By Paul March-Russell Paul March-Russell teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Kent and is...
In thinking about the relationship between science fiction and social justice, a useful starting-point is the novel that many regard as the Ur-source for the genre: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). When Shelley’s anti-hero finally encounters his creation, the Creature admonishes Frankenstein for his abdication of responsibility:
I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. … I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, who thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. … I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
Popularly misunderstood as a cautionary warning against playing God (a notion that Shelley only introduced in the preface to the 1831 edition), Frankenstein’s meaning is really captured in this passage. Shelley, influenced by the radical ideas of her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, makes it clear that the Creature was born good and that his evil was the product only of his mistreatment. Echoing the social contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Creature insists that he will do good again if Frankenstein, for his part, does the same. Social justice for the unfortunate, the misshapen and the abused is what underlies the radicalism of Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein’s experiments give birth not only to a new species but also to a new concept of social responsibility, in which those with power are behoved to acknowledge, respect and support those without; a relationship that Frankenstein literally runs away from.
The theme of social justice, then, is there at the birth also of the sf genre. It looks backwards to the utopian tradition from Plato and Thomas More to the progressive movements that characterised Shelley’s Romantic age. And it looks forwards to how science fiction – as we would recognise it today – has imagined future and non-terrestial societies with all manner of different social, political and sexual arrangements.
Shelley’s motif of creator and created is one way of examining how modern sf has dramatized competing notions of social justice. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950) and, even more so, The Caves of Steel (1954) ask not only the question, ‘can a robot pass for human?’, but also more importantly, ‘what happens to humanity when robots supersede them?’. Within current anxieties surrounding AI, Asimov’s stories are experiencing a revival of interest. One possible solution to the latter question is the policing of the boundaries between human and machine. This grey area is explored through use of the Voigt-Kampff Test, which measures the subject’s empathetic understanding, in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and memorably dramatized in Ridley Scott’s film version, Blade Runner (1982). In William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer (1984), and the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (1995), branches of both the military and the police are marshalled to prevent AIs gaining the equivalent of human consciousness.
Running parallel with Asimov’s robot stories, Cordwainer Smith published the tales that comprised ‘the Instrumentality of Mankind’, collected posthumously as The Rediscovery of Man (1993). A key element involves the Underpeople, genetically modified animals who serve the needs of their seemingly godlike masters, and whose journey towards emancipation is conveyed through the stories. It is surely no coincidence that both Asimov and Smith were writing against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is also indicative of the magazine culture of the period that both had to write allegorically. In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015-7), an unprecedented winner of three successive Hugo Awards, the racial subtext to the struggle between ‘normals’ and post-humans is made explicit.
Jemisin, like Ann Leckie’s multiple award-winning Ancillary Justice (2013), is indebted to the black and female authors who came before her. In particular, the influence of Octavia Butler, as indicated by the anthology of new writing, Octavia’s Brood (2015), has grown immeasurably since her premature death in 2006. Butler’s abiding preoccupation was with the compromises that the powerless would have to make with the powerful simply in order to survive. Her final sf novels, Parable of the Talents (1993) and Parable of the Sower (1998), tentatively posit a more utopian vision. This hard-won prospect owes something to both Joanna Russ’s no-nonsense ideal of Whileaway in The Female Man (1975) as well as the ‘ambiguous utopia’ of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). Leckie, in particular, has acknowledged her debt to Le Guin, but whilst most attention has been paid to the representation of non-binary sexualities in both the Ancillary novels and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), what binds both authors is their anarchic sense of individualism and communitarianism.
Whilst sf has, like many of its recent award-winning recipients, diversified over the decades, there is little sense of it having abandoned the Creature’s plaintive plea in Frankenstein: ‘I am malicious because I am miserable.’ It is the imaginative reiteration of this plea that makes sf into a viable form for speculating upon the future bases of citizenship and social justice.
By Marc Garrett Marc Garrett is co-director and co-founder with artist Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield....
Our times are characterized by the accelerating collapse and redrawing of multiple borders: between nation states, personal identities, and the responsibilities we have for each other. Also between the old distinctions, work and pleasure.
Some leaders as part of the new world order, tell us through their political actions and their fashion accessories, that they “Just Don’t Care”. This “political art-form”1 of not caring permits an insidious spread of hatred online and on the ground. In recent times, the digital condition has lent it’s networks and platforms to this poisonous, rhetorical hyperbole, turning against immigrants, and others who do not fit into the framework of a western world, oligarch orientated vision. Mass extraction and manipulation of social data has facilitated the circulation of fake news and the production of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Together these fuel the machine of structural violence adding to the already challenging conditions created by Austerity policies, growing debt and poverty.
In the face of these outlandish difficulties our digital tools and networks – taken up with a spirit of cultural comradeship. More inspiring narratives are emerging from across disciplines and backgrounds, to experiment with new solidarity-generating approaches that critique and build platforms, infrastructures and networks, offering new possibilities for reassessing and re-forming citizenship and rights.
The exhibition and labs for Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival, have created new contexts for collaboration. Artists (from the local area and internationally), game designers and architects, come together with researchers from psychology and neuroscience addressing the data driven gamification of life and everything.
In her interview, the curator Dani Admiss discusses how they reassess the power relationships of the gallery, park users and the local authorities, asking who owns the cultural infrastructure and public amenities – and so create a polemic to open up questions of public value. The exhibition is open every weekend through 14 July to 19 August 2018.
The artists featured in Transnationalisms exhibition curated by James Bridle address the effect on our bodies, our environment, and our political practices of unstable borders.
“They register shifts in geography as disturbances in the blood and the electromagnetic spectrum. They draw new maps and propose new hybrid forms of expression and identity.”2
“Thiru Seelan, a Tamil refugee who arrived in the UK in 2010 following detention in Sri Lanka during which he was tortured for his political affiliations, dances on an East London rooftop. His movements are recorded by a heat sensitive camera more conventionally often used to monitor borders and crossing points, where bodies are identified through their thermal signature.”3
The show opens at Furtherfield from September 14th to October 26th 2018, touring as part of State Machines the EU cooperation which investigates the new relationships between states, citizens and the stateless made possible by emerging technologies.
We have another interview with artist and activist Cassie Thornton, where we discuss her current project Hologram, which examines health in the age of financialization, and works to reveal the connection between the body and capitalism. Her interview focuses on a series of experiments that actively counter the effects of indebtedness through somatic – or body – work including her focus on the way in which institutions produce or take away from the health of the artists and workers they “support”.
“In my work for the past decade, I have been developing practices that attempt to collectively discover what debt is and how it affects the imagination of all of us: the wealthy, the poor, the indebted, financial workers, babies, and anyone in-between.” Thornton
Finally I interview Tatiana Bazzichelli, artistic director and curator of the Disruption Network Lab, in Berlin, questions about art as Investigation of political misconducts and Wrongdoing. Since 2015, the Disruption Network Lab has cultivated a stage and a sanctuary for otherwise unheard and stigmatised voices to delve into and explore the urgent political realities of their existence at a time when the media establishment has no investment in truth telling for public interest.
“When the speakers are with us and open their minds to our topics, I feel that we are receiving a gift from them. I come from a tradition in which communities, networks and the sharing of experience were the most important values, the artwork by themselves.” Bazzichelli.
The programme creates a conceptual and practical space in which whistleblowers, human right advocates, artists, hackers, journalists, lawyers and activists are able to present their experience, their research and their actions – with the objective of strengthening human rights and freedom of speech, as well as exposing the misconduct and wrongdoing of the powerful.
To conclude, all one needs to say is…
“Whether in the variety of human, backgrounds and perspectives, biodiversity or diversity of technologies, coding languages, devices, or technological cultures. Diversity is Proof of Life.” Ruth Catlow, 2018.
By Marc Garrett Marc Garrett is co-director and co-founder with artist Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield....
In this interview with Tatiana Bazzichelli, artistic director and curator of the Disruption Network Lab, in Berlin, we discuss questions about art as a process for investigating political misconduct and wrongdoing.
Disruption Network Lab is an ongoing platform of events and research focused on art, digital rights, hacktivism and disruption. So far, they have hosted twelve conference events in Berlin and one in London. The programme creates a conceptual and practical space in which whistleblowers, human right advocates, artists, hackers, journalists, lawyers and activists are able to present their experience, their research and their actions – with the objective of strengthening human rights and freedom of speech, as well as exposing the misconduct and wrongdoing of the powerful. The programme has been covering topics such as the drone war, whistleblowing, counter-surveillance, ISIS media propaganda, hate speech, and artistic and activist strategies in times of increased geopolitical control (see: disruptionlab.org).
Marc Garrett: Why do we need the Disruption Network Lab now?
Tatiana Bazzichelli: The goal of the Disruption Network Lab is to present and to generate new possible routes of social and political action within the framework of hacktivism, digital culture and information technology, focusing on the disruptive potential of artistic practices. We aim to investigate projects that disrupt the field of information technology in unexpected ways, shedding light on interventions that provoke political and social change from within closed systems. The curatorial strategy aims to connect and to bring into dialogue experts that unfold inner structures of political, economical and technological systems, therefore promoting an in-depth understanding of digital culture in everyday life and society.
I believe that the Disruption Network Lab is necessary because we create a dialogue among people and practices that not necessarily meet often. For example, we connect whistleblowers and artists, policy makers and hackers, investigative journalists and activists. Most of the time, these people are acting within specific scenes, without having occasions of exchange. The curatorial methodology is based on a montage of practices, as well as of fieldwork, to create a conceptual network of multiple points of view.
Each event starts with an in-depth investigation of a subject that is pressing and urgent, and that sometimes needs to be revealed or exposed to the general public. It is not only about organising events, but also to research on what is important to cover according to what is happening in politics, culture and society at a specific moment.
MG: An aspect I find really interesting about DNL is its investigative approach. It deals with those current issues usually tackled by journalism, but manages to go much deeper through the lab and conference formats. It also bridges other political, economical and technological systems, and digital culture. I’m wondering why you’ve chosen an investigative approach?
TB: Our aim is not only to comment on subjects of analysis, but to invite people that experience such subjects themselves, often at a high personal risk, and are able to offer to the public concrete advice and countermeasures that go beyond theoretical speculation. Our objective is to provoke change: change of opinion, practical change in our everyday life, and change in political and cultural terms.
At the core of my curatorial and research analysis is the reflection on practices that work from the inside of social, political and technological systems, questioning such systems themselves. This research path follows my theoretical investigation initiated with my PhD research “Networked Disruption: Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social Networking” (published in 2013 by the Digital Aesthetic Research Centre of Aarhus University in Denmark, and followed by a traveling exhibition in various European venues: aksioma.org/networked.disruption).
Since the first conference in April 2015, the Disruption Network Lab has been investigating the concept of whistleblowing, bringing attention to abuses of governments and large corporations, involving speakers such as Laura Poitras, Brandon Bryant, John Kiriakou, Annie Machon, Cian Westmoreland, Mustafa Al-Bassam, Abdalaziz Alhamza, Trevor Paglen, Henrik Moltke, a.o.
I come from a practical and theoretical background that combined art, hacking and political activism, but since 2014 my attention has been oriented to art as a act of investigation, thanks also to the work of Laura Poitras that deeply inspired me. I am progressively getting interested in artistic practices and investigations that provoke concrete outcomes, that are even difficult to be defined as “art”. Hacker art was my field of interest since the emergence of hacker culture in the 1990s, but thanks to the Disruption Network Lab activity I got even more concrete, and I started being passionate about the field of investigative journalism.
My intent is to combine the culture of investigation with artistic practice, or even operate a conceptual shift, by starting to define investigative journalism and whistleblowing as art.
In the act of whistleblowing is embedded a deep change of perspective, where the unexpected emerges. This search for a radical change of point of views, which results in a deep disruption of individual life is something extremely valuable not only in political and cultural terms, but also on an artistic level. It is the contemporary Avant-garde, the search for a profound unexpected gesture that interferes with society and politics at a global level.
The investigative approach is necessary not only in the realm of journalism and whistleblowing, but also in the art context. It is thanks to an artistic approach that many discoveries can be done because artists are able to see reality as a challenge, and in a sense there is an important thread that connects them with whistleblowers. When I brought together these expertise during the Disruption Network Lab conferences, I could really see how it was possible to combine such methodologies and how whistleblowers and artists were intellectually benefiting from each other.
MG: To what degree does your investigative approach stem from what in the media art world has been termed as Tactical Media or Post-Tactical Media?
TB: There is for sure a connection with the tradition of tactical media strategies, and the discourse of post-digital interventions. The idea is to go beyond the digital per se, to focus on the impact of technology on the everyday life, culture, society and politics. However, I like to involve people that do not necessarily theorise on the methods, but that are coming from concrete fields of investigation and would never define themselves as “artists”. It is my conceptual “pleasure” to define them as such, but I know that for them it is not really necessary to present their practices via such definition.
A whistleblower wants to provoke real change, she/he/they is a person that was part of a specific institution or organisation and often is a person that believes in systemic structures. It is perhaps because this person believes so much in them that gets frustrated and decides to disrupt an entire life to reveal a wrongdoing. I find this gesture something impressive, it is a work of art by itself. My question would be how much many established artists would be able to risk to provoke changes. Is actually contemporary art able to provoke concrete changes? For sure the meaning of artistic practice is making us reflect on the concept of change, but I feel that nowadays we need more than that. Power is becoming stronger and more pervasive, my opinion is that art needs to have a stronger and more pervasive impact, beyond distribution of ephemeral privileges.
Just to say something about this curatorial approach: it is absolutely not easy. I see the difficulties when I am looking for funds for the Disruption Network Lab. Cultural funders have difficulty to understand how investigative journalism might be considered useful in the realm of art; alongside, political funders don’t like us to use the word art because they want to give money to something that appears more impactful on society. I like to connect dots, and to be in between, because it is thanks to this liminal zone that change can really emerge and that we can provoke it. Therefore I am choosing the most difficult path, but luckily until now we managed…
MG: What values are you trying to communicate through this way of working with others?
