Gretta Louw reviews Abrahams’ book from estranger to e-stranger: Living in between languages, and finds that not only does it demonstrate a brilliant history in performance art, but, it is also a sharp and poetic critique about language and everyday culture.
Annie Abrahams is a widely acknowledged pioneer of the networked performance genre. Landmark telematic works like One the Puppet of the Other (2007), performed with Nicolas Frespech and screened live at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, or her online performance series Angry Women have solidified her position as one of the most innovative net performance artists, who looks not just at the technology itself but digs deeper to discover the ways in which it impacts human behaviour and communication. Even in the present moment, when online performativity is gaining considerable traction (consider the buzz around Amalia Ulman’s recent Instagram project, for example), Abrahams’ work feels rather unique. The strategy is one of contradiction; an intimacy or emotionality of concept and content, juxtaposed against – or, more accurately, mediated through – the technical, the digital, the screen and the network to which it is a portal. Her recent work, however, is shifting towards a more direct interpersonal and internal investigation that is to a great extent nevertheless formed by the forces of digitalisation and cultural globalisation.
(E)stranger is the title that Abrahams gave to her research project at CONA in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and which led to the subsequent exhibition, Mie Lahkoo Pomagate? (can you help me?) at Axioma. The project is an examination of the shaky, uncertain terrain of being a foreigner in a new land; the unknowingness and helplessness, when one doesn’t speak the language well or at all. Abrahams approaches this topic from an autobiographical perspective, relating this experiment – a residency about language and foreignness in Slovenia. A country with which she was not familiar and a language that she does not speak – regressing with her childhood and young adulthood experiences of suddenly being, linguistically speaking, a fish out of water. This experience took her back to when she went to high school and realised with a shock that, she spoke a dialect but not the standard Dutch of her classmates, and then this situation arose again later when she moved to France and had to learn French as a young adult.
There are emotional and psychological aspects here that are significant and poignant – and ‘extremely’ often overlooked. The way one speaks and articulates oneself is so often equated with intelligence and authority – and thus the foreigner, the newcomer, the language student, is immediately at a disadvantage in the social hierarchy and power distribution. Then, there are the emotional aspects and characteristics requisite for learning a language; one must be willing to make oneself vulnerable, to make mistakes. This is a drain on energy, strength, and confidence that is rarely if ever acknowledged in the current discourse around the EU, migration, asylum seekers, and – that dangerous word – assimilation. Abrahams lays her own experiences, struggles, and frustrations bare in a completely matter-of-fact way, prompting a re-thinking of these commonly held perceptions and exploring the ways that language pervade seemingly all aspects of thought, self, and relationships.
Of course this theme is all the more acute in a world that is increasingly dominated by if not the actual reality of a complete, coherent, and functioning network, then at least the illusion of one. In a world where, supposedly, we can all communicate with one another, there is increasing pressure to do so. Being connected, being ‘influential’ online, representing and presenting oneself online, branding, image – these are factors that are becoming virtues in and of themselves. Silicon Valley moguls like Mark Zuckerberg have spent the last five or six years carefully constructing a language in which online sharing, openness, and connectivity are aligned explicitly with morality. Just one of the many highly problematic issues that this rhetoric tries to disguise is the inherent imperialism of the entire mainstream web 2.0 movement.
Abrahams’ book from estranger to e-stranger: Living in between languages is the analogue pendant to the blog, e-stranger.tumblr.com, that she began working on as a way to gather and present her research, thoughts, and documentation from performances and experiments during her residency at CONA in April 2014 and beyond. Her musings on, for instance, the effect dubbing films and tv programs from English into the local language, or simply screening the English original – how this seems to impact the population’s general fluency in English – raise significant questions about the globalisation of culture. And the internet is arguably even more influential than tv and cinema were/are because of the way it pervades every aspect of contemporary life.
This leads one irrevocably to consider the digital colonialism of today’s internet; the overwhelming dominance of western, northern, mainstream, urban, and mostly english-speaking people/systems/cultural and power structures.  Abrahams highlights the way that this bleeds into other areas of work, society, and cultural production, for example, through her citation of Mladen Stilinovic’s piece An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist (1994). In a recent blog post, Abrahams further reveals the systematic inequity of linguistic imperialism and (usually English speakers’) monolingualism, when she delves into the language politics of the EU and its diplomacy and parliament [http://e-stranger.tumblr.com/post/139842799561/europe-language-politics-policy].
