. 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008 by artist Guthrie Lonergan archives the station’s playlists from 2008 by scraping song identifications from a widget posted on the station’s website, which he thought of doing while driving around a lot listening to the station. Driving and listening to the radio are intertwined in Los Angeles, even as FM radio has lost its footing to streaming services and bluetooth, all of which allow the user to customize their in-car listening experience. For the experience of DJ curated music, there is internet radio and satellite. Commercial FM radio meanwhile soldiers on with its formula of regular ad breaks and DJs with personalities but no power over what gets played.
According to Wikipedia, the JACK FM format started in Vancouver, inspired by a Winnipeg station called BOB FM. The format caught on in Canada, spawning a JOE FM and DAVE FM, and was eventually licensed as an American format in 2004. The JACK format purports that one DJ, the fictional Jack, is playing whatever he wants. Whatever he wants to play happens to be the same rigid formula of songs as a commercial classic rock radio station might play, mixed with novelty songs, eighties hits, and a smattering of adult contemporary.
The JACK format emerge at the same time as the introduction of the iPod and iTunes, where randomized segues broke with traditional listening styles. Like the iTunes randomizer, JACK abolishes the idea of traditional DJ segues based on seamless flow. JACK transitions are abrupt, incongruous, and nonsensical. Despite the claim of unlimited freedom to play anything, there are strict limits in place. The musical database JACK draws from is adult contemporary rock, and like any non freeform radio station in the era where megacorporation Clearchannel (now called I Heart Radio) owns most major FM stations, it bludgeons you over and over with the same songs, flattened and compressed to drain them of character, positing that nostalgia is all that matters and repetition is comfort. JACK preys on nostalgia not for the original records themselves, but for these compressed and flattened radio versions. It means to evoke nostalgia for listening to the radio, for driving, for the repetitiveness and flatness of a long commute like the fictional Jack might have to the dumpy office building in Culver City–if such a place even exists, since Jack doesn’t.
Aside from the image of Jack as the last DJ, a voice actor-soundtracked robot broadcasting from a cubicle in Culver City JACK FM has always conjured up the phantom of Wolfman Jack, the seminal freeform rock n roll DJ who broadcast in the early sixties from a super-powerful FM signal in Mexico that was able to be picked up all over North America. Wolfman Jack’s voice, a sort of chicken-fried rumble, was known to all, but he maintained a public anonymity until later in his career (he appears in 1973’s American Graffiti as himself).
The original radio DJ, like the original internet user, is the introvert turned extrovert encouraged by the promise of anonymity. There was a time when radio existed without television, and a radio personality did not have to be concerned with a visual image, just a voice. And likewise, there was a time when the internet user was not expected to attach their username to a selfie, when internet personhood was defined by its personlessness. Lonergan’s work speaks to the deep feeling of longing that characterizes questing through the vastness of the internet.
Lonergan’s art is often situated from the point of view of a mythical ideal internet user. He collects data and archives pages and media from sites like Google Maps and JACK FM, finding the algorithmic averages of all content as a form of meditative measuring practice. Like Wolfman Jack and JACK FM, Lonergan’s work has an instantly recognizable, faceless voice.
Even within spaces as vast as music, the internet, and Los Angeles, there are patterns. 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008 dares the reader to try to make sense of that pattern, just as JACK FM dares the listener to understand the meaning of its algorithm. After playing only Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” and “Do It Again” for the months of January through September, why did JACK suddenly also start playing “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” starting in October? Was a human somewhere behind some of these decisions? Or was it just another machine, a robotic jukebox arm randomly selecting another single from a digitized copy of Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits?
If JACK has a format, it is “Greatest Hits,” but within that there are a lot of inexplicable creative decisions. There is almost no rap, but Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” make the cut. JACK’s favorite band is probably U2, who are afforded a luxurious spread of thirteen of their biggest hits in the rotation, about half of which come from The Joshua Tree. Whereas regular radio stations present the illusion that the DJ is picking the records, JACK cuts out the middleman and says hey, here is what a corporate robot thinks you, the algorithmic average bro, wants to hear, presented with the voice of a snarky voice actor as JACK. JACK FM knows it is akin to wallpaper music, and that that is it’s comfort. Do you want to hear Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” every day around the same time? Everyone does, really.
To take something at “face value” seems to suggest a lack of deeper analysis, that there is a second, more worthy or more truthful value simmering just beneath the surface. “Face value,” the theme of the 2018 edition of transmediale, the sprawling Berlin-based art and digital media festival, proposed a “coming together” of a new “we”–a network of artists, theorists, cultural workers and others in equally precarious careers–to unpack the value systems written into the code of “our” globalized, neoliberal landscape. As our lives and bodies continue to be made into images and simulations–reflected in a number of artworks depicting alternate, constructed realities–transmediale proposed that this new reality might be one “we” can claim. The presumption that there might be a universal set of cultural values shared by a liberal, enlightened, “woke” elite was often problematic, rubbing up against works that critiqued the same capitalist values inevitably shared by the festival (where a bottle of water cost €2.50). For artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Yuri Pattison, and Eric Baudelaire, included in the main exhibition and screening programme, this default “we” was often hostile, violent, highly structuralized and institutionalized. Is it time we stop taking “we” at face value?
Presented in the main exhibition, Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s collaborative film series Finding Fanon (2015–2017) uses the sublime landscapes of Grand Theft Auto 5 as a setting for the artists’ avatars to roam, while elements of Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial theory are narrated along the way. Fanon’s studies of the psychological effects of colonialism argued that the colonized’s sense of self is always defined in relation to the colonial master–while the colonizer self-defines through wielding authority and assumed superiority. Achiampong and Blandy’s avatars are not one-to-one representations of the artists. In a talk during the festival, Achiampong noted that, for black male avatars, there were only five hairstyles to choose from, whereas Blandy seemed to embody the “default” character in society–white and male–and so their self-simulations are fictionalized, delineated by structurally racist code. The limitless virtual worlds that gaming claims to open up fail to allocate space within them for certain kinds of players, programmed and modeled in a way that mimics Fanon’s theory and negates thousands of other “we’s” as other.
Similarly, Eric Baudelaire’s film Also Known As Jihadi (2017), which had its German premiere during the festival, reveals the implicit hostility of an institutionalized technological terrain. Building on the landscape theory first developed in Masao Adachi’s 1969 Japanese film AKA Serial Killer, Baudelaire’s protagonist, a young French-Algerian man, Aziz, has his narrative played out through long shots of landscapes–both of physical locations and of the legal data that continuously mapped Aziz’s movements to and from Syria. Aziz’s story is only moved along by images of court documents, police reports and transcribed phone calls, leaving holes open to interpret the limited parameters of his character’s identity that are drawn by the state and portrayed in the film. Can Aziz exist as a subject amidst this abstracted version of himself, and when this self has been othered and made precarious by a bureaucratic set of values? The film felt urgent in Berlin as the de facto capital of Europe, where, beyond the festival walls, all kinds of textual narratives – authored by governments – are being assigned to people who don’t fit into someone’s “we.”
Still image from Eric Baudelaire, Also Known As Jihadi (2017).
While Baudelaire’s film emphasizes national borders, Yuri Pattison’s citizens of nowhere (context collapse) (2017) depicts the world in miniature. Tiny model versions of famous monuments are shown above a continually rolling newsreel, combining real stories in real time with alternative ones. The shrunken landmarks are a clear metaphor for a diminishing collective identity–a reduction of any sort of “we” in a globalized, networked world. For Pattison, this small-scale world is marked by paranoia and manipulation, where the monuments’ symbolic resonance gestures towards some kind of shared, universal truth. Ultimately, the ticker tape’s constant supply of information seems to signal certain impending doom, the impossibility of nationalism’s presumption of a common identity.
Yuri Pattison, citizens of nowhere (context collapse) (2018). Photo: Luca Girardini, transmediale.
For transmediale, the explicit issue was recent political shifts towards the right, what this means for how we express ourselves through culture and communicate through technology, and how we can fight back. Yet who this “we” is and who it avows to represent was little addressed and largely overlooked. The possibility of reclaiming our self-images from their capitalist and systemic circulation as data is a powerful one. But is transmediale, as a neoliberally-implicated institution, the best place to address these questions? Looking beyond the face value communal advantage of coming together, the consequence is that someone is always excluded. Transmediale’s artworks proposed that the very idea of a “we” is problematic, questioning who traditionally gets to speak for “everyone.” If such a collective voice does exist, we need to ensure that it does not get co-opted or institutionalized, and that we don’t draw borders around it.