TB: We want to provide challenging debates within local and international communities, developing a context of critical reflection and analysis beyond what is usually communicated by mainstream media. The format of two-days events with a keynote and a panel each day encourages a very strong community sharing, which works on two levels: first, between the participants altogether, as they often know each other’s work, allowing them to meet for the first time in person and engage in actual discussions about their research; second, among the audience, that is usually formed by real experts working on the topics under analysis, as well as by people interested in getting a deep insight.
This unique combination of expertise creates a solid space for critical questions and discussions during the collective moments of sharing, as well as during breaks and dinners, which add to the Lab’s credibility to handle and discuss sensitive topics in a safe context.
Since each of our events requires a deep content research before the finalisation of the programme, it is extremely important to us to feel supported by organisations that we can trust and allow our research becoming concrete. The challenge of being independent while also looking for funding is very hard, and often some team members have to handle parallel jobs and sustainability struggles. Considering that we work with whistleblowers and people at risk, as it happened in the November 2017 event “TERROR FEEDS”, in which we needed to hire private security, having precarious finances is a severe challenge to the realisation of the project. This is the reason why we try to sensitise our network to sustainability issues in culture production.
Since 2014 I have been working with wonderful and competent women in my team: Daniela Silvestrin, Kim Voss and Nada Bakr (Project Managers), Claudia Dorfmüller and Rahel Währer (Project Managers and Administration Officers), and with Jonas Frankki that has been shaping the visual identity of the conference programme since the start.
The Disruption Network Lab project was founded in 2014, and since 2016 it is a registered non-profit association in Germany (Disruption Network Lab e.V. – gemeinnütziger eingetragener Verein). The Disruption Network Lab e.V. produces the Disruption Network Lab programme.
The founding of the association was a solid step towards presenting and promoting the topic of digital culture in Berlin and internationally. We evolved from a single, private initiative, to an organisation devoted to digital culture and its applications on politics, technology, and society, locally and internationally. The grounding of the association was supported in 2016 by the Open Society Foundations (OSF) with a structural funding. For the organisation of the events, however, the association has been dependent on external private and (mostly) public funding. The first series of events in 2015 started thanks to the support of the Capital Cultural Funds of Berlin.
I want to be open on these details because they are really important for the way we shape our work. Often organisations in our field do not speak about the “making of”, but to be transparent it is part of our values. In our organisation we unfortunately do not benefit regularly of structural grants, and we have to search for grants event after event. During the production of our conferences, we have to undertake fundraising activities and this makes our lives very precarious.
While in 2015, 2016 and 2018 we got funding support from the City of Berlin, this did not happen in 2017. This pushed us to look for international funds, which was a very complex task while being busy with production – thing that almost compromised the whole conference series. This search opened us toward international foundations that are working with human rights, social justice and investigative journalism, such as the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Bertha Foundation and the Mozilla Advocacy Fund, which supported us in 2017 (and in the case of the Reva and David Logan Foundation, also afterward). This pushed me to research more extensively the field of investigative journalism, because I understood that there was a concrete need for such practices and approaches in the cultural production scenario, and at an international level.
MG: Could you give us an idea of what the composition of the audiences at the DNL conferences
TB: The audience of our conferences is formed by activists, artists, journalists, computer experts, cultural producers, human right and whistleblower advocates, students and researchers. Entrance ticket is very accessible, only 5 Euro per day. After the conference, we provide a video documentation of the events to reach a broader international audience (youtube.com/c/DisruptionNetworkLab).
We have been collecting a lots of video material in the past four years. At the moment I am researching possible grants to see if we will be able to support the activity of archiving such contents in a systematic way, providing additional references and creating useful infographic. This would be something really important to offer to our public in the future.
MG: I was fortunate enough to be asked to chair two different DNL conferences. The one which affected me most, was “DRONES: Eyes from a Distance” which took place in April 2015, at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin. The keynote speaker Brandon Bryant, was whistleblower and former drone-operator. It all felt very intense. The space was full, and the audience were very inquisitive, they wanted to know more. The length of the panels and discussions are longer than usual panel discussions. Yet, strangely, they go very quickly.
Could you expand on how and why you choose this way of presenting a cultural forum as a platform?
TB: Since 2015 the Disruption Network Lab e.V. produced thirteen conference events (in Germany, UK and Austria). The conference “DRONES” with keynote Brandon Bryant was the first of the series. After that we kept investigating on related subjects, such as activist and resistance strategies after the Snowden-Leaks (“SAMIZDATA”: keynotes Laura Poitras and Jacob Appelbaum); whistleblowing (“TRUTH-TELLERS”: keynotes Grace North and Mustafa Al-Bassam; “PRISONERS OF DISSENT”: keynote John Kiriakou), the ISIS media propaganda (“TERROR FEEDS”: keynotes Charlie Winter, Sue Turton, and Abdalaziz Alhamza): hate speech and political misinformation (“HATE NEWS”: keynotes Nanjala Nyabola and Andrea Noel).
Currently we are working on developing a new conference on the subjects of populism, right-wing extremism, and alt-right, and the effects of such phenomena in art, media, politics and society, under the title of INFILTRATION: Challenging Supremacism (September 7-9 in Berlin at Kunstquartier Bethanien).
Each conference requires a previous research, and an analysis of the topics that are important at the moment. This allows us to be exactly on time for the investigation of current phenomena. It was the case of the last conference, HATE NEWS, which was the result of a funding application done in December 2017, but since the production started later in 2018, I could focus on the “hot news” of the Cambridge Analytica debate, and be really fortunate to have with us David Carroll and Nanjala Nyabola.
Sometimes the topics are also the result of a common sharing within my own community (which actually crosses many communities). It was the case for the first conference event “DRONES” in April 2015. During some months I was sharing ideas with my friends and colleagues Chantal Meloni (criminal lawyer at the ECCHR in Berlin) and Laura Lucchini (freelance journalist) about the topic of the consequences both on military networks and civil society of an increasing automatism of conflicts. Chantal Meloni suggested me to contact former drone operator Brandon Bryant, that at the moment was not well-known as today – she saw him speaking at the ECCHR during an event related to human rights and the drone war. I reached out to him and we decided together how to shape his Keynote – you saw the results. Brandon Bryant was really important for the start of the Disruption Network Lab, his gesture of coming to us was really brave, generous and impactful. In a sense, it was the beginning that shaped the future of our activity.
MG: What responses have you received from your audiences in respect of this way of presenting and the content being explored?
TB: Our audience is usually really committed. I am always impressed when after four hours of discussions, at the Q&A in the late evening, I see people asking very deep, incredibly detailed and specific questions. I have to say that this has been my deep surprise in Berlin since I moved here 15 years ago, to experience that people are so committed, critical and well-informed during events. But of course at the Disruption Network Lab the feedback it brings a more intense value, because I have the feeling that people are enjoying the unexpected connections that I put together after hard work. And the most fulfilling result is when they got them!
However, it is not always easy to keep the public interested in such deep topics, especially because in Berlin the competition with openings, clubs, and parties during the weekend is tough. In the past 4 years we have been shaping our community of passionate people that are regularly coming and following us, even from abroad. The challenge for me now it is to open up more, and to reach new people that are constantly flowing in the city. The support of our close community is important also for this scope, we need to support each other to keep doing what we do.
MG: Since starting DNL what highlights do you remember that have made you feel you are part of something special?
TB: The work before each conference is hard, we are only five people, and in the past we were just three. So at a production level, there is a lots of work which implies fundraising, press and communication, the whole organisation of the logistic and speakers presence. Plus of course, the curatorial work and the research beforhead. We often arrive to the conference very excited but also really tired. However, every time, it is thanks to the speakers and the audience that we get our energy back. In the past conferences we had really unique and wonderful speakers that shared with us their stories, many of them really difficult, heartbreaking and a real challenge to be communicated. This was the case of (among others) Brandon Bryant, Cian Westmoreland, John Kiriakou, Laura Poitras, Jake Appelbaum, Annie Machon, Andrea Noel, Grace North, Mustafa Al-Bassam, Abdalaziz Alhamza, and the constant very important presence of the Chelsea Manning Initiative before Chelsea Manning was released.
I felt that all these people were trusting us and our public by sharing their stories with us. Each conference has been offering an important context at a human level, a moment of reflection, revelation, and also the sensation to belong to a community. With some people I am still in contact, other entered in contact with each other and are still working together on other projects. This is for me the most important result, to see that the Disruption Network Lab is useful not only to inform, but also to make people feel part of something in common.
When the speakers are with us and open their minds to our topics, I feel that we are receiving a gift from them. I come from a tradition in which communities, networks and the sharing of experience were the most important values, the artwork by themselves. By combining all these expertise, I feel the responsibility of creating each time the context for a collective artwork, And this is something special, especially nowadays in which the discourse of networking has been completely commercialised. I feel to thank all these people, not only the ones that worked with me and supported us, but also all the people that shared their experiences and the ones that came to listen to them. I am sure that this path will go on, either with us, or among the people that found themselves related thanks to our conferences.
Notes and References:
Tatiana Bazzichelli (1974, Rome) is artistic director and curator of the Disruption Network Lab, a program of conference events at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin. She is currently visiting lecturer at the Fachhochschule Potsdam at the Department of Applied Culture. She has been based in Berlin since 2003. Bazzichelli received a Ph.D. in Information and Media Studies (2011) at Aarhus University in Denmark. In 2012–2014 she was postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University of Lüneburg. She founded the networking project Activism-Hacking-Artivism in Rome in 2001 and managed the firstname.lastname@example.org mailing list on art activism. She was program curator at transmediale festival, where she developed the year-round initiative reSource transmedial culture berlin and curated several conference events, workshops and installations (2011–2014). Bazzichelli wrote the books Networking (2006), Networked Disruption (2013), and co-edited Disrupting Business (2013). She curated exhibitions such as Hack.it.art (2005), HACK.Fem.EAST (2008), Networked Disruption (2015), and SAMIZDATA (2015).
The next Disruption Network Lab conference event is INFILTRATION: Challenging Supremacism, as part of the 2018 thematic series “Misinformation Ecosystems”, scheduled on September 7-8, 2018, at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.
The conference wants to reflect on the practice of political, investigative and activist infiltration as a form of betterunderstanding aims, lifestyles and methods of right-wing extremist groups. What is the reason for people to join extremist groups? How can we analyse their dynamics from the inside? What are the reasons of fascination among young generations of right-wing propaganda and supremacist outrage?
Among the confirmed speakers are Daryl Davis (Musician & Author, USA) famous for being a black American befriending members of the KKK since the 1990s and making possible to convert around 200 of them (the film “Accidental Courtesy:Daryl Davis, Race & America” will be screened at the DNL event on September 9). Other participants are Patrik Hermansson (Anti-racist Activist, “Hope Not Hate” Researcher, SE/UK), Julia Ebner (Terrorism and Extremism Researcher and Author, DE/UK), Stewart Home (Artist and Author, UK), Florian Cramer (Research Professor in New Media at Hogeschool Rotterdam, DE/NL), Janez Jansa (artist, SI), and others. Stay tuned at: disruptionlab.org/newsletter/
Main Image: Brandon Bryant, Former US-Drone Operator speaks at Disruption Network Lab, DRONES, April 17 2015, Berlin. Photo by Nadine Nelken.
Tatiana Bazzichelli is the artistic director and founder of the Disruption Network Lab. Former programme curator at transmediale festival in Berlin from 2011 to 2014, she developed the year-round ‘reSource transmedial culture berlin’ project and curated several conference events. She was visiting lecturer at the Fachhochschule Potsdam at the
Department of Applied Culture in 2016 and 2017, where she taught classes about art, hacktivism and whistleblowing. You can read more about her here.
Next Disruption Network Lab event
INFILTRATION: Challenging Supremacism
September 7-8 · Studio 1
Kunstquartier Bethanien · Mariannenplatz 2 · Berlin
Partner Event @ Spektrum · September 9
More info: disruptionlab.org/infiltration
By Marc Garrett Marc Garrett is co-director and co-founder with artist Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield....
Way back in 1995, the artist collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), said “What your data body says about you is more real than what you say about yourself. The data body is the body by which you are judged in society, and the body which dictates your status in the world.” These words now haunt us, and take their place alongside numerous other ignored warnings about global threats to the wellbeing of our societies and the planet.
In this interview with curator Dani Admiss, we discuss how the data-driven gamification of life and everything has shaped the development of Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival at Furtherfield and why the Gallery is currently being transformed into a psychological environment.
Gallery visitors are presented with a series of game-like installations, which are the result of the shared and collective cognitive labour of artists, curators and gallery staff. First the artists, and then the public (as players) are invited to test the processes and experiences offered by new mechanisms of play and labour. Each ‘game’ simulates an experience of how some techniques and technologies of gamification, automation, and surveillance, are at work in our everyday lives, in order to capture all forms of existence.
Marc Garrett: Before the exhibition, you initiated an open call for a Lab. You invited participants to join a three-day art and research lab at Furtherfield Commons, Finsbury Park, London. Could you elaborate why you did this and how it informed the exhibition?
Dani Admiss: A couple of months before the exhibition, I ran a 3 day co-research lab that brought together artists, designers, activists, and researchers. I like to refer to it as a performative, temporary exhibition in the form of a lab. There were discussions, performances, interventions, games, and exercises. We had discussion with Jamie Woodcock on gaming and digital labour, he walked us through an interview session with gamers on the Twitch platform. Steven Levon Ounanian held a performative experiment where we thought about how we might render the suffering online in the real world, Itai Palti worked with us to think about design principles and neuroscience. FUN! The idea was that we would collectively explore, discuss and define key issues that we thought were important to then take forward to develop into games and experiences to share with the public. The aim was to play off each other in a live context to generate new perspectives and ideas.