Mladen Stilinović English: An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist, flag, 1992.
from estranger to e-stranger is an almost dadaist, associative, yet powerful interrogation of the accepted wisdoms, the supposed logic of language, and the power structures that it is routinely co-opted into enforcing. It is a consciously political act that Abrahams publishes her sometimes scattered text snippets – at turns associative or dissociative – in a wild mix of languages, still mostly English, but unfiltered, unedited, imperfect. A rebellion against the lengths to which non-native speakers are expected to go to disguise their linguistic idiosyncrasies (lest these imperfections be perceived as the result of imperfect thinking, logic, intelligence). And yet there is an ambivalence in Abrahams’ intimations about the internet that reflect the true complexity of this cultural and technological phenomena of digitalisation. Reading the book, one feels a keen criticism that is justifiably being levelled at the utopian web 2.0 rhetoric of democratisation, connection etc, but there are also moments of, perhaps, idealism, as when Abrahams asks “Is the internet my mother of tongues? a place where we are all nomads, where being a stranger to the other is the status quo.”
Abrahams’ project is timely, especially now that we are all (supposedly) living in an infinitely connected, post-cultural/post-national, online society, we are literally “living between languages”. The book is an excellent resource, because it is not a coherent, textual presentation of a thesis; of one way of thinking. It is, like the true face of the internet, a collection, a sample, of various thoughts, opinions, ideas, and examples from the past. One can read from estranger to e-stranger cover to cover, but even better is to dip in and out, and or to follow the links and different pages present, and be diverted to read another text that is mentioned, to return, to have an inspiration of one’s own and to follow that. But to keep coming back. There is more than enough food for thought here to sustain repeated readings.
1. See Internet World Users by Language. Top 10 Languages.
The new project by Guido Segni is so monumental in scope and so multitudinous in its implications that it can be a bit slippery to get a handle on it in a meaningful way. A quiet desert failure is one of those ideas that is deceptively simple on the surface but look closer and you quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit-hole of tangential thoughts, references, and connections. Segni summarises the project as an “ongoing algorithmic performance” in which a custom bot programmed by the artist “traverses the datascape of Google Maps in order to fill a Tumblr blog and its datacenters with a remapped representation of the whole Sahara Desert, one post at a time, every 30 minutes.”1
Opening the Tumblr page that forms the core component of A quiet desert failure it is hard not to get lost in the visual romanticism of it. The page is a patchwork of soft beiges, mauves, creams, and threads of pale terracotta that look like arteries or bronchia. At least this morning it was. Since the bot posts every 30 minutes around the clock, the page on other days is dominated by yellows, reds, myriad grey tones. Every now and then the eye is captured by tiny remnants of human intervention; something that looks like a road, or a small settlement; a lone, white building being bleached by the sun. The distance of the satellite, and thus our vicarious view, from the actual terrain (not to mention the climate, people, politics, and more) renders everything safely, sensuously fuzzy; in a word, beautiful. Perhaps dangerously so.
As is the nature of social media platforms that prescribe and mediate our experience of the content we access through them, actually following the A quiet desert failure Tumblr account and encountering each post individually through the template of the Tumblr dashboard provides a totally different layer to the work. On the one hand this mode allows the occasional stunningly perfect compositions to come to the fore – see image below – some of these individual ‘frames’ feel almost too perfect to have been lifted at random by an aesthetically indifferent bot. Of course with the sheer scope of visual information being scoured, packaged, and disseminated here there are bound to be some that hit the aesthetic jackpot. Viewed individually, some of these gorgeous images feel like the next generation of automated-process artworks – a link to the automatic drawing machines of, say, Jean Tinguely. Although one could also construct a lineage back to Duchamp’s readymades.
Segni encourages us to invest our aesthetic sensibility in the work. On his personal website, the artist has installed on his homepage a version of A quiet desert failure that features a series of animated digital scribbles overlaid over a screenshot of the desert images the bot trawls for. Then there is the page which combines floating, overlapping, translucent Google Maps captures with an eery, alternately bass-heavy then shrill, atmospheric soundtrack by Fabio Angeli and Lorenzo Del Grande. The attention to detail is noteworthy here; from the automatically transforming URL in the browser bar to the hat tip to themes around “big data” in the real time updating of the number of bytes of data that have been dispersed through the project, Segni pushes the limits of the digital medium, bending and subverting the standardised platforms at every turn.