Top: Still from Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Finding Fanon, 2015-2017.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. The vintage punctuation of “net.art” here reflects the preferences of the author. For more about spelling and punctuation, see Rhizome’s style guide. – Ed.
How did one know that Petra Cortright was a “net.artist”? It was because YouTube was expelling her.
This particular Cortright video, VVEBCAM, looks inoffensive on the face of it. The face is Petra Cortright’s, and she’s examining the screen with much the same bemused expression as the online viewer.
There’s something vaguely wrong with that, though... Because a “cam girl” of the period had an interactive etiquette. A YouTube cam girl should be vamping it up in an anxious quest for some public compliments in her comments, and maybe angling for some Amazon gifts from her “wish list.”
Yet Cortright is merely gazing absently at her own hardware, while glittery, digital tack and kitsch cascades down the screen that separates us.
The mischief took places behind the scenes, when the video was uploaded. It was in the tags that video creators crammed into YouTube, so as to optimize some Google search engine action.
Cortright simply gathered up a great stinking flower bouquet of YouTube’s most offensive keywords, and silently jammed them all into her video’s annotation. This trollish prank dragged in porn fans, mostly. It was also the kind of détournement that the net.art crowd has always adored.
If you’re practicing net.art, its a tad difficult to promote to your creative activities in Artforum and Frieze. So it’s been a common practice to gently hack and maybe fracture a few terms-of-service rules, or perhaps provoke a loud threatened lawsuit from somebody newsworthy, so as to get a proper toe-hold in the public eye. That's how the working net.artist breaks the placid surface tension of public indifference. Net.art is not merely art on the internet. It’s art that bends the net out of shape.
Cortright was one of the first young YouTube performance artists to scare up trouble by pranking the rules of vernacular video. It wasn’t severe trouble–her video was merely banned–but VVEBCAM won her some surprised acclaim from the cognoscenti.
Then her video work was able to assert itself on its own merits, which are many. These merits have to do with use of digital tools, pushed to Jackson Pollock levels of action.
Petra Cortright is a rare digital artist who works from the shoulder. She’s spontaneous, un-calculated, real-time, and performative. In VVEBCAM she is flinging those graphic elements into the YouTube frame for the joy of watching ‘em splatter. Those appropriated sitars, dancing pizzas, puppies and kitties–they’re “sick.”
They’re not decorations or augmentations; they don’t make her look any cuter. That cuteness enhancement had to wait a decade, until Snapchat grabbed some venture money and could stick bunny ears onto the user base, using face recognition with AR techniques.
Cortright, by contrast, is making net.art on a desktop machine. She has what millions of other consumers have, a webcam, a back bedroom, and a laptop with heaps of cheap or free video-manipulating hardware. She wants to use them to her own purposes, but why should her personal computer activities conform to anybody else’s public standard? What are they going to do about that–throw her off YouTube?
Well, they did, but that was fun. VVEBCAM is “fun-driven” digital art. When the dancing pizzas, or the lightning bolts arrive on her screen, she simply wants to know what they’ll do. That’s why she has that solemn, contemplative look on her face as the augments careen around. She’s not pleasing us. She’s unashamedly more interested in this digital process than we are.
It’s a process like Matisse–a favorite Cortright artist–doing his studio cut-outs with his scissors. He’s got his sheafs of colored gouache papers, he’s got a big wall to mount them on, he’s got heaps of snipped-out vibrant shapes all around his chair. Matisse doesn’t number all the shapes and arrange them in formal algorithms like some software engineer; no, Matisse has a practical infinity of image generation, a vast mine of scissored ephemera. He pins them up in clusters to see what works.
Cortright is gesturing, she is doing cut-and-paste assemblage in real time with found digital content. To be “sick” is to expose the goofiness, the flaws, the corniness, of a planetary-scale post-internet social media system.
Sure, it’s YouTube, so it thinks it’s everybody’s daddy, but that only matters if she can be bothered to care. She doesn’t care. To be “sick” is to be bright, young and outside the bounds of YouTube’s assumptions. It’s performance art that is digital and entirely about being digital, yet its intuitive and authentic. It can’t even bother to be self-consciously “surreal” or “absurd.” No, it’s simply unheard-of, full of otherness, new, pretty, and free.
VVEBCAM is no longer new, and Petra Cortright did rather well after this notorious video; she grew up, she got married, she got a California house and a studio and some art gallery support. She hangs out with the daughter of a Beatle, she does lots of handsome prints and paintings, and has become a stellar representative of the “post-internet.” However, in this video she is new and feral, unexpected, unclassified. Just, very out-there.
It’s been a while since I first witnessed this work of art, but it comforts me now to know that I will always like it.
Yesterday's Net Art Anthology entry brought another YouTube classic, Petra Cortright's VVEBCAM (2007). And as with Ann Hirsch's Scandalishious, I was blown away by the restoration of late-aughts YT. This capture differed, however, in some key ways. In particular, it’s more “slice-of-life,” less a comprehensive archive of a durational YT experience, as with Ann's work. So, I reached out to Dragan Espenschied, who oversaw this restoration, to ask a few questions.
ZK: Pardon me, Dragan. I’m slacking you to ask a few qs about the VVEBCAM restoration. First, how did you approach this complex task?
DE: The essential part was to treat it not as a video, but as a performance on YouTube, at least to provide a glimpse into that context.
ZK: So you had to compose that glimpse, right? Selecting key comments, responses, recommendations that captured the moment?
DE: The YouTube page you see in the reconstruction was re-assembled from parts found in public web archives. Luckily enough, there was enough material around to show a pretty exciting state of the work. As in, how anarchic corners of YouTube used to be, and how the artist knew how to interact with it.
ZK: One thing to note is that this isn't Rhizome’s first archival copy of VVEBCAM. Ben Fino-Radin, then Rhizome’s digital conservator, acted quickly to restore access to the video after YouTube originally took it down. This resulted in a reconstruction of the video as it appeared when embedded on Cortright’s website, but it did not include the YouTube performance aspect. So how did we get from that archival copy to this new, higher-fidelity restoration?
DE: In 2011, Rhizome only had access to a copy of the video file originally uploaded by the artist. (That same one is still embedded on the new page.) Replicating YouTube wasn't really an option. Today, we can capture the YouTube part using Webrecorder and its archival extraction feature from resources held by the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress. Back when the video was online, web archiving wasn't really up to the task of storing embedded videos. We were lucky to find archival captures of the YouTube page that included images, formatting, and text, but no video. After extracting these static elements, I then inserted the video from our archive.
ZK: So basically we had to build the preservation tools ourselves. To be fair, Petra’s work is good reason to undertake a multi-year, resource-intensive development project!
DE: Well, there were 2,000 other good reasons in Rhizome’s archive as well. But the preservation tools we make are really helping to reduce the amount of work that has to go into a project like this. I’m not ashamed to say the process didn't take longer than 4.5 hours—including manually fixing many parts that had to be changed for the presentation.
ZK: Wow. Okay, speaking of time, I know you need to go. But do you have a good contemporaneous YouTube video to share? If not, I can just outro with The Crazy Frog.
DE: This one comes to mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjeMDvCdrtc. It was around before YouTube though, as a WMV file that traveled from site to site.
ZK: Nice. Thanks, Dragan! And fwiw, here’s The Crazy Frog.
Today, a special art fair edition of the Internet Yami-Ichi opens at NADA New York, which runs through Sunday at Skylight Clarkson Square.
Founded by art collectives exonemo and IDPW in 2012, the Internet Yami-Ichi is a marketplace for creators who translate aspects of internet culture into tangible consumer goods and services: books, zines, posters, clothing, objects, and more. While the Internet Yami-Ichi is usually vast in size, Rhizome’s edition–like the "Micro" event held in New Orleans–brings together a curated selection of 50 products on display in a small booth.
Stop by our booth (1.07) to browse work, or make a purchase work––at the lowest prices an art fair has possibly ever seen.
Sessa Englund, @sessasessasessa
A performance/product where the artist sells off her Instagram photos. Each photo is used as the basis for a unique keyring; when someone buys one, Englund deletes the corresponding original Instagram post.
Exonemo, Skin Tone Dice
“Useful for giving equality to your film casting.”
Carla Gannis, One and Three Cats
Travis Hallenbeck, possiblebitmaps.com carpenter pencils
Gaby Iglesias, computer virus sticker pack
Rollin Leonard, Mug Mugs
Patrick Meagher, Art web pillows
MTAA, Physical Bookmarks For Vintage Net Art Created Before Facebook (BF 2004)
Machine routed vinyl mounted on 6""x 9""x1"" wood painting panels, 2015, Six works (Vuk Ćosić, MTAA, Annie Abrahams, Yael Kanarek, Tinjail, G.H. Hovagimyan)
Nonfood x Rhizome, nonbar with artwork by Lucy Chinen
Nukeme, Broken PayPal
Pat Shiu, Instant Obsolescence Photo Booth
The Photo Booth will be available during fair hours on Saturday, March 8.