Building on this, I decided to hold an open call for participants. In my most idealistic moment, I’d say I wanted to try and find ways to expand who gets to produce, stage and display, how we define what these issues actually are for wider audiences. Can this lead to new stories about art, tech, society? Like any project it is never exactly as you imagined it, but I think the majority of people got a lot out of working like this. I did. Working with people that aren’t always the people you expect to be attached to a project always throws up unexpected experiences. Everyone brought their best themselves with them. Open. Interested. Warm. Prepared. Ready to listen, and for fun!
I’d make the lab longer next time, so it wasn’t as intense, and I’d try to have more people join the open call.
MG: The open-curation process you have developed is core to the realisation of the Playbour lab and exhibition. It resonates strongly with Furtherfield’s DIWO ethos. It turns on its head, the traditional approach to curating thematic group shows. Please can you tell us about the process and say why this new approach is important at this time?
DA: DIWO definitely informed Playbour! I think the spirit of co-creative discovery is a powerful tool that curators should use more. I refer to it as co-research, which is ultimately a way to research-with others. What separates it from more traditional approaches to curating is the unclear distinction between author/researcher and subject/participant. The aim is to achieve closer equality between the participant and subject area, in the form of valuing a person’s idea’s and lived-experience as much as other ‘expert’ forms of knowledge. Historically, it has roots in a highly specific context of the radical Left in post-war Italy with Operaismo. This is where the seeds of debate on post-immaterial labour emerged, arising from Hardt, Negri, Bifo, Terranova, etc, and why I originally was interested in working in this way because of the subject matter of the project, however, it became something so much more.
For me, as a curator, creating projects about complex subject areas that bring together embodied and embedded social relations with technical worlds, is something that needs to be done with people rather than to them. I think the most interesting works of art being produced today are treated less like things and instead draw into the very making of the ways in which we get to know what we know. You can see this in works from Cassie Thornton’s project Collective Psychic Architecture (an exploration of “bad support” in Sick Times) 2018, where she extends the responsibilities of the gallery or institution through performative means, or in the high-profile modeling and mapping practices coming out of the Forensic Architecture network. How can curating exist in a wider space than before? I’m trying to work in much more extended and expanded ways with the primary intention to include more end users into the areas we are looking at.
Adopting a co-research model (in the lab, in the show, in the publication, in the micro-commissions) meant that the aim of the exhibition shifts, it becomes less about what the topic is and how it works and more about how it came to be. Brian Holmes once wrote that making an image remakes the world. Yes, but it also distances us from it. Playbour asks people to consider how the world organises us by facilitating moments where people can identify with particular phenomena. I feel this is more fitting and has more potential to create moments of personal learning and change than trying to represent it through curatorial practice. Why do we need this in an age of information? My thinking is that knowledge-projects are not simply objective processes but deeply subjective ones that are enacted through and with others. Finding ways for people to identify in more meaningful ways with the subject will hopefully lead to greater chance that people will gain greater perspective and agency over their own worlds.
MG: The term Playbour brings attention to critiques of gamification and to the extraction of value via social media platforms. But your subtitle then opens up a whole other world of reflection. What are you discovering about the relationship between “work, pleasure and survival”?
DA: The project is exploring the role of the worker in the age of data technologies, but this looks less at the “future of work” and chooses instead to focus on the shifting roles and blurred boundaries of work, play and well-being – how do we place value on these areas, how do we work with and against them?
Quite often when we talk about opaque terms like immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism we fail to grasp the production processes of these phenomena. Immaterial labour depends on the self and our social relations. We are asked to ‘post’, ‘share’, ‘network’, ‘emote’, ‘communicate’, ‘know’. Not so much ‘understand’. These acts inform the control and creation of our subjectivity. At the same time, very little discussion is happening about the fact that so much exploitation -physical, ecological, economical- sits behind the new commons we are all talking about.
Opening the project out to think about work, pleasure, survival, is a provocation. On one level, it is a nod to the fact that this conversation is for a privileged few. Many choose what they do and this ‘choice’ is supposed to operate as an expression of one’s personality. On the other, it’s human nature to get swept up in what is considered the norm, so it’s also a challenge to think about what are your own limits, returning to the idea of inviting people to find moments of identification with these broader issues to their own lived experience.
MG: Why is it important that the work being prepared for Furtherfield gallery is conceived of more, as a series of game experiences, than a display of discrete art objects, or a didactic exhibition on the topic of Play and Labour? Has the gallery’s location in a public park influenced your thinking at all?
DA: Well, first off, it has been a collective process and so I wanted to show that process to people. Secondly, you have to invest part of yourself in play. The more I research the areas of digital and immaterial labour the more I’m keen to work with others to understand the not yet completed transformations of body, society, and world, into a global capitalist system. These are suffuse and pervasive and nudge our behaviours all of the time. Organising the exhibition as experiences is a way for us all to live-out (at least temporarily and in a safe, playful space) the tentacular effects of immaterial labour and economies of knowledge and information. This is not to say let’s walk away from a highly networked society, it’s an invitation back into perspectival agency.
MG: You’ve chosen to put together three themes for the exhibition, ranging across work, pleasure, and survival. Why was it important to choose these three themes in particular?
DA: I’m fascinated by how we are involved in the making of worlds we are then conditioned by. From the learnings in the lab, my own research and collaborations leading up to Playbour, I think gamification, automation, and surveillance are three key areas that scaffold a lot of the debate on digital and immaterial labour.
1) SURVEILLANCE. How we are measured and how we measure ourselves? Traditionally, government control used to come from top-down surveillance techniques, such as the type Michael Straeubig’s Hostile Environment Facility Training (HEFT) is looking at. However, I think we should be talking about how forms of control are exercised through our own self-monitoring processes – self-improvement culture is a perfect example of this. Cassie Thornton’s Feminist Economics Yoga (FEY), is a wonderful remedy for this.
2) AUTOMATION. How technology is removing decision-making from us in the pursuit of a frictionless universe. In Harrison-Mann’s Public Toilet he is talking about how automation is used to address the need of social issues. The starting point is the lack of public services offered in Finsbury Park and how that is altering how we use and experience the public space of the park. He is interested in making a connection between this and how metrics can often end up being exercised in controversial and even arbitrary ways inhibiting people getting what they need, such as disability benefits in the UK.
3) GAMIFICATION. How are rewards and competition embedded into our online interactions and interfaces? Jamie Woodcock has this excellent term that describes gamification-from-above and gamification-from-below. Like the Situationist socialism-from-below. How we might use gamification for our own positive manipulations, diversions and distractions? I think a lot of media and new media practice has long been engaged in gamification-from-below. Marija Bozinovska Jones’ piece Treebour (201) plays on this, transferring manipulation of social relations levelled at online interactions to the “natural” networking of trees.
MG: After visitors have experienced the exhibition, what emotions, thoughts and understandings, would you like them to leave with?
I think you introduced the show in an interesting way in your opening text with the notion of the data body and the extension of our bodies into new spaces with unknown consequences. These happen inside the screen, at the edges of the world, in transit, at the end of the supply chains. At the same time, they also operate on semi-conscious refrains, in our behaviours, actions, thoughts and emotions about the world. Taking part, thinking-with, making-with, are strategies to find ways to open up discussions about how we are all involved in making and unmaking our worlds via different actions. Something like digital and immaterial labour is not a discrete issue reservable for experts who work in this area, the connections and consequences weave in and out of our lives and impact us all. We are constantly reacting to thing around us, taking in these cues and pushing them back out into the world.
In terms of emotions, I don’t want to spread fear and despair, I’m hoping that some visitors will identify with some of the ideas in the show and relate them to something in their life that perhaps they’d not thought of in that way before.
Notes: Main top image by Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour 2018.
By Marc Garrett Marc Garrett is co-director and co-founder with artist Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield....
Since the financial crash 10 years ago, we’ve learned that it tends to be everyday people, on the ground, who pick up the pieces and not governments. Millions have been dragged into poverty while those who caused the “crisis”, after creating dangerously high levels of private debt, remain unscathed. 1 The UK Conservative government’s response was an Austerity policy, driven by a political desire to reduce the size of the welfare state. Amadeo Kimberly says, “austerity measures tend to worsen debt […] because they reduce economic growth.”2 The effect has been devastating, creating all together, more homelessness, precarious working conditions and thus pushing working communities, deeper into debt. In the UK, the NHS is being privatized as we speak. According to a CNBC report, medical bills were the biggest cause of bankruptcies in the U.S in 2013, with 2 million people adversely affected. 3
The work of artist and activist, Cassie Thornton is included in the upcoming Playbour– Work, Pleasure, Survival exhibition at Furtherfield, curated by Dani Admiss. In this interview I wanted to explore the following questions as revealed in her current Hologram project:
What do current conditions say about trust and care, and can we trust the current, governing systems to have our best interests at heart?
How do we produce non-hierarchical trust and care that thrives outside of the doctor/patient relationship, which is especially important in the U.S., where it is a profit making industry?
How do we reverse engineer all this tragedy, and put power back where it needs to be?
How do we begin to build solidarity?
Cassie Thornton is an artist and activist from the U.S., currently living in Canada. Thornton is currently the co-director of the Reimagining Value Action Lab in Thunder Bay, an art and social center at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada.
Thornton describes herself as feminist economist. Drawing on social science research methods develops alternative social technologies and infrastructures that might produce health and life in a future society without reproducing oppression — like those of our current money, police, or prison systems.
Marc Garrett: Since before the 2008 financial collapse, you have focused on researching and revealing the complex nature of debt through socially engaged art. Your recent work examines health in the age of financialization and works to reveal the connection between the body and capitalism. It turns towards institutions once again to ask how they produce or take away from the health of the artists and workers they “support”. This important turn towards health in your work has birthed a series of experiments that actively counter the effects of indebtedness through somatic work, including the Hologram project.
The social consequences of indebtedness, include the formatting of one’s relationship to society as a series of strategies to (competitively) survive economically, alone, to pay the obligations that you has been forced into. It takes so much work to survive and pay that we don’t have time to see that no one is thriving. Those whom most feel the harsh realities of the continual onslaught of extreme capitalism, tend to feel guilty, and/or like a failure. One of your current art ventures is theHologram, a feminist social health-care project, in which you ask individuals to join and provide accountability, attention, and solidarity as a source of long term care.
Could you elaborate on the context of the project is, as well as the practices, and techniques, you’ve developed?
CT: Many studies show that the experience of debt contributes to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Debt disables us from getting the care we need and leads us away from recognizing ourselves as part of a cooperative species: it is clear that debt makes us sick. In my work for the past decade, I have been developing practices that attempt to collectively discover what debt is and how it affects the imagination of all of us: the wealthy, the poor, the indebted, financial workers, babies, and anyone in-between. Under the banner of “art” I have developed rogue anthropological techniques like debt visualization or auxiliary credit reporting to see how others ‘see’ debt as an object or a space, and how they have been forced to feel like failures in an economy that makes it hard for anyone (especially racialized, indigenous, disabled, gender non-binary, or ‘immigrant’) to secure the basic needs (housing, healthcare, food and education) they need to survive, because it is made to enrich the already wealthy and privileged.
“The rise of mental health problems such as depression cannot be understood in narrowly medical terms, but needs to be understood in its political economic context. An economy driven by debt (and prone to problem debt at the level of households) will have a predisposition towards rising rates of depression.”4
After years of watching the pain and denial around debt grow for individuals and entire societies, I was so excited to fall into a ‘social practice project’ that has the capacity to discuss and heal some of this capital-induced sickness through mending broken trust and finding lost solidarity. This project is called the hologram.
MG: What kind of people were involved?
CT: The entire time I lived in the Bay Area I was precarious and indebted. I only survived, and thrived, because of the networks of solidarity and mutual aid I participated in. As the city gentrified beyond the imagination, I was forced to leave. I didn’t want to let those networks die. So, at first, the people who were involved were like me– people really trying to have a stake in a place that didn’t know how to value people over real estate and capital
The hologram project developed when, as I was leaving the city, I had invited a group of precariously employed, transient activists and artists to get together in the Bay Area for a week of working together. We aimed to figure out ways to share responsibility for our mutual economic and social needs. This project was called the “Intentional Community in Exile (ICE)” [the ICE pun was always there, now an ever more intense reference in the public eye] and it grew out of an opportunity offered by HeavyBreathing to choreograph an event at The Berkeley Art Museum. They allowed me to go above and beyond my budget to invite a group of 8 women together from across the US to choreograph methods of mutual aid: sharing resources, discussing common problems and developing methods for cooperating to co-develop an economic and social infrastructure that would allow us to thrive together, interdependently. What would it mean for our work as activists and artists to feel that we had roots within an intentional community, even if we didn’t have the experience of property that makes most people feel at home?
Facebook event: “In departing from the idea of a long term home, family, property, or ownership, ICE models a mutual aid society to sustain creative and political practices within a hostile economic system. This project is about finding ways to exit economic precarity by building human relationships instead of accumulating capital– or to make exile warm. After a one week convergence of a small group of collaborators, ICE presents a discussion and performance of life practices as well as frameworks for material and immaterial mutual support.”
The Hologram was one of many ideas that developed as part of this project. One of the group members, Tara Spalty, founder of SlowpokeAcupuncture, (and one of the two acupuncturists you will see at SF protests or homeless encampments) and I fell into this idea when combining our knowledge about the solidarity clinics in Greece, our growing indebtedness and lack of medical records, and the community acupuncture movement. Then the group brainstormed about what the process would be like to produce a viral network of peer support.
MG: What inspired you to do this project? (particularly interested in the Greek influences here and what this means to you)
CT: My practice of looking at debt became boring to me by 2015 as it became more and more clear that individual financial debt was a signal of a larger problem that was not being addressed. The hyper individualism produced by indebtedness allows us to look away from a much bigger deeper story of our collective debts, financial and otherwise. We don’t know what to do with these much bigger debts, which include sovereign debts, municipal debts, debts to our ancestors and grandchildren, debts to the planet, debts to those wronged by colonialism and racism and more. We find it so much easier to ignore them.