But this is not art about an aesthetic. A quiet desert failure did begin after the term New Aesthetic came to prominence in 2012, and the visual components of the work do – at least superficially – fit into that genre, or ideology. Thankfully, however, this project goes much further than just reflecting on the aesthetic influence of “modern network culture”2 and rehashing the problematically anthropocentric humanism of questions about the way machines ‘see’. Segni’s monumental work takes us to the heart of some of the most critical issues facing our increasingly networked society and the cultural impact of digitalisation.
The Sahara Desert is the largest non-polar desert in the world covering nearly 5000 km across northern Africa from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, and ranging from the Mediterranean Sea in the north almost 2000 km south towards central Africa. The notoriously inhospitable climate conditions combine with political unrest, poverty, and post-colonial power struggles across the dozen or so countries across the Sahara Desert to make it surely one of the most difficult areas for foreigners to traverse. And yet, through the ‘wonders’ of network technologies, global internet corporations, server farms, and satellites, we can have a level of access to even the most problematic, war-torn, and infrastructure-poor parts of the planet that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.
A quiet desert failure, through the sheer scope of the piece, which will take – at a rate of one image posted every 30 minutes – 50 years to complete, draws attention to the vast amounts of data that are being created and stored through networked technologies. From there, it’s only a short step to wondering about the amount of material, infrastructure, and machinery required to maintain – and, indeed, expand – such data hoarding. Earlier this month a collaboration between private companies, NASA, and the International Space Station was announced that plans to launch around 150 new satellites into space in order to provide daily updating global earth images from space3. The California-based company leading the project, Planet Labs, forecasts uses as varied as farmers tracking crops to international aid agencies planning emergency responses after natural disasters. While it is encouraging that Planet Labs publishes a code of ethics4 on their website laying out their concerns regarding privacy, space debris, and sustainability, there is precious little detail available and governments are, it seems, hopelessly out of date in terms of regulating, monitoring, or otherwise ensuring that private organisations with such enormous access to potentially sensitive information are acting in a manner that is in the public interest.
The choice of the Sahara Desert is significant. The artist, in fact, calls an understanding of the reasons behind this choice “key to interpret[ing] the work”. Desertification – the process by which an area becomes a desert – involves the rapid depletion of plant life and soil erosion, usually caused by a combination of drought and overexploitation of vegetation by humans.5 A quiet desert failure suggests “a kind of desertification taking place in a Tumblr archive and [across] the Internet.”6 For Segni, Tumblr, more even than Instagram or any of the other digitally fenced user generated content reichs colonising whatever is left of the ‘free internet’, is symbolic of the danger facing today’s Internet – “with it’s tons of posts, images, and video shared across its highways and doomed to oblivion. Remember Geocities?”7
From this point of view, the project takes on a rather melancholic aspect. A half-decade-long, stately and beautiful funeral march. An achingly slow last salute to a state of the internet that doesn’t yet know it is walking dead; that goes for the technology, the posts that will be lost, the interior lives of teenagers, artists, nerds, people who would claim that “my Tumblr is what the inside of my head looks like”8 – a whole social structure backed by a particular digital architecture, power structure, and socio-political agenda.
a quiet desrt failre tumblr.com/archive
The performative aspect of A quiet desert failure lies in the expectation of its inherent breakdown and decay. Over the 50 year duration of the performance – not a randomly selected timeframe, but determined by Tumblr’s policy regulating how many posts a user can make in a day – it is likely that one or more of the technological building blocks upon which the project rests will be retired. In this way we see that the performance is multi-layered; not just the algorithm, but also the programming of the algorithm, and not just that but the programming of all the algorithms across all the various platforms and net-based services incorporated, and not just those but also all the users, and how they use the services available to them (or don’t), and how all of the above interact with new services yet to be created, and future users, and how they perform online, and basically all of the whole web of interconnections between human and non-human “actants” (as defined by Actor- network theory) that come together to make up the system of network, digital, and telecommunications technologies as we know them.
Perhaps the best piece I know that explains this performativity in technology is the two-minute video New Zealand-based artist Luke Munn made for my Net Work Compendium – a curated collection of works documenting the breadth of networked performance practices. The piece is a recording of code that displays the following text, one word at a time, each word visible for exactly one second: “This is a performance. One word per second. Perfectly timed, perfectly executed. All day, every day. One line after another. Command upon endless command. Each statement tirelessly completed. Zero one, zero one. Slave to the master. Such was the promise. But exhaustion is inevitable. This memory fills up. Fragmented and leaking. This processor slows down. Each cycle steals lifecycle. This word milliseconds late. That loop fractionally delayed. Things get lost, corrupted. Objects become jagged, frozen. The CPU is oblivious to all this. Locked away, hermetically sealed, completely focused. This performance is always perfect.”
