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Being in the uncomfortable middle and the continued need for physical space

07/03/2013
Annet Dekker

About a year ago Eleanor Greenhalgh started her project The Dissolute Image (TDI), a speculative, poetic image hosting technique. By splitting images into individual pixels and distributing them, it enables banned content to be secretly posted on corporate social platforms. TDI enables users to post a single pixel on their own social media page. All the entries are tracked by TDI and each pixel will re-appear on a dedicated website, eventually re-forming the image. I asked Eleanor about her motivation and interest in censorship and hosting issues.

Annet Dekker (AD): Could you tell me a little bit about your background?

Eleanor Greenhalgh (EG): I did a fine art BA at Oxford Brookes in the UK where I started working on participatory projects. I consider myself somewhere between a curator and a facilitator, but it is a role that I haven’t quite worked out. From being involved in environmental activism, I became really fascinated by the way that these kinds of groups organized themselves. These were non-hierarchical groups that tried to avoid replicating the types of hierarchies which they’re opposing. It is a really fascinating process because it doesn’t always go so well.

AD: Could you give an example of such conflict?

EG: Facebook for example hides its ideological biases behind fluffy language of wanting to make it a community space that’s safe for everybody, so you’re not going to come across offensive material. Whereas you talk to an anarchist hosting collective, they will be honest and tell that they’re not hosting stuff that they disagree with, because they consider it part of their activism and they’re not going to give resources to a cause that they disagree with. So how does that relate to the demand for solidarity? It’s a recurring problem. If you believe in building some kind of alternatives, solidarity is essential. But where does your desire to show solidarity conflict with your own values, your own autonomy?

I think this is a source of deep ambivalence. On the one hand being autonomous, while at the same time being deeply vulnerable to the collective – whether relying on others to host your data, to back you up on a demonstration, or just look after each other on a very physical level. I want to expose this vulnerability, this ambivalence, which you find between the two extremes of total autonomy or total solidarity. Rather than choosing one of them, I’m interested in looking in the middle and asking, why is it that being in the middle is so uncomfortable, and why is there this temptation to flee to one of these two extremes?

AD: Why is being in the middle uncomfortable? Isn’t that the place that most people choose to be in?

EG: I think social life puts us in the middle, whether we choose it or not. To give an example from a campaign I’m involved with, for abortion rights: we use the rhetoric of ‘bodily autonomy’. Yet, this ‘autonomy’ relies upon medical care given by others. It can only exist because of other people. What’s uncomfortable about this fact is that it confronts us with our own vulnerability. The fantasy of an asocial autonomy is seductive (and dangerous); the idea that we could be self-sustaining, without the need to do politics.

AD: During your time at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam you focused a lot on the issues of censorship and hosting, both in The Dissolute Image (TDI) and in Volunteer Hosts, where you asked people to physically host files which they didn’t know the contents of. What is your interest in hosting?

EG: I became interested in hosting from two angles. Firstly from a social angle, and the power dynamics of who hosts what and why. Secondly from a physical angle, the fact that data needs to live somewhere and our reliance on hardware and services that we don’t own and have little control over. I’m interested in how that relates to people who are trying to articulate an alternative. Also asking the question of whether hosting something is the same as endorsing it.

I have been watching for example the work that Freedom Box has been doing, developing a small server that you can carry with you. The emphasis is that this is on your body and it is in your house, which makes it harder to seize data because different laws apply when something is in your house. I am exploring or even arguing for the beauty of this kind of approach – the beauty of the continued need for physical space. Hakim Bey (who is good at rhetoric if not politics) said that ‘the question of land refuses to go away’. Meaning, if we want to build an alternative then it has to live somewhere – somewhere physical. And yes, that includes ‘the cloud’ – another rhetorical device which obscures this fact. I don’t think this need for embodiment is a weakness or an inconvenience, as feminists have long argued (Karen A. Franck’s early critique of virtual reality comes to mind). The fantasy of disembodiment – whether geographical, sexual, technological – usually serves those who want to avoid discussions of how these spaces and bodies are governed.

AD: What were the reactions of people on TDI?