When visiting austerity-wracked Greece after living in Oakland, I noticed that Oakland appeared to have far more homeless people on the street. It made me realize that, while we label some places “in crisis,” the same crisis exists elsewhere, ultimately created and manipulated by the same financial oligarchs. The hedge funds that profit off of the bankruptcy in Puerto Rico are flipping houses in Oakland and profiting off of the debt of Greece. We’re all a part of the same global economic systems. The “crisis” in Greece is also the crisis Oakland and the crisis in London. For this reason, I have been interested in what we can all learn from activists, organizers and others in crisis zones, who see the conditions without illusions.
This led me to an interest in the the Greek Solidarity Clinic movement, which since “the crisis” there has mobilized nurses, doctors, dentists, other health professionals and the public at large to offer autonomous access to basic health care. I went to go visit some of these clinics with Tori Abernathy, radical health researcher. Another project using this social technology is called the Accountability Model, by the anonymous collective Power Makes Us Sick. These solidarity clinics are run by participant assembly and are very much tied in to radical struggles against austerity. But they have also been a platform for rethinking what health and care might mean, and how they fit together. The most inspiring example for me was in at a solidarity clinic in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. The “Group for a Different Medicine” emerged with the idea that they didn’t want to just give away free medicine, but to rethink the way that medicine happens beyond conventional models, including specifically things like gender dynamics, unfair treatment based on race and nationality and patient-doctor hierarchies. This group opened a workers’ clinic inside of an occupied factory called vio.me as place offer an experimental “healed” version of free medicine.
When new patients came to the clinic for their initial visit they would meet for 90 minutes with a team: a medical doctor, a psychotherapist and a social worker. They’d ask questions like: Who is your mother? What do you eat? Where do you work? Can you afford your rent? Where are the financial hardships in your family?
The team would get a very broad and complex picture of this person, and building on the initial interview they’d work with that person to make a one-year plan for how they could be supported to access and take care of the things they need to be healthy. I imagine a conversation: “Your job is making you really anxious. What can we do to help you with that? You need surgery. We’ll sneak you in. You are lonely. Would you like to be in a social movement?” It was about making a plan that was truly holistic and based around the relationship between health, community and struggles to transform society and the economy from the bottom-up . And when I heard about it, I was like: obviously!
So the Hologram project is an attempt by me and my collaborators in the US and abroad to take inspiration from this model and create a kind of viral network of non-experts who organize into these trio/triage teams to help care for one another in a complex way. The name comes from a conversation I had with Frosso, one of the members of the Group for a Different Medicine, who explained that they wanted to move away from seeing a person as just a “patient”, a body or a number and instead see them as a complex, three dimensional social being, to create a kind of hologram of them.
MG: Could you explain how the viral holographic care system works?
CT: Based on the shape above, we can see that we have three people attending to one person, and each person represents a different quality of concern. In this new model, these three people are not experts or authorities, but people willing to lend attention and to do co-research, to be a scribe, or a living record for the person in the center, the Hologram. We call these three attendees ‘patience’. Our aim is to translate the Workers’ Clinic project to a peer to peer project where the Hologram receives attention, curiosity and long term commitment from the patience looking after her, who are not professionals. Another project using this social technology is called the Accountability Model, by the anonymous collective Power Makes Us Sick.
So the beginning of the process, like that of the Workers’ Clinic, is to perform an initial intake where the three patience ask the Hologram questions which are provided in an online form, about the basic things that help or hurt her social, physical and emotional/mental health. When this (rather extended) process is complete, the Hologram will meet as a group every season to do a general check in. The goal of this process is to build a social and a physical holistic health record, as well as to continue to grow the patience understanding of the Hologram’s integrated patterns.
Ultimately, over time we hope to build trust and a sense of interdependence, so that if the Hologram meets a situation where she has to make a big health decision (health always in an expansive sense) about a medical procedure, a job, a move, she will have three people who can support her to see her lived patterns, to help her ask the right questions, and to support peer research so that the Hologram is not making big decisions unsupported.
But, in order for the Hologram to receive this care without charge and guilt free, she needs to know that her patience are taken care of as she is. I think this is one part of the project that acknowledges and makes a practice built from the work of feminists and social reproductive theorists – you can’t build something new using the labor of people without acknowledging the work of keeping those people alive; reproducing the energy and care we need to overturn capitalism needs a lot of support. Getting support from someone feels so different if you know they are being, well taken care of. This is also how we begin to unbuild the hierarchical and authoritarian structures we have become accustomed to – with empty hands and empty pockets.
And then, the last important structural aspect of the Hologram project is the real kicker, and touches on the mystery of what it means to be human outside of Clientelist Capitalism – that the real ‘healing’ (if we even want to say it!) comes when the person who is at the center of care, turns outward to care for someone else. This, the secret sauce, the goal and the desired byproduct of every holographic meeting– to allow people to feel that they are not broken, and that their healing is bound up in the health and liberation of others.
The viral structure, is built into this system and there is a reversal of the standard way of seeing the doctor and patient relationship. In this structure it is essential that we see the work of the Hologram as the work of a teacher or explicator, delivering a case that will ultimately allow the patience to learn things they didn’t previously know. This is the most important, (though totally devalued by money) potent and immediately applicable, form of learning we can do, and it is what the medical system has made into a commodity, at the same time as it is seen as ‘women’s work’ or completely useless.
MG: Could you take us through the processes of engagement. For instance, you say a group of four people meet and select one person who will become a Hologram, and that this means they and their health will become ‘dimensional’ to the group. Could you elaborate how this happens and why it’s important for those involved?
CT: We are about to experiment, this fall, with what it means for these groups to form in different ways. We will start with four test cases, where an invited, self-selected person will become a Hologram. She will be supported to select three Patience in a way that suits her, based on an interview and survey. The selection of Patience is a part of the process that we have not had a chance to refine. It is not simple for any individual to understand what support looks like for them, or who they want support from, if they’ve never really had it.
The experiments we will work through this fall will attempt to understand what changes in the experience of the whole Hologram when the Hologram is supported by Patience who are trusted friends and family, acquaintances or highly recommended strangers. An ‘objective’ perspective from an outside participant also adds a layer of formality to the project, because, instead of a casual gathering of friends, an unfamiliar person signals to the other members of the hologram to be on time, and make the meetings more structured than a regular friend to friend chat.
The onboarding process for the Hologram and the Patience includes a set of conversations and a training ritual, which are still quite bumpy. The two roles every participant is involved in, requires a different set of skills, and so they both involve a special kind of “training” that one can do in a group or independently. This “training” is a structured personal ritual that allows participants to witness and adapt their own communication habits so that they feel prepared to participate and set up trust, curiosity and solidarity for the group in the opening intake conversations.
At the completion of the intake process, the Hologram (1) transitions to become a Patience. At this time, the Hologram (1) begins a short training to transition to the other role, and she is supported by her Patience to do this work. At the conclusion of the Hologram’s (1) transition to Patience, and the completion of the new Hologram’s (2) intake process, the original Hologram’s (1) Patience become Holograms (3,4,5).
MG: The Hologram project was first trialed as part of an exhibition called Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time at the Elizabeth Foundation Project Space in New York City, March 31-May 13, 2017. What have you learnt in more recent undertakings of The Hologram project?
CT: Since the original trial one year ago, which lasted for 3 months, the research has shifted to looking at building skills and answering acute questions that will accumulate to support and build the larger project. Starting in the Spring of 2017, I began to offer the Hologram project as a workshop, where participants could test the communication model that is implicit in the Hologram format. The method for offering it is, as a performance artist and rogue architect, creating a situation in a space where people go through a difficult psycho social physical experience together. In the reflective conversations that follow, I ask the groups to use the personal pronoun ‘we’ for the entire duration of the conversation. The idea is that one person’s experience can be shared by the group, and even as temporary Patience we can take a leap and share their experience with them for a duration of time, allowing a Hologram to feel as if their experience is “our” experience. And this feeling that one is not alone in an experience, if carried into other parts of life, has the potential to break a lot of the assumptions and habits that we have inherited from living and adapting to a debt driven hellscape.
A recent report on digital attitudes shows that while 50% of people in the UK say that the Internet has a positive impact on their lives, only 12% believe it has a positive impact on society.1 Mark Zuckerberg’s recent failure to give a straight answer to questions about misuse of Facebook’s user data, illustrates a major problem.
Much has been made of the democratising effect of social media platforms. However, while more of us are encouraged to “have our say”, we have less influence over the important decisions that most affect our lives, our localities, and the ways in which our societies are organised. The owners of digital platforms from Facebook to Uber, answer to shareholders in private, rather than to citizens in public. It should therefore not surprise us when they manipulate, monetize and exploit users’ interactions, attitudes and behaviours for their own commercial and political interests.
This problem of privately owned social space is not one that can be resolved by consumer and state regulation alone. It is a wider societal issue that further reinforces to us at Furtherfield, the immense value of park spaces in which neighbours come together each day, renegotiating in public, the spirit of the place through a diverse mingling of purposes.
Fieldwork in Human and Machine Imagination
Over the last six years more than 50,000 people have encountered over 75 digital artworks that Furtherfield has brought to the park, working with international artists who reveal the invisible forces at play in machine and digital infrastructures. This summer Furtherfield extends its programmes beyond the Gallery and Commons venues into public green space of the park as we announce the first exhibitions, workshops and labs as part of Platforming Finsbury Park.
We are inviting park users to collaborate with us to transform the park into a public platform for cultural adventures, social inventions and reflections; to work with artists, hackers and academics from all backgrounds to rethink the social impact of technology and its flows on public spaces; and to bring local needs to the forefront in the context of planetary-scale techno-social advancements.
Currently showing at Furtherfield Gallery in the heart of Finsbury Park is the exhibition Poetry for Animals, Machines and Aliens: the Art of Eduardo Kac which is free and open to the public every day through May. The exhibition includes Lagoogleglyph, the third in a series of images as part of a global, networked artwork that takes the form of a pixelated bunny painted (in this instance) onto a field in the park, to be enjoyed by people on the ground and seen from Google Earth. In his essay Andrew Prescott, curator of the exhibition and Professor of Digital Humanities at Glasgow University revisits historic antagonisms between culture and technology prompted by reflections on the invention and imagination at play in Kac’s digital poetry.
Meanwhile families are joining artist Michael Szpakowski to use the very same satellite infrastructure to create GPS bunny drawings in his workshop series Let’s Fill the Park With Rabbits!
We hope that Platforming Finsbury Park will also start to flip some assumptions about who and what both art and technology are for. Over 180 languages are spoken in Finsbury Park. We want to make space for conversations and experiments with people from different backgrounds. Alongside the exhibition Andrew Prescott is also leading a series of public workshops on the theme of Digital Transformations promoting dialogue between and across diverse cultures.
Work, Pleasure, Survival
In late May, we host Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival, a 3 day lab for artists, scientists and technologists dedicated to “the worker in an age of data and neurotechnologies”. From these will flow art commissions and collaborations towards our next exhibition in July.
Here you can read an interview with designer Ling Tan about the SUPERPOWER wearable technology workshops at Furtherfield Commons last summer in Finsbury Park. Ling tells us about how a group of young women from All Change Arts worked with her to devise activities and to learn about creating and interpreting data to themselves shape attitudes and behaviours. Dani Admis, curator of Playbour, continues this work later in the summer, exploring with local young women how they might effect change on their own terms, using the conceptual power tools of neuroscience.
Finally a provocation to Furtherfield from Simon Poulter, artist, technologist and producer of NetPark, the digital art park at Metal in Southend, who is working in partnership with us. He celebrates our commitment to the commons “as a real thing, worth our energy and stewardship, the point at which people do touch each other and listen.” He also issues a call to action…“It is time to invent another future, lest we will become the disrupted and not the disruptors.”
As Manuel Castells famously put it ‘The flows of power generate the power of flows, whose material reality imposes itself as a natural phenomenon that cannot be controlled or predicted… People live in places, power rules through flows’.2 And in network society these flows often have the power to wash clean away communities’ ties, extracting value and flowing it to the private interests of absent and distant persons and bodies.
So our future mission grounds us in Finsbury Park, while maintaining our global reach. We are passionate and committed to multiple points of entry, bringing in consenting and diverging voices, to channel and circulate flows locally to generate the power to enact this public place together with verve.
By Andrew Prescott Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader...
Much of our cultural history of the past two hundred years has been defined by anxieties about the growth of a technological and commercial society. In the nineteenth century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge bewailed ‘the philosophy of mechanism which, in everything that is most worthy of the human intellect, strikes Death’, while Matthew Arnold declared that ‘Faith in machinery is our besetting danger’. For such commentators, culture represented a means of staving off the threat of an industrial society ruled by money and commercialism.
It is easy to fall into a false binary of opposition between art and technology. When pioneering artists and scholars first demonstrated the potential for using computers in arts and humanities research in the period after the Second World War, their work often provoked antipathy because of this anxiety to maintain a distance between art and the machine. In my inaugural lecture at King’s College London in 2012, An Electric Current of the Imagination, I argued that artistic practice offers a particularly effective means of fostering a creative and critical relationship between art and technology. I declared that ‘Such a new conjunction of scientist, curator, humanist, and artist is what the digital humanities must strive to achieve. It is the only way of ensuring that we do not lose our souls in a world of data’.
Since 2012, I have held an AHRC fellowship as Theme Leader Fellow for its strategic theme of ‘Digital Transformations’. One important outcome of this theme has been further exploration of the way in which artistic practice offers innovative perspective on our relationship with technology. Artistic experiments with a range of text technologies from the typewriter to the computer provide exciting insights into the materiality of the text and the way in which text interacts with our senses as readers and writers.