Guido Segni’s A quiet desert failure is, contrary to its rather bombastic scale, a finely attuned and sensitively implemented work about technology and our relationship to it, obsolescence (planned and otherwise), and the fragility of culture (notice I do not write “digital” culture) during this phase of rapid digitalisation. The work has been released as part of The Wrong – New Digital Art Biennale, in an online pavilion curated by Filippo Lorenzin and Kamilia Kard, inexactitudeinscience.com.
An analysis of the Mercedes-Benz collaboration with Ars Electronica for the European launch of the brand’s intelligent car prototype – the F 015 Luxury in Motion – and the problems that many high-end brands in traditional industries seem to have envisioning a believable future. This article is a collaboration between Gretta Louw and Natalie Kane.
Time is a continuum. The ‘future’ is defined by being further along the continuum than the present, and further again than the progressively distant past. Representations of the future – from popular culture to product design and futurism – are therefore always relative to and, to a significant degree, representative of the point on the continuum at which they are created. This is a fact that we are unlikely to ever escape.
The Ars Electronica is one of the most venerable art-tech festivals. Taking place annually in Linz, Austria, since 1979, the five-day event invites international artists, scientists, and researchers to confront an interdisciplinary theme in the context of workshops, exhibitions, and symposia. An indication of the level of recognition – beyond that of the insular art world – that the festival has attained over its three and a half decades of operation is that Mercedes-Benz chose the Post City exhibition for the European launch of its F 015 autonomous vehicle.
Had the F 015 been presented as a discrete display – product placement bought with sponsorship funding – most would have accepted this readily. Festivals of this size require funding. The display could have been suitably pseudo high-tech, and would have attracted interested festival-goers without complicating, or compromising, other positions in the exhibition. The conscious choice was made, however, to position the prototype as a part of the broader exhibition and festival program, which forces us to judge both the presentation of the car and the curation decisions as we would any other exhibiting art/tech collaboration.
Let’s start with the curation. The F 015 was grouped together with the ESEL-Complain – a concept bike that both physically marks and digitally records details of road degradation as the user rides, and the Fahrradi (a wordplay on the German “fahrrad”, meaning bicycle) — a tongue in cheek model sports car made out of what looked like glossy papier-mâché with pedal-powered seating. The spirit of these installations leans towards pursuing a common good through technology and using networks to achieve practical, meaningful gains (ESEL-Complain) and anti-consumerism (Fahrradi). Within this exhibition context the F 015 ‘Luxury in Motion’ seemed crass and out of place.
To make matters worse, just on the other side of the mobility-centered exhibits, less than 50m from the flashy F 015 display, was a full-sized UNHCR tent installed alongside the photo project Beyond Survival. The large-format prints depicted the immensity of the refugee camps and captured the humanity contained therein, despite the often inhumane conditions. The juxtaposition of this absolute poverty and dispossession against the emphasis on luxury and privilege in the display of the F 015 portrayed an obscene ambivalence to current social, political, and economic concerns. The ‘future’ as compiled through this curated lens is one of offhand indifference and even more extreme divides between rich and poor.
Ars Electronica made a concerted effort to contextualise the product placement in their communication and press around the launch. Citing the probability that self-driven cars are going to rapidly permeate the market, it was promised that the ‘collaboration’ with Mercedes-Benz would spotlight “autonomous motoring in the shared space populated by human beings and intelligent cars” and that it would “elaborate on the urban planning and architecture needed to facilitate these developments.” These are interesting themes. Sadly, they were completely and utterly missing from Mercedes-Benz’s presentation.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect a corporation to explore the impacts of the technology they are developing; after all, what do they care, as long as it sells? But at least they could have addressed some of the practical concerns about getting self-driving cars on the road. Will they need to be on their own specific road networks or will they drive alongside less predictable human-driven cars? What will be the impact on infrastructure?
With even any acknowledgement of these issues absent, the presentation focused purely on marketing; Mercedes-Benz aimed to encourage consumers to foster a relationship to the brand and a desire for this particular luxury vehicle. The way they did this was through a focus on two key elements: quality design and technological innovation.
The mood board, which stretched over about 6 metres, contained so many pictorial faux pas it was comical. If there were complete wall displays for automotive manufacturers available for download (as a Word file) it could not have looked more like stock photography confetti.