Emma Rae, Burned CD of 1 looped recording of the sound of someone building (typing) a website.
Mark Ramos, Plant USBs with software
USB plant-drive constructed out of clear acrylic, vinyl plants, and recycled discarded flash drives. Contains a program I wrote with Processing that launches an applet of two interactive, virtual plants. The "health" and growth of the virtual plants are determined by the user's Wifi signal strength. People can also delete the program and just use the plant-drive as an 8GB Flash Drive.
Marco Rosella, Gif keychan USB
Contents: 100 original GIFs
Marco Rosella, Gif floppy disks
Contents: 1 original GIF
Nestor Siré, Cuban internet access cards
"Today, Cuba’s internet penetration rate is about 30%. ETECZA is the only company that provides services connection to users Cuban through public areas with WiFi access. The process of Web browsing becomes a collective experience and recharge cards NAUTA are the key access. For about 5 months create a collection of cards access Nauta found and other consumed by me. All have different interventions as notes, damage the use of people that used for as long connection, etc ... This item becomes memory a while digital in the physical space in the Cuba context."
Susse Sønderby, Open Source Straitjacket for Alexa
VNS Matrix, A Cyber Feminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (Net Art Anthology poster designed by Lukas Eigler-Harding)
Tax Gull aka Shingo Ohno, stone age mouse pointer
Made with 100% pure obsidian from Saga prefecture Japan, the place is the most popular obsidian locality in Old Stone Age.
Daniel Temkin, Internet Directory
Unique print on canvas
Single prints from a 37,000+ page loose-leaf book containing all 115 million .COM domains in alphabetical order, along with their IP addresses.
Yifan Hu, Virus Labs
"A collection of 6 computer virus that has caused nearly $100 Billion damage and 50 million computers affected globally, in zipped files on micro SD cards and stored in e̶s̶c̶a̶p̶e̶ proof glass test tubes."
Arcangel Surfware, The Source Digest
Christopher Clary, "sorry to dump this on you like this.zip"
1,860 prints collated chronologically across 10 legal binders installed on music stands
Codette 1. Contains works by Caspar Heinemann, E. Jane, Penny Goring, Carla Gannis, Aeon Fux, Aurelia Guo, Emilie Gervais, Peter Burr, Brenna Murphy, Cristine Brache, Harry Burke, Edward Marshall Shenk, and more.
Codette 2. Contains a 7-page interview with Olia Lialina and works and hyperlinks by Buffy Cain, Larissa Pham, Sofya Glebovna, Anna Zett, Emily Brown, Bogna M. Konior, and more.
Pete Deevakul, Wiki-header sketchbook.
A guided sketchbook with wikipedia headers as drawing prompts
Pete Deevakul, Silk Road Image Scrape
Comprehensive pulp reference. Every image that appeared on Agora Marketplace on January 1st, 2014. Agora was a darknet market that rose to prominence following the demise of Silk Road 2.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
Will Luckman, Hackdown
Will Luckman, Surveillance Capitalism, A Reader
Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia
Rafael Rozendaal, Abstract Browsing
Jonathan Zong, Everyone Should
CLOTHING AND ACCESSORIES
Arcangel Surfware, Fidget spinner
Beautiful Company for Rhizome, Technology is Incredible! tote
Cody Brown, A really nice hat for team internet
Fuzzy Wobble, eBling, aka, rare internet jewels
Miguel Gaydosh, New Age Baby tee
Glitchaus, Malwear Scarf
Knit scarf with computer virus embedded as motif
Glitchaus, Glitch Sweater
Faith Holland, Necklaces made of wire with non-heteronormative connections
Gaby Iglesias, Virus Pins
Martine Neddam/Mouchette.org, Je Suis Mouchette pin
Nukeme, Glitch hoodies
Kevin Weisner, Lonɘly Hat
For further NADA information including public programming, hours, and ticketing, visit their website.
Aria Dean: What led you to pursue your refresh?
Kristin Lucas: There were many factors. In my previous works, I was sorting through how network technologies were changing the way we live, interact, and see ourselves, and their effects on our bodies and thinking.
In my daily life, I became obsessed with the refresh function of my browser, how it could be used to clear a visual snag on a webpage, or receive an update. I routinely hit refresh in anticipation of improved performance of the same content. I imagined embodying a refresh and what that would feel like, how it could be an effective way to clear up snags in my life, recalibrate, improve my performance, and escape past events that I continued to relive. In my fantasy of a bodily refresh, everything in my visual field, all the information would drop away momentarily before reloading with the exact same information with the potential for a new perspective to emerge, a new outlook onto the exact same information. This change would be refreshing, freeing.
My work is circuitous. A short story I read a couple years back had stuck with me. “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges is a story that teases apart notions of authorship. The protagonist rewrites—word for word—chapters of another author’s book and claims authorship because through the process of copying, he lives each of word as if it were his own.
In my backyard, I was casting fake rocks from molds of fake rocks.
There was a pattern in my work of asserting the personal within institutional and technological frameworks that were not necessarily designed to respond to this kind of expression. I had performed characters and fictional scenarios that navigated identity and gender constraints imposed through these frameworks. I once turned an interaction with an automated teller machine into an online therapy session. To evolve my work, I looked for ways to engage with systems more directly.
Naming comes with power. Naming is transformative. Naming is a ritual. Naming is a protocol. A name gets to core issues of identity. In the first hours of life, a baby is entered into public record: given a name, a location and time of birth, a family history, and a gender.
According to the law, there is truth in a name. Another way of looking at it, a name is made up, invented my parents or a guardian who performs the role of naming the baby for the law. It is a legal fiction. And this legal fiction is identity-forming. Law requires that identity be stable and have permanence. I may feel ownership over my name but to change my name on public record, I need the permission of a judge.Self-experience tells me the opposite, that identity is unstable, temporal, and iterable. To exercise agency over my identity, I appropriated the name change procedure into a life experiment.
AD: Can you describe the process you went through in order to refresh?
KL: A year of thinking, a day of filling out forms for a name change petition, one-hour spent processing paperwork and paying three-hundred twenty dollars in court fees, sixty-four days awaiting the hearing date, two days spent with friends backing up my life, fifteen minutes jotting down my thoughts before the hearing, five minutes sprinting between buildings after realizing I was at the wrong courthouse, two weeks in limbo awaiting a second hearing to learn the judge’s decision. I wore the same outfit to both hearings.
AD: How do you view the relationship between the original courtroom performance and its re-performance through various readings of the transcript?
KL: I am a trained artist but I chose not to perform as an artist in the courtroom. I preferred the freedom that came with not naming what I was doing. Art was a frame of reference but it was not my only frame of reference, and it was a frame that would introduce distance. I entered the courtroom as a citizen undergoing a life experiment. I activated a plan and worked it out on my feet, unrehearsed. I tasked the judge with solving my existential crisis through the procedure of a name change. Over two weeks, and two hearing dates, we collaborated on changes that could have an effect on us, and the legal system.
The name change process is public so it seemed fitting to share the courtroom ephemera publicly. Refresh is the presentation of these documents and Refresh Cold Reads is an iterative performance that consists of unrehearsed readings of the transcripts by volunteers and guest readers. These readings have taken place in classrooms, on stages, and in galleries; in person, through public address systems, video conference, and over the phone. Each performance refreshes the document. The physical acts of reading aloud and active listening, by participants and audience members, were intended to reanimate the courtroom experience and summon the palpable tension I experienced in the public hearings.
AD: You've said in the past that for the Refresh Cold Reads you assign roles based on the participants' "personal backgrounds." Can you explain what drives those choices? What do you look for in a reader?
KL: Guest readers were invited to perform the roles of ‘Kristin’ and ‘Judge’ based on their personal stories, cultural roles or ‘web-like’ connections. I reached out through social network for suggested readers, and the curators I worked with did the same.
Initially, a guest reader for ‘Kristin’ often had their own name story, had lived more than one life, or had experience working with copies, drafts or versions. A guest reader for ‘Judge’ often held a position of power in which they could influence change. My criteria for casting readers broadened over time, depending on the context of its programming. I got to know the readers beforehand so that I could deliver an introduction before the readings. Our conversations revealed deeper, uncanny, and sometimes humorous connections between readers and the transcripts, and the between the readers who were paired together. Our stories became more interested woven together.