One event held under the auspices of my fellowship which seemed to me to encapsulate these possibilities was an exhibition, Design and the Concrete Poem, curated by Bronac Ferran at the Lighthouse Gallery in Glasgow from 28 September – 6 October 2016. This exhibition introduced me to the work of many artists whose exploration of the materiality of text and poetry I found compelling.
Design and the Concrete Poem introduced me to such reinventions of the text as dom Sylvester Houédard’s experimentation with typewriters or Liliane Lijn’s use of letraset on metal drums to create Poem Machines. The way in which Lijn’s exploration of Dickensian engineering workshops in London in the late 1960s inspired her Material Alphabet (1970), and her fascination with industrial processes and images, epitomises the way in which artistic practice can generate creative conjunctions with technology. Pierre and Ilse Garnier’s poem cut on a Gestetner duplicating stencil, shown for the first time in the Glasgow exhibition, offered both a novel view of textual materiality and an elegy for an obsolete technology.
One artist whose work I have found consistently helpful in thinking about the interaction between technology, communication and our human condition is the Chicago-based Eduardo Kac (b. 1961), and I am delighted to have helped arrange at Furtherfield his first UK show, Poetry for Animals, Machines and Aliens.
Poetry is challenging. A poem questions our certainties, makes us see the world from different angles and, by encouraging us to pause and reflect, subverts that mechanistic goal-oriented outlook which so horrified Coleridge and Arnold but nevertheless dominates the modern world. Technology can give words and letters new shapes and resonances and, in so doing, subvert a consumer-oriented view of technology.
There can be no more imposing expression of technological achievement than the International Space Station. One of the most fascinating aspects of the video of Eduardo Kac’s space poem Inner Telescope, performed in 2016 by the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, shown in the Furtherfield exhibition, are the interior shots of the cramped space station, jam-packed with wires, containers and panels from innumerable scientific experiments. The confined space station contrasts with the expansive views of the earth visible through the space station windows. This contrast itself seems like a commentary on the puny character of human technological ambitions.
Kac proposed the idea of space poetry in 2007. He pointed out that weightlessness would affect the temporal and physical logic of a poem, while the readers’ sensory engagement with the act of reading would also be different under zero gravity. Inner Telescope vividly illustrates how a simple performance such as cutting paper may be different in zero gravity, while the movement of the paper (cut into a form representing the word ‘Moi’) seems to epitomise the fragility of textual communication. In the rigidly scheduled life of the space station, Inner Telescope uses poetry to pause and reflect on the complex interrelationship of humanity, technology and the wider universe.
One major thread of Kac’s art has been the relentless interrogation of technology to create radical and original poetic visions. Kac experimented with the potential of the typewriter to allow different juxtapositions and textual shapes in his Typewritings of 1981-2 and from these experiments sprang his first digital poem, Não! (No!) , in 1982-4. Não! was presented on an electronic signboard with an LED display with fragmentary text blocks, encouraging the reader to guess at the links between them.
The digital poems shown in the Furtherfield exhibition illustrate how Kac makes use of digital technologies to redefine the relationship between the reader and text and to reveal new poetic elements in short words and phrases. In Accident (1994), a digital loop introduces shifts and uncertainties into a text, recalling the nervous hesitation when two lovers meet, but also causing the reader’s perception of the text to change as the piece progresses.
Another remarkable pioneering digital poem on display at Furtherfield, Letter (1996), uses virtual reality markup language to create a three-dimensional spiral of text which the reader can spin, invert, twist and explore from every conceivable angle. The text appears to be a single letter, but turns out to be two letters, one from the artist to his dead grandmother and another to his newly born daughter.
Text and language are perhaps the two technologies which most profoundly shape our lives. By altering our perception and engagement with text, Kac raises questions about the way in which we communicate and understand each other. In his beautiful holopoems, one of which is on display in the Furtherfield exhibition, Kac creates texts which shift and change depending on the angle at which they are viewed. Text technologies frequently give the impression of immutability, but Kac’s holopoems remind us how unstable and deceptive texts may be.
The full range of Kac’s technological exploration is impossible to encompass in a single exhibition, but some sense of it is evident from his website (www.ekac.org). Particularly fascinating is the way in which Kac has explored the poetic possibilities of technologies which are now redundant. Although the platform on which the work was realised is now obsolete, the work nevertheless anticipates contemporary digital cultures. Thus, Kac used the French videotext network Minitel to show the possibilities of network art. He demonstrated the potential of large-scale collaborative works by various pieces using fax. Kac was already experimenting with the potential of telepresence, robotics and wearables in the 1990s.
At each point in these explorations, Kac urges us to engage with these technologies creatively, to use them to create fresh visions, and not simply to accept them as consumers. As a historian, I have long felt that humanities scholars too often passively accept the technological resources and tools made available to them by commercial companies and others. One of the reasons why I believe passionately that humanities scholars should engage more closely with artistic practice is that such a dialogue will foster a more creative and critical approach to the use of digital methods by humanities scholars. The artists whose work I have encountered in the course of my AHRC Fellowship, such as Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, Michael Takeo Magruder, and Katriona Beales as well as pioneers such as Nam June Paik all convey the message that we need to engage creatively with technology. Technology is a threat if we view it passively as an inhuman external force; if we rather seek, like Kac and these other artists, to interrogate, extend and reimagine technology in a creative way we can hope to take greater ownership of it.
This is most spectacularly illustrated in Kac’s bio-art. It is now becoming evident that new biotechnologies will within a short period of time profoundly alter human existence and personality. Kac’s bio-art (following in a tradition which includes the creation of germ pictures by Sir Alexander Fleming) again encourages us to engage creatively with these emerging technologies.
DNA is text and DNA can be poetry of the most profound sort. In a series of works called Genesis (2001), a synthetic gene was created by Kac by translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and converting the Morse Code into DNA base pairs according to a conversion principle developed by the artist. The sentence chosen was Genesis 1:26: ‘Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’.
Visitors to the gallery showing Genesis could trigger mutations in the bacteria’s DNA by switching an ultra-violet light on and off. This in turn mutated the text when it was converted back in morse code and then into English. The artist comments that ‘the ability to change the sentence is a symbolic gesture: it means that we do not accept its meaning in the form we inherited it, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it’.
Kac’s most well-known work is GFP Bunny (2000) in which an albino rabbit called Alba was bred in a laboratory with a gene causing the rabbit to glow fluorescent green under a blue light. Kac’s image of Alba has become very well-known and was perhaps one of the first iconic art images of the twenty-first century. We will be exploring the cultural phenomenon of Alba in another exhibition at the Horse Hospital called ‘…and the Bunny goes Pop’, opening on 2 June 2018.
The distinctive image of Alba, shown on The Alba Flag (2001) hanging outside Furtherfield during the exhibition, is also a highly poetic image, conveying many messages about identity, the nature of life and belonging, and the increasing intersection of these with technology. Kac’s memories of Alba prompted him to create a wordless language system incorporating rabbit imagery which he called lagoglyphs (from the ancient Greek words ‘lagos’ for hare and ‘glyphe’ for carving).
Kac has now begun a series of Lagoogleglyphs, large lagoglyphs designed to be visible from the satellites which provide the imagery for Google Earth. Lagoogleglyph I (2009) was installed at Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Lagoogleglyph II (2015) at Es Baluard Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Lagoogleglyph III has been installed in Finsbury Park.
The Lagoogleglyphs encapsulate what is to me the central message of Kac’s work. Google is a vast all-encompassing technology giant which encourages us to consume its services while it makes money from data about us. The way in which Google Earth acts as a panopticon for the world, presenting an idealised sunny view of the planet’s surface, symbolises the hierarchical downward nature of much modern technology.
How can we seek to make our presence felt with the world of mass corporate technology? Painting a huge image in Finsbury Park is an inspired way of intervening in the artificial deracinated corporate view of the human world presented in Google Earth.
When the Arts and Humanities Research Council established its strategic theme of ‘Digital Transformations’ in 2011, the terminology echoed that used in many corporate contexts, and was redolent of improved business processes and data management. Eduardo Kac’s work reminds us that real digital transformations are achieved through creative interrogation of technology and through reimagining how we engage with that technology. Poems turn out to be true drivers of digital transformation.
By Marc Garrett Marc Garrett is co-director and co-founder with artist Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield....
Artist and designer Ling Tan talks about the SUPERPOWER! workshop that explored ways to empower young women through a creative exploration of wearable technology in public space.
Last summer, artist and designer Ling Tan worked with young peer leaders from All Change Arts, and the Furtherfield team to devise a project called SUPERPOWER! Finsbury Park. It brought together young women from different walks of life to discuss their relationship with the city. The project explored the ability for technology to bring about female empowerment, and question the participant’s role as female in regards to decision making about our city.
Three common themes by the participants were collectively identified, and linked to a place in Finsbury Park. Using the themes to co-create a series of wearable devices that enabled them to record their subjective perceptions of the city using gesture sensing technology. These were: Cultural diversity and inclusivity in our community; Safety of individuals in the London Borough of Islington and; Wheelchair accessibility around Finsbury Park area
It was all co-scripted and used for an exploration walk, involving the team walking around a specific area of Finsbury Park, performing and recording their subjective experiences using the wearable devices that catalogued their gestures. During the workshop, participants designed body gestures using the wearable technology which track their body gestures and communicate remotely with each other through haptic/audio sensors.
Marc Garrett: Where did the idea for the workshops come from and how did the concept of superpower shape what participants did with your wearable technology.
Ling Tan: In SUPERPOWER! Finsbury Park, the participants were young women aged 15-25 years old and almost all of them have no prior knowledge of electronics and coding. Instead of the workshop being about coding and making, I wanted it to focus on empowerment, challenging them to go beyond their comfort zones. Hence the term “superpower” became a powerful concept to get them to think about technology as a form of superpower that extends their perception into the environment. The idea for the workshop built upon a couple of projects I was doing over the past few years; WearAQ and Fakugesi Social Wearables. The projects use wearable technology to enable different communities to actively record and map out their relationship with their cities through individual subjective perception in the form of body gestures. For example, perception of air quality in London, UK and perception of safety on the streets in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In the workshop, participants discussed about their relationship with Finsbury Park, designed experiments and body gestures to map out their own relationship through the use of an existing set of wearable devices, went out into public space and run with experiments with strangers, park users. For me, learning about what they want to do with technology is more important than picking up skills like coding or fabrication.
MG: We were surprised to hear how much the young women had appreciated being taught in depth about how the wearable technologies worked as part of this workshop. Do you think this informal workshop format offers a different way of supporting learning about and working with technology? What most surprised you about the way that the young women responded?
LT: I wanted to steer away from a conventional technology workshop where participants would focus on coding and fabrication, than design, because these are skills that they can pick up themselves through on-line documentation and support. For me, what is more important is to figure out what their own interests are with technology, by learning it through hands on design activities with ready made wearable technology. That way, it makes them feel comfortable with tackling complex technology and it also gives them the opportunity to learn about issues that might occur when technology is tested in the real world, checking it out when it does not work and why.
I was most astonished by their speed of learning and how well they picked up the tech knowledge. For example, one part of the workshops involved learning about the body gesture and what the wearables can detect through decoding “1” and “0” read via the body gesture sensors. I was very surprised that they were able to quickly translate that into their own body gesture design.
MG: Your workshop addressed questions of value in technology innovation, in the particular context of working in the public space of the park. Please tell us about how you approached these questions and why this is important to you.
LT: I think its is important to demystify technology especially given that we are living in an era where technology is so embedded into our everyday life that we take it for granted and do not notice its impact. It is important for the younger generation to learn about ethics of technology, to be curious about who and why companies are designing specific types of technology, and most importantly, to learn that technology does not always work, that technology cannot solve all our problems. They need to learn to be proactive and have a sense of agency in tackling issues concerning their own environment. For example, issues such as safety on the streets cannot be solved entirely by technology, it also needs other input such as citizen vigilance, policy and law changes.
SUPERPOWER! Finsbury Park was a part of the B Creative Summer School, a programme of arts projects created by young women for young women aged 16 – 25 in Islington.
Special thanks to:
All the participants involved in the project
Peer leaders from All Change
Ella Medley Whitfield
Commissioned and supported by: Furtherfield and All Change
This project has been funded with the support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
By Simon Poulter Simon Poulter has worked within the art and technology sector for...
Valuing people is a core property of wealth creation, wealth creation can be positively bound into communities. We can’t afford not to be involved in digital creativity because it explores areas of social space that are entwined with intrinsic cultural and economic value.
The point of entry has become ubiquitous, we are everywhere, they are everywhere – I am over there and here too. Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist gave us ‘emotional extension in electronic space’ 1before we came up with the clumsy and often misunderstood paradigm of ‘post-digital’ – a way to describe a circularity and return to being human that accepts the intersubjectivity and convergence we feel with other people and technology.
It is this corporeal and algorithmic unification and association that Furtherfield grasps; sometimes like harsh high summer nettles on uncovered hands, gathered as ingredients for a convivial soup. Not afraid to be stung or to make the soup, even though after 22 years of foraging you are not now the only voice or flag raised at the intersections of art, technology and social change. The mission is always different and always the same. This then is my provocation to you.
The case for digital creativity has grown. Why is that? Because there is deep unrest and even malevolence in electronic spaces and at their corporeal nodes. “The creative adult is the child who has survived,” says Ursula K. Le Guin.
Fieldwork in human and machine imagination
As creative people engaged in the field we are with agency and in turn create agency; we gladly pick up refurbished laptops, remixed maps and fragmented tweets. Our fieldwork means we are in the river, standing watching by the shore, and holding up a mirror in the lobby of the hotel. We facilitate others, not just ourselves, we do it with others. Artistic people are children and not confined or restrained by common sense orders from the immaterial elite – some are pointed, focused and ready to enter the field, others are yet to claim their agency, and even more have yet to experience due North and due South. We can provide the co-ordinates, the beginning of the map and the line of sight. Artists in the future will become agents of change and observers of truth in a familiar return to base. And so we are not given to the idea, in the field, of carrying out instrumental command and we caution ourselves against suggesting this to others.
