This article reflects on the hopes of Cyberfeminism in response to ‘Revisiting the Future: Technofeminism in the 21st Century‘, a panel discussion between Mindy Seu, Cornelia Sollfrank, Judy Wajcman, and chair Marie Thompson. This conversation took place on the 5th of October 2019 at the Barbican Centre in London, UK, as part of New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival.
BIG DADDY MAINFRAME
“What’s so special about Lisa? Oh, I’ve had a lot of computers, but my Lisa is different: she works the way I do”
Apple Lisa, video infomercial, 1983
Men, like gods, have always had a thing for creating entities in their own image. Gods create men, men will gods into existence. Men create tools, tools make men in turn. But what if the creator of technology is often a man, and a very specific kind of man? What are, then, the ways in which gender and technology construct one another?
Since the dawn of computation, men found it appealing to automate away the predictable and repetitive labour, often embodied and performed by women. In other words, technology has contributed (among a lot of other things) to the automation of traditional “women’s work”, and it did so on men’s terms . From the Girl-less, Cuss-less Phone, the first automated dial system (1892), to Lisa, the first personal Apple Computer (1983), to Siri and Alexa, digital assistants, (2011 and 2014), the designs of and designs for the pater ex machina have set the bar for the height of technological progress.
Cyberfeminism is a feminist genre that addresses questions of gender and technology while bringing their implications to the fore. Automation is not the only nor the central theme of Cyberfeminism: academics, activists, hackers, artists, women, and non-women tied to this genre, engage with broad questions of gender and technology based on the assumptions that:
Largely, grounded in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, Cyberfeminism as a movement was formally articulated in 1991 by the Adelaide based artist collective VNS Matrix. VNS designed a billboard titled “A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” depicting horned bodies, psychedelic vulvas and reciting: “[…]we are the virus of the new world disorder rupturing the symbolic from within; saboteurs of big daddy mainframe; the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.” That said, the origins of the genre can be traced more accurately as a decentralised global emergence. Cyberfeminism has come to life more like a granular collection of scattered raw data, and less like a single revelation happened at a defined point in time.
In the panel Revisiting the Future: Technofeminisms in the 21st Century, Mindy Seu, Cornelia Sollfrank, Judy Wajcman and Marie Thompson discussed the state of Cyberfeminism today.
ATTESTING TO THE REVIVAL
Chair Marie Thompson points out how, in the past decade, there seems to be a reinvigorated tendency for questions of Cyberfemnism. The increased mainstreaming of concerns around gender and technology in institutional contexts such as Girls Who Code, Women in Tech Festival, and countless diversity initiatives in tech companies are clear examples. To Thomson, the main question is “why should we struggle for Cyberfeminism now?”
“Silicon Valley can do [diversity inclusion campaigns]” says Judy Wajcman, “that’s fine, but what is the kind of big-scale change that must occur at institutional level?”. Wajcman emphasised how important it is to embed inclusion into the fabric of tech companies’ culture rather than it remaining a CSR exercise, or better, rather than supporting and reinforcing existing liberal frameworks.
According to Mindy Seu, Cyberfeminism revival is largely due to the need of big institutions to accumulate cultural capital which is often articulated in superficial measures such as cosmetic diversity initiatives. For Seu, similarly to Wajcman, the main question is ”how can we see feminist values embedded in the ethos of companies?”. Seu also points out how the ascension of women in big cultural (and tech) institutions are often not only hindered by the notorious “glass ceiling”, but also deliberately sabotaged through the so-called “glass cliff”. A glass cliff is a term used to describe a situation where a woman is nominated head of an organisation which is already crumbling. The intention is to signal externally that this organisation is making efforts to get back on track, or make amends for its corrupted past by hiring someone with a perceived higher ethical value. By doing so, the board actively sets up this woman (or anyone, really) to fail, because the organisation has larger structural problems that no person alone can solve (see recent board allegations concerning MIT Media Lab).
“It is as if nothing has happened in between the 90s and now,” Cornelia Sollfrank says. “This means that things [gender inequality within the tech industry] are staying the same, and maybe getting worse… These, mostly young, very young, women do not understand the historical precedents of Cyberfeminism.” While she seems to partially dismiss this revival as a fashion statement, her book ‘The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century’ sets out to counter this trend by connecting up the insights and practices of 90’s cyberfeminism with new techno-eco-feminists as part of an ongoing social and aesthetic activism.
RE-MAKING THE INTERNET
“This is not a book about women and technology. Nor was this book created for women. Throughout these pages, scholars, hackers, artists, and activists of all regions, races, sexual orientations, and genetic make-ups consider how humans might reconstruct themselves by way of technology. What is a woman anyway?”
Intro from Cyberfeminism Catalog 1990-2020, Mindy Seu, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2019
One strategy to challenge the dominant narrative of men as sole creators and geniuses, argues Seu, is to incorporate women’s voices in the history of computation. As she puts it: “We are taught to focus on engineering, the military-industrial complex, and the grandfathers who created the architecture and protocol. But the internet is not only a network of cables, servers, and computers. It is an environment that shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants.” In her Cyberfeminist index, Seu traces a detailed and precise overview of the diverse body of today’s practices.
Across the panel, there seemed to be a shared awareness of differences in terms of references, strategies, culture, and visual cultures among current activists and academic groups and across generations. One example that stands out is the South Korean Cyberfeminist group Megalia whose main strategy for activism has been online trolling. Looking at their logo, a hand making the gesture to indicate a man’s penis size, it is not hard to understand their style of communication. Megalia could be dismissed as a funny and naive case, but there are deep reasons why South Korean women have implemented such a strategy. For instance, feminism has only entered the public sphere less than a decade ago.
As Judy Wajcman points out, the dominant narratives in feminist discourse are set up by Western standards. For instance, in South America, she notes, Donna Haraway is not as strong an academic reference as in the West. Wajcman also argues that Haraway’s texts, despite advocating for socialist feminism and having strong political agendas, often lack the clarity and simplicity to be accessed by anyone who does not belong to the hyper educated Western academia elite. Seu points the attention towards the fact that Haraway supposedly decided to use contrived language intentionally (as a hack), in order to be deemed interesting and relevant in academic context.
Cyberfeminism is relevant today more than ever when addressing topics of responsibility, agency, materiality, care, and anthropocentrism. In this sense, Cyberfeminism today transcends identity politics: it becomes an essential cultural tool with respect to survival, equality, and sustainability.
Cyberfeminism can be defined as “a genre of contemporary feminism which foregrounds the relationship between cyberspace, the Internet and technology.” 
To foreground is the action of pushing objects that are necessary in the background to the fore. That is bringing the hidden, compounded, interchangeable, opaque to a position that is close enough to the viewer to be observed. In other words, turning the distant and neglected “other” into voices and materials that can be seen, heard, interrogated.
To bring the back to the fore is, on the one hand, to question men’s protagonism, self- importance, and arrogance, thus attempting to dismantle not only the centrality of men as male humans, but that of humanity as a whole. Anthropocentrism has been at the core of technological developments. Humans have predominantly designed for human comfort (with the standard for “human” being effectively set up by men) narrowing down the possibilities of what technologies could be or do.
Complimentarily, foregrounding is also the practice of exposing the material and toxic aspects of technological progress and production both in terms of human labour and ecological implications, from e-waste to amounts of energy voraciously consumed by computational tools and infrastructures, to labour-heavy mining of rare earth minerals.
In stark contrast with the early days of eco-feminism which was expressively anti-technology, the panel maps out emerging strands of (techno) eco-feminism that critically engage with questions of gender, cyberspace, and ecology from a holistic perspective. This approach is not in opposition of technological tools, but rather in conversation with them. In this sense, techno-eco-feminism is close to the Haraway’s idea of questioning scientific methods not with the goal to invalidate them, but rather to ask “what are ways in which science can be used for emancipatory purposes?”
Artwork by Cecilia Serafini
from New Suns Festival 2019
Screenshot of Siri by Chiara Di Leone
The English tranlsation of The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Cornelia Sollfrank. Can be found here – http://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=976 and all decent book retailers.
On the 20th of September, Tatiana Bazzichelli and Lieke Ploeger opened the 17th conference of the Disruption Network Lab with CITIZENS OF EVIDENCE to explore the investigative impact of grassroots communities and citizens engaged to expose injustice, corruption, and power asymmetries.
Citizen investigations use publicly available data and sources to autonomously verify facts. More and more often ordinary people and journalists work together to provide a counter-narrative to the deliberate disinformation spread by news outlets of political influence, corporations, and dark money think-tanks. However, journalists and citizens reporting on matters in the public interest are targeted because of the role they play in ensuring an informed society. The work of independent investigation is often delegitimised by public authorities and denigrated in a wave of generalisations against ‘the elites’ and media objectivity, actually designed to undermine independent information and stifle criticism. It appears to be a global process that aims at blurring progressively the boundary between what is fake and what is real, growing to such a level that traditional mainstream media and governments seem incapable of protecting society from a tide of disinformation.
An increasingly Orwellian campaign for the purpose discredit upon them has been built for years against citizens and activists opposing the project of a controversial high-speed rail line for freight trains between Italy and France, which is considered useless and harmful. The Disruption Network Lab conference opened with the keynote GHOSTS IN THE WOODS AND UNCANNY ENTITIES: On How to Cover the Italian «NO TAV» Movement by Wu Ming 1, who spent three years among the people of the Susa Valley opposing this mega-infrastructural project.
As the moderator, author, and filmmaker Alexandra Weltz-Rombach explained, Wu Ming is a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors formed in Bologna after the experience of the Luther Blissett project. For almost 20 years the literary collective has been writing essays, meta-historical novels, and creative narrative, using often the techniques of investigative journalism. Today it is widely appreciated for its capability to deconstruct and analyse complex aspects of social and political life, challenging long-existing paradigms and traditions and synthesizing the views of different minds, to build an alternative narration on facts, inspiring unconventional critical process. Wu Ming 1 explored the Susa Valley and the woods occupied by police and wire fences, experiencing the struggle of a community in its territories, to write a history-as-novel take on the most enduring and radical environmental protest in contemporary Italy, known as No-TAV (TAV stands for Treno Alta Velocità – High Speed Train). To do so, he walked, mapped the territory, and ‘evoked ghosts’. The history of a country can be described by the history of its borders and the Susa Valley is a borderland in the mountains. Probably where Hannibal walked with his army to cross the Alps, since the early 90s it has been projected another huge tunnel inside the mountains, in a long-standing tradition of railroad-tunnels built sacrificing lives and health.
To understand the No-TAV struggle we can go back in time. To when the TAV-railway was first projected, and contextually the opposition of local communities started. But also, back in time to all the conflicts that have been fought on these mountains, which are “full of ghosts” as the author said. Wu Ming 1 explained that in literature and popular tradition, a ghost appears when there is an unresolved story, a wasted life that ended badly. Borderlands are the places where the most of ghosts are to be found. In the Susa Valley, ghosts are suppressed memories of wars and of social conflicts that shaped the territory.
Wu Ming published several works on environmental and climatic issues and wrote a lot about mountains too. Almost 78% of Italian territory is covered by mountains or hills. Their iconic representation has been at time twisted by nationalism, militarism and machismo. The Alps were “sacred borders of the fatherland” – nature to conquer, a symbol of virility and power in fascist propaganda. Today those mountains are an obstacle to economic growth; a growth that might put at risk the whole Susa Valley. Thus, instead of tackling legitimate concerns, project Stakeholders have been seeking for 20 years to delegitimize those leveling the charges against the high-speed railway, despite the masses of evidence to support their claims, using intimidation and violence against them. But the no-TAV collectives’ claims have always been proven to be right, and the project has been declining in size over time. However, the fight within the Valley is still on and the TAV-project is far from being archived.
The panel on the first day, EXPOSING ABUSES: Citizens Recording Human Rights Violations from the US to The Gambia, introduced by Michael Hornsby of Transparency International, opened with a presentation by Melissa Segura, journalist of BuzzFeed News from the US. She documented allegations proving that the Chicago police officer Reynaldo Guevara had framed dozens of innocent people for murder. The reporter put a light on forgotten judiciary cases, giving voice to families and communities affected by injustices, hit by a profound brokenness that she experienced herself when her nephew was framed and arrested years before.
A group of black and Latino mothers, aunts, and sisters knew that their beloved were innocent, but no officials wanted to take up their cause. Segura met these women after they had been fighting for decades in search of justice. They began when the journalist was at her elementary school: “at the time they had already gathered in a team, collecting data and writing spreadsheets on Lotus” she recalled. They had no chance to be heard, no PR, no lobby, no support from media were available to them. Segura realized soon that the story she had to cover wasn´t just the conviction of a 19-year-old-boy sentenced in 1999 with 110 years of prison for a murder he did not commit. It was also about the community of women that were fighting for justice, it was about their lives.
She learnt soon that her sources were able to cover their own stories much better than how she could, showing her new paths to the truth. The journalist dedicated time to building a trusting relationship with them, giving full reassurance that their story would be fairly reported. After an intense three-year investigation, she succeeded in wearing down a key witness to testify, cracking the wall of impunity. This process, she said, “did not expose the harm of people, but tried to connect to it.”
Reynaldo Guevara has been beating up people, framing them, extorting false confessions and false witnesses for years. Since publishing Segura’s articles, seven innocent men have been freed, and dozens more convictions are under review.
In the context of the major movements that draw attention on issues such as injustice and police violence targeting specific communities and minorities in the US, policy and data analyst Samuel Sinyangwe decided to join the work of justice activist groups formed after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He is now part of the Police Scorecard project, and of the Campaign Zero independent platform he co-founded, designed to facilitate and guarantee the collection of data on these violations. Sinyangwe explained that, as of today, the US government has implemented neither collections of data on police misconducts, violence and killings, nor public database of disciplined police officers. In his view, US law enforcement agencies have failed to provide even basic information about the lives they have taken, in a country where at least three people are killed by police every day and black people are 3 times more probable to end up victims of brutal use of force by the police.
The independent observatory built by Sinyangwe seems to be quite effective. It is described as the most comprehensive accounting of people killed by police since 2013 in the US. A report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that approximately 1,200 people were killed by police between June 2015 and May 2016. The database identified 1.179 people killed by police over this same time period. These estimates suggest that it was able to capture 98% of the total number of police killings that occurred. Sinyangwe hopes these data will be used to provide greater transparency and accountability for police departments as part of the ongoing campaign to end police violence in black and Latino communities, leading to a change of policies.
With data able to map the situation in the US, it has also been possible to make comparisons and drew analyses. The Campaign Zero researches show that there is a whole false narrative about criminality rates, based on numbers that just mirror a system based on different federal policies regarding police forces, and that levels of violent crime in US cities do not determine rates of police violence.
According to data, cities with the same density of population have very different rates of violence, and very different rules regulating the activity of police agents. Starting from this, Sinyangwe and his team decided to look for different policy documents from different police department. These policies determine how and when a local policeman is authorized to use force. With a closer look, the Campaign Zero team could easily determine that there is no federal standard. Some documents live a grey area, others discourage the use of force, and particularly of deadly force, limiting it to the most dangerous scenarios after all lesser means of use of force have failed. Some seem to openly encourage it instead.
The group listed eight types of restrictions in the use of force to be found in these policies, consisting of escalators that aim at excluding, as far as possible, the use of violence. Comparisons show that a combination of these restrictions, when put in place, can produce a large reduction in police violence. Policies combining restrictions predicted indeed significantly lower rate of deathly force.
Data about unarmed people killed by police in major American cities show that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people (2013-2018). Movements such as Black Lives Matter started also because of this. Another problem is that it is extremely difficult to hold US police members accountable.
Sinyangwe underlined how it is necessary to research the components that predict police violence, and that can help hold officers accountable, to be sure that they are enforced by police departments.
Police union contracts – for example – can be considered an obstacle on the way to accountability and transparency. It is extremely rare to have a policeman convicted for a crime in the US. It is a systematic fact and it cannot be reduced just to the individuals, who are acting using brutal and deathful force. It is a matter of lack of training, lack of policies enhancing non-violent solutions, but there is also legislation that protects policemen from legal consequences. It is not easy even to sue a US policeman, as they are shielded by qualified immunity and often by confidential police records, limiting how officers are investigated and disciplined. As of today, this makes impossible to identify and punish misbehaviours, abuses, and responsibilities in most cases. According to Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on police killings to quantify the impact of US police violence in communities that Sinyangwe set up, 99% of cases in 2015 have not resulted in any officer involved being convicted for a crime.
The Campaign Zero platform is designed to be a tool able to enhance participation, foster accountability and transparency. It is an instrument to prevent killings and it calls for the adoption of a comprehensive package of urgent policy solutions – informed by data, research and human rights principles – that can change the way police serve communities.
The last panellist of the day was the participatory video facilitator from the UK, Gareth Benest, who presented the “Giving Voice to Victims of Grand Corruption in The Gambia” participatory video project. It is an initiative implemented on behalf of Transparency International in reaction to “The Great Gambia Heist” investigations by OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) revealed in March 2019, which allowed those affected by grand corruption to share their stories and present their truths in carefully edited video messages, and to give voice to those Gambians who are deprived from access to basic health, education, agriculture, and portable drinking water.
In Gambia, a truth and reconciliation commission has begun to investigate rights abuses during the 22-year-long dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh ended in 2017. OCCRP has exposed for the first time how the corrupted dictator and his associates plundered nearly 1 billion US$ of timber resources and Gambia’s public funds. Thousands of documents dated between 2011 and 2016, including government correspondence, contracts, and legal documents, bank records, internal investigations able to define in detail the level of corruption and impunity of the Gambian system.
After the end of Jammeh’s rule, authorities have declared they will shed light on corruption, extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights violations. It is an important process of reconciliation, but still the voices of the marginalized and rural citizens are not heard. ‘Giving Voice to Victims of Grand Corruption in The Gambia’ was meant to facilitate a process with Gambian community members to express their perspectives on local problems and ideas, translating them into a film.
Benest explained how such a project is supposed to enable these communities to focus on the issues they are affected by and move towards changing their circumstances.
The participatory video is a technique that has been used to fight injustice in different contexts for many years. Benest recalled recent projects involving a community displaced by diamond-mining, young people excluded from poverty eradication strategies, widows made landless by customary leaders, and island residents threatened with forced evictions by land grabbers. In his work, the facilitator encourages equal participation and rotation of rules within the team. Participants control every aspect of the video making, from the process to the final result. Self-directed and self-organised videos become a communication tool that allows participant to build a dialogue for positive change.
The second day of the Disruption Network Lab conference opened with the keynote speech of Matthew Caruana Galizia, WHAT INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATORS DON’T USUALLY DISCLOSE, in which he addressed issues freelancers investigating high-level corruption face in silence and isolation, often with tragic consequences. The journalist, in conversation with Crina Boros, talked about the background of his mother, the Maltese reporter and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed on the 16th of October 2017, outlining the risks and the outcomes of her dangerous and brave work.