EG: People found it really fun, which I didn’t expect. Although, the project is still in a very early stage so not many pixels have been adopted, and it’s not possible to see what the image is. If and when the image ever is completed I wonder how those people will feel, if they will retract their ‘vote’, or whether it will just be like so many other things online where you click OK and then you forget about it. But in the early stages people seem to be very engaged by it and they like this rhetoric of showing solidarity and being part of it.

AD: How did you select the image(s)?

EG: The question of motivation is what interested me in choosing an image, because its very easy to stand up and say, ‘I disagree with censorship’, for example, but I don’t think it is as simple as to censor or not to censor. By asking people to adopt part of an image I’m trying to ask them the question of where they draw their own limits. If they will host something purely in the name of solidarity, or if they need to know a little bit more about it before they are willing to give their resources or their endorsements to it. Without giving away too much, I have tried to choose images in such a way that they would challenge the audience, so that people who are likely to say ‘yeah that’s great, I’m against censorship’, would stop and think a little bit about what they are willing to give a platform to.

AD: What is the role of people who participate in your projects?

EG: The question I came up against with Volunteer Hosts was figuring out what the investment would be for the people participating in it, and also how to keep track of the files. Also would this count as an archive, if there is no way of tracking the files that have been put in it? I think that could be quite nice as a gesture: that you create an archive which then is scattered and you have no way of knowing whether these USB keys have just been immediately wiped and had put more interesting things on there, or whether people really have faithfully held on to them, and maybe that is where gathering feedback becomes really important. It seems quite important to know, although there is also a beauty maybe in not knowing and somehow just surrendering your files.

I’m trying to experiment with how much you can remove something from its context, where it still has enough meaning to be engaging. There is something for me really beautiful about single pixels of which you’ve really have no idea what it could be. TDI has over 95,000 pixels, so it is highly unlikely that this image will ever be completed and that’s obviously built into the design of the project itself. The fact that it would take so long, and take so many people, for me is a source of beauty. I think it can be fine to use a type of game-like mentality to engage people, if you get them to think about it. I think if you agree to participate in something without really knowing what it is, you are probably going to be quite interested in finding out what it is, as that thing is gradually emerging. It’s the inherent excitement of thinking you have a stake in something, and therefore perhaps it will affect you. It is fascinating to take a whole and break it into lots of tiny pieces, or take tiny pieces and bring them together.

AD: So your main interest is in the conversation or a discussion?

EG: Yes, I think it is important to have some form in which that conversation happens. I try to capture the reactions of people who participate in the things that I make. That is maybe part of my background in facilitation, and my interest in counselling. The truth of something is in the feelings that it provokes. It is in trying to find out what the subject position is, or feels like, of somebody who is called upon to transmit the content of other people. What are the investments in there, why would you do it? What are the dilemmas that they face? At what point will you stop doing it, or under what conditions? Would you either withdraw your agreement, or put more conditions on it?

I’d like to argue for the value of simply reflecting, but also acknowledging my stake in it as an individual. I feel I have to try and resist a pragmatic attempt to somehow merely utilize the information, or to identify it as an activist act; there doesn’t necessarily need to be an outcome. It can be quite uncomfortable to admit that maybe you don’t have all the answers, or maybe there are contradictions in your approach. I’m trying to get to that point where those anxieties and uncomfortable feelings sit.

AD: How do you relate that back to yourself, what is your role?

EG: I am heavily influenced by my training as a facilitator, using an anarchist model where the facilitator is not the boss or the chair of the meeting but they are really in service to the group. In this model there are two qualities needed by a facilitator: being assertive and being neutral. It is an immensely powerful way of thinking, that you could be really assertive in, for example, designing a project and setting boundaries (kicking out spammers, people who are dominating the group), but at the same time being completely neutral in a sort of psychoanalytic way, while looking at the content. Anything that comes in, you hold in that space. On the other hand it is a complete contradiction; how can you be assertive and yet also neutral? You are always making decisions about what counts as spam versus what counts as a valid input. Perhaps it is a parallel dilemma to the one I mentioned, between solidarity and autonomy. These are the difficult and interesting questions of doing radical politics. Or doing any kind of democracy. So, while it is contradictory in many ways, I have seen this technique of neutral facilitation being used to incredible effect, and it’s one that I adopt. I think not having the answers, not determining the outcome, and being vulnerable to other people are beautiful ethical positions.

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+ For more information about Eleanor Greenhalgh: http://eleanorg.org/