In a hotel in Sweden we listened as the French Philosopher, Bernard Stiegler brought attention to our attention. In clipped and someway jarred English, he opened up the vast chasm and problem of attention as the fundamental commodity of our age (emotionally extended, post-digital etc). His references to ‘techne’ willfully conjured up derivations from Greek – craftsmanship, craft and art. We are crafting the digital to draw attention to ourselves and our products. We are becoming products, through a process of digital reification. Lukács describes reification ‘as a relation between people that has taken on the character of a thing’2. So, while humans and machines merge evermore, we understand that the end-point of creative processes is not to make attention-seeking people become products and things, it is to diversify our subjectivities and illuminate the way forward for all.
The agency of artists has been a key factor in the development of the Furtherfield’s mission in its first two decades. This agency broadly disseminates to artists networks, activism, societal change, environmentalism, localism, global affairs and more recently emerging technologies such as blockchains. Within an unfolding world political landscape, these areas of interest show greater convergence and potential as moments of reflection become more important in the reified world of products. Our role is to be that reflective space for 360 degree scanning and to hold digital time up in the chain.
Our future mission grounds us on our locus in order to do this, while maintaining our global reach. We are passionate and committed to multiple points of entry, bringing in consenting and diverging voices. The ‘commons’ to us is a real thing, worth our energy and stewardship the point at which people do touch each other and listen.
We know that technology will not save us and furthermore we propose that this is not the right question. In working in partnership with academics, businesses and other institutions we are always asking ourselves where progressive change can come from, in a series of open dialectical spaces. Finsbury Park offers us a node in which to conduct business and make new wealth – cultural, social and economic capital. The predication of wealth creation on technology alone is too simplistic when a multitude of tools are needed. Our approach to the idea of the ‘commons’ is to use old and new tools and ways of getting things done together..
As McLuhan says: “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.” (from Understanding Media, 1964.)
We are not isolated from the huge pressures of the global economy, when advancements outstrip the ethics and the algorithms that come to define new normative patterns and processes. The role of digital creativity and artists is now fully emerging as one that reconnects them and us back into the critical space that Goya, Galas and others occupied. So, we can hold up time and re-enter it at a different point. Yes, Furtherfield offers time travel!
The disruptive power of technology is evident in its ability to unhinge and even eliminate existing businesses, local centres and distribution methods. This is not new, just as McLuhan defined electronic extension in the 1960s, Clayton Christensen defined ‘Disruptive Innovation’ in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. However, digitally disruptive business models such as Uber are now mainstreamed and fast-tracked into our everyday experiences. With the advance in real time data and algorithms these disruptions can have a dramatic effect in social and economic terms. We are faced with a shift in the language from the progressive and anti-establishment power of Punk and music culture; into the realms of digitally distributed start-ups, iterative technologies and remix culture.
It is time to invent another future, lest we will become the disrupted and not the disruptors.
Image credit: Museum of Contemporary Commodities by Paula Crutchlow at Furtherfield 2016
We are delighted to share with you our Spring season of art and blockchain essays, interviews and events, offering a wide spread of exploration and critique.
The blockchain is an evocative concept, but progress in ideas of cryptographic decentralisation didn’t stop in 2008. It’s helpful for artists to get a sense of the plasticity of new technical media. So first we are pleased to share with you Blockchain Geometries a guide by Rob Myers to the proliferation of blockchain forms, ideas and their practical and imaginative implications.
Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon speak here with Marc Garrett in an interview republished from our book with Torque Editions Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017). Mat and Holly convey a sense of excitement about developments and opportunities for new forms of decentralised collaboration in music.
The blockchain is 10 years old and is surrounded with a hype hardly seen since the arrival of the Web. We’d like to see more variety in the imaginaries that underpin blockchains and the backgrounds of the people involved because technologies develop to reflect the values, outlooks and interests of those that build them.
Artists have worked with digital communication infrastructures for as long as they have been in existence, consciously crafting particular social relations with their platforms or artwares. They are also now widely at work in the creation of blockchain-native critical artworks like Clickmine by Sarah Friend2 and Breath (BRH) by Max Dovey, Julian Oliver’s cryptocurrency climate-change artwork, Harvest (see featured image) and 2CE6… by Lars Holdhus3, to name but a few.
By making connections that need not be either utilitarian nor profitable, artists explore potential for diverse human interest and experience. Also, unlike on blockchains, where time moves inexorably forward (and only forward) – fixing the record of every transaction made by its users, into its time slot, in a steady pulse, one block at a time – human imaginative curiosity can scoot, meander and cycle through time, inventing and testing, intuiting and conjuring, possible scenarios and complex future worlds. They allow us to inhabit, in our imaginations, new paradigms without unleashing actual untested havoc upon our bodies and societies.
Art and the “Internet of Money”
Back in 2008 the global banking system was bailed out by governments with tax payers’ money. Meanwhile a 15 year explosion of web-inspired, decentralised, mutualist-anarchist DIWO (Do It With Others)-style cultural actions and practices ebbed (though its roots remain and go deep). The global network of human attention and resources were, by this time, well and truly re-centralised. The “big five” now owned, and often determined, our communication and expression. Post-Internet artists rejected platform-building as a social artform and instead, took as their materials, lives mediated through social media and corporate owned platforms. Some dived into the marketing vortex, to revel and participate in the heightened commodification of art.
With the introduction of the blockchain protocol on the Internet we see a reversed direction of travel in the artworld, with major developments coming more quickly from the businesses of art, which reassert art’s primary status as an asset class, than from those artists experimenting with new forms of experience and expression enabled by its affordances. Now intermediaries of art world business are moving into blockchains (also sometimes called the “Internet of money”) with a focus on provenance, authentication, digital arts made scarce again with IP tracking, fractional ownership, securitisation and auction4. It is blockchains for art, any art, as long as that art can be owned and commodified. This may be seen as a good thing, generating and distributing increased revenues to ‘starving artists’. Also perhaps inevitable, as that which cannot be owned is hard to represent on a blockchain ledger.
Infrastructure Is Social
In his new book Reinventing democracy for the digital condition, (2018) Felix Stalder notes that people are increasingly actively (voluntarily and/or compulsorily) participating in the negotiation of social meaning through the “referentiality, communality, and algorithmicity, […] characteristic cultural forms of the digital condition”. In 2015 the Ethereum blockchain launched with a new layer that could run “smart contracts”, pieces of code which act as autonomous agents, performing the function of a legal agreement without the interference of a corruptible or fallible human5. These can be combined to perform as blockchain-based companies called Distributed Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and there are a plethora of blockchain implementations and political agendas now developing. How these unfurl will affect our ability to relate to each other, to deliberate, decide and cooperate with each other as individuals, organisations and societies.
Don’t Just Monetise, Mobilise!
So for us the promise lies in platform-building: by-and-for communities of experimental artists (in the expanded sense of the word), participants and audiences who want to create not just saleable or tradeable art objects6 but artworks that critique the relationship between art and money, and expand the contexts in which art is made and valued.
‘AltCoins, cryptotokens, smart contracts and DAOs [Digital Autonomous Organisations] are tools that artists can use to explore new ways of social organisation and artistic production. The ideology and technology of the blockchain and the materials of art history (especially the history of conceptual art) can provide useful resources for mutual experiment and critique’ – Rob Myers7
While FairCoin (being rolled out by FairCoop with the Catalan Integral Cooperative) puts new forms of decentralised social organisation into practice on the ground, blockchain based art projects such as Terra0 and Plantoid by O’khaos offer examples of governance systems and invite us to critically “imagine a world in which responsibility for many aspects of life (reproduction, decision-making, organisation, nurture, stewardship) are mechanised and automated.”8 Both artworks demonstrate functioning systems and help us to think through how we might determine and distribute artistic (and other) resources, their value, and the rules for their co-governance for the kinds of freedoms, commonalities and affiliations that are important for the arts.
It may take a while. What to value and how to value it is a particularly tangled question. The technical infrastructure of the blockchain is at the stage of development that the Web was at in the early 90s (blockchain technologies are less forgiving, require deeper programming knowledge and are therefore more expensive to build than web pages or platforms) which, along with the get-rich-quick vibe of non-community-platform projects, might be why there are still so few community platforms actually in operation. Resonate.is the cooperatively owned music streaming service is an inspiration in this regard. It is a platform for musicians – creators and listeners – that opens up the governance of its resources to everyone who has ever created or listened to its music. It demonstrates one way in which a DIWO ethos might work.
Helen Kaplinsky is exploring how to bootstrap to the blockchain, Maurice Carlin’s Temporary Custodians project which realises an alternative system of peer2peer art ownership and stewardship at Islington Mill9.
Blockchain Imaginaries 2018 – CODA
Three preoccupations dominate 2018 New Year blogs and commentary that mark the blockchain’s 10th anniversary: blockchains as cash cults; doubts about the actual utility of blockchains and; the environmental impact of Bitcoin (still, erroneously interchangeable with the blockchain in the minds of lots of people). We add to these our concern about the intensification of control enabled by these infrastructures, AND the simultaneous conviction (shaped by deep collaborations and hard criticisms over the last years) that blockchains have the potential to enable and stimulate new forms of social organisation, resource distribution and collaboration in the arts.
The first two preoccupations match exactly the commentary surrounding the early days of the Web and we know how that turned out. The remaining concerns are grist to the mill of our ongoing programme of publications, films, exhibitions and events. The technologies are only now stabilising to allow more grass-roots infrastructural developments.
We invite you to bring your own lens of constructive critique, gather a crowd to debate and explore how we might pull blockchains into art, on the arts’ own terms, and to gain an understanding of why it is worthwhile.
By Rob Myers "self-defined artist, writer and hacker" – MakeTank
Data structures hold information in a way that makes it easier to be manipulated by software, given particular constraints on computing resources such as the time or space taken up. A linked list takes very little space in a computer’s memory on top of the space taken up by the data it contains and is very quick to add new data to but it is very slow to search from the beginning to the end of the list.
In contrast, a “hash table” data structure makes looking up information much faster by calculating a unique identifier “hash” for each item that can be used as an index entry for the data rather than having to search all the way through a long list of links. Think of a hash as a very large, very unique number that can be reliably calculated for any piece of data – any file containing the text “Hello world!” will have the same cryptographic hash as any other. The cost of this fast access is that the table must be allocated and configured in full before data can start to be stored in it.
A “binary tree” balances speed and storage space by storing data in a structure that looks like a tree with two branches at the end of each branch, creating a simple hierarchy that takes very little initial extra storage space but that given its structure is relatively fast to search compared to a linked list.
Each block in a blockchain is linked to the previous one by identifying it using its (cryptographic) hash value. And the transactions in the block are stored in a (cryptographic hash) tree. This means that a blockchain is a more complex structure than the simple image at the top of this page. But so what? Why should we care about the shape of the blockchain when its social, environmental and political impact seem to be in such urgent need of critique?
The geometric, techonomic and social form of a blockchain are all related, and understanding one helps us to reason better about the others. As the quick tour through software data structure design above indicates, the constraints on technological form are not abstract, they are tied to real needs and agendas. Bitcoin is no exception to this – the lists and trees that make up its blockchain as they are built and broadcast on a peer-to-peer network by computers competing to claim economic incentives for doing so were chosen very explicitly to exclude the intervention of the state and other “trusted third parties” (such as banks) in authentic economic relationships between peers.
Bitcoin’s algorithms prioritise the security of the blockchain above all else, maximising security like a mythical Artificial Intelligence “paperclipper” maximises the production of a particular material good regardless of the other consequences . This explains Bitcoin’s energy consumption, which whilst lower than the US military or the other equivalent systems that guarantee the security of the dollar is probably still much higher than Satoshi Nakamoto originally envisioned.
There are other algorithms, though, which have been created since 2008 to address perceived flaws in Bitcoin’s design or to address different ideological agendas. These create different forms, and contrast instructively with that of Bitcoin’s blockchain. Please note that these are experimental and often controversial technologies. Nothing that follows is investment advice.
Bitcoin creates blocks on average every ten minutes. Faster currencies quickly emerged, LiteCoin and Dogecoin are leading examples, with 2.5 minute and one minute block times respectively. Blocks may contain more or fewer transactions, and be more or less frequent even within the same blockchain as the algorithms tweak its parameters to ensure its security. Blockchains have rhythm, they stall or race, each block is larger or smaller and closer or further from the last one. Transactions fan into and out from addresses in each block, with varying values of currency or amounts of data each time. We are now very far from the block-and-arrow diagrams of linked lists indeed.
The Ethereum system, which extends Bitcoin’s financial ledger into a more general system for “smart contracts”, has the smallest block time of any leading cryptocurrency – fifteen seconds. Like the others mentioned it still uses a variant of the energy-hungry “Proof of Work” security system from Bitcoin. In Proof of Work, anyone who wants to add a block of transactions to the list must consume computing resources to solve a puzzle (essentially guessing a large number ending with multiple zeroes). As these resources cost money, anyone willing to expend them must stand to gain more from adding the next block than they lose to their electricity bill. This Game Theory gambit secures a Proof of Work blockchain. The mindlessly focussed, paperclipper nature of blockchain security algorithms means that as more people use more computers to compete to be the next person to add a block to the chain and claim the economic reward for doing so, the difficulty and therefore the amount of electricity required to solve that puzzle has increased massively, growing the energy footprint of cryptocurrency.
Ethereum is planning to switch to a “Proof of Stake” system, like that used in currencies like NXT and Decred (about which more below). Rather than burning electricity like Proof of Work, Proof of Stake uses a blockchain’s own existing currency “staked” by users to demonstrate their standing within the system and to thereby get a chance to be chosen by the network to add the next block. Proof of Stake and its related “Proof of Authority” system move from the “miners” of Proof of Work who operate on the blockchain from outside to a system of capitalist investors or even an aristocratic class of gatekeepers who operate within the logic of the blockchain itself. This folds the blockchain’s outside in on itself.