Her murder had been planned in detail for a long time. Killers were arrested, but the mandators haven’t been identified yet, and the criminal investigation is not moving forward. Daphne Galizia’s family is pushing the issue internationally and within Malta, knowing that without doing something this case would just disappear from news headlines without solution. Anti-corruption investigative journalists are arrested, threatened, and killed everywhere. People just vanish, and no justice is done.
For the 15 years before her death, Daphne Caruana Galizia had been appearing in 65 court cases filed against her. Her bank account was frozen; she was a victim of media campaigns against her; and she was sued by politicians, businessmen, and other journalists too. Her son recalled when he was nine that their dog was found slaughtered, then the front door of their house was burnt down. Later on, one of their dogs was shot, and another poisoned. Threats and violence continued until their whole house was set on fire. No investigation was ever effectively put in place to find out the perpetrators of these crimes, though the journalist and her family had always pressed charges against unknown.
It is hard to be confronted with the pain and memories of personal events on a stage in front of an audience, but the issue of justice is too urgent. Even if talking about her gets more and more difficult every time, Matthew is travelling the world to keep fighting and demand justice for his mother.
Matthew had spent the last years working with his mother. The International corruption revealed by the Panama Papers – on which they were investigating – was not cause of resignations and public assumption of responsibility in Malta. Involved politicians and news outlets attacked with all available means independent journalists covering the cases. The pressure on Daphne intensified in such a way, that she was sued 30 times just in the last year before her death. In those moments she kept repeating to his son Matthew that, no matter how hopeless the situation, there is an urgency to strive to make corruption and responsibilities publicly known. The Maltese blogger was not naive, she was well aware that there was the risk of getting killed, as it happened to Anna Stepanowna Politkowskaja and many colleagues all over the world. But she did not give in.
Reviewing his mother’s life, Matthew mentioned a further aspect to consider: Daphne had to use much of her time and money to defend herself inside trials against her, which were long and very expensive. She had passion and abilities. She was so talented that she could publish a magazine about food, architecture, and design – on which she spent just a couple of days a month – to earn money enough to carry on with her independent investigation work, and pay for her legal defence.
When there is a whole system against you, you need very good lawyers, you need expertise, you need money to pay for it. The Maltese blogger spent a whole career overcoming the obstacles of a corrupted system and she self-sustained economically, making sacrifices. Although all this, still, his son Matthew and her family are convinced that the solution must come through the judicial way, using available legal instruments, and making pressure on EU institutions at the highest levels. That is why Matthew Caruana Galizia asks everybody for commitment in a demand of radical change. Malta is part of the European Union, as he keeps on repeating.
Someone has been trying to silence Daphne for years before her murder. They must have gotten to the conclusion that the only way to shut her up was an assassination, for the purpose to cancel her stories with her, as her son Matthew sadly commented. To avoid this happening, several newspapers and investigative organisations joined the «Daphne Project» a global consortium of 18 international media including Reuters, The Guardian, and Le Monde, to continue the work of the Maltese journalist. They are led by the group Forbidden Stories, whose mission is to continue the work of silenced journalists. They stand together because they think that even if you kill a journalist like Caruana Galizia, her investigations cannot be buried with her. Thanks to the Daphne Project, and the courage and determination of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family, her investigation lives on.
Matthew stressed the fact that it’s not about the future of one politician, or of a specific criminal group. It is about the future of Malta and the EU. Journalists who defend democracy are alone when they face the repercussions of what they do. It is necessary to make sure that when there are outcomes due to effective journalism, a society trained to react and self-organise can pick up the investigative work, defend independent investigation, and ask for political accountability within a public discussion. In Malta, nothing of this ever happened, and Daphne became more isolated.
Grassroot citizens organisations are fundamental to boost activism inside local communities and demand for justice. In cases like Daphne’s, no one is going to do it if not organised citizens, together with independent journalists and organisations. Many killed journalists had neither a family nor an organisation that could fight on for them. Maltese Police seem to have never developed professional skills to effectively work on this kind of criminal cases, and the few results from recent years were from the FBI in the USA. Criminals within a system that guarantees impunity can easily develop better skills.
Moreover, in Malta, investigations have a very poor rate of success and in Daphne’s case, we just know how she was murdered. But the political atmosphere, in which this murder matured, has been untouched for these last two years, and the journalist’s family is worried the official inquiry that just started in the country is neither independent nor impartial. Members of the Board of Inquiry, they claim, have conflicts of interests at different levels, either because they were part of previous investigations or because they have ties to subjects who may be investigated now.
In the last panel of the conference, as Bazzichelli explained, the discussion focused on the connection between grassroots investigations and data analysis, and how it is possible to make sensitive data accessible without restriction and open them to the public, facilitating the publication of large datasets.
M C McGrath and Brennan Novak, introduced by moderator Shannon Cunningham, presented a tool designed to enable the publishing of data in searchable archives and the sorting through large datasets. The group builds free software to collect and analyse open data from a variety of sources. They work with investigative journalists and human rights organisations to turn that into useful, actionable knowledge. Their Transparency Toolkit is accessible to activists and citizen journalists, as well as those who lack resources or technical skills. Until a few years ago only big media organisations with particularly good technical resources could set up such instrumentation. The two IT experts decided to increase the use and the impact of open information, considering participation as a key factor to reduce the difficulties caused by relying only on media outlets or single journalists to cover complex facts or analyse large datasets.
As M C McGrath and Novak explained, Transparency Toolkit uses open data “to watch the watchers” and to hold powerful individuals and groups accountable. At the moment, their primary focus is investigating surveillance and human rights abuses, like in the case of the Hacking Team leaks in July 2015.
Hacking Team is an Italian company specialising in surveillance software and in very effective Trojans able to slip into computers and smartphones, allowing a secret and total surveillance. Four years ago, 400 GB of their data was anonymously published online, showing how the IT company had been working for authoritarian governments with questionable human rights records, to ensure they can use such software to spy on activists, journalists, and political opponents, in countries like Morocco, Dubai, Ethiopia, Mexico and Sudan. Transparency Toolkit mirrored the full Hacking Team dataset to make it more available to journalists and security researchers investigating these issues. It released a searchable archive of 200GB of emails categorized by companies, countries, events, and other subjects discussed.
Other important projects from the Transparency Toolkit team are the Surveillance Industry Index (SII) developed together with Privacy International (a searchable archive featuring over 1500 brochures about surveillance technology, data on over 520 surveillance companies, and nearly 500 reported exports of surveillance technologies), the Snowden Document Search (the first comprehensive database of Snowden documents initiated which aims to preserve its historical impact), and ICWATCH – a platform born to collect and analyse resumes of people working in the intelligence community, contractors, the military, and intelligence. These resumes are useful for uncovering new surveillance programs, learning more about known codewords, identifying which companies help with which surveillance programs, examining trends in the intelligence community, and more. ICWATCH provides a collection of over 100,000 of these resumes from LinkedIn, Indeed, and other public sources, and now searchable with a search engine called LookingGlass.
The last part of this panel was than dedicated to the Dictator Alert project, a website that tracks the planes of authoritarian regimes all over the world. Available networks censor the information about planes of intelligence, military, authorities, and heads of state. This project, run by Emmanuel Freudenthal and François Pilet with support from OCCRP, began as an open-source computer program to identify planes belonging to dictators flying over Geneva. The program mined data from a network of antennas used by plane spotters and shared its alerts via Twitter. Today, Dictator Alert uses data from ADSB-Exchange, as well as several antennas installed by the team of researchers themselves. The details of each plane captured by the antennas are compared with a list of aircrafts registered or regularly used by authoritarian regimes. When a match is found, a message is published on the website.
Freudenthal presented the methodology of acquiring information behind Dictator Alert. Some people in the audience disagreed with the panellists, arguing that a reductive definition for ‘dictator’ might questionably influence the outcomes of the project, considering that some elected leaders from countries listed as democracies are also responsible for crimes, secrets, and human rights violations. The investigative journalist responded by explaining that Dictator Alert is orientated using the Democracy Index published by The Economist. The Index appeared first in 2006, categorising countries as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes, based on 60 indicators grouped in different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties, and political culture.
The Disruption Network Lab organised the workshop Berlin’s Sky, An Afternoon Investigation on the day following the 17th Conference. Participants gathered in the former Berliner airport Tempelhofer Feld to conduct guided research using antennas and laptops to track the sky and spot anomalies above the city.
The conference closed with the investigation by Forensic Architecture – Horizontal Verification and the Socialised Production of Evidence. Team member Robert Trafford presented the organisation founded to investigate human rights violations using a range of techniques, flanking classical investigation methods including open-source investigation video analysis, spatial and architectural practice, and digital modelling. They work with and on behalf of communities who have been affected by state and military violence, producing evidence for legal forums, human rights organisations, investigative reporters and media, as well as for arts and cultural institutions.
In Trafford´s analyses, conflict, violence, and human rights violations have become heavily mediatised and because of the “open source revolution” and smartphones, facts are often documented and relayed to the world by fragments of video material. Media sometimes report about these facts in ways which seem to make them less clear, instead of allowing better understanding. Forensic Architecture is in part a set of technical and theoretical tools for unpacking those mediatised facts, to access the truth which often exists behind and between the fragments of files that are released or leaked, to prove human rights violations. It relies on the prevalence of open source video material and tries to put an order in the fake-news and post-truth communication, offering a new model for collectively and collaboratively constructing truths. Trafford pointed out how people today, who seem to be widely rejecting the idea of institutions that they might previously have trusted to assemble facts and information, are still able to accomplish this delicate task. Often truth seems to be created elsewhere, possibly behind a wall of closed sources. The Internet and the consequent open-source revolution exploded the stability of that classic system of information, and those institutions are no longer providing truths around which people are willing or able to orient themselves. For better or worse, the vertical has been supplanted by the horizontal, Trafford said.
As those institutions falter, there is a certain breed of political actors – largely from populist and far-right parties – that have been gaining mediatic and institutional power all over the world for the last five years, encouraging the public to believe that our societies are soaked in misinformation, and that there is no possibility of reaching out and acquiring reliable facts we can all agree on and orient ourselves with.
More and more often, online and offline, we read of individuals saying that we should not trust traditional news outlets or institutions that encourage us to believe that they can guarantee independent and free information. It is under this cover of equivocation and uncertainties that the human rights violations of the 21st century are being carried out and subsequently concealed.
Forensic Architecture’s challenge is to expose this misrepresentation of things, and to offer a kind of counter truth to official versions of relevant facts. Its researchers collect little grains, clues they find inside videos, pictures, and articles that try to organise in certain ways, reassembling them into an independent analysis. By using different perspectives into ongoing practice in which the development of facts and evidence is socialized, the project encourages open and horizontal verification.
The moderator of this last session of the conference, Laurie Treffers, mentioned the idea of counter forensics. By integrating and working across different forms of knowledge, and across different institutions and disciplines – which may at times appear like they have nothing in common or that they speak in entirely different registers – horizontal verification is about unifying those for reasons of mutual protection, mutual security, and mutual reinforcement.
Trafford gave examples of Forensic Architecture’s work, such as working closely with the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, the Tel Aviv-based Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Haifa, when they examined the environmental and legal implications of the Israeli practice of aerial spraying of herbicides along the Gaza border.
To this end, the investigation sought to define if and how airborne herbicides travel into Gaza; how far into its territories they entered; what concentration of herbicide and what damage to the farmland on the Gazan side of the border can be calculated. The analysis of several first-hand videos, collected in the field, revealed that aerial spraying by commercial crop-dusters flying on the Israeli side of the border generally mobilises the wind to carry the chemicals into the Gaza Strip at damaging concentrations. This is a constant primary effect.
The videos used for the investigations supported the testimonies of farmers that, prior to spraying, the Israeli military uses the smoke from a burning tire to confirm the westerly direction of the wind, thereby carrying the herbicides from Israel into Gaza.
Forensic Architecture modelled the Israeli flight paths and geo-located them, compared metadata and video material, and engaged fluid dynamics experts from the University of London to look at what the potential distribution of those chemicals would be from the heights that the plane was flying, in the wind conditions that could be calculated. The investigation proves that each spray leaves behind a unique destructive signature.
“Along with the regular bulldozing and flattening of residential and farmland, aerial herbicide spraying is one part of a slow process of ‘desertification’, that has transformed a once lush and agriculturally active border zone into parched ground, cleared of vegetation,” Trafford said.
Analyses of the evidence derived from vegetation on the ground, civilian testimony, and the environmental elements mobilized in the spraying event showed that the Israeli practice of aerial fumigation at times when the wind is blowing into Gaza causes damage to farmland hundreds of meters inside the fields.
Once again, the Disruption Network Lab created a forum for discussion, to define the role of citizens in making a change in the information sphere, highlighting local and international stories, tools, and tactics for social change built on courageous grassroots reporting and investigations. The Disruption Network Lab invited guests to challenge laws that effectively criminalise journalism and whistleblowing. The conference went beyond the usual dichotomy between journalists and activists, official media and independent media, and opened up a dialogue among different expertise to discuss and present opportunities of collaboration to report misinformation, corruption, abuse, power asymmetries, and injustice.
CITIZENS OF EVIDENCE presented experts working on anti-corruption, investigative journalism, data policy, political activism, open source intelligence, video storytelling, whistleblowing, and truth-telling, who shared community-based stories to increase awareness on sensitive subjects. Bottom-up approaches and methods that include the community in the development of solutions appear to be fundamental. Projects that capacitate collectives, minorities, and marginalized communities, to develop and exploit tools to systematic combat inequalities, injustices, and impunity are to be enhanced.
Moreover, on the 29th of October, the CPJ published the 2019 Global Impunity Index, putting a spotlight on countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free. During the 10-year index period, 318 journalists were murdered for their work worldwide and no perpetrators have been successfully prosecuted in 86% of those cases. Last year, CPJ recorded complete impunity in 85% of cases. Historically, this number has been closer to 90%. All participants at the conference expressed their concern about this situation.
It is important to doubt and require a double-check over relevant news, as governments and private corporations have proved too often, that they prefer secret and manipulation to transparency and accountability. It is also important to verify constantly if media outlets, or a single journalist, are actually independent. But this shall not be used to weaken independent information and undermine the principles of particular constitutional importance regarded as ‘higher law’ on which it is based. Journalists and citizen reporters are already alone in their work.
CITIZENS OF EVIDENCE was curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, developed in cooperation with Transparency International. It was the third in Disruption Network Lab’s 2019 series ‘The Art of Exposing Injustice’. Videos of the conference are also available on YouTube. For details of speakers and topics, please visit the event page here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/citizens-of-evidence.
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The next Disruption Network Lab event ‘ACTIVATION – COLLECTIVE STRATEGIES TO EXPOSE INJUSTICE’ is planned for November 30th, in Kunstquartier Bethanien Berlin. More info here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/activation
Elena Veronese for Disruption Network Lab
Graphic courtesy of Disruption Network Lab
When I enter the arebyte Gallery, I am immediately confronted with Ami Clarke’s Lag Lag Lag, a multi-screen installation displaying the structural model of BPA (Bisphenol A). This compound is a synthetic oestrogen which is a byproduct in plastic manufacturing processes. Its molecules have been recently found in water supplies around the world and are linked to hormonal imbalance. We are consuming molecules of plastic and are bodies are becoming such. BPA is beautifully modelled, a sculptural work in its own right, which is peacefully rotating on the screen. Underneath it, there is a looped script. I managed to grasp a sentence “Capitalism as a state of contingency becomes modus operandi.”
When Lag Lag Lag’s screen switches, it shows fluctuations in stock pice of the top 100 polluting companies in the world, the same big stakeholders who are responsible for over 70% of Earth’s pollutions. These statistics are accompanied by sentiment analysis of Tweets, also showing different datasets which are being analysed; emotional, joy, disgust, fear, sadness. Most often used in marketing for specific audience targeting, it indicates how our minute online actions can also be used to influence the already violent financial market.
Clarke’s virtual reality work, Derivative, could as well be a digital trip to London in the aftermath of capitalism. Right after entering the experience, one can hear birds singing into the void and the wind carrying sand throughout the city maze. Its particles make up conical slopes in the corners between translucent buildings, which break up the surroundings into diamond-shaped fragments. I overcome them, slide a few inches above the ground by moving my thumb forward on the VR controller, which is increasingly making me lightheaded. The environment is blanketed with orange, eerie fog, reminiscent of the scenery from Blade Runner.
Further, the monotony of the landscape is interrupted by glimmering writing above the water surface. I set it as my destination, and move forward to it. The city is larger than it seems and it takes me a while to get close enough to read it. Still, I encounter no other living thing, only the lasers scanning through the buildings and my body, as if looking for sings of life. Eventually, I get to the end of the city, where I read the neon-green gothic script:
Welcome to the Offshore City
the city within the city
the tax haven
within the heart of Britain
Now I know what this place is and I dive further into the Offshore City, the tax haven for foreign investors, the headquarters for international companies, the slowly-beating heart of the world economy, supported by an invisible pump of the market. This time I am following a massive, burning sun and I encounter places modelled on London’s recognisable landmarks, such as Number 1 Poultry in Cheapside, an infamous suicide spot for depressed bankers, and, at the same time, one of the City’s oldest addresses, named “The Heart of the City”.
By using the lens of finance, Clarke points to both micro- and macro-scale of the environmental disaster and provides an unusual exploration of it. The accompanying rationalisation and monetisation feeds off the situation, and the capitalist system is shown as merciless and capable of using any opportunity to monetise on the dying planet. The lifeless scenery of Derivative directs attention to the inability of capitalist, finance-driven system to deal with its own creation in the light of planetary future.
Only halfway through my time at arebyte, I realise that there are more pairs of eyes in the space than I thought. In three places in the exhibition space, there are installations made of prosthetic eyeballs, glued to the wall, their pupils fixated on various areas in the space. On the one hand, their synthetic, static gaze is reminiscent of the the all-seeing eyes of the CCTV cameras, on the other, they suggest disembodiment as in the sentiment analysis, whereby feelings are mechanically extracted and translated into data. Are we becoming cyborgs, or have we become them already?
The exhibition is a complex puzzle. It tackles difficult subjects, speculating in language, social media and economy. It is a powerful and slightly depressing, but intriguing picture. This dystopian vision of the future prompts questions; is it possible to re-imagine it? Can we come up with new narratives and stories and use speculation as a tool for revisioning the future? Where am I, as a viewer, positioned in the power relations imposed by the corporations and what freedoms do I have? At the time when the issues relating to the climate crisis are debated more than ever before, Ami Clarke’s The Underlying enters the conversation to problematise it through the exploration of technology, proposing a multilayered analysis of human and non-human agencies in the environmental catastrophe.
The above dystopian playlist was made in response to the exhibition. Recommended: listen while reading the review or on your way to the show.
The Underlying. Ami Clarke. Runs until Sat 16 Nov 2019.
3 October 2019 – 5 January 2020, Daily. Free Entry
The roar of an airplane is a familiar sound for many parts of west London, home to one of the busiest airports in the world and the subject of a new exhibition, Air Matters at Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, just a few miles away from Heathrow.