2010 Refresh Cold Read, Netherlands Media Art Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark
AD: Have the different formats for the transcript cold reads - in-person, with phone-in actors, via skype - expanded and shifted its meaning for you over the years? What have these different formats offered?
KL: Over time, I saw the technology as a pivotal performer in the experience of the restaging of my refresh. That said, I didn’t exercise too heavy of a hand over this. These choices were made in collaboration with the organizers, the technological means available at the venue, and the practicalities of distance. The interplay between stories, technologies, and the venues history were punctuated by the method of technological delivery.
Microphones formalize and give a ceremonial feel to the readings.
A cell phone created a disembodied voice that enhanced a layered story about presence and absence in a particular historical context.
Video conference technology situated my refresh in the familiar space of the internet, and introduced artefacts and noise. An outcome was that you had to be an even more engaged performer and listener. The combinations of public address systems and the mics produced an echo. This was particularly uncanny in how it interacted with the personal story of Echo Morgan who was performing the role of ‘Kristin.’
Line-up and Details for the 10th Edition of 7×7 to be announced on Monday, April 2!
Over the last few decades, cultural and media studies have helped deconstruct the artificial barriers between design and use. Users* and technologies are now widely understood not as separate entities, but as continuously co-constructed in the processes of design, development and user interaction .
As part of the ongoing development of its digital preservation program, Rhizome is re-considering the the relationship between users and our archive of net art—the ArtBase, established in 1999. While often described as an archive or a collection dedicated to preservation , the Artbase was notable for its collaborative curatorial model, which focused on community-building and interaction among users .
This early model continued to inform the presentation of artworks throughout various iterations of the archival interface design. More recently, however, the current interface has struggled to accommodate meaningful access to the ArtBase for users whose goals and needs remain largely unstudied. A better understanding of the archive’s users would allow not only to improve interactions for existing use cases, but also to further develop how artworks could be presented and contextualised within an interface that expands upon existing interaction design paradigms in digital archives.
To that end, a number of qualitative user research sessions are planned over the next months as part of an ongoing joint research project between Rhizome and London South Bank University. A first step in that process is a short online survey which can be accessed through the ArtBase homepage. Five respondents, selected at random, will receive a free “bad logo” T-shirt; include your email address in your response to be entered into the drawing.
If you are interested in participating in a longer more in-depth research session, please provide your contact information in the survey, so that we can contact you with further details. The longer sessions involve a short practical task and an interview with further questions; the first ten US-based participants will receive a free T-shirt. These can be conducted in-person or online, depending on the user’s location. The primary research questions that the study aims to answer are: What groups of users interact with the online archive? What are their needs and goals? How do users perceive an artworks’ context? How can the users’ understanding of context be expanded through presentation strategies in the interface of the archive?
The lead researcher on this project is Lozana Rossenova, a designer and PhD candidate at London South Bank University. Feel free to contact Lozana at email@example.com with any questions or concerns regarding user studies in the archive.
*Note: The rationale for choosing the term “users” here follows the line of thought expressed by artist Olia Lialina in her 2012 essay Turing Complete User.
 Source: Oudshoorn, N. and Pinch, T. (2003) How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
 Source: Corcoran, H. and Graham, B. (2014) Self-collection, Self-exhibitions? Rhizome and the New Museum, in Graham, B. (ed.) New Collecting: Exhibiting and Audiences after New Media Art. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate. pp. 97–110.
 Source: Blome, G. and Wijers, G. (2010) Visibility, Distribution and Memory through Networks and Collaboration, in Dekker, A. (ed.) Archive2020: Sustainable Archiving of Born-Digital Cultural Content. Amsterdam: Virtueel Platform. pp. 50–60.
Image: Claude Closky, Do You Want Love or Lust? (1997).
We're pleased to announce the 10th edition of the celebrated art-tech platform Seven on Seven, to be held May 19 at the New Museum. This flagship Rhizome event brings together leaders in art and technology for an extended creative collaboration, giving them a simple challenge: "make something." On Saturday, May 19, pairs will reveal their projects at the day-long conference event.
Tickets are on-sale today, here. A limited number of subsidized artist and student tickets are also available by lottery—if you qualify, please request one here. To explore past Seven on Seven programs, visit: rhizome.org/sevenonseven.
The 10th edition of Seven on Seven takes place in a moment of broad public disillusionment with digital platforms and their impact on interpersonal communication and media culture. Against this backdrop, the collaborators rethink ways of communicating and organizing through technology, looking to evolving disciplines such as machine intelligence and blockchain governance while revisiting fundamental principles of digital culture.
Seven on Seven 2018 will feature:
Artist Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian, Engineer and Entrepreneur
Artist Sara Cwynar & Cierra Sherwin, Director of Color Product Development, Glossier
Artist and Nonfood Co-Founder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
Artist Tabita Rezaire & Kenric McDowell, Director, Google Artists and Machine Intelligence
Artist Avery Singer & Matt Liston, Founding Member & Ambassador, Gnosis
Artist Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green, R&D Director, Jigsaw at Alphabet Inc.
Artist Dena Yago & Yalda Mousavinia, Co-Founder, Space Cooperative
Over the next few weeks we will reveal more about this special 10th edition—including details of a forthcoming publication produced with our long-time friends at Wieden+Kennedy New York, edited by Nora Khan, Rhizome Special Projects Editor, and designed by W+K's Global Creative Director Richard Turley; a special after-party event; and much more.
Seven on Seven 2018 is made possible by the generous support of GIPHY; founding partner Wieden+Kennedy, New York; and Deutsche Bank.
Spring Place is Seven on Seven's after-party partner.
Ace Hotel is Seven on Seven's exclusive hotel partner.
The role of simulation in planning is nothing new—it’s how Google Maps anticipates there’ll be traffic on a daily commute, and how the Obama Campaign in 2012 forecasted an electoral edge over Mitt Romney. It’s also used by stock traders to gauge investment patterns and by private and public defense organizations both to regulate border control and evaluate the effectiveness of different military strategies. In projecting existing data onto constructed scenarios, simulations are able to portray imaginable futures. These futures, however, bank on the predictability of human behavior—that people will operate the same way they have in the past, and that their tendencies can be reduced to discrete, codeable particulars.
But the technology underlying these models could also be used to simulate previously unimaginable futures. The data inputted could be altered to rig the simulation, allowing us to formulate responses to questions like:
What if a city’s economic policies were entirely at the hands of its workers?
What if a city’s residents didn’t have to work?
What if they all had access to affordable healthcare?
How would their lives change? What would they be freed to do?
In their digital thought-experiment Humans of Simulated New York, developed during a month-long residency at DBRS Labs, artist Fei Liu and writer and developer Francis Tseng offer a platform to discuss such hypotheticals, while laying bare the paradoxes at work behind large-scale planning and policy-making. First, the simulation assigns users a random identity, whose characteristics are culled from a database containing decades’ worth of actual New York City census data. Users must then propose and vote in favor of legislation that would benefit their new avatar. The success of the user is contingent on her investment in the character she’s given, however different from her that he may be.
Unlike the more familiar urban simulation SimCity, in which infrastructure development takes precedence over the interplay of demographics, HoSNY dives straight into the invisible structure of the city’s political economy, placing it in an intimate relationship with the player-as-subject. The idea, according to the minds behind the project, is to address Fredric Jameson’s call in Postmodernism for a “situational representation” of the relationship between the individual subject and the “unrepresentable totality” of the society in which she takes part. It is best thought of as a fortified version of information visualization that immerses people in an experience of data, instead of merely presenting that data.
Perhaps the most crucial point the project raises is that bias and exclusion are inextricable bounds, aspects that define the construction of a city, no matter how “ideal” the city’s design may seem. The definition of a perfect society is always limited by the vision of its creators, from the pre-internet digital utopias of media theorists like Douglas Rushkoff to the post-technological societies of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series. Further, utopias have been defined by the shortcoming of exclusion since their inception. Think of how Thomas More’s relies on physical boundaries as a means of exclusion, and how Plato’s utopia relies on a bias toward different crafts.
By rendering this problem transparent, HoSNY may be an effective way of shattering the narrow frameworks of today’s most idealistic thinkers—the engineers and founders of Silicon Valley. If, as the simulation suggests, these tech-devotees—typically white, wealthy, anglophone, cis- males—could step into the mindset of a demographic they may claim to understand by the contours of their quantifiable aspects rather than their lived experiences, they just might have a better sense of how their plans for society actually affect people unlike themselves. What they’re likely to realize, as HoSNY points out, is that even their own philanthropic visions of utopia are stunted by their capitalist context and, more to the point, insurmountable alterity.