Bitcoin’s blocks have been fixed at one megabyte in size since a temporary security fix by Satoshi Nakamoto introduced the limit. As Bitcoin usage has grown, blocks have become increasingly full (allegedly often as a result of economic “spam” attacks intended to manipulate prices – competing for space in blocks drives up transaction fees which can in turn discourage users and ultimately drive down the price of Bitcoin). How should this problem be addressed – how should Bitcoin scale? Should the number of transactions stored in the blockchain grow, increasing the block size limit and making it harder for individuals to store the blockchain on consumer hardware in a decentralised manner? Or should transactions be somehow moved “off-chain” into “second-tier” systems that build on top of the blockchain, adding complexity and introducing potential new choke-points for existing capital to exploit? Big blocks or small blocks (like the big or little ends of eggs, or integers…)? This is a real debate in the Bitcoin world, and illustrates how the consequences of a simple change in technical form like, for example, increasing block sizes from one to two megabytes, can have profound effects on the social and economic form of a cryptocurrency. “Big blockers” propose solutions like the breakaway “Segwit2X” or “Bitcoin Cash” systems, scaling “on-chain” with ever greater amounts of data in the same structures. “Small blockers” propose solutions that move data out of the blockchain, into “Segregated Witnesses” that store cryptographic signatures outside of the blockchain, or the cybernetic rhizomes of “Lightning Networks”.
A Lightning Network adds a second peer-to-peer network of nodes that pass transactions between themselves. These are all valid Bitcoin transaction data structures, but unlike the main Bitcoin peer-to-peer network they are not immediately broadcast to the main Bitcoin network to be bundled up into blocks. Rather they can be replaced at any moment by new transactions, sending different amounts of cryptocurrency along a “channel” between one or (most often) more participants arranged in a random network like the one used by the Tor privacy network.
It’s an elegant but sometimes complex solution, and one that triggers moral panic within some elements of the Bitcoin community equivalent to that triggered by Bitcoin within some elements outside of it. Lightning Nodes with more Bitcoin can extract more fees from Lightning Network transactions, to be sure, and this is a form of centralisation. Decentralisation’s value to cryptocurrency is as a concrete guarantor of security, and Bitcoin’s value is its security. But individuals can still run Lightning Network nodes and send transactions between each other, and pools of capital already have centralising effects in exchanges and mining cartels.
Techniques similar to those used to move transactions off-chain by Lightning Networks can be used to move value between different blockchains without exchanges centralising the process. “Atomic Swaps”, the “Plasma” system and the realisation of the previously mythical “Doge-Ethereum bridge” using the TrueBit system are all different ways of building wormholes between the separate universes of individual blockchains.
Another approach to scaling is borrowed from conventional database design: breaking the blockchain into smaller and smaller pieces or “shards“, forming another tree structure, allows each group of users of the blockchain to only have to keep track of the part that contains the transactions they are interested in. The Ethereum blockchain will move to sharding in future, after its switch to Proof of Stake. Sharding destroys the metronomic, panopticonic unity of the blockchain to create islands of transactions whose truth is local to them, a non-monotonic logic that makes moving value and information between shards difficult but still not impossible.
CryptoKitties can go on their own shard, the Gnosis prediction market on another one, and if one needs to bet on something kitty-related this will require communicating cross-shard. From islands in the net to islands in the blockchain. Techonomically, the data structures and economic incentives of such a system are more complex than a unified blockchain, but making access to the network cheaper by requiring each user to store less data to send their transactions restores the blockchain’s initial low barrier of entry.
Deciding how to scale is a matter of governance. The Decred cryptocurrency has put governance front and centre. As well as moving to a hybrid Proof of Work / Proof of Stake system it has implemented an “on-chain-governance” system. Decred contains the forum for its own critique and transformation, implemented as an extension of the staking and voting system used by its Proof of Stake system. On-chain governance is controversial but addresses calls to improve the governance of cryptocurrency projects without falling prey to the off-chain voluntarism that can result from a failure to understand how the technomic and social forms of cryptocurrencies relate in finely-tuned balance.
Some post-Bitcoin systems move further away from the form of a chain or do without them altogether. The Holochain system gives each user their own personal blockchain and stores a link to it in a global “Distributed Hash Table” of entries (like that used by the BitTorrent system), a forest of trees rather than a tree of shards. This possibly solves the bandwidth problem of simple blockchain technology but weakens some of their strengths in a trade off of convenience against long-term security and robustness. Iota (the most controversial technical design discussed here) doesn’t have a blockchain at all. It uses a “tangle” of transactions, within which each new transaction must do the Proof of Work of validating several previous transactions. This seems like an ideal restoration of the original vision of Bitcoin as a peer-to-peer currency, solving the problems centralisation and energy usage, but the current Iota network is in fact heavily centralised by its reliance on nodes controlled by the Iota foundation to secure it.
IPFS is not a cryptocurrency and does not use a blockchain but it complements the blockchain technologically and often socially. IPFS is related to blockchain technology in its use of cryptography and the logic of game theory but also as a popular way of storing information that is too large to fit on the blockchain. And in its use of a cryptocurrency token – “Filecoin” – to pay for storage on its main network. Filecoin was released in an “Initial Coin Offering” in 2017, and that is all we will say about ICOs here… IPFS uses a “Merkle DAG”, a network of links similar to the World Wide Web or a filesystem, but with each item (the pages or files) represented not by a human-given name but by the cryptographic hash of its content. “Merkle” refers not to the German Chancellor but to the computer scientist who described this use of cryptographic hashes in a tree data structure (like that used in Bitcoin). “DAG” is an acronym for “Directed Acyclic Graph” – a network with no loops in it because loops would confuse the algorithm. IPFS distributes content using a “market” algorithm, bartering for blocks of data on the network with Filecoin or with other blocks.
Each of these pocket universes of social and economic reality has its own structure and forms, its own space and geometry. Chains, and being on or off of them. Blocks of different sizes and fullness, with varying distances between them. Channels, rhizomes, shards, tangles, mines and thrones. Forests, tables, graphs, markets and identities. These formal differences distinguish different cryptocurrencies technologically and politically. Algorithmic differences are ideological differences, this is not an external critique it is internal to the logic of cryptocurrency – algorithms are changed to better instantiate what is just. These algorithmic differences produce formal differences. Their surplus value and unintended consequences continue this process of critique-in-code.
The question of the shape of the blockchain opens up onto a space of technomic, geometric and social forms. We can move through the hyperspace containing and relating these forms to the specific spaces of individual blockchains that are built around them, through the constraints and agendas that they reflect, out into wider society. The gaps and overlaps in this space indicate useful problems for the work of development or critique. Given this, geometries and forms are at least as useful a navigational marker as professed intentions or revealed preferences. But only if we can imagine and visualise them.
Art deals in form, from the spatial volumes of Renaissance perspective to the choreography and logistics of Relational and Contemporary art. Whether promoting, like Jessica Angel’s public art envisioning of the Doge-Ethereum bridge as a Klein Bottle, critiquing or simply rendering perceptible the very different kinds of form that make up the geometric, technomic and social forms of the blockchain and the relationships between them, art has the unique potential to uncover the true shape of the blockchain.
Image notes: Simple Blockchain Art Diagram, by Rob Myers. 2016 What the Silk Road bitcoin seizure transaction network looks like, Reddit
By Emily Rosamond Emily Rosamond is a Canadian artist, writer and educator. She completed her...
This essay is a response toIdentity Trouble (on the blockchain), the second in the DAOWO lab series for blockchain and the arts. Rosamond reflects on both ongoing attempts to reliably verify identity, and continuing counter-efforts to evade such verifications.
Online transactions take place in a strange space: one that blurs the distinctions between the immediate and the remote, the intimate and the abstract. Credit card numbers, passing from fingers to keyboards to Amazon payment pages, manage complex relations between personal identity and financial capital that have been shifting for centuries. Flirtations on online dating platforms – loosely tied to embodied selves with a pic or two and a profile – constitute zones of indistinction between the intimate spheres of the super-personal, and hyper-distributed transnational circuits of surveillance-capital. Twitter-bot invectives mix with human tweets, swapping styles – while all the while bot-sniffing Twitter bots try to distinguish the “real” from the “fake” voices1. Questions of verification – Who is speaking? Who transacts? – proliferate in such spaces, take on a new shape and a shifted urgency.
How does personal identity interface with the complex and ever-changing technical infrastructures of verification? How is it possible to capture the texture of “identity trouble” in online contexts today? The second in the DAOWO event series, “Identity Trouble (on the blockchain),” addressed these questions, bringing together a range of artists, developers and theorists to address the problems and potentials of identification, using technical apparatuses ranging from blockchain, to online metrics, to ID cards and legal name changes. The day included reflections on both ongoing attempts to reliably verify identity, and continuing counter-efforts to evade such verifications.
A Backdrop: Moods of Identification
Before going into the day in any detail (and at the risk of going over some already well-trodden ground), I want to try to piece together something which might – however partially – address the deeper histories of the problems we discussed. Of course, identity was an elusive concept long before the internet; and the philosophical search to understand it has run parallel to a slow evolution in the technical and semiotic procedures involved in its verification. In fact, seen from one angle, the period from the late nineteenth century to present can be understood as one in which an increasing drive to identify subjects (using photo ID cards, fingerprints, signatures, credit scores, passwords, and, now, algorithmic/psychometric analysis based on remote analysis of IP address activity) has been coupled with a deep questioning of the very concept of identity itself.
On the one hand, as John Tagg describes, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the restructuring of the nation-state and its disciplinary institutions (“police, prisons, asylums, hospitals, departments of public health, schools and even the modern factory system itself”2), depended on creating new procedures for identifying people. This involved, among other things, yoking photography to the evidentiary needs of the state – for instance, through Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometric identity card system, invented in 1879 and adopted by French police in the 1880s. The identity cards, filed by police, included suspects’ photographs and measurements, and helped them spot repeat offenders.
This impulse to identify, it seems, has only expanded in recent times, given the proliferation of biometric and psychometric techniques designed to pin down persons. On the biometric end of this spectrum, retinal scans, biometric residence permits and gait recognition technologies manage people’s varying levels of freedom of movement, based on relatively immutable bodily identifiers (the retina; the photographic likeness; the fingerprint; the minute particularities of the gait). On the psychometric end of the spectrum, private companies calculate highly speculative characteristics in their customers by analysing their habits – such as “pain points.” The American casino chain Harrah’s, for instance, pioneered in analysing data from loyalty cards in real time, to calculate the hypothetical amount of losses a particular gambler would need to incur in order to leave the casino. The pain point – a hypothetical amount of losses calculated by the company, which may be unknown to the customer herself – then provided the basis for Harrah’s’ real-time micro-management of customer emotion, enabling them to send “luck ambassadors” out onto the floor in real time to boost the spirits of those who had a bad day3.
On the one hand, then, identification apparatuses have become ever more pervasively intertwined with the practices of daily life in industrialized societies since the latter half of the nineteenth century; this produced new forms of inclusion and exclusion of “exceptional” subjects within various institutional regimes. On the other hand, just as the technical and semiotic procedures associated with verifying identity were proliferating and becoming ever harder to evade, modern and postmodern thinkers were deeply questioning what, exactly, could possibly be identified by such procedures – and why identity had become such a prominent limiting condition in disciplinary societies. James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus marvels at the lack of cellular consistency in the body over a lifetime. While an identifying trait, such as a mole on the right breast, persists, the cells of which it is made regenerate repeatedly. (“Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now.”4) How, then, can debts and deeds persist, if the identificatory traits to which they are indexed are intangibly inscribed in an ever-changing substrate of cellular material?
In the mid-twentieth century, Foucault and Barthes deeply questioned the limitations identity imposed on reading and interpretation. Why, for instance, need authorship play such a prominent role in limiting the possible interpretations of a text? “What difference does it make who is speaking?”5 These theories were not without their own problems. (Barthes, for instance, arguably declares the death of the author as a limiting force on the text, only to fetishize the reader as the text’s new site of imagined unity.6) Nonetheless, they succinctly capture a mid-century anti-identitarian sentiment, growing against the grain of the proliferative identification-machines.
In ’nineties identity discourse, theories of difference became particularly pronounced. Cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall radically questioned essentialist notions of cultural identity, while nonetheless acknowledging the political and discursive efficacy of how identities come to be narrated and understood. Hall and others advocated for a critical understanding of identity that emphasized “not ‘who we are’ or ‘where we came from’, so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves. Identities are… constituted within, not outside representation.”7
On the one hand – so I have said – myriad technical apparatuses have aimed to ever more reliably capture and verify identity. On the other hand, myriad critical texts have questioned identity’s essentialist underpinnings. But today, these lines have become blurred. The anti-identitarian mood permeates technical landscapes, too – not just theoretical ones. Fake IDs, identity theft, and other obfuscations have grown ever more complex alongside apparatuses for identification; indeed, such fakeries have both emerged in response to, and driven yet further developments in technologies for identity verification. The frontiers of identification are ever-changing; each attempt to improve technologies for verifying identity, it seems, eventually provokes the invention of new techniques for evading those verifications.
At the inherently uncertain point of contact between person and online platform, new forms of anti-identifications are practiced – invented or adapted from previous stories. In one bizarre example from 2008, a Craigslist advert posted in Monroe, Washington requested 15-20 men for a bit of well-paid maintenance work. The men were to turn up at 11:15 am in front of the Bank of America, wearing dark blue shirts, a yellow vest, safety goggles and surgical masks. As it turned out, there was no work to be had; instead, the men had been summoned to acts as decoys for a robbery – a squid-ink trail of similarity to help the thief escape. The idea, though inventive, wasn’t entirely original; it was described by police as a possible copycat of the plot in the film The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)8.