Echoing the experience of hearing an aircraft in action, sound itself plays an integral part in the show and leads with The Substitute (2019) by Hermione Spriggs and Laura Cooper. Through overhead speakers outside the main entrance, visitors are greeted by an authoritative voice musing on the fate of local flocks in an airspace strictly controlled by humans and their contraptions, intermittently reciting names of affected birds like a tribute, and ultimately urging listeners to “work with nature” which sets a critical tone.
The audio installation is reminiscent of public announcements at airports, a strategy that continues into the foyer with Frequency (2019) by Louise K Wilson. It features intimate anecdotes of air travel through resonance devices on a skylight roof where planes might fly by at any moment. Speaking softly akin to ASMR, one person wonders about the destinations of travellers, while another recalls vivid memories of flights that seem traumatic, bouncing back and forth between excitement and anxiety.
The theme reaches its crescendo inside the gallery, with a mixture of ambient sounds reverberating across the space from Ascending Composition I (For Planes) (2019) by Kate Carr, an atmospheric concoction of incidental noises recorded around Heathrow including birds, markets, and trains on tracks. With pocket-sized media players attached to deconstructed speakers on strings of fabric, the installation documents an intervention that already took place when the work itself flew up on balloons blasting whispers from the ground, a small but meaningful gesture challenging the sonic waves of jumbo jets that dominate the surrounding sky and soundscape.
This act of defiance flows into Skyport (2019) by Magz Hall, a mixed media installation with a set of frequency scanners emitting an unsettling static. The title refers to a pirate radio station based along a Heathrow flightpath in the 1970s, illustrated with archival images and texts from an attempt to reclaim airwaves colonised by traffic control and engine noise. The work emulates this spirit with an LCD screen broadcasting airport channels as visual wavelengths, the contents of which are protected as classified information in UK law, consequently questioning ownership, access, and authority over radio frequencies.
The symphony of sounds become unavoidable throughout, and there is a possibility that it might grow vexing for some, perhaps more so for the people that work here who may not have a choice but to hear it again and again. Yet, as irksome as that might be, it is a crucial part of what makes this show effective. The audible pieces collectively transform the spaces into simulations of airport lounges and peripheral towns, simultaneously mimicking and counteracting oppressive noises from airplanes and terminals that have become inevitable in contemporary life, irrespective of its value and/or harm.
Beyond aural tendencies, the exhibition reaches further by considering scale and movement. The sheer volume of Capsule (2019) by Nick Ferguson is an imposing presence in the gallery with a wooden sculpture modelled after the wheel bay of a Boeing 777, floating a few inches off the ground and hovering over visitors. Shown alongside printed images of microscopic substances found in a real plane, it orchestrates a juxtaposition between the enormity of a flying machine and the imperceptible residue it accumulates, revealing traces from the many places it has been including sand, spores, and bacteria.
A map nearby, Heathrow (Volumetric Airspace Structures) (2019) by Matthew Flintham, takes the viewer back to west London with a bird’s eye view of the airport complex. Presented on a table that might be used for urban planning, military operation, or board games, it illustrates the topography of the area highlighting a vast infrastructure beneath large sections of controlled airspace, seemingly encroaching on everything else which becomes almost invisible or insignificant.
Navigating the show functions as an exercise of remembrance in many ways, bringing to mind a number of issues that have been at the forefront of public discourse in recent years: from the role of aviation on climate change, to its impact on local communities and ecosystems around airports. And it comes, as if on cue, at a period of heightened environmental concern, propelled most prominently by the Extinction Rebellion movement and climate activist Greta Thunberg, ringing the alarm on the perils of flying.
The controversial Heathrow Airport Expansion also comes through in this context, caught between government plans for future economic growth, and the ongoing resistance from neighbouring residents with campaigns like Stop Heathrow Expansion, No Third Runway Coalition, and Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise.
It conjures up conflicting perspectives that unpack a classic dilemma for a society in flux. On one hand, the flight industry is evidently harmful because of its pollution to the planet and the unfair toll on local hosts. Yet, on the other, it is part of a system that facilitates international trade, freedom of movement, and cultural exchanges, each one increasingly more accessible to broader people beyond a privileged few who will always have it. And while it has serious problems that must be addressed, some of which are rightly pointed out here, a world without it entirely is at risk of descent into tribalism and isolationism.
With so much at stake at this particular time and place, the exhibition feels important for its worthwhile attempt in raising these pertinent questions through art, successfully using Heathrow as a case study for matters that undoubtedly have wider implications.
Like the rumble of a plane and many works in this show, the politics of flying will become inescapable as air travel is projected to almost double in size by 2036, despite recent backlash from flight shaming, the rise of staycation, and a spotlight on frequent flyers. The solutions to its unintended consequences are not as straightforward as it might seem, and will likely require a nuanced approach combining systemic changes, paradigm shifts, technological developments, and personal adjustments, all of which cannot come soon enough.
Air Matters: Learning From Heathrow is at Watermans Arts Centre until 5 January 2020. Curated by Nicholas Ferguson in collaboration with Klio Krajewska. Supported by Arts Council England, Forma, London Borough of Hounslow, Kingston School of Art, and Richmond University.
Featured main image: Kate Carr. Image 11. NF. Ascending Composition 1 (For planes). Mixed media, 2019. Included in Air Matters: Learning from Heathrow. 3 October – 5 January 2019.
Jan Robert Leegte’s ‘Clear Obscure’ exhibition fills the Genieloods with drawings and performances. The drawings refer to the practice of chiaroscuro from the Renaissance period. The computer performances range from document performances and synthetic wildernesses to recitations from behind the wall of the black box. As architecture the installation mirrors the environment of Fort bij Vijfhuizen, creating an immersive landscape of multiple perspectives, fragments and times – http://tiny.cc/4ojibz
Review: Synthetic wilderness and performative machines
Often when media art is exhibited, all the cables, media players, screws and other wires are carefully hidden, taped away or painted over, concealing the items that are necessary to exhibit the artwork. Not with Jan Robert Leegte, in his solo exhibition ‘Clear Obscure’ at Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen, all the structures of the projection panels are visible on the back, the climate system is obviously present in the space and his pastel drawings are ‘naked’ within the frame without any glass to protect them. This choice is representative for Leegte’s interest in transparency in relation to technology, which was introduced as a term in computer programming in in 1969 that “would form the foundation of computer interaction that everyone could intuitively understand – at the cost of hiding all inner workings of the machine.”  In 2019 almost all complexities, such as code, are carefully hidden behind intuitive user-friendly interfaces. But if we can’t really see it, can we still fully understand what is going on behind our LCD screens?
Within the exhibition, that took place in the industrial Genieloods of the Kunstfort, several pastel drawings are hanging from the metal walls. These drawings are simple in design but extremely powerful in form; in thin white and black lines Leegte translates digital forms like clickable tabs or bars to the physical world, moving closer to the bodily act of actually pressing buttons.
With these works (and maybe also with the brilliant title of the exhibition), he directly refers to the art historical tradition of chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark, essential to his 2D sculptures on brown paper. Next to 2D works, the space is also filled with the sound of a voice, monotonously reciting names and email addresses. No Consent (A recitation of everybody I ever emailed with) (2018), is a single channel audio work exploring the boundaries of exposing digital private information. Like a dadaist poem, the software uses existing data – Leegte’s mailbox – to compile a exhibitionistic ballad, exposing everyone Leegte has ever emailed with.
Another theme, often occurring in Leegte’s works is the relation with nature and tradition of land art, perfectly fitting with the green surroundings of Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen situated in the middle of the polder of the Haarlemmermeer. Leegte is no stranger when it comes to connecting land art with the digital; in 2013 he recreated the Robert Smithson’s iconic landmark ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970) in Minecraft. At the Kunstfort, the relation with nature and how nature is read through technology becomes clear in his work Repositions (2018-2019), consisting of three larger than life projections. The three projected landscapes, all different in color and feel, hypnotically shift into new positions before the viewers eyes. Most striking must be the Yves Klein blue monochrome landscape, which is as a matter of fact, a Google Maps screenshot of one of the deepest parts of the ocean in the middle of the pacific. On the other side one of the highest point of the world in Tibet deviates within the frame of the projection in pink/orange tones interspersed with white snow and emerald green spots – representing man-made lithium mines. While the landscapes continuously move and tilt within the frame, every composition seems to be different.
By using live algorithms, Leegte makes the landscapes dance, while performing a sequence of poses like two vogue dancers battling against each other at a ball. This dance, set in motion by a human through code but performed by a machine reminds of Bruce Nauman’s Wall/Floor Positions (1968) where the artist moves through numerous poses in relation to the wall and floor, using his body to analyze the space. At the Kunstfort the computer is the performer that explores the space of its own frame. Performativity has not always been linked to technology because it has traditionally has been associated with “intentionality, reflexivity, sense-making, embodiment, repetition and transgression”, while the technological “refers to deterministic operations without semiotic or affective qualities.”  But in current times and within processes that require human input in the form of data or code the separation between human agency and nonhuman procedurality has blurred and have entered a steady relation of performativity.
Just like the landscapes of Repositions, the nature within the single channel video Synthetic Wilderness is not inhabited by humans. The new wilderness seen from above is completely computer simulated and looks like a perfect green environment at first sight with leafs crackling soothing in the wind while casting light shadows in the lush grass. At the same time this picture of paradise is quite alarming; we struggle to preserve nature on our planet and battle climate change but we keep improving in creating digital nature in video game engines. What if that is all we have left in the end?
Leegte’s oeuvre is filled with art historical references, explorations between the digital and nature, between human presence and absence, transparency and opaqueness. The world that Leegte presents to spectators is one that is often abstracted but still recognizable, visually attractive and beautiful. At the same time his interpretations of notions of privacy online and the way we see nature through technology are a warning; we should have a closer look at the non-transparent omnipresent technologies that shape our daily lives and the way we look at the world.
Jan Robert Leegte (1973, the Netherlands) lives and works in Amsterdam. He recently participated in seminal exhibitions such as Electronic Superhighway at Whitechapel Gallery in London, and Open Codes at ZKM Karlsruhe. His work has been exhibited in venues such as MAAT Lisbon, MOTI Breda, iMal Brussels, and Nomade Art Space in Hangzhou. Leegte’s first solo show was Sculpting the Internet (2017) at Upstream Gallery.
I discovered a tiny new slice of London just a short walk away from Furtherfield. It was an unused car park tucked away on the edge of a commercial estate once host to a vibrant textile industry, transformed temporarily into a project space dubbed as Tottenham Pavilion.
For six weekends from August with its pop-up tent and rustic outdoor furniture, it hosted hands-on experiences on art-making which culminated in a public exhibition featuring an eclectic accumulation of pictures, texts, objects, and structures made on site by locals for locals.
A mixed media installation emerged as a focal point, sprawling under the marquee with bamboo sticks planted on blocks of concrete like the skeleton of a building under construction. Works on paper and textile hung like leaves on a tree: from collages of found images mixing religious iconography, mass media, and art history; to hand-stitched and woven fabrics gently combined with colourful beads; and zines with micro-stories in poetry and prose.
Elsewhere, there were sculptures made from styrofoam, wooden sticks, reflective sheets, and plaster that altogether seemed like artefacts from an ancient tribe; a figurative mural depicting a changing urban landscape with different buildings that seem to rise up and fall back unto itself; abstract paintings filled with familiar gestures of freedom laid by several hands; and a map of drawings by visitors attempting to visualise their journey to the site – altogether weaving a sense of place in an otherwise vacuous space.
It can be hard to tell where a body of work begins and ends, which may have been its strength. The works collectively function as a singular site-specific installation of disparate components tethered together by a shared conceptual and spacial approach.
Yet this idea is not a new concept as such. The Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park exists for roughly the same purposes; Peckham Levels in south London similarly transformed a seven-storey car park into a creative hub; and Furtherfield itself revitalised two spaces in Finsbury Park to decentralise art and technology. Well-known artists like Tania Bruguera and Jeremy Deller have also been known to engage with communities, often to much fanfare. All these projects are admittedly on a bigger scale in comparison, which is precisely what seems remarkable here.
Tottenham Pavilion embraced a hyperlocal focus to engage this community at their doorstep, specifically aiming its free workshops and activities to residents of its immediate vicinity encompassing Woodbury Down, Seven Sisters Road, and the Haringey warehouse of artists who led the project, all within walking distance of each other.
In doing so, it managed to not only provide local artists a platform to develop and showcase their practices conveniently within their own turf, but equally offer opportunities for local residents, their neighbours, access to creative activities that may otherwise be unavailable or even unknown to some. This ethos attracted much-needed funding from City Hall, which currently supports this agenda through a local funding stream, modest but nevertheless positive for an area that may be artistically underserved and missing out from the benefits of art.
There is always something new to explore in this city, and it is more rewarding when it involves maximising the potential of places and spaces as a conduit for accessible arts and culture. What began as an empty gazebo on a soulless patch of land ended up as a vessel for potent marks and traces between adjacent communities that for brief moments came together to make something for themselves, potentially activating new paths for connection and creativity within this locality and even beyond.
Tottenham Pavilion ran between 10 August and 15 September 2019, on Seven Sisters Road corner Eade Road. Organised by Carolina Khouri, with creative workshops led by SWG (creative writing), Surya de Wit (painting and collage), Helen Bur (murals), Nicola Woollon (embroidery), Wojciech Antoni Sobczynski (sculpture and installation), and Jenna Jardine (materials). Funded by Mayor of London’s Culture Seeds, and Spaces for Creatives.
Featured image: Tottenham Pavilion. Image credit West Creative
1 May – 4 August 2019
Featured image: Portrait of Kathy Acker, San Francisco, 1991. Photo: Kathy Brew
The latest exhibition at the London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts remembers the postmodernist writer Kathy Acker. The many Is in the exhibition title are suggestive of her focus on the exploration of identity and acknowledge the impact she made on the generations of artists following her. Apart from examples of Acker’s practice, such as the documentation of live readings and performances, music and text, this first exhibition dedicated to her in the UK, encompasses works by over 40 artists inspired by her legacy.
Acker’s relationship with the ICA has begun when she first moved to London, where she lived between 1983 and 1989. At that time, her anti-establishment and anti-patriarchal deconstructive philosophy fit perfectly in time with the atmosphere of the post-punk Tatcher England. She became a significant figure within the cultural landscape and a regular contributor to events at the ICA.
Kathy Acker was a writer who shook the punk art scene in the 70s and 80s New York. She was a lonesome figure in the East Village avant-garde, which at the time was dominated by men. In her prose, Acker often experimented with what being oneself meant. She herself said, “I was splitting the I into false and true I’s and I just wanted to see if this false I was more or less real than the true I, what are the reality levels between false and true and how it works”. Through her practice, she established a performative relationship to one’s identity, a means of exploration into the relationship between sexual desire and violence.
The language was her weapon. She treated it as a means of strong resistance towards patriarchal and heteronormative narratives in the public sphere. Throughout her writings displayed on the walls within the exhibition space, one can see her words from the book Empire of the Senseless (1994), where she declared: “Language, on one level, constitutes a set of codes and social and historical agreements. Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes”. The two floors of the ICA are divided into eight sections, each corresponding to one of her books, with appropriate excerpt displayed. Her writing is at the core of the exhibition, on the walls, screens and in glass cases. There is a bit of inconsistency between the ways the literary works are displayed. On the one hand, the exhibition aims at bringing her legacy closer to the public, on the other some of them look hermeneutic when closed off behind a glass, like relics in an ethnographic museum.
However, the other works in the exhibition animate the space and the texts. The binding material between them is the preoccupation with the conflict between personal desires and the domineering narratives in society. Some of the first works to be seen are Jimi DeSana’s Masking Tape (1979) and Refrigerator (1975). The first one depicts a human figure wrapped in masking tape, only genitals exposed and the other shows a woman tied in the refrigerator. These black and white photographs contain suggestive and poetic qualities, also distinctive for Kathy Acker’s work. Further on, Acker’s pictographic “dream maps” which originally existed as large-scale drawings, are juxtaposed with works exploring the female desire in contemporary society, for instance, Reba Maybury’s The Goddess and the Worm (2015), a book telling a story of a dominatrix.
Acker critically assessed the societal norms, declared political relevance of one’s body and focused on marginalised groups. In one of her books presented in the gallery, Don Quixote (1994), the writer transformed the 17th-century canonical protagonist into a female, who becomes a knight by having an abortion and embarks on a journey to address the inequalities of Nixon’s America. Continuing to the second floor, one finds artists addressing the experiences of people who do not confine into the strict gender binary categories and the limitations of our language to describe them. At a back wall of a room, positioned opposite David Wojnarowicz’s works from the Arthur Rimbaud series, are three drawings by Jamie Crewe. Glaire takes Estradiol (2017), Potash takes Spironolactone (2016) and Saltpeter takes Verdigris (2012) show pairs of figures inscribed with the possible side effects of taking steroid hormones, compared with other substances.
The exhibition might leave the viewer in awe and with a head full of ideas. It is an ambitious project, as it addresses the integrative nature of Acker’s practice and evaluates her concepts. It is particularly successful at recognising the writer’s role in the experimental literature scene and the power of her legacy. At times when the society is becoming increasingly politically divisive and the inclusivity comes at a high price for some, it is crucial to remember the pioneers who promoted diversity in the arts. Conceptually speaking, the exhibition structure works well with the aesthetic premise of Acker’s work and creates a dialogue between all the participating artists. However, at times the experience might be overwhelming and becomes an exhibition-goer’s nightmare as it is heavily loaded with text.
I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker finishes with a wall drawing by Linda Stupart, A dead writer exists in words, and language is a type of virus (2019). In it, organic elements, serpents’ eyes and stones are tied to a blueish core resembling a cloud. Around it, there are red tentacles which enliven the virus, which spreads around the wall surface. It is mesmerising, twisted, creating a web of influences. Likewise, it corresponds with the exhibition structure, which is at times challenging to navigate, but ultimately transformative.
Dates:23 May – 3 Aug 2019
Artists: Marwa Arsanios, Paloma Polo, Lorenzo Sandoval, They Are Here
I’m sitting in front of my laptop to type this review. In front of my laptop at a well-equipped common space at my university. In the UK. Where I am pursuing a Master’s degree. And as I opened my laptop here, today, I believed that I had agency. I saw my individual journey, my immediate surroundings, my imagined future and saw a battle against oppressive structures that I seemed to be winning. Until Towards the Planetary Commons burst my bubble of delusion with ease.
Hosted by Arts Catalyst, London, Towards the Planetary Commons is an exhibition that investigates “agency and autonomy in the face of global ecological crises”. Through visual, auditory, and tactile elements, visitors are allowed to completely immerse themselves in the theme of the project. While Marwa Arsanios’ and Paloma Polo’s films pull the visitor headlong into contemporary ecopolitical struggles and local modes of resistance, the “living room”, featuring installations by Lorenzo Sandoval and They Are Here, draws the visitor back out to confront their own reality, and to become a part of a collective movement. The gallery is thus transformed, from a site of mere observation and reflection, to one where knowledge is produced and actions initiated.