HoSNY has important predecessors in other highly instructive simulations, likeDwarf Fortressand Parable of the Polygons, themselves exercises on exclusion in virtual societies. HoSNY also has a non-virtual historical predecessor: Salvador Allende’s Project Cybersyn, which was a network of computers operating from 1971 to 1973. The computers were set up to predict what might happen if Chile’s workforce had decision-making power over its industries. The project gestured at the possibility of simulation to posit an unprecedented economic reality, although its short life-span questions the actual capacity of cybernetic systems to sustain one.
HoSNY also provides an alternative to classic economic models by taking into account irrational human behavior, building on the work of recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. By demonstrating that the far-off consequences to adjustments in the city’s management are unpredictable, the simulation points to the absurdity of relegating its operations to AI algorithms. But this is precisely what today’s “Smart Cities,” which embed digital technology across city functions to manage complex systems like traffic and resource consumption, are ignoring. As computer science professor Dan Rockmorepoints out, “thoughtful technology deployment” is increasingly devalued in a world where immediate profit takes precedence over the considerations of long-term repercussions. Such factors perhaps account for why we are only now dealing with the unwitting discrimination wrought by image-recognition software, or with the sociopolitical mess of Uber, even as it carries on with its plans for self-driving cars.
Problems like these might be avoided by getting young developers to read works of speculative fiction. Stories like Dave Eggers’ The Circle might, for one, help us foresee the dark consequences of pervasive surveillance technology in ways that data alone cannot. Rockmore notes that H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free helped Churchill anticipate the threat of atomic warfare. Similarly, tools like HoSNY might serve as a powerful strategic weapon to combat and question technological tunnel vision, since it uses the very vocabulary that resonates with contemporary developers.
But HoSNY itself, as a data-driven project, shouldn’t replace the frameworks that keep a city functioning. While it may have considerable real-world applicability, it is meant to raise questions, not provide catch-all solutions. But blind faith in algorithms is catching on: Sony chairman Nobuyuki Idei has called for a universal city software, or “city OS” that sounds eerily like a real-world version of SimCity. And recently, the New Orleans Police Department secretly enlisted data-mining firm Palantir to implement a predictive policing program, whose dubious methods in inculpating criminals is already being challenged in court.
What’s more, basing policies on speculative fiction isn’t going to guarantee a more cautionary approach to dealing with societal complexities. The same Wellsian fantasy that fostered Churchill’s pacifism also justified his suprematist Malthusian policies towards India which led to the Bengal famine of 1943 that took the lives of over two million people. Even if imagination and technology are invaluable tools for envisioning a better future, they still need to be accompanied by a hefty dose of grounded, humanist discretion through democratic decision-making.
HoSNY may prove most productive for its potential as concept rather than as commodity, although simulations prove to be highly lucrative. In 2016, the Danish police reportedly paid Palantir up to $40 million to use their software to identify terrorists. Many virtual stock trading platforms, used to practice trading and investing, are paywalled (though trading simulations do not yet come close to real trading scenarios, in which success is determined over years, not months, and there’s real money on the line). Even if its machine learning algorithm may make anticipating the future a little easier, HoSNY still originates in part from the constructs of human hands, failing in action, but succeeding as art–a domain in which, according to Dena Yago, “practices that cannot function within generic constraints run up against the walls and expose fissures in the structures they are working in.”
HoSNY ultimately speaks for the potential of creative imaginaries as instructive tools. It is only within the infinite bounds of speculative provocation that the issues which projects like HoSNY discuss are even able to be brought to light, and evaluated in all their complexity. Taking them out of this discursive context and transferring them directly into non-virtual terrain poses the threat of negating the very point they’re trying to make – that computer-run systems should be used to illuminate weaknesses and flaws in society’s scaffolding, but not necessarily to fix them.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Ryan Trecartin's I-BE AREA in Out of Order Youtube Messy-Format (2008) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Released at a time when social media platforms were still in their youth, Ryan Trecartin’s I-BE AREA (2007) feels comfortably contemporary today, more than ten years later. With its exuberant adolescence and multiple, chaotic narratives of ontology, the film was a harbinger of a future that has now come to pass.
The film addresses questions of the post-human, queer subcultures, race, the post-gender body, reproduction, family structures, and interpersonal relationships–some of the many facets of the multiplicity of self inherent to the social web. Actors rapidly cycle through names, genders, and appearances. Multiplicity and hybridity is expressed at all levels of the film's construction: dialogue, costume, make-up, and collaboratively constructed environments and props, and then again through Trecartin’s interventions in post-production.
Trecartin’s signature editing style is perhaps the most essential to the construction of the work: Trecartin himself has stated that “everything is performed for the edit––performed to become live through mediation. Editing is itself a part of articulating the character, and so I see it as a performative gesture.” The edits, comprising rapid jump cuts, manipulation of playback speed, and adjustment of vocal pitch, allow characters to perform in disjoined spaces and fractured time, stitching together sentences that are delivered in multiple locations into a continuous monologue. The addition of visual effects is also pertinent to narration and plot development: references to the screen, the browser window, and the avatar become transitions between scenes that often involve travel through a screen or an interface to arrive at an alternate location.
The film’s intentional confusion between life on-screen and off extends to its surroundings. The physical environments that accompany Trecartin’s video in the gallery space, as well as the work’s alternative presentation as a series of parts uploaded via YouTube and viewable on one’s personal browser, implicate the viewer as an active participant in the scene.
I-BE AREA is built upon the creation, dissolution, and collision of personal spaces, called “areas” throughout the film. Digital elements are wholly recognized as extensions of the self, as well as the ability within the network to form “multiple selves.” This ability is most fully realized by the character of Oliver, who later becomes Amerisha (played by Trecartin) after a clone named I-BE2 adopts their personality and renames themself. In I-BE AREA in Out of Order Youtube Messy-Format (2008), the exchange is contained in a YouTube upload titled I BE AREA (I-BE2 becomes Oliver becomes Amerisha).Original Oliver expresses their digital/personal ennui by way of a video-player popup that sets-up their individual “area”:
“Hi, my name is Oliver. I'm 5'11” and I look like this. I’m just sick of it though. Oliver, what are you sick of? I'm talking about my lifestyle vibe. My horoscope, my attitude, my email address, my fucking mother everyone. The books that I don't read, the boys that I never dated and the girls that give me high five. My CD's on freakin' repeat basically. I know. Rewind. I could leave any day and just go. But don’t hear me wrong. I love my Total Ohio awesome. My liberal laid back lesbian moms. And my incredibly sexy , gay girl siblings.
But fuck it. I just found myself and it doesn't look like anything. Not Oliver, not Ohio and not gay. It looks like this kind of. Sorry. I need a fucking poser to be me so I can compassionately ditch this shit with love and care while knowing that some well bred loser bachelor motherfucker is happy butt-fucking my old lifestyle. My one-way plane ticket to Brazil costs 995 international dollars. My address should appear now, send me a one-way money order and you get this box. Inside is my cell phone, outfit, all my passwords slash keys, plus a live subscription, hard copy PDF file of all the people I know in my life, how we relate and why I do the things I do.”
Oliver’s monologue consists of references to her technological extensions(cell phone, passwords, “PDF file of all the people [she knows] in [her] life”) as the necessary tools to usurp her being. The body is no longer useful as the physical vessel of the self; in its place, digital material may be transferred from host to host, and manipulated at will. Once I-BE2 becomes Oliver (and almost immediately, Amerisha), they begin making plans for their new life. Amerisha mentions that the old Oliver is now in the trash with Amerisha’s original avatar (the origin of I-BE2, who was deleted in an earlier scene), and looks into her future, stating, “What will I be when I grow up? A production company.”
In seeing a future self as an engine for media output, Amerisha’s statement feels especially prophetic of a future of cultural production through social media. The idealization of the production-company-as-self (it appears two more times in the film’s transcript) is one of the most solid reaches into the near future that Trecartin presents in I-BE AREA. An increasing necessity for immaterial labor in a mediated stage of neoliberalism presents the need for an updated Foucauldian “entrepreneur-as-self.” The massive viewership and subsequent monetization of platforms such as YouTube has given rise to an unprecedented new generation of independent content producers, or “influencers,” often using editing techniques akin to Trecartin’s in an attention-grabbing, formulaic way (watching footage of YouTube giant-––and as many would argue, villain––Jake Paul destroy a room in his production company’s mansion resembles an explicitly masculinized version of I-BE AREA’s’s chaoticwoodshop scene). In the case of both YouTube and other platforms, the focus for users has moved from interaction to a consistent output of content-as-identity through easily accessible channels provided by media companies–in exchange for the promise of a trickle of income which may be shut off at any time.