Today, the anti-identitarian mood has spread far beyond small-scale manoeuvers like this. Multiple large-scale data breaches – such as the recent Equifax breach, which compromised the data of over 145 million customers9 – have put a cloud over the veracity of millions of people’s online identities. The anti-identitarian mood becomes broad, pervasive, and generalized in data-rich, security-compromised environments. It becomes a kind of weather – a storm of mistrust that gathers and subsides on the level of infrastructures and populations.
Such are some of the complexities that the DAOWO speakers had to contend with. At the Goethe Institute, we thought through some of the ways in which identities are being newly constituted within representation – ways that might, indeed, answer to the technical and philosophical problems associated with identification. Backend developer Thor Karlsson led us through his company Authenteq’s quest to provide more reliable online identity verification. Citing the ease with which online credit card transactions can be hacked, and with which fake accounts proliferate, Karlsson described Authenteq’s improved ID verification process – a digital biometric passport, using blockchain as its technical basis. Users upload a selfie, which is then analysed to ensure that it is a live image – not a photograph of a photograph, for instance. They also upload their passport. Authenteq record their verification, and return proof of identity to users, on the BigChainDB blockchain.
A hashing algorithm ensures that users can be reliably identified, without a company having to store any personal information about them. Authenteq aims to support both identity claim verifications and KYC (Know Your Customer) implementations, allowing sites to get the information they need about their users (for instance, that they are over 18 for adults-only sites) without collecting or storing any other information about them. Given how much the spate of recent large-scale data breaches has brought the storage of personal data into question, Authenteq’s use of blockchain to circumvent the need to store personal data promises a more secure route to verification without revealing too much of personal identity.
Nonetheless, while Karlsson and Authenteq were optimistic that they can make meaningful improvements in online identification processes, other provocations focused on the potential problems associated with such attempts at identification – on the protological level, on the level of valuation, and on the level of behaviour-as-protocol. Ramon Amaro delivered an insightful critique of blockchain and the problem of protological control. There is no such thing as raw data – inputs are always inflected by social processes. Further, the blockchain protocol relies heavily on consensus (with more focus on consensus than on what, exactly, is being agreed upon) – which reflects a need to protect assets (including identity) and oust enemies that is, ultimately, a capitalist one. Given this, how can identity manoeuver within the blockchain protocol, without always already being part of a system that is based on producing inclusions and exclusions – drawing lines between those who can and cannot participate?
My own contribution focused on systemic uncertainty in the spheres of personal valuation, looking at online reputation. In a world in which online rankings and ratings pervade, it seems that there is a positivist drive to quantify online users’ reputations. Yet such apparent certainty can have unexpected effects, producing overall systemic volatility. At the forefront of what I call “reputation warfare,” strategists such as Steve Bannon invent new ways to see systemic reputational volatility as a source of value itself, producing options for the politicians they represent to capitalize on the reputational violence produced on sites like 4chan and 8chan.
While these contributions reflected on some of the critical problems associated with pinning down identity’s value, some of the artists’ contributions for the day focused on the ludic aspects of identity play. Ed Fornieles’ contribution focused on the importance of role play as a practice of assuming alternate identities. In his work, this involves thinking of identity as systemic, not individual – and considering how it might be hacked. In many of Fornieles’ works, this involves focusing attention on the relation between identity and the platforms on which they are played out. Behaviour becomes a kind of protocol; role play becomes a reflection on strands of behaviour as protocol.
My Name is Janez Janša
We ended the day with a screening and discussion of My Name is Janez Janša (2012), a film by three artists who, in 2007, collectively changed their names to Janez Janša, to match that of the current president of Slovenia. The film, an extended meditation on the erosion of the proper name as an identifier, catalogued many instances of ambiguity in proper names – from the unintended (an area of Venice in which huge numbers of families share the same last name) to the intentional (Vaginal Davis on the power of changing names). It also charted reactions to the three artists’ act of changing their name to Janez Janša. What seemed to confound people was not so much that their names had been changed, but rather that the intention of the act remained unclear. In the midst of today’s moods of identification, there are high stakes – and many clear motives – for either obscuring or attempting to pinpoint identity. Given this, the lack of clear motive for identity play seems significant; by not signifying, it holds open a space to rethink the limits of today’s moods of identification.
Marc Garrett: One of many interesting and experimental things about the album Platform, released with Holly Herndon in 2015, is the decision to break away from the perspective of singular genius, and involve a variety of collaborators. This included artist Spencer Longo, Claire Tolan (of Tactical Tech), and Dutch design studio Metahaven. On the 4AD press release page it says that it ‘underscores the need for new fantasies and strategic collective action.’ Under the name of Holly Herndon, along with Holly, you all became a kind of cooperative, collective construction. What inspired you and Holly to explore what could be seen as a decentralized body, or assemblage of individuals as a collective? Or how would you describe your working identity and the importance of this move?
MD: To put it in pretty boring terms, it has become a core part of our mission to be pretty candid about what we do. Holly had been making albums and touring by herself, and then during the early experiments that later became Platform (Chorus and Home) we had begun working together, as we were occupying this tiny apartment in San Francisco, and I was working on this weird net concrete stuff in one room, and Holly was writing for voice in the other, and I think both of us picked up from the ambient sound that the two worked really well together! For the Chorus video we had seen the work of the Japanese artist Akihiko Taniguchi, and really enjoyed the collaborative process of putting that video together, and so then sought out Metahaven, who we’d been in touch with for some time out of aligned interests. Basically most art production at a certain high level is collaborative, and I think it’s just part of our idealistic view on the world that this be transparent and celebrated. Beyond that, when we were coming up with the vision for Platform it also felt very necessary as a political gesture to make a point of the project being aligned with certain political interests, and a politicized way of working and acknowledging others. Working this way has changed my life, and made everything more fun and exciting without diminishing the importance of any individual contributions. It makes for better results, I feel, better general feeling, and also creates these very tangible collaborative connections between fields. It’s also just an interesting experiment to run in music when it feels like so many sonic experiments have been done to death – I’m personally interested in how decentralized practices, collaboration and connectivity, can change the construction and dissemination of music, and ultimately it’s power to be a force in the world.
HH: It sometimes feels like our society is ‘every person for themselves’. We promote hyper individualism at the cost of the planet and social health, and the music industry largely parrots this mentality. We realized how problematic this is, and if we are going to be true to ourselves, then the practice should reflect that concern. It’s been a learning curve for me; learning to not control every single aspect (I tend to micromanage), to hear other opinions, to let go, and not feel threatened if someone else’s idea is better than my own. Releasing my debut album solo was an important step in building my confidence, however ultimately the work itself is the most important, and not the ego. Not to mention that we spend a lot of time on computers, which can be lonely, so working with other people helps us to unplug and see the world around us a little more.
MG: In a world that traditionally, economically and politically, supports the values of individuality above community, or peer to peer collaboration. How did the audience, the music industry, and others in the world (presuming they have) come to terms with this adventurous, creative intention?
HH: It was varied, but overwhelmingly positive. When we were doing press around the record, it was difficult to get some journalists to write about the other artists and thinkers that I was collaborating with, or even just referencing. Those that understood the gesture really embraced the idea, and that successfully provided a platform to highlight everyone’s work.
There are a few industry complications; for example, the project is released under my birth name, so in some ways I am still at the centre of the orbit, which is a problematic professional necessity, but also helps somehow. We used the idea of the Trojan Horse a lot, as in a way my easily understood singular presence served as a gateway into this whole other universe of people. It’s a balancing act, as in various different scenarios you feel different expectations as to what the industry wants; on a pop level they want a simple narrative of my face, and tend to focus on often mundane characteristics such as my gender and education. On other levels you see that the experiment has opened up a different narrative potential, where people’s interest in the record and it’s cast forks off into the direction of their choosing.
It’s really noticeable live, where the audiences have been really supportive. After the shows you experience all kinds of people who come along, hanging out with different people who were on stage – Mat has his own audience somehow, and the same with Colin Self, who often tours with us. As a result of opening up the process and allowing the full breadth of interests and approaches to shine through a little more than is standard, at different shows we have people come up to talk to us about the music, or nerd out about cryptocurrencies and ICO’s, or Chelsea Manning. It feels meaningful, and gratifying for that. We always address the location of the show, whether through the visual or sound, and try to always be alert and responsive. It’s a special privilege to share that time with people, and I think that the concept comes across quite effectively in a live situation as each individual serves a very different purpose in constructing the collective experience.
MD: I think that Platform was received really well. Holly opening up her practice didn’t diminish her signature on the artworks, and I think that it has really won a lot of people over. I think you can feel at our shows that we have a greater principle to what we do, and I think it has maybe made a lot of space for people to conceive of their own experiments and maybe not be concerned at how being ambitious on a conceptual level will affect the ability for the art to travel in the world. Naturally there is also a throttling effect within aspects of the creative industry, where maybe they didn’t want to deal with the bigger ideas around the record, however I feel that the music is strong enough to kind of live in those circles without knowing the story behind it. Overall I think people were refreshed and encouraged by the idea, and transparency of the whole thing. For us now it is a way of being. In my mind, there is more room for individuality to shine when you can guarantee that someone’s work and ideas will be respected and celebrated. The canon of artistic history has omitted so many people’s ideas and contributions for the purpose of having a simpler market narrative, and yet we live in a time when people can and want to dig deeper, and perhaps have a greater capacity for complexity of information – so we want to try and harness that for something positive. Particularly given our interests in subcultural music history, software, crypto etc. there is really no other option but to put the community first. Without community literally none of this exists. Zero. All of our talents and ideas have been incubated in community environments, so channelling that legacy is important.
MG: On Platform you released the track called DAO. I am always interested in shifts between the use of technologies as metaphor and as tools that change practice. So, what was interesting to you about Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs)?
MD: I’ll let Holly talk more about where DAO came from, with the telematic performance work she was doing at Stanford. Regarding the blockchain, I’ve been developing my own decentralized publishing framework for the past few years, that shares a lot of the same principles as the Ethereum logic, and I’m looking to have it interact with the blockchain in its next iteration. A lot of the spirit behind the crypto community is so synonymous with the models of collectivity we have already been exploring in our work that it’s the logical next step. I’m particularly interested in what this architectural/infrastructural new capacity can mean for the medium of music itself. With Saga you have this whole other performative dimension added to media with the ability to version work, fork it, and have it perform in real time to it’s surroundings online, which I think is a whole other proposition for the medium very much worth exploring. It’s also fascinating regarding the question of attribution and collaboration, as we have grown to understand that the web as it stands currently is very much designed to privilege those who appropriate and curate others creative work and ideas for free – mirroring greater society, it is a winner takes all environment. I want systems of virtuous attribution that do not consolidate the DRM era of copyright takedowns, but instead build markets and new interactions around collaboration, augmentation and live interaction. There is so much more that could be done, and a lot of the blockchain tech emerging offers clues as to how we can get there quickly. There are also a lot of old ideas masquerading as something shiny and new, so you kind of have to read the small print to distinguish what is a genuinely new proposition, but it is our job as members of marginal communities to educate ourselves and anticipate the best options.
HH: DAO came out of a piece that I wrote called Crossing the Interface, with a libretto by Reza Negarestani. The piece was my first venture into telematic performance, where a soprano (Amanda DeBoer) was in another geographic location, but the audience could hear her physical body moving throughout the space using ambisonics. I wanted her to be hyper present, and physically super human, moving in ways impossible to a human body, to be able to be in multiple places in the room at once, as eventually her voice and her body separate, stalking the room. I was trying to find a way to make something so clearly highly mediated, feel extremely personal and embodied at the same time, which seems appropriate for the DAO concept as it exists in the world – this simultaneously complex and distributed network that is also hyper intimate and moves with collective intent.
The vocal work that Amanda delivered while workshopping that performance was really great, so I used some of those outtakes for the vocal work in DAO. With the instrumental I was simply just trying to capture an atmosphere, a heavy energy with lots of wide stereo movement. It’s also really fun to play live with Colin, because he sings the soprano line with live processing, which creates a nice contrast of heavy electronics with extremely expressive alien vocals, taking the entire gender spectrum and contorting it into a circle.
MG: Do you have any plans to formalize any part of your creative collaboration to work on the blockchain?
MD: Holly and I are starting a studio after we finish this next album to more formally develop work and devices that exist in this new frontier, as it has been so instrumental in our discussions for the past few years. I describe it as a frontier deliberately, as if we are to task ourselves with actually experimenting with our work then it feels almost like a duty to get our hands dirty in these areas. We have already started work on two new projects in this domain, but it’s hard to tell when they will be ready to show to people, and what shape they will eventually take.
MG: OK. Last question, in light of the current suppression of the spirit of humanity by despots, and the rich buying up democracy for their own ends, what part do you see artists playing in the world of blockchain, to disrupt the regurgitation of an already bankrupt system?
MD: IMHO, there are two dimensions to this. First, I encourage artists to become familiar with the language and potential of blockchain technology, as there are a lot of opportunities to attempt to re-engineer how we experience, transact and grow community in the arts outside of centralized traditional channels. Real money is being made, and there is a lot of good will amongst the crypto community who invest faith that better systems can and will be constructed using these logics.
I also encourage artists to develop some fluency around the blockchain ecosystem, for exactly the reason that there needs to be wary and critical voices guarding the community from the business-as-usual corporate crowd, who are increasingly flexing their muscles and influencing the course of its development and maturity. By getting involved early, and being vocal, there is an opportunity to intercept plans for how this next internet runs, and who ultimately it will benefit.
The best case scenario is that we can develop our own systems along the blockchain to change music and the arts for the better. Alternately, we need critical voices active within these conversations to avert the worst case scenario of power consolidating itself even further outside of the greater public awareness.
I should say that the third wild card possibility is that blockchain technology is inherently flawed and infeasible once it has been properly stress tested at scale. Irrespective, if your mandate is to be experimenting, and abreast of where things may be going, there are fewer areas of interest more dynamic and potentially transformative. It’s a lot of fun to think about.
Most households have an unsolved Rubix Cube but you can easily solve it learning a few algorithms.