I take my hands off the keyboard and look around. The vending machine behind me whirrs, begging me to unburden it of the many Coca-Cola cans that inhabit it. A black plastic bin bag peeps out of the bin, hiding not too subtly an alarming future. Fluorescent lights glimmer, suddenly making it impossible for me to forget the material excess that surrounds me. My eyes turn to the windows for respite. Trees. The peaceful green expanse of the South Downs is however failing to put my mind at ease. I am forced to confront not only my complicity in furthering destructive modes of consumerism and governance, but also the inadequacy of my individual acts of resistance thus far. In purchasing my reusable coffee cup, or researching alone the nuances of development work, I have, unfortunately, anchored myself to myopic individualism.
Towards the Planetary Commons spans across two rooms. The “living room”, with its huge windows and brightly coloured interiors is inevitably where the visitor is drawn into first. Lorenzo Sandoval’s site-specific modular environment hosts an exciting and very international array of research material on ecofeminism, agriculture, geopolitics, and related movements. Featured on the wall is Paloma Polo’s animation work, What is Thought in the Thought of People, made in collaboration with Leonilo Doloricon. Becoming Planetary, a soundwork by They Are Here persists in the background and it is a struggle to find firm footing in an environment as stimulating as this. Next door, in a sparsely furnished room Marwa Arsanios’s films Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 and Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 2, play in a loop—each around 30 minutes long. There are no ‘blurbs’ on the walls of the rooms, no explanations offered, and it is clear that nothing here is ‘on display’. The environment makes evident the overarching theme of the works and curiosity compels one to sit down and dig deeper.
Critiquing the destructive neoliberal policies undertaken by corporations and governments, Towards the Planetary Commons offers its viewers a chance to evaluate their lack of agency within an inherently exploitative system and to discover resistance through self governance and autonomy. While Polo’s work, alongside Doloricon’s hauntingly poetic imagery, peels back the layers of an ongoing democratic struggle in the countryside of the Philippines, Arsanios’s films leverage a highly nuanced narrative style to shed light on the means of knowledge production within the autonomous women’s movements and ecofeminist groups in Syria. The context for the exhibition is thus a global one, with the “living room” bridging the gap between the stories on the screens and its material presence in central London. The indelible impact Towards the Planetary Commons leaves on its viewers is as much a result of adept curation as it is of the rich reserve of knowledge and personal expertise brought in by the individual artists.
I cast my mind back. Confronted by the thus far unfamiliar task of using an axe, a woman in Arsanios’ Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 had told me of the day she “realized all the things that were stolen from us”. The images on the screen, in turn, had transfixed me. Mountains and mud, women in the kitchen, women building a village, women with weapons, animals roaming, a book of plants. Arsanios’s raw and deliberately visible editing techniques had forced me to ask, how is knowledge produced?, who has autonomy?, who is afraid of ideology?. I see my blurred reflection on the now black screen of my laptop and this time I see the history of feminist struggle, a tenaciously postcolonial identity, a long list of neo-liberal policies and a longer list of ‘collateral damage’. I see a collective.
As an exhibition, Towards the Planetary Commons, is unique in its multi-layered approach to addressing knowledge production. The shared resources, the “living room”, and the workshops organised in tandem with the exhibition are a fantastic attempt at making expert knowledge accessible. The exhibition is part of Arts Catalyst’s Test Sites programme, the model of which intends to “foster an ecology of practices, in which artists, curators, scientists, specialist experts and people with situated knowledge come together to co-produce knowledge around a shared matter of concern”.
As a curatorial practice, this is an exciting step forward and pushes the remit of curatorial activism. With the films featuring two distinct geo-political contexts, the viewer, however, must be wary of ignoring the historical inequalities that persist in these contexts and the power structures that dictated the work’s presence within a gallery in the UK. It is also important to acknowledge the theoretically heavy content of Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 and the improbability of most visitors being able to truly utilise the research materials. Experiencing Towards the Planetary Commons is certainly not a leisurely exercise for a weekday lunch-break. But perhaps, its virtue is in the commitment it demands from its visitors, and its ability to shake us out of our absentmindedness in occupying a world that demands our attention.
Now I will stop typing and start reading, and listening. Droughts, floods, systemic oppression. It is time to feel and become part of the collective resistance.
On June the 16th Tatiana Bazzichelli and Lieke Ploeger presented a new Disruption Network Lab conference entitled “AI TRAPS” to scrutinize Artificial Intelligence and automatic discrimination. The conference touched several topics from biometric surveillance to diversity in data, giving a closer look at how AI and algorithms reinforce prejudices and biases of its human creators and societies, to find solutions and countermeasures.
A focus on facial recognition technologies opened the first panel “THE TRACKED & THE INVISIBLE: From Biometric Surveillance to Diversity in Data Science” discussing how massive sets of images have been used by academic, commercial, defence and intelligence agencies around the world for their research and development. The artist and researcher Adam Harvey addressed this tech as the focal point of an emerging authoritarian logic, based on probabilistic determinations and the assumption that identities are static and reality is made through absolute norms. The artist considered two recent reports about the UK and China showing how this technology is yet unreliable and dangerous. According to data released under the UK´s Freedom of Information Law, 98% of “matches” made by the English Met police using facial recognition were mistakes. Meanwhile, over 200 million cameras are active in China and – although only 15% are supposed to be technically implemented for effective face recognition – Chinese authorities are deploying a new system of this tech to racial profile, track and control the Uighurs Muslim minority.
Big companies like Google and Facebook hold a collection of billions of images, most of which are available inside search engines (63%), on Flickr (25%) and on IMdB (11 %). Biometric companies around the world are implementing facial recognition algorithms on the pictures of common people, collected in unsuspected places like dating-apps and social media, to be used for private profit purposes and governmental mass-surveillance. They end up mostly in China (37%), US (34%), UK (21%) and Australia (4%), as Harvey reported.
Metis Senior Data Scientist Sophie Searcy, technical expert who has also extensively researched on the subject of diversity in tech, contributed to the discussion on such a crucial issue underlying the design and implementation of AI, enforcing the description of a technology that tends to be defective, unable to contextualise and consider the complexity of the reality it interacts with. This generates a lot of false predictions and mistakes. To maximise their results and reduce mistakes tech companies and research institutions that develop algorithms for AI use the Stochastic Gradient Descent (SGD) technique. This enables to pick a few samples selected randomly from a dataset instead of analysing the whole of it for each iteration, saving a considerable amount of time. As Searcy explained during the talk with the panel moderator, Adriana Groh, this technique needs huge amount of data and tech companies are therefore becoming increasingly hungry for them.
In order to have a closer look at the relation between governments and AI-tech, the researcher and writer Crofton Black presented the study conducted with Cansu Safak at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on the UK government’s use of big data. They used publicly available data to build a picture of companies, services and projects in the area of AI and machine learning, to map what IT systems the British government has been buying. To do so they interviewed experts and academics, analysed official transparency data and scraped governmental websites. Transparency and accountability over the way in which public money is spent are a requirement for public administrations and they relied on this principle, filing dozens of requests under the Freedom of Information Act to public authorities to get audit trails. Thus they mapped an ecosystem of the corporate nexus between UK public sector and corporate entities. More than 1,800 IT companies, from big ones like BEA System and IBM to small ones within a constellation of start-ups.
As Black explained in the talk with the moderator of the keynote Daniel Eriksson, Transparency International Head of Technology, this investigation faced systemic problems with disclosure from authorities, that do not keep transparent and accessible records. Indeed just 25% of the UK-government departments provided some form of info. Therefore details of the assignments are still unknown, but it is at least possible to list the services those companies deploying AI and machine learning can offer governments: connect data and identify links between people, objects, locations; set up automated alerts in the context of border and immigration control, spotting out changes in data and events of interest; work on passports application programs, implementing the risk-based approaches to passports application assessments; work on identity verification services using smartphones, gathering real time biometric authentications. These are just few examples.
Maya Indira Ganesh opened the panel “AI FOR THE PEOPLE: AI Bias, Ethics & the Common Good” questioning how tech and research have historically been almost always developed and conducted on prejudiced parameters, falsifying results and distorting reality. For instance, data about women’s heart attacks hadn´t been taken in consideration for decades, until doctors and scientists determined that ECG-machines calibrated on the data collected from early ´60s could neither predict heart attacks in women, nor give reliable data for therapeutic purposes, because they were trained only on male population. Just from 2007 ECG-machines were recalibrated on parameters based on data collected from female individuals. It is not possible to calculate the impact this gender inequality had on the development of modern cardiovascular medicine and on the lives of millions of women.
As the issue of algorithmic bias in tech and specifically in AI grows, all big tech firms and research institutions are writing ethics charters and establishing ethics boards sponsoring research in these topics. Detractors often refer to it as ethics-washing, which Ganesh finds a trick to mask ethics and morality as something definable in universal terms or scale: though it cannot be computed by machines, corporations need us to believe that ethics is something measurable. The researcher suggested that in such a way the abstraction and the complexity of the machine get easy to process as ethics becomes the interface used to obfuscate what is going on inside the black box and represent its abstractions. “But these abstractions are us and our way to build relations” she objected.
Ganesh wonders consequently according to what principle it shall be acceptable to train a facial recognition system, basing it on video of transgender people, as it happened in the alarming “Robust transgender face recognition” research, based on data from people undergoing hormone replacement therapy, Youtube videos, diaries and time-lapse documentation of the transition process. The HRT Transgender Dataset used to train AI to recognize transgender people worsens the harassment and the targeting that trans-people already experience daily, targeting and harming them as a group. However, it was partly financed by FBI and US-Army, confirming that law enforcement and national security agencies appear to be very interested in these kinds of datasets and look for private companies and researchers able to provide it.
In this same panel professor of Data Science and Public Policy Slava Jankin reflected on how machine learning can be used for common good in the public sector. As it was objected during the discussion moderated by Nicole Shephard, Researcher on Gender, Technology and Politics of Data, the “common good” isn’t easy to define, and like ethics it is not universally given. It could be identified with those goods that are relevant to guarantee and determine the respect of human rights and their practice. The project that Jankin presented was developed inside the Essex Centre for Data analytics in a synergic effort of developers, researches, universities and local authorities. Together, they tried to build an AI able to predict within reliability where children lacking school readiness are more likely to be found geographically, to support them in their transition and gaining competencies, considering social, economic and environmental conditions.
The first keynote of the conference was the researcher and activist Charlotte Webb, who presented her project Feminist Internet in the talk “WHAT IS A FEMINIST AI?”
<<There is not just one possible internet and there is not just one possible feminism, but only possible feminisms and possible internets>>. Starting from this assumption Webb talked about Feminist Human Computer Interaction, a discipline born to improve understandings about how gender identities and relations shape the design and use of interactive technologies. Her Feminist Internet is a no profit organisation funded to make internet a more equal space for women and other marginalized groups. Its approach combines art, design, critical thinking, creative technology development and feminism, seeking to build more responsible and bias-free AI able to empower people considering the causes of marginalization and discrimination. In her words, a feminist AI is not an algorithm and is not a system built to evangelize about a certain political or ideological cause. It is a tool that aims at recognizing differences without minimizing them for the sake of universality, meeting human needs with the awareness of the entire ecosystem in which it sits.
Tech adapts plastically to pre-existing discriminations and gender stereotypes. In a recent UN report, the ‘female’ obsequiousness and the servility expressed by digital assistants like Alexa, the Google Assistant, are defined as example of gender biases coded into tech products, since they are often projected as young women. They are programmed to be submissive and accept abuses. As stated by Feldman (2016) by encouraging consumers to understand the objects that serve them as women, technologists abet the prejudice by which women are considered objects. With her projects, Webb pushes to create alternatives that educate to shift this systemic problem – rather than complying with market demands – first considering that there is a diversity crisis in the AI sector and in the Silicon Valley. Between 2.5 and 4% of Google, Facebook and Microsoft employees are black, whilst there are no public data on transgender workers within these companies. Moreover, as Webb pointed out, just 22% of the people building AI right now are female, only 18% of authors at major AI-conferences are women, whilst over 80% of AI-professors are men. Considering companies with decisive impact on society women comprise only 15% of AI research staff at Facebook and 10% in Google.
Women, people of colour, minorities, LGBTQ and marginalized groups are substantially not deciding about designing and implementing AI and algorithms. They are excluded from the processes of coding and programming. As a result the work of engineers and designers is not inherently neutral and the automated systems that they build reflect their perspectives, preferences, priorities and eventually their bias.
Washington Tech Policy Advisor Mutale Nkonde focused on this issue in her keynote “RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN THE AGE OF AI.” She opened her dissertation reporting that Google´s facial intelligence team is composed by 893 people, and just one is a black woman, an intern. Questions, answers and predictions in their technological work will always reflect a political and socioeconomic point of view, consciously or unconsciously. A lot of the tech-people confronted with this wide-ranging problem seem to undermine it, showing colour-blindness tendencies about what impacts their tech have on minorities and specifically black people. Historically credit scores are correlated with racist segregated neighbourhoods and risk analyses and predictive policing data are corrupted by racist prejudice, leading to biased data collection reinforcing privileges. Without a conscious effort to address racism in technology, new technologies will replicate old divisions and conflicts. By instituting policies like facial recognition we just replicate rooted behaviours based on racial lines and gender stereotypes mediated by algorithms. Nkonde warns that civil liberties need an update for the era of AI, advancing racial literacy in Tech.
In a talk with the moderator, the writer Rhianna Ilube, the keynote Nkonde recalled that in New York´s poor and black neighbourhood with historically high crime and violence rates, Brownsville, a private landlord in social housing wanted to exchange keys for facial recognition software, so that either people accept surveillance, or they lose their homes. The finding echoes wider concerns about the lack of awareness of racism. Nkonde thinks that white people must be able to cope with the inconvenience of talking about race, with the countervailing pressures and their lack of cultural preparation, or simply the risk to get it wrong. Acting ethically isn´t easy if you do not work on it and many big tech companies just like to crow about their diversity and inclusion efforts, disclosing diversity goals and offering courses that reduce bias. However, there is a high level of racial discrimination in tech sector and specifically in the Silicon Valley, at best colour-blindness – said Nkonde – since many believe that racial classification does not limit a person’s opportunities within the society, ignoring that there are instead economic and social obstacles that prevent full individual development and participation, limiting freedom and equality, excluding marginalized and disadvantaged groups from the political, economic, and social organization. Nkonde concluded her keynote stressing that we need to empower minorities, providing tools that allow overcoming autonomously socio-economic obstacles, to fully participate in society. It is about sharing power, taking in consideration the unconscious biases of people, for example starting from those designing the technology.
The closing panel “ON THE POLITICS OF AI: Fighting Injustice & Automatic Supremacism” discussed the effect of a tool shown to be not neutral, but just the product of the prevailing social economical model.
Dia Kayyali, Leader of the Tech and Advocacy program at WITNESS, described how AI is facilitating white supremacy, nationalism, racism and transphobia, recalling the dramatic case of the Rohingya persecution in Myanmar and the oppressive Chinese social score and surveillance systems. Pointing out critical aspects the researcher reported the case of the Youtube anti-extremism-algorithm, which removed thousands of videos documenting atrocities in Syria in an effort to purge hate speech and propaganda from its platform. The algorithm was trained to automatically flag and eliminate content that potentially breached its guidelines and ended up cancelling documents relevant to prosecute war crimes. Once again, the absence of the ability to contextualize leads to severe risks in the way machines operate and make decisions. Likewise, applying general parameters without considering specificities and the complex concept of identity, Facebook imposed in 2015 new policies and arbitrarily exposed drag queens, trans people and other users at risk, who were not using their legal names for safety and privacy reasons, including domestic violence and stalking.
Researcher on gender, tech and (counter) power Os Keyes considered that AI is not the problem, but the symptom. The problem are the structures creating AI. We live in an environment where few highly wealthy people and companies are ruling all. We have bias in AI and tech because their development is driven by exactly those same individuals. To fix AI we have to change requirements and expectations around it; we can fight to have AI based on explainability and transparency, but eventually if we strive to fix AI and do not look at the wider picture, in 10 years the same debate over another technology will arise. Keyes considered that since its very beginning AI-tech was discriminatory, racialized and gendered, because society is capitalist, racist, homo-transphobic and misogynistic. The question to pose is how we start building spaces that are prefigurative and constructed on values that we want a wider society to embrace.
As the funder and curator of the Disruption Network Lab Tatiana Bazzichelli pointed out during the moderation of this panel, the problem of bias in algorithms is related to several major “bias traps” that algorithm-based prediction systems fail to win. The fact that AI is political – not just because of the question of what is to be done with it, but because of the political tendencies of the technology itself – is the real aspect to discuss.
In his analysis of the political effects of AI, Dan McQuillan, Lecturer in Creative and Social Computing from the London University, underlined that while the reform of AI is endlessly discussed, there seems to be no attempt to seriously question whether we should be using it at all. We need to think collectively about ways out, learning from and with each other rather than relying on machine learning. Countering thoughtlessness of AI with practices of solidarity, self-management and collective care is what he suggests because bringing the perspective of marginalised groups at the core of AI practice, it is possible to build a new society within the old, based on social autonomy.
What McQuillan calls the AI realism appears to be close to the far-right perspective, as it trivialises complexity and naturalises inequalities. The character of learning through AI implicates indeed reductive simplifications, and simplifying social problems to matters of exclusion is the politics of populist and Fascist right. McQuillan suggests taking some guidance from the feminist and decolonial technology studies that have cast doubt on our ideas about objectivity and neutrality. An antifascist AI, he explains, shall involve some kinds of people’s councils, to put the perspective of marginalised groups at the core of AI practice and to transform machine learning into a form of critical pedagogy.
Pic 7: Dia Kayyali, Os Keyes, Dan McQuillan and Tatiana Bazzichelli during the panel “ON THE POLITICS OF AI: Fighting Injustice & Automatic Supremacism”
We see increasing investment on AI, machine learning and robots. Automated decision-making informed by algorithms is already a predominant reality, whose range of applications has broadened to almost all aspects of life. Current ethical debates about the consequences of automation focus on the rights of individuals and marginalized groups. However, algorithmic processes generate a collective impact too, that can only be addressed partially at the level of individual rights, as it is the result of a collective cultural legacy. A society that is soaked in racial and sexual discriminations will replicate them inside technology.
Moreover, when referring to surveillance technology and face recognition software, existing ethical and legal criteria appear to be ineffective and a lack of standards around their use and sharing just benefit its intrusive and discriminatory nature.
Whilst building alternatives we need to consider inclusion and diversity: If more brown and black people would be involved in the building and making of these systems, there would be less bias. But this is not enough. Automated systems are mostly trying to identify and predict risk, and risk is defined according to cultural parameters that reflect the historical, social and political milieu, to give answers able to fit a certain point of view and make decisions. What we are and where we are as a collective, what we have achieved and what we still lack culturally is what is put in software to make those same decisions in the future. In such a context a diverse team within a discriminatory conflictual society might find ways to flash the problem of bias away, but it will get somewhere else.