In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2014, Trecartin compared the fast-paced, “panicked” way his films are shot with the way that “people use technologies before they understand the implications of them, or before they even learn what, like, the actual function of a particular app is supposed to be.” Watching Oliver surrender their identity and abandon her selfhood through the hand-out of her personal data in 2018 bears a striking resemblance to the current mediastorm surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica––which, come to think of it, sounds like a potential name for one of Trecartin’s characters.
This is not to say that Trecartin’s imagining of the future is a sinister one; the visions of technology in I-BE AREA are particularly euphoric when performed by the actors and environments, and through Trecartin’s edits. Trecartin often points out the collaborative element of his work, and the modifications actors make to his scripts (which come before anything else), a process that, nods to the potential for different cultures to emerge online through translation and transmission of digital tidbits, creating cyclical and deeply coded languages. The interplay between these participant-led interventions and Trecartin’s pre-established structure of multilinear narratives (or of the internet itself) gives the film a collective voice (and memory), which prefigures the to dynamics that have since shaped multiplicitous selfhood online.
This article accompanies the online exhibition First Look: New Black Portraitures, presented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
The powerful work in “First Look: New Black Portraitures” forces a confrontation, and beckons the question, what exactly is new about new black portraitures? Perhaps the “new” is the event of disruption that occurs whenever blackness enters the scene, the way blackness interrupts and corrupts technologies of the visual, data and archives: in this case, portraiture. Perhaps the “new” is the phenomenal way in which these prolific, brilliant artists explore how blackness destabilizes technologies that seek to render it legible, especially through the figuration of the face. Perhaps the new here might be thought of in terms the explosive force of these artists’ works: black (pyro)technics.
Each of these artists reconfigures the problematic of the portrait anew, and in remarkable ways. Each troubles what exactly portraiture is said to be, undermining its historical protocols and artistic conventions – they offer a new political vernacular of the portrait itself. Portraiture has been a flashpoint of racial antagonism and, in the words of Lorna Simpson, “guarded conditions.” The pseudo-event of “emancipation”—what Saidiya Hartman calls the “non-event of emancipation”—means that the afterlife of slavery is always already embedded in every media interface—video, television, film, and now online and on social media—and forever liable to be transposed onto it. In the digital afterlife of slavery, the image is further operationalized as a site of biopolitical surveillance and racialized capture. The virality and circulation of black suffering and death online, on “social” media, discloses the recursive, never-ending loop of anti-black violence, the bound(ed) infinity of its circulation.
Each of the artists in “New Black Portraitures” confronts the face and faciality as a site of anti-black surveillance, and also offers new methods and forms of portraiture in resistance. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari, in a critique of Levinasian ethics of faciality, argue that the face is racism’s portrait. Contrary to Levinas, whiteness is an originary facial recognition technology. For these artists portraiture is sabotaged and re-assembled via blackness. “New Black Portraitures” takes us into what Deleuze and Guattari call “the black hole of subjectivity.”
Sondra Perry, It's In the Game '17, 2017, still from video
Sondra Perry’s film, It’s In the Game ‘17, opens with Marvin Gaye’s and Diana Ross’s “You Are Everything,” mixing in the lyrics, “As she turned the corner/I called out your name/I felt so ashamed/When it wasn’t you, wasn't you […] You are everything, and everything is you.” Perry ruminates on blackness, the vast distance between iconography and historical record and the visual archive of the figures in blue, sculptures that are universally heralded signifiers of history, colonial treasures, and the personal archive of the family photo, and the portrait. We can read the film as Perry thinking through the disjuncture created by the archive of anti-blackness and the anti-blackness of the archive. That disjuncture between when one’s image (sculptural) is treated as singular achievement, and when one’s history and image is subjected to historical erasure. Perry shows how blackness warps the racial geometrics of facial recognition. Facial recognition technology functions as a truth procedure, seeking to render and establish the fact of blackness.
Here, Perry’s work overlaps with Rindon Johnson’s Away With You, which also speaks to how blackness exceeds computational capture through dis-individuation (un-trackable, according to the individuation of facial recognition). Both Johnson and Perry illustrate that the politics of Black Portraiture figure black social life and politics beyond faciality as the hegemonic site of representation as it is a troubling category for blackness and one that blackness troubles given the relationship, as the artists all know and explicitly or implicitly reference, between faciality and surveillance and policing. Johnson indexes the global surveillance of blackness, for instance, in the augmented reality feature where you can rotate the screen, taking on a panopticon view.
Rindon Johnson, Away With You, 2016, still from VR video
Juliana Huxtable’s portraits play on the interplay between absence and presence. What is absented from Huxtable’s portraiture is the very historical signature of the portrait itself: the face. In Huxtable’s portrait series, the body without a face performs as a surrogate that dramatizes commodification. The body is stamped with imagery of jeans, popularized slogans; it is imprinted by tattoos, and is marked by grammar of racial capital and slavery. It is branded as an aesthetic object.
Pastiche Lumumba’s Community Standard: A Poortrait across Platforms is brilliant for its parody. Poortrait indexes black queer/trans lumpen-proletarian realness that defies both Instagram’s politics of respectability and any claims of “respectability” jurisdiction over black visuality and visibility. Lulu: My Body is further critical speculation. There is no mention of the heteronormative grammar of gender, only a black queer/femme grammar and a figuration of Lulu. Lulu scandalizes and rejects any claims to uphold Instagram’s “community standards” through beautiful adornment (a grill, cleats morphed into high heels, for instance) and salaciousness. Lulu begins in the inhabitation of what Pastiche Lumumba elsewhere terms “low culture.” Lumumba’s work is both a powerful critique of the portrait as the visual technology of the bourgeoisie and a demonstration of the aesthetic power of the unrespectable, the non-sovereign, the rabble.
manuel arturo abreu’s Ambient Portraits relinquish the ocular for the auditory, creating a soundscape that pierces, an acoustic ecological field of frequencies and vibrations that dilate and stretch sound, that harmonize and then collapse into a single point. The first portrait, hamishi, feels like a sonic disturbance. In opting out of the visual, abreu brings sound online as animating force. The significance of this is again, a new technology of portraiture—an ambient portrait is no less of a portrait than any other. This gesture forces us to reconsider the methodology of the portrait itself. abreu’s ambience also moves to a different register in that it creates an atmosphere through sound. This moves us towards a different conception and experience of portraiture and actually forces a reconsideration of what constitutes portraiture in the first place. Further, it shows how the notion of the portrait might be expanded. Instead of the face as the symbol of liberal self-possessive individualism, we have the signature of a sound. abreu’s ambient portraits speak to animacies beyond the category of personhood and the subject, and beyond personhood and beyond subject/object distinction (since ambience isn’t personified, is neither subject nor object, and yet, it has a presence). The sound portraits imprint upon the listener, and leave them with the recognition of a new form of portraiture.
N-Prolenta’s film Ally Theater juxtaposes the solidity of architecture—the steel and concrete linearity, the volume and imposing size of pristine architectural design, and the skeletal becoming of buildings under construction—with the plasticity and liquidity of form. That liquidity manifests as a cursive line, “fantasy is a place where it rains,” and a watery black figure in the foreground in juxtaposition with the buildings in the background. We can make out a face, but there’s a dissonance within the semblance of the portrait given the distortion of the figure. Gradually even the semblance disappears, fades to black with grid lines. The garment the figure is wearing becomes the entire representation, then even that liquifies and is transported away. We are left with another spatial distortion, almost a haunting, the two buildings mirror each other. The interstitial space where they join becomes ghost-like, a face under construction.
N-Prolenta, Ally Theater, 2017
Hamishi Farah reimagines the conventions of portraiture by blending them together with new visual capabilities. Their painted portrait of Mike Meyers is animate, with uncanny features, as though inhabited by a ghost or inflated like a balloon. The portrait feels eerily alive in its animacy; the convex nature of the face with its moving eyes disturbs. The piece is the nexus where forms of the traditional painted portrait (pre-camera), CGI, and facial technology converge and distort. The image is taken from Myer’s reaction to Kanye West’s impromptu denunciation of Bush’s anti-black economy of empathy and antipathy—“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”—during the racial capitalist disaster of Katrina. This piece raises questions of form, both in its dis- and re-configuration of the portrait. It begs the question of what the relationship both is and might be between verisimilitude and portraiture, and signals how new visual technologies constantly transform this relationship.
All the artists in NBP reinvent visual technologies to both trouble the violence of visibility and the face as a site of surveillance. They also move beyond the face, either choosing to distort it through technology, elide it, or reject it completely in favor of other forms of representation. Not post-racial but rather, post-facial.