The board had it all: a 1950s Charles and Ray Eames La Chaise chair; an espresso; an hour glass; a sea shell. It was a kind of pictogrammatic translation of marketing tropes with which we are all so familiar that they do actually make a kind of perverse sense. We are so saturated with marketing imagery and advertising campaigns that they have collectively developed a short-hand without us really noticing; like mainlining associative connections with their products to our brains.
What’s interesting here is that Mercedes-Benz has decided that the best way to market the future is to draw on the past. Is this because of a lack of imagination on the part of the brand, or is it a reflection of the public’s distrust of the future and new technologies, which this campaign seeks to soothe by presenting such familiar, non-threatening imagery?
The question is not resolved by the ‘artist sketches’ of the car’s interior that were clearly made post-production. Are these supposed to reassure future customers that although the car navigates itself, it was made by the human hand and mind and is therefore safe? Doesn’t this completely miss the whole point about why networked and self-navigating vehicles are advantageous, namely, as Ars Electronica rather tritely puts it in a press release, putting “an end to fender-benders, traffic jams and searching for a parking spot.”
The centrepiece of the information display was a promotional video that emphasised the display’s product message: luxury design and technological advancement combining to evoke awe. The only way this mood was conveyed was as a sort of paint-by-numbers of buzzwords and tired visual cues, cobbling together as many cliches for the two key concepts as possible. In this way, at least, the video perfectly complemented the ludicrous mood board.
What took the video from poor to insulting, was the oblivious sexism it championed and the absolute lack of multiculturalism. Literally every single person who appeared in the piece was white. All were wearing western-style business clothes. Surely a company of the international reach of Mercedes-Benz should be beyond such provincialism.
Going from bad to worse, the video included only one woman among a flood of laughably earnest-looking, white, male faces attached to preposterously overblown quotes. Rubbing salt in the wound of this casual sexism, the single female employee included in the video is silenced in the video; she is given no soundbite like her male colleagues, and instead is shown handling fabrics (another cliche). She is presenting her fabric choices to two male colleagues who are discussing her choice: In contrast, all the male designers are shown individually, in close up.
According to the depiction of the future, in the Future of Mobility Mercedes-Benz exhibition, we can expect a regression to the social politics of the 1950s. Women will fulfil the insultingly limiting trope of providing a ‘feminine touch’ to the non-technical aspects of design. People of colour simply do not exist at all in the development of this future Mercedes-Benz world, or so the video at Ars Electronica (as well as other online promotional material on the brand’s website) would seem to suggest.
On the back of those very depressing observations, it was almost a welcome comic relief when the video suddenly switched tack. Inexplicably the viewer is now confronted with a vaguely 90s looking mock-up of a computer interface. The high point of this absurdity, though, comes when the screen is suddenly filled with scrolling zeroes and ones in grey tones and neon pink. Because: the future.
This video, in under 2 minutes, offered one of the most realistically dystopian visions of the future imaginable. It is, apparently, a future in which existing racial and gender-based prejudices have been engrained to the extent that they are no longer questioned. The current battle being waged by tech-savvy artists, educators, and activists to open up the black-boxes of technology and encourage the public to educate themselves so that they are not forced into technological illiteracy has been lost. The public is, apparently, as baffled by code as the non-ruling classes were with the written word during the Middle Ages. And the power to design, and therefore dictate, lies firmly with white, middle class men.
Events like Ars Electronica need corporate sponsors, but they must be held to the same critical standards as the participating artists if they are going to be presented as part of the exhibition. If Mercedes-Benz want to be taken seriously about future design, they need to take on real issues – even just the practical considerations of how self-driven vehicles will be integrated into the existing infrastructure, what specific conditions they may require etc. By so completely relying on these utterly ridiculous, stock photo tropes, however, the company not only missed an opportunity to present its own unique vision of the future, it also presented itself as unoriginal, disingenuous, and archaic.
But what is more fascinating is this tendency, particularly amongst established, high-end brands in traditional industries, to present the future as simply a more luxurious version of the past. What is noticeably absent is any real thought about the flow-on effects of new technologies. Or a clear vision of how things will be different and how they will be the same. Maybe that’s the point – the preferred version of the future for those currently in the top-earners bracket is one that simply reinforces their power and privilege. This too is short-sighted though, in a world economy that is proving to be far less stable and western-centric than the majority of today’s 1% would hope.
In the face of a global situation in which the rate of technologically-driven cultural change is only accelerating, it would seem crucial that we get better at imagining what the future is going to look like – and fast.
This article is a collaboration between Gretta Louw and Natalie Kane (http://optimizethings.com/).