The truth is that automated discrimination, racism and sexism are integrated in tech-infrastructures. New generation of start-ups are fulfilling authoritarian needs, commercialising AI-technologies, automating biases based on skin colour and ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity. They develop censored search engine and platforms for authoritarian governments and dictators, refine high-tech military weapons training them using facial recognition on millions of people without their knowledge. Governments and corporations are developing technology in ways that threaten civil liberties and human rights. It is not hard to imagine the impact of the implementation of tools for robotic gender recognition, within countries were non-white, non-male and non-binary individuals are discriminated. Bathrooms and changing rooms that open just by AI gender-detection, or cars that start the engine just if a man is driving, are to be expected. Those not gender conforming, who do not fit traditional gender structures, will end up being systematically blocked and discriminated.
Open source, transparency and diversity alone will not defeat colour-blinded attitudes, reactionary backlashes, monopolies, other-directed homologation and cultural oppression by design. As it was discussed in the conference, using algorithms to label people based on sexual identity or ethnicity has become easy and common. If you build a technology able to catalogue people by ethnicity or sexual identity, someone will exploit it to repress genders or ethnicities, China shows.
In this sense, no better facial recognition is possible, no mass-surveillance tech is safe and attempts at building good tech will continue to fail. To tackle bias, discrimination and harm in AI we have to integrate research on and development of technology with all of the humanities and social sciences, deciding to consciously create a society where everybody could participate to the organisation of our common future.
Curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli and developed in cooperation with Transparency International, this Disruption Network Lab-conference was the second of the 2019 series The Art of Exposing Injustice.
More info, all its speakers and thematic could be found here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/ai-traps
The videos of the conference are on Youtube and the Disruption Network Lab is also on Twitter and Facebook.
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Photocredits: Maria Silvano for Disruption Network Lab
This year’s festival of “Mine, yours, ours”(Moje, tvoje, naše) puts emphasis on people who are behind the work performance of machines, literally as well as metaphorically, and without whom the machines cannot perform their work.
Automatization, computerization, robotization, mechanization. Recent studies point out that by 2030 as many as 800 million workers throughout the world will lose their jobs to robots. Predictions that already in six years time robots with artificial intelligence will have replaced more than half of the human workforce, and thereby leave 75 million people unemployed, and that the number of robots that perform work of which humans are capable would double from the current 29%, have flooded web portals.
Questioning the status of work conditioned by the relation between man and machines, and observed from the perspective of contemporary artists, was chosen as the theme of the festival “Mine, yours, ours” carried out by Drugo More, held from the 14th to the 16th of February at the building of Filodrammatica in Rijeka. The international festival “Mine, yours, ours” has for fourteen years in a row by the means of art questioned the topics related to the exchange of goods and knowledge, an exchange that today is conditioned by capital and consequently bereft of all the aspects of a gift economy. Exchange via gifts has been replaced by mechanical work whereby the worker is distanced from the very purpose of the work and thereby doomed to a feeling of purposelessness, while the final product and service remain dehumanized. In a world that is mongering fear about robots taking over human jobs, the curator of the exhibition and moderator of the symposium, Silvio Lorusso, decided to give a new perspective on the topic putting emphasis on the people behind the work of the machines, literally and metaphorically, without whom the machines cannot – work.
Like robots that perform work mechanically and lacking intrinsic motivation, people play the roles of robots through various forms of work. The sequence of actions that we observe on the internet are attributed to the work of machines, ignorant of the fact that human work, hidden on purpose, is behind all the exposed data. A human, according to research by artist Sebastian Schmieg, writes the descriptions of the photos that we find on the internet and we are deceiving ourselves thinking that the descriptions are the product of an automatized system. A group of crowd workers creates the database for recognition of pictures, while the neural network of artificial intelligence is shaped with the help of manual work by a collective of people who choose what the machines will see, and what is to remain unrecognized. The role of human work is crucial to the processes that enable self-driving cars. Researcher and designer Florian Alexander-Schmidt explained how the detailed localization of an object is possible exclusively due to a human workforce, not robots. Digital platforms tend to locate vehicles at a precision rate of 99% and this cannot be achieved by an algorithmic system. Alexander-Schmidt points out that the cheapest workers are employed at servicing the digital platforms, such as those from Venezuela, whose work is hidden behind the magical acronym “AI”.
Artificial intelligence operates thanks to the strength and precision of human intelligence, and workers are the slaves of a system that functions like a computer game, demanding that employees score more and thereby perpetuate a game in which, no matter how high they score, they lose. They lose because a cheap labor force, qualified via automatized training, secretly performs the work that consumers consider a product of automatization, and they remain at insecure workplaces whose existence persists due to risky capital and results in constant change of workplaces – virtual migrations. The market of the internet diminishes the global geography of honorary work, while humans play machines performing jobs exclusively for a salary, turning into an invisible, undefined (robotized) mass employed at unstable workplaces and conditioned by risky capital.
The work performed by humans is considered a product of the work of machines, while machines are often replaced by humans. Entering a relationship, developing a sense of connection, characteristic for the human species, is becoming one of the fields in which robots are developing. Chatrooms and platforms for looking for a partner more and more often include programmed robot profiles that engage in communication and emotional bonding with those who sign up, as reported by the artist Elisa Giardina Papa. Robots replace humans, but this change of identity isn’t recognized by the other human – instead, they see a potential partner. In that sense we can speak about a justified presentiment not only of a loss of workplaces and the current modus operandi of the labor market, but of changes in the way emotional relationships are built as well.
Changes in the development of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), robotics, quantum computers, the internet of things (IoT), 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology and the car industry improve some aspects of human life, but place humanity before social, economic and geopolitical challenges. Sustainability of the internet is entirely dependent on humans since the spare time that humans are ready to use for posting content conditions the survival of web portals, video and music channels and social networks. Giardina Papa explained how the spare time of humans has become the time of unpaid work for the internet. Activities that spare time offers – relaxing, self-realization, healthy spontaneous sleep, have been replaced with the production of content for others and posting it on the internet. Creativity, productivity, self-realization are falling into oblivion. Creative work has been replaced by plain performance and we identify more and more often with the byword which the artist Giardina Papa brought up as an example and are becoming “doers, not dreamers”.
Such an approach to life and work affects everybody, and is consciously looked on as a problem by artists in their attempts at a good-quality creative life. The average artists spend their days trapped doing jobs of stocking up shelves in stores, taking in orders, working for telecommunications operators and only at night devote themselves to acting, dancing, painting. Constant financial instability, insecure and temporary jobs, low income, unregistered work and an absence of pension are the conditions of life that the contemporary artist faces. A few European countries are an exception from this. Denmark awards 275 artists an annual scholarship that amounts to between 15000 and 149000 Danish krones. France made sure that every region secures a certain amount of financial support for artists and therefore in for example the region of Ile-de-France are recipients of up to 7628,47 euros for the organization of their workshops. Unfortunately, in most countries artists without rich parents or benefactors can only survive by performing daily work. While spare time is subordinate to work, work is becoming more and more precarious, per hour, without contracts, while full day work time is becoming the lifestyle of the millenium. A way of life where spare time is spent working, subordinated to a mechanical execution of tasks that don’t foster the self-development of the worker, makes man function in a way characteristic of machines.
The individual aspect exposes it’s intimacy in front of a collective audience and thereby diminishes it’s own independence. Simultaneously, via the intrusion of the private into the public, the collective character of the public now becomes more individualized, more personal and strives to be unique. Faced with changes artists are trying out new ways of expressing themselves as a means of enjoying their work. The joy in their work and their artworks stems from the recognition that their activities are actually creative and not plain performance, that is, mass-producing content for others and suitable to others, and such an approach seldom comes to anyone’s (robotized/artistic) mind anymore. Artists are the ones who in times of computerization of work tend to enjoy their work and work in a way to develop oneself.
We are witnessing processes where work is developing via control of people (crowdsourcing), it is transforming and making people similar to machines, and machines to people and making people’s work the work of machines and vice versa. Man is faced with new challenges at the workplace, and with the focus on securing existential necessities as well as necessities conditioned by the contemporary approach to existence, there is no spare time to devote to questioning the position to which he brought himself to. Artists, equally affected by the changes, succumb to them, but also analyze them, deautomatize them and actively do research on them. The international guests to the festival “Mine, yours, ours” have through their works pulled back the curtain to make the supposedly automatized work transparent for people to see that a well hidden group of humans is behind this work. While explaining the results of their research, preceding the artistic exhibition, at a two-day symposium, they gave the public new perspectives on the theme, but also further corroborated the existing view. Where does the robot begin and where does man end and who or what is to whom or to what a robot, and who or what to whom or to what a human are the questions that, concerning the labor market, pave the way for – a new set of sub-questions.
When I first heard about MoneyLab, it was back in 2013 or the beginning of 2014, when I was doing my masters in London. A friend of mine handed a flyer to me and I was intrigued by the strange typography and the combination of bright colours. However, I didn’t quite believe that any kind of initiative could really start an alt-economy movement. Not that I didn’t believe in local currency or creative commons, but those gentle approaches generally seemed to lack traction, just like liberals do with voters. I naturally thought MoneyLab was one of those initiatives.
However, as Bitcoin was becoming a hype, the name popped up again; MoneyLab itself was also becoming a hype. While bitterly regretting not being able to be associated as the first wave of participants, I started to think that maybe MoneyLab might be the framework that can really push out alternative economic attempts as mainstream culture. My stance towards economic shifts was somewhat similar to that of William Gibson’s; he said in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, ‘What would my superpower be? Redistribution of wealth’. How did that change after reading the MoneyLab Reader 2?
Before going into the details of what blockchain technology can really do, it is crucial to understand a new “unit of value” created in modern society (Pine and Gilmore 1999). Since the most prominent piece of technology of our era is undoubtedly smartphones (with Apple being the first 1 trillion dollar publicly listed company in the US), a lot of transactions are inevitably conducted through apps and web services. The proliferation of the so-called “payments space” signifies the era of UX design, which is the third paradigm of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), “tak[ing] into account…affect, embodiment, situated meaning, values and social issues” (Tkacz and Velasco 2018). In other words, experience has become the deciding factor of customers’ choices. With vast amounts of data generated at the back of sleek interfaces, one can precisely oversee the users’ behaviour, which then is fed back into the system.
All the payments spaces are essentially digital. This means transactions leave digital traces whether you like it or not. The idea of a cashless society exactly stems from this interest, the authorities can have better understandings of how people make money; in other words, where black money flows. Brett Scott has been pointing out the danger of a cashless society for quite some time now, I saw another variation in this book.
According to Jaya Klara Brekke, blockchain technology can make money programmable, “allow[ing] for very fine-grained (re)programming of the medium of money, from what constitutes, and how to measure, value-generating activity to the setting of parameters on the means and conditions of exchange – what is spendable, where and by whom” (Brekke 2018). The overall impression I got from the MoneyLab Reader 2 about what blockchain technology can really do is basically this. Making a currency programmable using smart contracts.
More than a couple of authors discuss how “contingency” should take place in designed currencies. Contingency is different from randomness; in fact, it could mean exactly the opposite. For example, when coins are distributed in a perfectly random manner, you have absolutely no control in the handling process. If contingency is embedded in a system, it means there are exploitable gaps, which seem to almost randomly benefit people. On the other hand, some individuals would find ways to make use of these gaps, which are considered to be legitimate. Brekke discusses how the way in which contingency is programmed into a currency will be a key for the future of finance, both in terms of experience and redistribution of wealth. Therefore, currency designers will be the next UX designers.
A number of ideas applying blockchain technology to both physical and cultural objects are mentioned in this book, from a self-maintaining forest to blockchain-based marriage. “Terra0” is the concept of an autonomous forest which can “self-harvest its own value” (Lotti 2018). Utopian views of a human-less world are prevalent, but in reality, a healthy forest requires an adequate amount of human intervention. In addition, the value of a forest cannot be determined by itself; trade routes, demand and supply, they are all drawn by human movements. For example in Japan, domestic wood resources are generally not profitable because of the expensive labour costs. Illegally cut trees without certification from Southeast Asia dominate the market, putting domestic ones in a bad position. When a forest itself is not profitable, how can it accumulate capital autonomously? Besides, the oracle problem has not been discussed at all. Unless everything is digital in the first place, there always needs to be somebody to put data onto the blockchain. In other words, the transcendence of the boundaries between the physical and the digital is not possible without human intervention. Blockchain marriage would face a similar problem; who might be the witness if circumventing the government official? Max Dovey investigates the notion of “crypto-sovereignty” while introducing an example of a real blockchain marriage where they “turn[ed] ‘proof of work’… into ‘proof of love’”(Dovey 2018). Just as the sacramental bond between spouses can be broken before Death Do Them Part, so can any cryptographic marriage unravel despite having been recorded in an immutable ledger. Whatever repercussions may exist for divorce, there are no holy or technological mechanisms to prevent it.
Platform co-ops is one of the largest topics in the book besides Universal Basic Income (UBI). A platform co-op is often a cooperatively owned version of a major platform that is supposed to be able to pay better fees to the workers. Also, a platform co-op is often associated with “lower failure rate”; 80% of them survive the first five years when only 41% of other business models do (Scholz 2018). While embracing the positive aspects of platform co-ops, I have this question stuck in my head: can you not make a platform co-op based on a new idea rather than copying existing ones?
Most platform co-ops seem that they are looking at already successful and established concepts such as rental marketplaces for rooms and ride hailing services. As a result, platform co-ops are considered more to be a social movement than an innovation. Why not just run a business right at the centre of Capitalism without being motivated by profit? Many platform co-ops challenge the main stream services such as Airbnb or Uber, however those services operate based on scale; if they have the largest user base, it will be very difficult to take them on, unless they die themselves like Myspace… Moreover, more hardware side of development can be happening around co-ops, but I don’t hear anything except for Fairphone. When can I stop using my ThinkPad with Linux on it?
After reading the MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, now I’m thinking of how I should design my own currency. Of course whether cryptocurrencies are actually currencies is up to debate; depending on who you ask, Ethereum is a security (SEC), a commodity (CFTC), taxable property (IRS) or a currency (traders).
MoneyLab 2 authors overall suggest that we should not limit our imagination to fit in the existing finance systems, but think beyond. You don’t necessarily need to cling to cryptocurrencies but they may help you shape your ideal financial system.
On the 7th September, the Disruption Network Lab opened its 14th conference in Berlin entitled “INFILTRATION: Challenging Supremacism“. The two-day-event was a journey inside right wing extremism and supremacist ideology to provoke direct change, second appointment of the Misinformation Ecosystems series that began in May. In the Kunstquartier Bethanien journalists, activists, researchers, and infiltrators had the chance to discuss the increasing presence of movements that want to oppose immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness, sharing their experiences and proposing a constructive critical approach, based on the motivation of understanding the current debates in society as well as transforming mere opposition into a concrete path for inspirational change.
“How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” With this question Daryl Davis tried to crumble the wall of ignorance and fear that he believes to be the basis of racial hatred. This 65 year-old author, activist and blues man, who played for decades with Chuck Barry, Jerry Lee Lewis and B.B. King, has spent 35 years studying race relations and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan to turn them away from racism. In the context of increased supremacist ideologies and right-wing extremism, the Disruption Network Lab invited Davis to speak about racism and his interactions with individuals holding racist beliefs.
Growing up, Davis lived a privileged life as the son of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, travelling around the world and studying in an international context surrounded by children of other Foreign Service workers. His first shocking encounter with racism occurred when he was 10 years old in a 1968 Massachusetts. He was marching in a parade carrying the US- flag in front of his scouting group as people yelled racial epithets and threw rocks and bottles at him. His parents later explained that those people were targeting just him because of the color of his skin. Someone who knew absolutely nothing about his person and his life wanted to inflict pain upon him for no other reason than that. Because of this hateful reaction from so many white spectators along the route, Davis started wondering the fatidic question.
Ignorance causes fear and obviously the theses of supremacists and racist groups are built on these two components. Many years ago Davis decided to sit with them and listen to their point of view, contradicting their falsehoods using dialogue. Davis is convinced that if we do not fight ignorance it will escalate to destruction, “ignorance breeds fear; fear breeds hatred; hatred breeds destruction” as he previously stated. So, when someone says he thinks white people are superior, Daryl faces them and answers: “we are equal.” On this basis, Davis befriended hundreds of KKK-members and convinced them to rethink their choices. According to the media, he has persuaded more than two hundred of them to throw away their hoods and robes, their stereotypes and beliefs. His activity became national news as he befriended the KKK-member Roger Kelly and CNN broadcasted a story on their unusual relationship. When they first met, Kelly was “Maryland’s Grand Dragon”. Kelly didn’t know Davis was a black man and agreed to meet him. During their first meeting he spewed a lot of stereotypes, but – as Davis narrates – by the end of the evening they could agree on a few topics. The Grand Dragon told Davis they would never agree on racial issues; he said his Klan views on race and segregation were “cemented.” They continued to meet and converse about difficult and controversial matters for a long period: Kelly would attend Davis’s house and Davis would go to KKK-rallies. It took a few years but Kelly’s cemented beliefs got weaker, until he decided to quit the Klan and run for local elections. He had meanwhile become “Imperial Wizard” – which means national leader of the Klan.
During his key note Davis explained that his search for the answer to his question began one night in 1983. After having played in a country music bar a white man approached him and offered him a drink. The man later told him that it was the first time he had ever sat down and had a drink with a black man because he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Davis thought at first that the man was joking, but he wasn’t. The bluesman decided to talk to him, focusing on the fact that “they are just human beings,” he says “I respect these people when they sit, talk and listen. It’s just about difference of opinion. If you talk with them you can find things in common.” Someone might disagree with Daryl Davis that Fascism, Racism, Supremacism cannot be considered opinions, that they are crimes and that normalizing their cult is dangerous. But Davis prefers dialogue to posturing and fights. Davis believes in addressing ignorance through communication and education, to ease fear and prevent destruction. His efforts at dialogue are represented by his collection of hoods and robes from former Klan members he has befriended over time. Davis thinks that society should give these people a chance to express their views publicly to challenge them and force them to actively listen to someone else, dialoguing, to passively learn something. Many of them are anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denial and racist white supremacist, but he sees them mostly as victims of ignorance, fearing something that they just do not know. For these reasons he talks with them trying to overcome their prejudices. “Always keep the lines of communication with your antagonist open, because when you’re talking, you’re not fighting.”
Davis offers an extreme example of breaking down stereotypes to change the minds of white supremacists. It can be deeply understood only in the context of his US-American background and cultural formation. His keynote speech tended to get soaked in clichés, enriched by several “I am proud of my country” and “my country is great.” Maybe it is just a way to subtract right winged racists the monopoly over the patriotic discourse, through a moderate and gentle approach, to disrupt their one-way narrative, that conflates patriotism with rabid nationalism, showing them that he has traits in common with them. All in all his underlying convincement is that racism comes from a lack of personal knowledge of the African American experience and history, for example in music, and from a lack of personal relationships of a certain part of the white community with human beings that are not white. He thinks that by befriending ignorant racists they could relent, change their minds, have a change of heart and learn how to respect others. Davis is conscious about the fact that such an uncommon approach can be considered, at least, controversial. Many disapprove of it, pointing out that he is offering them a prominent stage in the national and international spotlight.