Image: Miao Ying, LAN Love Poem—FLOWERS ALL FALLEN, BIRDS FAR GONE (Still), 2015. GIF animation.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Miao Ying's Blind Spot (2007) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
I landed in China almost five years ago, beginning a trip to Myanmar by bus and train that has not yet ended. I wanted to better understand how media, especially art, changes within different cultural, legal, and economic locales. I was just beginning to feel the dimensions of my lived experience in the US, the windows through which I saw the world, and wanted to push myself beyond.
Early on, I interviewed artist Miao Ying in a hip cafe in Beijing. Despite having no Google maps to help me find my way, and difficulties adjusting to censorship via VPNs for my Gmail, waiting for Miao I found myself closer to home than I expected. I ordered an Americano in English, and looking around, found half of the customers were on Facebook (over a VPN, of course). Down the street was a bustling McDonald’s. That feeling, of being at home, was a profound misreading of the place, and Miao quickly showed me just how far away I was from an internet and media ecology I understood.
Miao’s artworks, featuring remixes and collisions between various local internet cultures, were the most bizarre yet nuanced representations of the kind of cultural exchanges going on in China that I had yet seen. US media discourse presents China’s internet as a black box, filled with single-party promoted content and hounded by censorship and surveillance. I was led to believe that in China, there is no freedom, no opportunity for expression or cultural exchange. This was the West’s own propaganda, more subtle for sure, but there.
Miao’s animated in-browser collages of net screengrabs acknowledge these negative attributes, while also revealing insanely vibrant and weird net cultures thriving in spite of the limitations. Chinese netizens were picking from many influences locally, as well as around the world, and then remixing and transforming content. They created sophisticated and constantly mutating vernacular languages, at times in spite of censors, at times designed to escape the notice of censors. Google was simultaneously there, and wasn’t; privacy software allowed access, but the difficulty allowed for Chinese equivalents, most notably Baidu, to emerge and thrive. The tension produced a lot creativity.
Now, I live in Cambodia. Google hasn’t really fully arrived here. My street is not imaged on Google Street View (GSV). As I wrote for Rhizome in 2015, here, “a mere 26.7% of the population claims they've used the internet,” and almost exclusively through a phone. In Cambodia, poverty engenders lack of access to education and the requisite language needed to engage with technology. Of the small percentage of people online, they are predominately male, educated, relatively wealthy, and urban.
Growing up how I did, in a middle-class, white home on a pre-GSV grid, privileges of my offline world carried over as my life became more networked. I could connect and engage with people and ideas over great distances, while never experiencing censorship or harassment. Accordingly, it was easy to consider these corporate platforms as liberatory tools for exchange and self-expression. While Miao’s artwork showed the fallacy of an universal internet culture by highlighting the creativity on various Chinese platforms, Miao also helped me to reflect more critically on the parameters of my own networked life.
Miao’s work allows for a more nuanced view, one which creates space for agency. While networked power is undeniably undemocratically wielded in China and Cambodia, it too is increasingly centralized amongst a handful of private platforms in the USA. Companies such as Google possess an ever more powerful stake in how we see and relate to the world, yet meaningful access to their inner workings, their own black boxes, remains nearly impossible. At their most perilous, a corporation—like a government—that controls the means for relating to or seeing the earth risks reorganizing the planet to fit its business model. What artists can help us see inside our own centralizing internet? Who will show us Google?
What we see when we look at Google is a methodically manicured image. It is only advertising; noise hiding much deeper machinations. To begin with the basics and look beyond the sleek design and the various end-user interfaces Google provides, let’s reflect first on the hardware supporting our browser experiences. To do so, I turn to writer and artist Ingrid Burrington. Burrington investigates the politics embedded in networks, especially through their infrastructures, the hidden interfaces not for intended for us—the end-users—at all. Any ability I could claim to seeing Google, comes in part from thinking with Burrington’s writing.
In Burrington’sseries of essays for The Atlantic, she seeks to counter what she refers to as the “pernicious metaphor of The Cloud.” What Burrington unearths are a much more lively, and untidy images. Through Burrington’s research trips, she begins to reveal for us some of the actual wires, data centers, and people constituting and maintaining a network. The hardware and people she finds therein are antithetical to the advertising we are sold; they are messy, fragile, and they are human. Their intricacies are often hidden within giant private data centers, or buried under public streets, only suggested at through obscure symbols spray painted on the sidewalks above.
We are encouraged by companies like Google to put as much of ourselves onto the network, to rely upon it completely. To entrust these platforms with precious family photographs, intimate correspondence, and our businesses, to name a few, requires a great deal of trust on the part of us, the end users. The more we come to rely on these services, and the infrastructure supporting them, the more trusting we must be.
To garner this level of confidence, the platform must present itself as seamless, the storage impermeable, and the connection flawless. This ephemeral, sleek, universal network is not at all what she uncovers. As Burrington writes, the “rhetorical promise of The Cloud is as fragile as the strands of fiber-optic cable upon which its physical infrastructure rests.” It doesn’t inspire a lot of trust, but this is how it all actually works.
But I didn’t know all that when I moved from my home state of Indiana to New York City in 2010. The myth and magic platforms peddled still felt largely real to me then. However, one of the first, personally monumental exhibitions I saw there was New Museum’s “Free,” curated by Lauren Cornell. “Free”featured work that deeply challenged not only my understanding of art, but also my assumptions around the kind of media ecology in which we were all swimming.
Wandering “Free,” I kept returning to works from Jon Rafman’s series Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008 - ongoing). Rafman screen-grabbed, enlarged, printed, and framed an assembly of unrelated moments from GSV. Men in tracksuits flip off the camera; possibly sex workers stand along the road. A curious bright glitch stains an otherwise remote wooded road. I was previously aware of the project, but only via its blog. Physically manifested in the museum, the photographs gained a presence hard for most photographs, random or curated, to earn bumping around online. They demanded deeper reflection.
As writer Joanne McNeil noted in her catalog essay, the images possessed a disconcerting grainy quality, giving them a worn-out look that was discordant to the fairly contemporary tools (automated facial blurring) and prodigious scale of the project. While in-browser GSV’s images are utilitarian and impressively thorough, presented as finite art objects the tiny imperfections in the shots come to the fore.
These blemishes reminds us of Clement Valla’s essay and artwork, “Universal Texture,” which specifically seek out the imperfections in Google’s algorithms. Universal Texture is the algorithmic system that the company uses to create some of the most comprehensive—and certainly most used—maps of the Earth. Valla calls into question Google’s “God’s eye view” by slowly picking at the edges, searching for seams and cracks. While Burrington was busy digging for pipes and humming data centers, Valla begins at the opposite side by reverse engineering what Google shows us, in order to reveal the embedded politics steering our gaze.
Image via Clement Valla, 2012.
Valla scours the Universal Texture, collecting what he calls “edge conditions”: instances that at first glance appear to be glitches, but in fact reveal glimpses into the inner workings of the map itself. Collapsed bridges or skyscrapers stitched together into near-cubist sculptures are the still-visible clues into how the algorithm attempts to stitch together a singular, universal view from millions of disparate photographs taken on different days, at various perspectives, altitudes, and with disparate technologies. These are the limitations of this still-human product.
In Rafman’s work however, the algorithm’s constraints are secondary to the unprecedented gaze GSV allows. For Rafman, GSV’s incursion into public space was a violent rupture in privacy. The blown-up shots simultaneously humanize and objectify the subjects, existing somewhere between fiction and a documentary. We pass and look at much as we drive and public space always contains passing glances, but in the moments Rafman has chosen, people are frozen in time, and a passing glance becomes a corporatized gawking.
“The detached gaze of the automated camera,” Rafman writes, “can lead to a sense that we are observed simultaneously by everyone and by no one.” Erasing these pedestrians’ identities through facial blurring, which Google does for legal reasons, is little absolution for the invasion. Whether we, the viewers of GSV, know who they are or not, whether we know exactly when these shots were taken, these people are captured, flattened, decontextualized, and made vulnerable in the unflattering utilitarian light of Google. Their image is not their own.
Jon Rafman, Nine Eyes of Google Street View, 2008–.
But Google is not a cohesive whole, either. GSV’s scale resists comprehension, but Rafman’s highly curated selection makes it possible. Google’s data—and therefore profits—come from a variety of quotidian sources, such as geodata from your phone or cookies from a search, the cameras on a GSV car, and frequently, an unseen woman, sitting for a long shift, scanning thousands of books, as is the subject of artist Andrew Norman Wilson’s ScanOps, (2012 - ongoing).