Davis´ activity can also be dangerous. In the past thirty years he has been attacked because of what he does. However, he is not afraid of the Klan or of racist groups. He has cultural tools to face dialectics, he has a strong identity and doesn´t want to fight against someone´s else idea of identity. On the contrary he is convinced that people of all backgrounds shall come together, getting along without losing their sense of identity or individualistic dimension, as no one shall be forced to accept an idea. Matt Ornstein has directed a documentary about Daryl Davis, that the Disruption Network Lab decided to screen during the third day of this 14th Conference. Entitled “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America.”
In Germany, individuals and organizations have been mobilizing to prevent the access of neo-Nazi to public platforms and media to spread Negationism and racist propaganda, in a collective lucid reasoning. Dialoguing with neo-Nazis, allowing them to exhibit symbols and to represent reactionary bigotry and hatred as something normal is not accepted by many people in Germany and the audience of the Conference showed reservations about Davis ‘words. Davis replied that his approach pays back. To those who tell him that he is giving racist and violent groups a platform to be normalized and to be part of the public discourse, he reminds them that most of those KKK-members that he approached decided afterwards to quit the group. It took him courage and dedication, he went to KKK-rallies, listened to their hymns, watched them set on fire giant wooden crosses during liturgical rites, witnessing moments of collective frenzy, delirium and hatred.
The documentary shows the efforts to dialogue with representatives from the movement Black Lives Matter too, that sadly ended up in a moment of misunderstanding and dramatic confrontation. Davis and Black Lives Matter have met again and have found a way to work together, going the same way approaching the issue of racism and discrimination with two alternative techniques, that are not mutually exclusive. However, Davis approach is markedly distant from this grassroots movement that organizes demonstrations and protests.
The audience of the 14th DNL Conference challenged Daryl Davis as his approach “we are all human beings” looks fragile in days of uncertainties, when extreme right movements are gaining consensus upon lies and discrimination. Inevitably, the debate after Davis ‘speech focused on the cultural shift represented by Donald Trump´s election and what came after that on a global scale. Davis said that in his opinion what is happening works as a bucket of cold water, that wakes people up and makes them engage and fight for change, reacting with indignation. Davis explained that in his opinion the #MeToo campaign came out as a positive consequence to Donald Trump´s election. “Obama was not elected by black people, who are all in all 12% of the US-population. Things change if we dialogue together, creating the bases for that change. In this way we can accomplish things that just few decades ago were thought to be unachievable.”
The panel of September the 7th represented a cross-section of the research being conducted by journalists, researchers and artists currently working on extreme-right movements and alt-right narrative. By accessing mainstream parties and connecting to moderate-leaning voters, right wing extremists have managed to exercise a significant influence on social and political discourse with an impact that is increasingly visible in Europe. The speakers on this first day of the Conference reported about their experiences with a focus on what is happening in their countries of origin: Sweden, Germany and Slovenia. Interconnecting three methodologies of provoking critical reflection within right-wing political groups, the panel reflected on possible strategies of cultural and political change that go beyond mere opposition.
Recalling all this, the moderator Christina Lee, Head of Ambassador Program and Hostwriter, introduced Mattias Gardell, first panelist of the day, Swedish Professor of comparative religion at Uppsala University, who dedicated part of his studies to religious extremism and religious racism, addressing groups such as the Nation of Islam and its connections to the KKK and other American racist activists, to focus than on the rise of neo-Paganism and its meaning for the radical right. Among his publications, a book on his encounters with Petter Mangs, “the most effective and successful racist serial killer” Sweden has ever encountered, as he writes, and recent analyses of the “lonely wolf” tactic of militant action and groups from the extreme right and the radical Islamism, that are operating under the radar, to avoid being detected and blocked by authorities.
At the time of the Conference, parliamentary elections were about to take place in Sweden. The country was then set for political uncertainty after a tight vote where the far right and other small parties made gains at the expense of traditional big parties. Gardell reported that in Sweden the political and social climate of intolerance has risen. More than half of the mosques have been assaulted or set on fire and minorities are continuously under threat. During his speech he focused on how new radical nationalist parties and movements are investing in narratives built on positive images of love and community, nostalgic sentiments and promises to return the once good society and its original harmony. They are nationalist and ‘identitarian’ groups (as they call themselves), from different nations and united under their belief in separation on the base of national identities. They often portray themselves as common citizens, worried about the vanishing of their country and identity due to a program of multicultural globalism that aims at substituting national identities and people by means of a white genocide: a constant sense of paranoia, that Gardell also perceives in a country like Sweden, where the economy is flourishing, and inequalities hit mostly migrants and non-white population.
These groups work to spread the idea of a “white nostalgia”, a rhetorical discourse based on their efforts to reiterate a rosy, but hazy period, when life was better for the white native population of a certain territory. They ambiguously evoke a moment in history, that has probably never existed, at which national identities were free from external contaminations and people were wealthy sovereign citizens. This propaganda emerges into a multi-faced production in music, film and visual arts. It is not the “angry white men” image alone that can contain such a new fragmented and liquid reality; in fact, explained Gardell, the opposite is true. They often offer a narrative, that appears to be built on love rather than on hate. Love for their nation, love for their hypothetical race, for their selected groups and communities. It is not an imaginary love, it is a deep true feeling that they feel and upon which they construct their sense of collectivity.
Gardell underlined the importance of studying every-day-Fascism, focusing on its essence made up of ordinary individuals that like football, accompany children to school, listen to music and therefore have things in common with their neighbors and colleagues to whom they might appear as moderate people. “You can’t defeat national socialism with garlic. You have to face the fact that Fascism has been supported by millions of ordinary people who considered themselves to be good and decent citizens” he said. It is necessary to unveil the false representation of a political view, evoked through posters of blonde children and pictures of smiling women, that are designed to embody a bright future and a safe homeland. It is necessary to oppose the program of selective love and restricted solidarity that extreme right and nationalist groups promote. Therefore, says Gardell, we need to challenge those representations of love for nation, homeland and family built on a language that is impressive-sounding but not meaningful or sincere at all. And not just because “white nostalgia” is a fictional invention, but – more important – because on the collective and public sphere, love and solidarity are meaningful only if they are universal and express the value of equality unless they are just synonyms for privilege from which just few people can benefit.
At the moment, ultra-nationalist and radical right parties assembling the new political scene, appear to be able to influence traditional parties and vast parts of the population using love as a political weapon, affecting the social and political landscape in many countries, succeeding in making those traditional parties copy their agenda. Their recurrent themes exploit desire for individual social retribution, the tradition of a misogynic masculinity, the enhancement of self-government tendencies and isolation in opposition to openness and solidarity. A rhetoric that exploits the presence of nonwhite minorities and economic instability of this late capitalism, creating hateful propaganda. An intense online activity of manipulation supports the point of view of these ultra-nationalists. As the DNL Conference “Hate News” (May 2018) showed, online facts can become irrelevant against a torrent of abuse, memes and hate.
Online and offline, right extremists can easily find supporters in isolated realities, in the countryside or in close web-communities. Consequently, it is important to act locally and be focused, disrupting their ability to contaminate small groups. Young people are still intrigued by the gruesome and brutal part of the black metal scene, by the fringes of anarcho-fascists and by hooligans, feeding into an international network of neo-Nazi black labels and groups. But there are now also presentable faces, new political formations with attractive slogans supported by glossy music bands and influencers that are building a narrative of love. Mattias Gardell concluded his intervention saying that these groups are currently on the rise throughout Europe, whilst a storm of Fascism is coming again, widely, to hurt exposed individuals and communities, as it is already doing. He is disillusioned and reminded the audience of the Disruption Network Lab that it is necessary to focus and act to defeat it, knowing that it will cause blood.
The analyses of Mattias Gardell introduced topics covered by the second panelist of the day Richard Gebhardt, political scientist and journalist, who gave an insight into Hooliganism based on his direct researches from the last four years in Germany and England, where the Football Lad’s Alliance established itself as a complex reality. He focused on the reasons that pushed this violent collective to become a political movement, connected in Germany to the foundation of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), and the increasing popularity of the parliamentary party AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is today – according to opinion polls and surveys – the second biggest political formation in Germany.
Gebhardt’s intervention began indeed with a quotation by the leader of the alt-right party Alternative for Germany: “We will hunt them down.” The parliament member was suggesting that the new members of parliament from his political formation would use their new powers to hold Angela Merkel’s government to account for its refugee policies “to reclaim their country and people.”
At the time of the Conference only a few days had passed since right-wing extremist thugs and neo-Nazis organized an assault on foreigners in the German city of Chemnitz on the 26th and 27th of August, in reaction to a murder that happened a few days before. It was a shocking moment for many Germans. However, in the following days politicians and members of the German government have tried to downplay the events, showing that big moderate parties tend to favor a certain kind of narration. Far-right violence in Germany has indeed seen a sharp rise in the last period. In this context the guest talked about the group “Hooligans gegen Salafisten” also known as HoGeSa (Hooligans against Salafists) and its origins.
On October 26, 2014, in Cologne the HoGeSa organized its first rally against Salafism. The number of participants can be ultimately estimated around 4.000 people, violent hooligans, who threw stones, bottles and firecrackers. They gathered in Cologne Central Station, with several speakers and live music, and to later march through the streets of Cologne. Xenophobic and neo-Nazi slogans were frequent, and so was the Hitler salute. During the riots dozens of police officers were injured and several police cars were damaged. Police were surprised by the inclination to excessive and unpredictable use of force. In that year thousands of refugees were traveling to Germany from conflict-ridden Middle Eastern countries and the HoGeSa was already targeting them.
In the days immediately after the demonstration, leading German politicians and prominent jurists sought to give a lighter representation of the events. The first official comments to the HoGeSa demonstration were not referring to it as a neo-Nazi demonstration, stressing the fact that hooligans are “for the most part politically indifferent” and that “they are not political but antisocial. They meet just to fight and drink.” The motto “Fußball ist Fußball und Politik bleibt Politik“ (football is football, politics stays politics) was repeated often but did not sound convincing at all. The Hooligans gegen Salafisten represented undeniably a new network of neo-Nazis, that had joined forces with football hooligans, nationalists and other right-wing extremists. Thousands of football supporters appeared to have left their football clubs of choice behind in favor of uniting against a common enemy: Islam. They chose their name HoGeSa hoping to receive popular support by recalling the fight against Islamist extremists.
Nonetheless, not every hooligan is a neo-Nazi. Press reported that in Hannover, for example, hooligans and ultras distanced themselves from the demonstration of HoGeSa and non-fascist football Ultras and that groups in Aachen, Dortmund, Duisburg, Braunschweig and Düsseldorf say they have been threatened, chased down and beaten by these Nazi-hooligans. Gebhardt suggested to the audience of the Conference a book, “Among the Thugs” by Bill Buford, to better understand the dynamics behind hooliganism. The book follows the adventures of Bill, an American writer in England, as he explores the world of soccer hooligans and “the lads”. Setting himself the task of defining why young men in England riot and pillage in the name of sports fandom, Bill travels deep into a culture of violence both horrific and hilarious.
Gebhardt portrayed these extreme right-wing rioters from HoGeSa as men, claiming to be equally distant from conservative and progressive parties, who want to be seen just as football supporters that are not carrying any ideological content, neither that of the Left nor of the Right. However, the nonpolitical hooligan is a myth: they are the heirs of a fascist tradition based on prevarication, arrogance and violence, that plays with the aestheticization of fighting and war, the glorification of militarism and pseudo-heroism. They are not worried citizens, they are thugs “ready for a civil war.” They claim to speak for the silent majority of their community, defending their country and their people. The work of Gebhardt can be seen in a documentary “Inside HoGeSa” (2018) and in his articles online.
The last guest of Friday’s Conference was a member of the project ”Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša,” who run for office in Slovenia at the last 2018 elections, confronting the leader of the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), and former Prime Minister, Janez Janša. “Old names, new faces” was their motto.
In 2007 three artists decided to legally change their name to Janez Janša and joined the right conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS, which was originally a moderate political formation). Janez Janša is also the name of the former President of Slovenia. All of a sudden, there were at least four Janez Janšas in the country: the three artists and the politician famous for his aggressiveness and contentiousness with the opposition and anyone who dares to criticize his choices. At the time President Janša made a public statement about the artists and pro-government media started to comment on their name change criticising their “politicized art”. The activity inside the SDS of the artists served to explore the bureaucratic and political systems of their home country. Their work of investigation is instead much more complex. It reveals how the perceptual influence of a name can interfere with social dynamics. Both on a collective and subjective dimension, they researched the meaning of identity and sectioned how their private life was affected by such name change. They proved that names are just a convention, an instrument, but with a relevant role. Janša remembered as an example that the Slovenian Democratic Party, despite this name, turned into a radical, right and conservative party between 2000 and 2005. Nowadays it is engaged in anti-migrant rhetoric and populist right-wing propaganda.
The artist illustrated how, in the last decade, the Janšas responded with art, cleverness and culture to campaigns of hate and propaganda, an approach that is the base for their political interventions. Their experience was the subject of the documentary from 2012, “My Name Is Janez Janša” and is internationally known. Artists and academics are still pondering about the meaning of the Janez Janšas experience, political critique, art work, activism, provocation or never-ending joke.
During the conclusive debate all panellists agreed that the world they have been in touch with and that they described in the Conference is mostly a world of men. Women are generally present as an accompaniment and/or an accessory. It is certainly a characteristic of Fascism, described in literature and art, as designated in the book “Male Fantasy” by Klaus Theweleit, where the author talks about the fantasies that preoccupied a group of men who played a crucial role in the rise of Nazism. Proto-fascists seeking out and reconstructing their images of women. Another aspect that all three guests agreed on, is the fact that individuals are massively not voting or taking part in public life, since they are increasingly distrustful of traditional media and politicians. European moderate politicians have on the other side the responsibility of a systematic dismantlement of social rights, they justified and supported an unequal economic system of wealth distribution for too many years. Now, scandals and arrogance in public and institutional life do not seem to affect the popularity of extreme right parties, that are ridiculing the excess of fair play and the interests of those moderate politicians.
Focusing on new strategies to directly provoke change, the Conference on the 8th of September began with a performative conversation between Stewart Home (artist, filmmaker, writer, and activist from London), and Florian Cramer, (reader in 21st Century Visual Culture at Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam), moderated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, artistic director of the Disruption Network Lab. The universe of the extreme-right seems to have embraced a path of transgression, arrogance and nonconformity, employed to suggest that its members are holders of a new alternative approach in cultural, political and social criticism. What comes out from such a wave of counterculture is an articulated patchwork that flirts with violence, discrimination and authoritarism.
Bazzichelli asked the audience to question the nowadays extreme right self-definition of their political offer as an “alternative,” considering that the issue of transgression and counterculture has been widely developed by academic and artistic Left, and that experimentation, theorisation and political antagonism have been growing together in the left-leaning universe. In such a perspective, “working on something alternative” – explained Bazzichelli – is supposed to be synonymous with creating a strong criticism of media and society, through political engagement, art and intellectual efforts. An alternative that could enhance a positive, constructive contribution in the collective socio-economic discourse. Today, words like “infowar” and “alternative” tend instead to be associated with a far-right countercultural chaotic production. On this basis, Bazzichelli introduced the lecture by Stewart Home and Florian Cramer, that investigated if and to which extent it is possible to affirm that ideas and values driven from the Left are now reclaimed and distorted in an extreme-right alternative narrative.
In an historical excursus on art, literature and subcultures, the two speakers focused on the 1970s-1990s counter-cultural currents that used radical performance, viral communication and media hoaxes and examined the degree to which they may be seen as playbooks for the info warfare of the contemporary extreme right. With their presentation they suggested that it is improper to state that the alt-right has now occupied established leftist countercultural territories. There have been several examples of a parallel development and interpenetration of very opposite points of view over time. Tommaso Marinetti, father of Futurism and its Manifesto about “War, the World’s Only Hygiene,” mixing anarchist rebellion and violent reaction became then a fervent supporter of the Italian Fascism, that glorified the new futuristic approach. However, Futurism means also sound poetry, since discordant sound had a vital role in Futurist art and politics; an experience that developed into the noise movement with an influence that reached post-industrial musicians and further.
Cramer remembered that Futurism represents also an avant-garde and counterculture from the 1900s, that had similarities with Dadaism. In fact, though Dadaism was anti-war and antibourgeois, they shared a spirit of mockery and provocative performances, mixing distant genres and a massive use of communication, experimental media and magazines. Always considering the beginning of the 20th Century, the lecturers recalled the production of the painter Hugo Höppener Fidus, expression of the Life Reform Movement, linked both to the left- and the right-leaning political views, that strongly influenced Hitler and Nazism, showing roots of an alternative counterculture that went both into the political extreme right and left.
In the 1970s and 1980s, in subcultural production and artistic performances it was frequent the use of fascist symbols as provocation and transgression, for example in the punk scene, which ranged notoriously from left wing to right wing views as pseudo-fascist camp in post-punk culture turn into actual Fascism. A conscious ambiguity, part of experimentation, that – particularly in the U.S. – meant also leaving space to things that were in contrast to each other. In the context of US underground culture, the speakers mentioned publications like those from Re/Search “Pranks!” on the subject of pranks, obscure music and films, industrial culture, and many other experimental topics. Pranks were intended as a way of visionary media manipulation and reality hacking. Among the contributors, you could find artists from the industrial movement, like the controversial Peter Sotos and Boyde Rice, who became today established part of right-winged countercultural movement.
Talking about the present, Cramer and Home also mentioned Casa Pound, a neofascist-squat and political formation from Rome, that adopted the experience described by the anarchist writer Hakim Bey of the “temporary autonomous zones,” that redefined the psychogeographical nooks of autonomy – as well as appropriated the name of Ezra Pound, a member of the early modernist poetry movement.
All this suggests that the so-called alt-right has probably not hijacked counterculture, by for example deploying tactics of subversive humour and transgression or through cultural appropriation, since there is a whole history of grey zones and presence of both extreme right and left in avant-garde and in countercultures, and there were overlooked fascist undertones in the various libertarian ideologies that flourished in the underground. Home and Cramer reminded their common experience in the Luther Blissett project, based on a collective pseudonym used by several artists, performers, activists and squatter collectives in the nineties. The possibility to perform anonymously under a pseudonym gave birth to a mixed production, with undefined borders, in few cases expression of reactionary drives. An experience that we can easily reconnect to the development of 4chan, the English-language imageboard very important for the early stage of Anonymous, that today is very popular among the members of the Alt–Right scene,
Cramer illustrated so how Libertarianism can sometimes flip into a reactionary ideology. The same can be for Anarchism (with the Anarcho-Capitalism) and Cyberlibertarianism, just like for the subcultures. In the Chaos Computer Club – explained Cramer – there is a strong cyberlibertarian component, but we might find also grey zones where a minority of extreme-right can find ways to express itself. Spores of extreme-right and fascist-anarchical degeneration can so be found in the activities of political and art collectives from the Left and, in this sense, it looks necessary to expose their presence in relation to those grey areas, that could become a context for spreading ambiguous points of view within cultural production.
Marinetti, Pound, Heidegger, have a general relevance that cannot be denied. Home and Cramer underlined that, at the moment, nothing of what we see internationally in the extreme-right panorama can be considered culturally relevant. The alt-right is not re-enacting counterculture. This “alternative” of the extreme right consist mostly of a cluster of media outlets producing hate and propaganda, within a revisionist narrative. It picks up an old rhetoric about heroic rebellion, arrogance, overbearing masculinity, mythization of war and the use of violence, in most cases using new definitions for old concepts. Home and Cramer concluded that there is no intrinsic value in being transgressive, and transgression alone cannot be enough to gain any kind of attribute of quality. Because transgression is just a tool. Artists and activists cannot stop experimenting and using the tool of transgression to criticise society, building alternatives and being alternative. The moderate approach in an era of political correctness is a way to enchain the Left; moreover people have the right to hate their condition, hate their job and the inequalities that affect their lives. This feeling is legitimately generated by a critical thinking.
The panel of the second day of the conference reflected on the practice of political, journalistic and activist infiltration as a way of better understanding extremist groups. The moderator explained how from one side infiltration maps extremist groups from the inside, and from the other, it analyses how extremist groups are building their networks, becoming widespread in online and offline. The aim is to explore such groups from within, analysing the reason for people to join them, as well as understanding their inner dynamics.
Rebecca Pates, Political Anthropologist from the University of Leipzig, moderated the discussion and introduced the four guests, commenting that a number of different things can be done when infiltrating. The activities and the achievements can differ, and so the technique, from total concealment in infiltration to openness about it. Pates suggested that from the inside it is possible to understand for example the reason why young people are attracted by groups that from the outside look so angry and violent, and it could be defined the sense of comradeship and belonging that convinces individuals to participate into these movements.
Julia Ebner is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and author of the bestselling book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism. She opened the panel explaining how, after the terroristic attacks from right extremists in Europe and in the US, she decided to get a better understanding of the world of the far-right and their narrative. She infiltrated both online and offline, undercover, with fake identities and avatar accounts, changing her appearance. Her goal was to get into groups that are very different ideologically one from the other, like the neo-Nazi, the old conservative fascist movements and the counter Jihad movement. During her speech she described how she built up a new identity and made connections necessary to her purpose.
To get in touch with active members she used some social media and crowdsourcing platforms available for the extreme-right, such as “Gab”, the alt-right equivalent of twitter, “Wasp love”, a place to date “reformed Christians, confederate, home-schooled, white nationalists, alt-right and sovereign singles.” She was asked to send a full account of her genetic ancestry to be accepted or to share a picture of her skin colour. She had voice chat interviews to enquire about her ideological background or sexual orientation. Ebner entered an alternative universe of disinformation ecosystems and accessed subcultures that interact in parallel as a part of a same bigger network. When she was asked to justify fresh profiles, that she just created, she could benefit from the fact that many far-right users are removed and banned for what they post. She started frequenting all the different tech platforms considered a safe environment for far-right extremism, where they could very openly cultivate antisemitic and conspiracy theories, anti-left rhetoric, coordinate doxing and harassment activities. In 2016 the writer and researcher joined undercover the English Defence League and went to a rally of theirs against what they would call Muslim grooming gangs. A year later she was then recruited into the movement Generation Identity or Identitäre Bewegung, always as part of the new European alt-right (alternative right) and was invited to join them in public and private meetings, like a secret meeting in an Airbnb location in Brixton. In that occasion she was sitting among 20 white nationalists discussing their strategies to launch a British branch of their group, with a manifest focus on optics and media strategy briefings, to learn how to deal with tough questions from journalists about anti-Semitism and racism. They discussed about their political background and their selection procedures in order to achieve a good branding and quality in their membership. The obsession of appearing as decent citizens in public was and is very important in rallies like Charleville. Reports attest indeed that far right groups were concerned about how to dress and even told some people, not particularly good looking, that they could not join the event as they would not make a good impression. Events like Chemnitz, Charlottesville’s “rally to unite the right” or the experience of Defend Europe – an illegal far right ship that sought to hamper the rescue of refugees in the Mediterranean in 2016 – represent a cross-border collaboration between movements that until few years ago were not communicating. These events bring them together on the basis of their lowest common denominator for the sake of having a bigger impact.
After Ebner wrote an article for the Guardian and for the Independent she got backlash from the far-right and the English Defence League. Its founder, Tommy Robinson, ended up storming into her office with a cameraman, filming the whole confrontation and live streaming it to Rebel Media, a far-right news outlet in Canada. The influencer has 300.000 followers and these channels are very popular too. They gave immediate resonance to the aggression and set off a long chain reaction among other far-right and alt-right news platforms, globally. Her whole life got under attention, they used all available data to publicly discredit her. The researcher realised how much it is possible to do with online data to intimidate political opponents or people who criticize. Ebner and her colleagues experienced the hate campaign machine. She noticed that women are more attacked and threats, symptom of the wide anti-feminist and mesogenic culture. It seemed to her that the whole universe was against her activity of infiltration and that she had no supporters. Many different groups and networks were creating a distorted representation of her engagement, and this pushed her to embark on a research project about the interconnectedness of the variegated far-right media galaxy.
With other colleagues Ebner analysed about 5.000 pieces of content, accomplishing a lot of linguistic analysis, and studying interactions with social media monitoring tools. Thanks to this work the researcher can describe the mainstreaming strategies of the extreme right and how its members try to create compelling and persuasive countercultural campaigns using humour, satire and transgression and co-opting Pop Culture. An attitude common with the fundamental Islamism is they are creating content that has appeal on young people on the Internet but they are also concentrated on the traditional media, to make sure that they pick up on their provocations or fake news. They trigger media to report on them by staging online complaints that would go viral. Ebner has also started a project in collaboration with the organisation #ichbinhier e.V., discovering that this technique of coordinated interactions often creates the illusion that they represent the majority of the users. The research shows something different: 50% of the interactions or of the hateful comments below news articles, that they analysed, came from just 5% of all active accounts. A small but very loud minority of people that is now dominating the whole discourse amplified by bots or a media outlet sometimes also Russian ones, staging online psychological operations, jokes and meme to hide extreme right hatred campaigns behind humour-images.
Memetic warfare and gamification are two very relevant aspects, as frequent as quotations from the movies Matrix and Fight Club, with the rhetoric of the red pilling to see the truth. Most of the accounts active in this activity were coordinating posts and hashtags so that their content could get prioritised in the feeds and create viral campaigns, striving to dominate the whole social media discourse. They have very clear hierarchies, which could be ascribed to the gaming dimension too. Hateful comments and negative interactions appear in a flow, getting soon in the top section due to a high degree of coordination. Generation Identity is known for sharing content according to the tactics of the so-called media guerrilla warfare manual, based on a very militarised language, that describes actions, goals and sniper-missions to target and intimidate political opponents exploiting media. All comes in a very gamified way, as they talk about a virtual battlefield and electronic items, where a good performance allows to grow of level. During the German elections in 2017 members and followers of Reconquista Germanica (an extreme-right channel running on the Discord platform) were quite successful in spreading extreme-right topics and making politicians and media pick up on them. Some of their hashtags were often listed in the top 5 trends in the two weeks before the vote. In the meantime, they were evaluating and analysing their activity, celebrating successful “generals” or “soldiers” that were promoted into higher levels. Ebner expressed her concerns as this reflects in in real-world practice what they would do if they manage to establish their own vision and get in power. Since Trump was elected we’ve seen a growing ecosystem that repeats itself, where extreme-right is certainly reappearing. It is indeed possible to spot similar tactics and vocabulary among several European far-right groups, in the campaigns of Italian, German, French, Swedish and Dutch elections. She underlined how important it is to understand far-right extremism better and the relationship between Islamist and far-right extremism, as they have a lot in common and are reinforcing each other.
Anti-racist activist and “Hope Not Hate” researcher Patrik Hermansson reflected on the meaning of radical right-wing practices today bringing his direct story as undercover activist inside the international Alt-Right, and published in The International Alternative Right Report. Starting in the fall of 2016 he joined a London based organisation and then travelled through many other related groups, living a dual life. He described his year of infiltration inside an international secret formation called London Forum, for which you need to be vetted, background checked and have someone who lets you in. Hermansson works as a researcher for Hope Not Hate, an organisation established to offer a more positive and engaged way of doing anti-Fascism. This 26-year-old man has been “Erik”, a fascist who came to London inspired by Brexit and to get away from the liberal prejudice of Swedish universities. He entered and investigated the Forum, discovered members, techniques and goals, until he witnessed the terrible violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. To do so, Hermansson had to become a Swedish teacher of a member and was quickly driven into the world of the extreme right. From former Tory Party members to famous alt-right influencers, he met people in different countries and different social context. It was a safe space of anonymity, that you do not find on Social media.
Hermansson described to the audience of the Conference the social aspects animating the group, where members can feel part of a community, make new friends even overcoming political differences until they have anything else outside. Conspiracy theories have a relevant role too. Holocaust denial, addressed as “the biggest PR event in history”, or the chemistry rails, are important part of their theorization. They feel part of a group that is bound together by secrets that allow you to see behind the curtain and make you understand more than the rest of the population. Hermansson pointed out that the activity of infiltrate is a difficult and immoral business. It exploits people’s trust. It is justified by the need to expose techniques of recruitment, data, but we should not romanticize, not to go too far not to be ruthless. Hermansson infiltrated for a purpose, to get a closer image of right extremism and decided to expose the top players of the organisation, musicians and influencers. The most effective part of the activity, he said, was the sabotage. Infiltration makes people point fingers, paranoia spread in the movement and things broke apart. Hermansson explained that it was a conscious decision: the anti-fascist part of the research. The London Forum is not active anymore, people left it showing that the method of exposure is quite effective. He found out that his activity raised the cost of their recruiting process, which is now much tighter.
The panel was concluded by a member of the Unicorn Riot collective, “a decentralized non-profit media organization of artists and journalists, dictated to exposing root causes of dynamic social and environmental issues through amplifying stories and exploring sustainable alternatives in the globalized world.” The investigative journalist Christopher Schiano presented his work of analysing and publishing of leaked messages from white supremacist, neo-Nazi and various alt-right fascist groups in the US – followed by an introduction of the DiscordLeaks platform by the developer Heartsucker, who is working as an affiliated volunteer for the Unicorn Riot. The guests talked about how Unicorn Riot has obtained hundreds of thousands of messages from white supremacist and neo-Nazi Discord chat servers after the events in Charlottesville, and decided to organise and open a far-right activity centre to allow public scrutiny through data journalism.
Discord is a voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) application for video gaming communities, offering text, image, video and audio communication between users in a chat channel. The US non-profit media organisation with its Discord Leaks has exposed hundreds of thousands of chats from alt-right and far-right servers received. Parker was receiving screenshots of real-time communications between alt-right activists involved in planning the Charlottesville rally and got a “general orders” document, along with audio recordings of a planning meeting ahead of the rally. The screenshots kept then coming throughout the following days.
As reported by the Washington Post, Discord allowed the organizers and participants of the rally to convene in private, invite-only threads shrouded in anonymity – with usernames such as “kristall.night” and “WhiteTrash.” On a Discord server called “Charlottesville 2.0,” they planned everything from car pools, dress code and lodging in Charlottesville to how one might improvise weapons in case of a fight. Some suggested using flag poles as a makeshift spear or club. Many of these things took place. The collective received also internal logs, which enabled them to better see the scope of plans for the Unite the Right rally. Since its founding, Unicorn Riot has gained relevance among people looking for alternative news sources, principally covering protests with an on-the-ground perspective that many mainstream outlets miss. Unicorn Riot was for example among the first media outlets to get to the rally in Charlottesville and cover it. Through their investigation they explained how the far right tries to recruit new member via Discord, or they unveiled the attempts of extremists to look like ordinary Trump’ supporters, building a victim narrative to insinuate the idea that they are targeted citizens. Some of them are supporting the police and members of the police force have been exposed for leaking information to far-right members. They exposed the movement Anticom, anti-communist action, active mostly in shitposting, and the group Patriot Front, whose members unite under the motto “we are Americans and we are Fascists.”
At the end of the three the panellists reasoned on the importance of infiltration, as a means to study the extreme right and expose their networks and members, their strategies and tactics. It can also be helpful to try to predict what these groups are about to do, foreseeing their next step. It means getting in touch with them, entering their circles based on comradeship and exchange of personal experiences. Ebner commented that the use of lies and distortion is the cost of it, wondering, however, about what the cost of inaction is instead. Hermansson reported about the effects of infiltration in terms of the desensitisation he went through, taking part in conversations without reacting. The same desensitisation process can be described in the memetic warfare.
As part of the Disruption Network Lab thematic series “Misinformation Ecosystems” (2018), this 3-days-conference concluded the 2018 programme of the Disruption Network Lab. The series began with a focus on hate-news, manipulators, trolls and influencers, that investigated online opinion manipulation and strategic hate speech in the frame of a growing international misinformation ecosystem, and their impact on civil rights. HATE NEWS focused on the issue of opinion manipulation, from the interconnections of traditional and online media to behavioural profiling within the Cambridge Analytica debate. This second conference took the process further by pointing to specific researches and investigations that illustrated how a process has clearly set in motion, whereas radical right is currently working on an international level, building cross-national connections and establishing global cooperation.
Not just Steve Bannon and a galaxy of media outlet and online platforms are pushing for a new authoritarian turnaround, based on discrimination and ultra-nationalism, having factual impact on political systems. On a grassroot level, there are local networks and formations able to unite different realities and backgrounds, melt together under new trendy labels, slogans and influencers. A new scene that is carefully designed to be appealing to moderate-leaning electorate, where you can find hooligans, hipsters, neo-Nazi and politicians dressed in suits and ties, all striving to appear like conscious citizens and decent members of society, part of a new generation of activists. However, beyond the facade, the majority of far-right groups shows to be against an open, multicultural society as well as against inter-religious and inter-cultural togetherness. They play with economic uncertainties, fear, anger and resentment to spread hate, attack opponents and discriminate minorities, often through a meme-driven alt-right humour, designed to cover with dark hilarity their racist propaganda and fascist drives. Jokes are used by public figures and influencers to promote misogyny, homophobia, a distorted idea of masculinity, racism and justify unacceptable statements. Too often mainstream media and newspapers pick up staged news from such misinformation ecosystems, enforcing a revisionist narrative built on manipulated facts and interactions, arrogance and violence.
Conspiratorial and paranoid thinking acts like a catalyst, provoking participation and fascinating individuals, who want to become warriors and custodians of knowledge. Alongside the image of the angry white man, there is a whole narrative of love and solidarity for their chosen group, the community they decide to protect, identified on utilitarian basis.
Despite of what is represented in media, many speakers at the conference pointed out that there is neither something alternative nor innovative in what they are offering. However, mainstream parties and media tend to follow their reactionary narrative, enforcing the idea that it is competitive. The guests of the Disruption Network Lab came from Africa, Europe, North and South America and exposed an intertwined scenario of transnationalism of the radical right. The direct engagement of activists, that decide to infiltrate, together with the work of researchers, journalists and artists, allowed for a clearer image of what is going on at a global as well as local scale, to understand how it is possible to interrupt this process working actively within the civil society. Sabotage and exposure are instruments useful to disrupt and unveil strategies aimed at sending the world back of a hundred years of human rights achievements. Thanks to Tatiana Bazzichelli and the Disruption Network Lab team, who offered a stage to learn about constructive practices that can be activated in order to change the course of things.
On the day of the General Data Protection Law (GDPR) going into effect in Europe, on the 25th May, the Disruption Network Lab opened its 13th conference in Berlin entitled “HATE NEWS: Manipulators, Trolls & Influencers”. The two-day-event looked into the consequences of online opinion manipulation and strategic hate speech. It investigated the technological responses to these phenomena in the context of the battle for civil rights.
The conference began with Jo Havemann presenting #DefyHateNow, a campaign by r0g_agency for open culture and critical transformation, a community peace-building initiative aimed at combating online hate speech and mitigating incitement to offline violence in South Sudan. More than ten years ago the bulk of African countries’ online ecosystem consisted of just a few millions of users, whilst today’s landscape is far different. This project started as a response to the way social media was used to feed the conflicts that exploded in the country in 2013 and 2016. It is a call to mobilize individuals and communities for civic action against hate speech and social media incitement to violence in South Sudan. Its latest initiative is the music video #Thinkbe4uclick, a new awareness campaign specifically targeted at young people.
In Africa, hate campaigns and manipulation techniques have been causing serious consequences for much longer than a decade. The work of #DefyHateNow counters a global challenge with local solutions, suggesting that what is perceived in Europe and the US as a new problem should instead be considered in its global dimension. This same point of view was suggested by the keynote speaker of the day, Nanjala Nyabola, writer and political analyst based in Nairobi. Focusing on social media and politics in the digital age, the writer described Kenya´s recent history as widely instructive, warning that manipulation and rumours can not only twist or influence election results, but drive conflicts feeding violence too.
The reliance on rumours and fake news was the principle reason that caused the horrifying escalation of violence following the Kenyan 2007 general election. More than 1,000 people were killed and 650,000 displaced in a crisis triggered by accusations of election fraud. The violence that followed unfolded fast, with police use of brutal force against non-violent protesters causing most of the fatalities. The outbreak of violence was largely blamed on ethnic clashes inflamed by hate speech. It consisted of revenge attacks for massacres supposedly carried out against ethnic groups in remote areas of the country. Unverified rumours about facts that had not taken place. Misinformation and hate were broadcast over local vernacular radio stations and with SMS campaigns, inciting the use of violence, animating different groups against one another.
The general election in 2013 was relatively peaceful. However, ethnic tensions continued to grow across the whole country and ethnic driven political intolerance appeared increasingly on social media, used mainly by young Kenyans. Online manipulation and disinformation proliferated on social media again before and after the 2017 general election campaign.
Nyabola explained that nowadays the media industry in Kenya is more lucrative than in most other African regions, which could be considered a positive aspect, suggesting that within Kenya the press is free. Instead a majority media companies depend heavily on government advertising revenue, which in turn is used as leverage by authorities to censor antagonistic coverage. It should be no wonder Kenyans appear to be more reliant on rumours now than in 2007. People are increasingly distrustful of traditional media. The high risk of manipulation by media campaigns and a duopoly de facto on the distribution of news, has led to the use of social media as the principle reliable source of information. It is still too early to have a clear image of the 2017 election in terms of interferences affecting its results, but Nyabola directly experienced how misinformation and manipulation present in social media was a contributing factor feeding ethnic angst.
Rafiki, the innovative Kenyan film presented at the Cannes Film Festival, is now the subject of a controversy over censorship due to its lesbian storyline. Nyabola is one of the African voices expressing the intention to support the distribution of the movie. “As something new and unexpected this movie might make certain people within the country feel uncomfortable” she said, “but it cannot be considered a vehicle for hate, promoting homosexuality in violation of moral values.” It is actually essential not to confuse actual hate speech with something that is labeled as hate speech for the purpose discredit upon it. Hate speech can be defined as something intended to offend, insult, intimidate, or threaten an individual or group based on an attribute, such as sexual orientation, religion, colour, gender, or disability. The writer from Nairobi reminded the audience that, when we talk about hate speech it is important to focus both on how it makes people feel and what it wants to accomplish. We should always consider that we regulate hate speech since it creates a condition, in which social, political and economic violence is fed, affecting the way we think about groups and individuals (and not just because it is offensive).