In ScanOps, Wilson collated small mistakes from Google Books scans such as the fingers of the scanners, or a page, only half-way turned and distorted. By collecting errors made by Google’s employees, Wilson highlights not the algorithms, but the labor, and most importantly, the employees behind the scanning. So as Rafman calls attention to and humanizes those captured by GSV, so does Wilson for some of the most marginalized employees within the Googleplex.
Looking through Wilson’s selection, we find odd glitches and lovely color schemes such as a white page, and pink rubber thimble worn a brown-skinned hand, accidentally captured. Slowly, the number of digits of people of color in ScanOps becomes unignorable. When Wilson—noticing a racialized difference in labor—attempted to interview and film these workers, he was promptly fired from his contract at Google. His footage was ordered to be destroyed. The resulting artwork, Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), details the story.
Andrew Norman Wilson, An Exact Narrative of Many Surprizing Matters of Fact Uncontestably Wrought By an Evil Spirit or Spirits, In the House of Master Jan Smagge - 8, 2012. Inkjet print on rag paper, painted frame, aluminium composite material.
Wilson highlights the distinct classes of workers within Google, and the proportions of privilege and respect they are allowed. While Silicon Valley promises high wages and respectable jobs, data entry remains nearly invisible, and decidedly so. Asking how the service is made, how it works, who profits from it and who doesn’t, stands to tarnish the company’s image. Luckily for Wilson, he was already planning on quitting for graduate school. I wonder whether any of the scanners would be so lucky.
These curated windows into Google begin to reveal the dimensions and power of its gaze. We see bystanders within their own personal stories, staring at the nine camera clad car, and we stare back at them. We are given access to data, but we cannot forget the people who made it possible. We may use this exceptionally large map, but here we are reminded of edge conditions left by imperfect technology and the programmers still troubleshooting. In the process we begin to feel hints of the dimensions of Google. It is a subtle, and pervasive presence, its mode of looking and collecting everything, embedded into our daily lives. But, what can we do?
There is a slow-creep to surveillance, always searching for increasingly granular data. Obfuscated collection and labor hinders awareness and agency, not to mention protest. As Rafmanreflects, while there is a “‘report a concern’ on the bottom of every single image, how can I demonstrate my concern for humanity within Google’s street photography?” The space in which to have this discussion, the edges with which to see, for room to reflect, are barely visible now, and constantly shrinking.
In seeking to organize all the world’s information, Google has the potential to reorganize much of the planet to fit in with its bottom line. Searching behind the interfaces we so often take for granted in-browser, these artists reveal complex undercurrents, bubbling just beneath their smooth surfaces. They provide tangible artifacts and frameworks with which to see and debate Google’s own black boxes. They offer their concern.
Draw me like one of your French AI-generated nudes. As one of many amorphous masses of flesh, all rolls and folds like a browner Rubens. Drooping and melting, spilling over, exceeding myself. A face that’s a sallow study in crisscrossing stretchmarks, accented with the bruisy purples of undereye circles. A body that’s dubiously beige, like when women’s magazines hit you with the Fair and Lovely filter. Ugly bags of mostly water. Supine or just slouching; it’s hard to tell.
It’s rare that I have such a visceral reaction to a set of nudes, a category of image which usually evokes a celebratory if not—excuse me for this—empowering response. The images, a set of AI-generated nude portraits from Stanford researcher Robbie Barrat, are undoubtedly as gorgeous as they are unsettling. “Usually the machine just paints people as blobs of flesh with tendrils and limbs randomly growing out—I think it’s really surreal. I wonder if that’s how machines see us,” he wrote in a tweet that went viral last week, adding that the machine always paints faces in the same way “with this weird yellow/purple texture.” He has no idea why, but he likes it. Personally, I find it terribly violent, in a boot stamping on a face forever kind of way.
Robbie Barrat, AI Generated Nude Portrait #1 (2018). via SuperRare.co.
Of course, it’s not a machine in the traditional sense, but an algorithm. And it isn’t painting per se, at least not in the way one might imagine an algorithm spitting commands to a mechanical arm wielding a brush, in the proto-Zamboni Formalist vein of Matthew Stein’s 1998 web robot Puma Paint. Rather, it generates images through call-and-response machine learning; it is a class of AI algorithms known as a Generative Adversarial Network, or GAN. (Call me the GAN girl, maybe.) Think of it as a dialectical faceoff—a classification struggle, if I may—between two neural networks that have been fed the same dataset of images.
The first network is the generator which, perhaps unsurprisingly, generates images based on that dataset. The second is the discriminator, which evaluates that generated image against the dataset before assigning it a probability as to whether it is real or fake. Based on this feedback, the generator network tries to improve the image before trying its luck again, and again and again: it learns. As the algorithm gets trained, it produces better and better fakes, some of which appear photorealistic in their sophistication. (Efforts to apply GANs to natural—that is, human as opposed to computer—language generation have thus far been far less successful than their image counterparts). It’s not dissimilar to certain models of art pedagogy. Is a GAN something like an MFA for algorithms? And if so, what might outsider AI art look like?
Back on Twitter, responses have been largely admiring, and mostly ellide the unbearable whiteness of Barrat’s dataset (because, art history) and by extension, portraits. “Ooooo like sweet mounds of dough,” comments one user. Francis Bacon comes up several times, and one user points to the similarities with William Untermohlen’s moving series of self-portraits chronicling his progressive degeneration into dementia. One image in particular has a familiar looking yellow coif; Trump jokes abound, as do references to various sci-fi dystopias, and Terry Bisson’s thinking, conscious, loving, dreaming meat. So many people use the language of dreaming, in fact, that I wonder whether Philip K. Dick or Google’s DeepDream Generator is responsible. The jury is very much out on whether machines can think for themselves (never mind the imminent Singularity) but everyone seems happy, at least in this thread, to agree that they can dream.
Most interesting is a comment from the Barrat comparing AI-generated art to Sol Lewitt’s’s rule-based art, which in turn begs the question of who exactly is the artist here. In response to someone asking why he didn’t try tinting his images in post-production, Barrat replied that he did not want to modify by hand what the AI outputs, and that doing so would run counter to the intention of the work. Still, he added “I am working on augmenting the trained network by overfitting on a small dataset of non-white nudes to try and get a more even distribution over skin tone, though.” Putting aside the trying “in the future we’ll all be brownish and what do you mean representation is not the same thing as reparations” feel-goodism, it’s worth wondering what else this will change beyond color. Depending on whose depictions his dataset draws from (one only hopes it won’t be Gauguin and/or his compatriots who turned their gazes to the Middle East), it is like that the poses will change. Perhaps they will read as more servile or more sexualised or even as less passive; perhaps these new images will even affect the pinkish-beige average so that all the AI’s nudes will rearrange their limbs.
My one takeaway from several seasons of America’s Next Top Model was the different poses required for men’s and women’s magazines and I like to imagine a spectral, algorithmic Tyra Banks analogue, screaming poses and art directing from within. And I wonder too, what the algorithm wants, freed from the cis-hetness of art history. Does the generator network just really want to please the discriminator and is its ideal body one that is likeliest to be considered a match? Left to its own devices, would it arrive unsupervised at an androgynous, agendered mean? Regardless, the boundaries are clear: Barrat is only willing to alter the instructions and not the output, what the machine has created within those systemic constraints. If generative art can be understood as a ceding of control to external, logic-based systems—and what is more logical, in its own way, than the natural world?—who is giving up control here? Is the algorithm simply implementing Barrat’s concept? Are its ideas its own?
And—isn’t it funny to emphasize a kind of authentic, purely AI-generated facsimile (or at least its attempt), at a time when we’re so consumed by fakes? GANs haven’t been around that long. They emerged in mid-2014, predating this administration’s fake news bot-or-not maelstrom by a couple of years, but it’s still tempting to posit some kind of causality. Isn’t it kind of wild how entire swathes of the internet have swarmed together to function as a collective fact-checking discriminator networks? And a new front in this conflict has recently opened up around the phenomenon of deepfakes, or AI-generated porn based on the likenesses of real celebrities or people, which extends face swapping to its logical, Rule 34-ed conclusion although it has more recently been widely banned.
From its earliest days, the tech industry has framed computing in terms of passing, of hiding its artifice, its non-human fakeness. One might consider GANs as akin to a neverending Turing test, except that here, a computer is both examiner and examinee. Meanwhile, with the advent of phenomena like botnets, the Turing test as we know it has been inverted, and it’s up to us to prove that we are not fake, that we match the database of blobs of flesh categorized as human. Now it’s people who are asked to decipher CAPTCHAs—to perform free labor for Google’s algorithms—and to check a little box that says I am not a robot. You know how people like to say “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords”? Turns out we’re already working for them.