Nyabola indicated few key factors that she considers able to increase the consequences of hate speech and manipulation on social media. Firstly, information travels fast and can remain insulated. Whilst Twitter is a highly public space where content and comments flow freely, Facebook is a platform where you connect just with a smaller group of people, mostly friends, and WhatsApp is based on groups limited to a small number of contacts. The smaller the interaction sphere is, the harder it is for fact-checkers to see when and where rumours and hate speech go viral. It is difficult to find and stop them and their impact can be calculated just once they have already spread quickly and widely. Challenges which distinguish offline hate speech and manipulation from online ones are also related to the way information moves today among people supporting each other without a counterpart and without anyone being held to account.
Nowadays Kenya boasts an increasingly technological population, though not all rural areas have as yet been able to benefit from the country being one of the most connected ones in sub-Saharan Africa. In this context, reports indicate that since 2013 the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had been working in the country to interfere with elections, organizing conventions, orchestrating campaigns to sway the electorate away from specific candidates. It shall be no surprise that the reach of Cambridge Analytica extended well beyond United Kingdom and USA. In her speech, Nyabola expressed her frustration as she sees that western media focus their attention on developing countries just when they fear a threat of violence coming from there, ignoring that the rest of the world is also a place for innovation and decision making too.
Kenya has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in Africa with millions of active Kenyan Facebook and Twitter accounts. People using social media are a growing minority and they are learning how to defeat misinformation and manipulation. For them social media can become an instrument for social change. In the period of last year’s election none of the main networks covered news related to female candidates until the campaigns circulating on social media could no longer be ignored. These platforms are now a formidable tool in Kenya used to mobilize civil society to accomplish social, gender and economic equality. This positive look is hindered along the way by the reality of control and manipulation.
Most of the countries globally currently have no effective legal regulation to safeguard their citizens online. The GDPR legislation now in force in the EU obliges publishers and companies to comply with stricter rules within a geographic area when it comes to privacy and data harvesting. In Africa, national institutions are instead weaker, and self-regulation is often left in the hands of private companies. Therefore, citizens are even more vulnerable to manipulation and strategic hate speech. In Kenya, which still doesn’t have an effective data protection law, users have been subject to targeted manipulation. “The effects of such a polluted ecosystem of misinformation has affected and changed personal relationships and lives for good,” said the writer.
On social media, without regulations and control, hatred and discriminations can produce devastating consequences. Kenya is just one of the many countries experiencing this. Hate speech blasted on Facebook at the start of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Nyabola criticized that, as in many other cases, the problem was there for all, but the company was not able to combat the spread of ethnic based discrimination and hate speech.
Moving from the interconnections of traditional and online media in Kenyan misinformation ecosystem, the second part of the day focused on privacy implications of behavioural profiling on social media, covering the controversy about Cambridge Analytica. The Friday’s panel opened with the analyses of David Carroll, best known as the professor who filed a lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica in the UK to gain a better understanding of what data the company had collected about him and to what purpose. When he got access to his voter file from the 2016 U.S. election, he realized the company had been secretly profiling him. Carroll was the first person to receive and publish his file, finding out that Cambridge Analytica held personal data on the vast majority of registered voters in the US. He then requested the precise details on how these were obtained, processed and used. After the British consulting firm refused to disclose, he decided to pursue a court case instead.
As Carroll is a U.S. citizen, Cambridge Analytica took for granted that he had neither recourse under federal U.S. legislation, nor under UK data protection legislation. They were wrong. The legal challenge in British court case that centred on Cambridge Analytica’s compliance with the UK Data Protection Act of 1998 could be applied because Carroll’s data was processed in the United Kingdom. The company filed for bankruptcy not long after it was revealed that it used the data of 87 million Facebook users to profile and manipulate them, likely in contravention of UK law. Professor Carroll could never imagine that his activity would demolish the company.
Cambridge Analytica, working with an election management firm called SCL Group, appears to have been a propaganda machine master, able to manipulate voters through the combination of psychometric data. It exploited Facebook likes and interactions above all. Its technique disguised attempts at political manipulation since they were integrated in the online environment.
Carroll talked about how technology and data were used to influence elections and popular voting for the first time in countries like USA and UK, whereas for a much longer time international campaign promoters were hired to act on an international scale. In Carroll’s opinion Cambridge Analytica was an ‘oil spill’ moment. It was an epiphany, a sudden deep understanding of what was happening on a broader scale. It made people aware of the threat to their privacy and the fact that many other companies harvest data.
Since 2012 Facebook and Google have been assigning a DoubleClick ID to users, attaching it to their accounts, de-anonymizing and tracking every action. It is an Ad-tracker that gives companies and advertisers the power to measure impressions and interactions with their campaigns. It also allows third-party platforms to set retargeting ads after users visit external websites, integrated with cookies, accomplishing targeted profiling at different levels. This is how the AdTech industry system works. Carroll gave a wide description of how insidious such a technique can be. When a user downloads an app to his smartphone to help with sport and staying healthy, it will not be a secret that what was downloaded is the product of a health insurance or a bank, to collect data of potential customers, to profile and acquire knowledge about individuals and groups. Ordinary users have no idea about what is hidden under the surface of their apps. Thousands of companies are synchronizing and exchanging their data, collected in a plethora of ways, and used to shape the messages that they see, building up a tailor-made propaganda that would not be recognizable, for example, as a political aid. This mechanism works in several ways and for different purposes: to sell a product, to sell a brand or to sell a politician.
In this context, Professor Carroll welcomed the New European GDPR legislation to improve the veracity of the information on the internet to create a safer environment. In his dissertation, Carroll explained that the way AdTech industry relates to our data now contaminates the quality of our lives, as singles and communities, affecting our private sphere and our choices. GDPR hopefully giving consumers more ownership over their data, constitutes a relevant risk for companies that don’t take steps to comply. In his analyses the U.S. professor pointed out how companies want users to believe that they are seriously committed to protecting privacy and that they can solve all conflicts between advertising and data protection. Carroll claimed though that they are merely consolidating their power to an unprecedented rate. Users have never been as exposed as they are today.
Media companies emphasize the idea that they are able to collect people’s data for good purposes and that – so far – it cannot be proved this activity is harmful. The truth is that these companies cannot even monitor effectively the Ads appearing on their platforms. A well-known case is the one of YouTube, accused of showing advertisements from multinational companies like Mercedes on channels promoting Nazis and jihad propaganda, who were monetizing from these ads.
Carroll then focused on the industry of online advertisement and what he called “the fraud of the AdTech industry.” Economic data and results from this sector are unreliable and manipulated, as there are thousands of computers loading ads and making real money communicating to each other. This generates nowadays a market able to cheat the whole economy about 11 billion dollar a year. It consists of bots and easy clicks tailor-made for a user. The industries enabled this to happen and digital advertising ecosystem has evolved leading to an unsafe and colluded environment.
Alphabet and Facebook dominate the advertising business and are responsible for the use of most trackers. Publishers as well as AdTech platforms have the ability to link person-based identifiers by way of login and profile info.
Social scientists demonstrated that a few Facebook likes can be enough to reveal and accurately predict individual choices and ideas. Basic digital records are so used to automatically estimate a wide range of personal attributes and traits that are supposed to be part of a private sphere, like sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or political belonging. This new potential made politicians excited and they asked external companies to harvest data in order to generate a predictive model to exploit. Cambridge Analytica’s audience-targeting methodology was for several years “export-controlled by the British government”. It was classified as weapon by the House of Commons, at a weapons-grade communications tactics. It is comprehensible then that companies using this tech can easily sell their ability to influence voters and change the course of elections, polarizing the people using social networks.
The goal of such a manipulation and profiling is not to persuade everybody, but to increase the likelihood that specific individuals will react positively and engage with certain content, becoming part of the mechanism and feeding it. It is something that is supposed to work not for all but just for some of the members of a community. To find that small vulnerable slice of the U.S. population, for example, Cambridge Analytica had to profile a huge part of the electorate. By doing this it apparently succeeded in determining the final results, guiding and determining human behaviours and choices.
Bernd Fix, hacker veteran of the Chaos Computer Club in Germany, entered the panel conversation describing the development from the original principle of contemporary cybernetics, in order to contextualize the uncontrollable deviated system of Cambridge Analytica. He represented the cybernetic model as a control theory, by which a monitor compares what is happening into a system with a standard value representing what should be happening. When necessary, a controller adjusts the system’s behaviour accordingly to again reach that standard expected by the monitor. In his dissertation, Fix explained how this model, widely applied in interdisciplinary studies and fields, failed as things got more complex and it could not handle a huge amount of data in the form of cybernetics. Its evolution is called Machine Learning (or Artificial Intelligence), which is based on the training of a model (algorithm) to massive data sets to make predictions. Traditional IT has made way for the intelligence-based business model, which is now dominating the scene.
Machine learning can prognosticate with high accuracy what it is asked to, but – as the hacker explained – it is not possible to determine how the algorithm achieved the result. Nowadays most of our online environment works through algorithms that are programmed to fulfil their master’s interests, whereas big companies collect and analyse data to maximize their profit. All the services they provide, apparently for free, cost users their privacy. Thanks to the predictive model, they can create needs which convinces users to do something by subtle manipulating their perspective. Most of the responsibilities are on AdTech and social media companies, as they support a business model that is eroding privacy, rights and information. The challenge is now to make people understand that these companies do not act in their interest and that they are just stealing data from them to build up a psychometric profile to exploit.
The hacker reported eventually the scaring case of China’s platform “social credit,” designed to cover every aspect of online and offline existence and wanted by the national authorities. It is supposed to monitor each person and catalogue eventual “infractions and misbehaviours” using an algorithm to integrate them into a single score that rates the subjective fidelity into accepted social standards. A complex kind of ultimate social control, still in its prototype stages, but that could become part of our global future where socio-political regulation and control are governed by cybernetic regulatory circuits. Fix is not convinced that regulation can be the solution: to him, binding private actors and authorities to specific restriction as a way to hold them accountable is useless if people are not aware of what is going on. Most people around us are plugged into this dimension where the bargain of data seems to be irrelevant and the Big Three – Google, Facebook and Amazon – are allowed to self-determine the level of privacy. People are too often happy consumers who want companies to know their lives.
The last panellist of the afternoon was the artist and researcher Marloes de Valk, who co-developed a video game for old 1986 Nintendo consoles, which challenges the player to unveil, recognize and deconstruct techniques used to manipulate public opinion. The player faces the Propaganda Machine, level after level, to save the planet.
“Acid rains are natural phenomena”, “passive smoke doesn’t affect the health,” “greenhouse´s effects are irrelevant.” Such affirmations are a scientific aberration nowadays, but in the ‘80s there were private groups and corporations struggling to make them look like legitimate theorizations. The artist from Nederland analysed yesterday´s and today’s media landscape and, basing her research on precise misinformation campaigns, she succeeded in defying how propaganda has become more direct, maintaining all its old characteristics. De Valk looked, for example, for old documents from the American Tobacco Institute, for U.S. corporations‘leaked documents and also official articles from the press of the ´80s.
What remains is a dark-humoured game whose purpose is that of helping people to orientate inside the world of misinformation and deviated interests that affects our lives today. Where profit and lobbyism can be hidden behind a pseudoscientific point of view or be the reason rumours are spread around. The artist and researcher explained that what you find in the game represents the effects of late capitalism, where self-regulation together with complacent governments, that do not protect their citizens, shape a world where there is not room for transparency and accountability.
In the game, players get in contact with basic strategies of propaganda like “aggressively disseminate the facts you manufactured” or “seek allies: create connections, also secret ones”. The device used to play, from the same period of the misinformation campaigns, is an instrument that reminds with a bit of nostalgia where we started, but also where we are going. Things did not change from the ‘80s and corporations still try to sell us their ready-made opinion, to make more money and concentrate more power.
New international corporations like Facebook have refined their methods of propaganda and are able to create induced needs thus altering the representation of reality. We need to learn how to interact with such a polluted dimension. De Valk asked the audience to consider official statements like “we want to foster and facilitate free and open democratic debate and promote positive change in the world” (Twitter) and “we create technology that gives people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Facebook). There is a whole narrative built to emphasize their social relevance. By contextualising them within recent international events, it is possible to broad the understanding of what these companies want and how they manipulate people to obtain it.
What is the relation between deliberate spread of hate online and political manipulation?
As part of the Disruption Network Lab thematic series “Misinformation Ecosystems” the second day of the Conference investigated the ideology and reasons behind hate speech, focusing on stories of people who have been trapped and affected by hate campaigns, violence, and sexual assault both online and offline. The keynote event was introduced by Renata Avila, international lawyer from Guatemala and a digital rights advocate. Speaker was Andrea Noel, journalist from Mexico, “one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters and writers, with high rates of violence against women” as Avila remembered.
Noel has spent the last two years studying hate speech, fake news, bots, trolls and influencers. She decided to use her personal experience to focus on the correlation between misinformation and business, criminal organizations and politics. On March 8, 2016 it was International Women’s Day, and when Noel became a victim of a sexual assault. Whilst she was walking down the street in La Condesa (Mexico City) a man ran after her, suddenly lifted up her dress, and pulled her underwear down. It all lasted about 3 seconds.
As the journalist posted on twitter the surveillance footage of the assault commenting: “If anyone recognizes this idiot please identify him,” she spent the rest of the evening and the following morning facing trolls, who supported the attacker. In one day her name became trend topic on twitter on a national level, in a few days the assault was international news. She became so subject of haters and target of a misogynistic and sexist campaign too, which forced her to move abroad as the threat became concrete and her private address was disclosed. Trolls targeted her with the purpose of intimidating her, sending rape and death threats, pictures of decapitated heads, machetes and guns.
In Mexico women are murdered, abused and raped daily. They are victims of family members, husbands, authorities, criminals and strangers. Trolls are since ever active online promoting offensive hashtags, such as #MujerGolpeadaMujerFeliz, which translates as ‘a beaten woman is a happy woman’. It is a spectrum of the machismo culture affecting also many Latin American countries and the epidemic of gender-based violence and sexual assault.
Facts can be irrelevant against a torrent of abuse and hate toward journalists. Noel also received hundreds of messages telling her that there was a group of famous pranksters named “master trolls” that used to assault people on the streets in that same way, to make clicks and money out of it. Noel found out that they became best known for pulling down people’s pants and underwear in public, and that this brought them directly to popular tv shows. A profitable and growing business.
The journalist decided to face her trolls one by one and later realized that they were mostly part of an organized activity, not from a TV show but from a political group targeting her, a fact that made everything way more intricate. In two years she “got to know her trolls” as she said, and she studied their ecosystem. The description of the whole story is available on podcast Reply All.
Moving from her story, Noel focused in her second part of dissertation on the relation linking together trolls, criminal organizations, political and social manipulation. She described how, by using algorithms, bots and trolls, it is possible to generate political and election related postings on Facebook and Twitter that go viral. Manipulation comes also by weaponizing memes to propel hate speech and denigration, creating false campaigns to distract public attention from real news like corruption and atrocious cartel crimes.
Marginal voices and fake news can be spread by inflating the number of retweets and shares. Hashtags and trends are part of orchestrated system, where publishers and social media are not held in account for the fraud. Automated or semi-automated accounts, which manipulate public opinion by boosting the popularity of online posts and amplifying rumours. There is a universe of humans acting like bots, controlling hundreds of fake accounts.
Noel is particularly critical against Twitter. Its legal team expressed their engagement facing this “new major problem and novel threats”. The journalist hypothesized that the company had been well aware of the issue since 2010 but decided not to intervene to weed out organized groups manipulating its environment. Moreover, they knew that organized campaigns of discredit can water down the impact of real grassroot spontaneous protests and movements.
These manipulation techniques are responsible for digitally swaying the 2016 election toward the candidate Peña Nieto, organizing an army of thousands of bots to artificially generate trends on Twitter. Trends on this social media move up and down based on the number of tweets in a topic or hashtag related to the speed of sharing or retweeting. Trolls and bots can easily control the trending topic mechanism with their intense spamming activity.
Noel reported that false stories are shared via WhatsApp too, they are difficult to track and the most challenging to debunk. Her portrayal of social media and information market is not different from the description on the first day of the Conference by the writer Najala Nyabola.
To see the future of social media manipulation in politics we need to look at Mexico. All parties in Mexico have used bots to promote their own campaigns, journalists and opponents are overwhelmed with meaningless spam and denigrating hashtags. Offline, media landscape across Mexico is not free and organised crime has been using propaganda and manipulation to further its own aims. President Peña Nieto’s administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, making media dependent and colluded. This system suppresses investigative articles and intimidates reporters.
The next general election is scheduled for July 1st. Andrea Noel warned that manipulation, trolls and bots are already irreversibly polluting the debate, in a country where more than 100 candidates have already been murdered (at the time of the Conference) and a history of corruption makes media and authorities unreliable in the eyes of people.
As a response, universities and NGOs formed an anti-fake news initiative called “Verificado” a platform that encourages people to forward stories found on social media using the hashtag #QuieroQueVerifiquen, ‘I want you to verify this’. The researchers of this project answer with fact-checking and publish their findings online. When asked, Noel expressed appreciation for the efforts of organizations and civil society. However, she is becoming increasingly disillusioned. She can see no immediate prospect of finding solutions able to slow or halt the impact of misinformation and hate speech online. In her opinion projects like Verificado can be easily hijacked. On the other side genuine social media campaigns are still an effective tool in the hands of civil society but the lack of trust in media fed by corruption often undermines all efforts to mobilize society, leading the public to routinely dismiss initiative to fight injustice.
When asked about the possibility to shut down social networks as a solution, Noel could not say she did not think of it. A first step could be to oblige media like Twitter and Facebook to guarantee users a safe environment where the economic interest comes after the need of a hate speech and manipulation free environment. The way they operate confirms they are content platforms and as such media entities they lack of transparency and accountability. These companies shirk their obligation for publishing responsibly. They should be held to account when they spin lies and allow groups to act unethically or against target single or communities.
The program of the second day continued with the presentation of the documentary The Cleaners, by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, a project started in 2013 and in the cinemas at the time of the Conference. Initially, the authors wanted to learn more about the removal of pedo-pornographic content and sexualised images of children on Facebook. Social networks have largely pledged to work harder to identify and remove illegal, offensive and improper content, to limit violations and deny hate speech. But how does it work? Who decides what shall be cancelled and on what basis? These questions arose frequently during the first part of the Hate News conference and the German authors could answer it in relation to the social media Facebook, subject of their documentary.
The choice about what shall and what shall not belong the internet is a subjective one. Content moderators, who censor postings and content on platforms like Facebook, have indeed a controversial and central role. Their work is subject to almost no open scrutiny. However, it shapes attitudes and trends of both individuals and social groups, impacting the public discourse and the cultural dialectic. When a social network decides to censor content and delate videos about the effects of drone bombings, since by showing civilian victims Daesh builds its propaganda, it makes a choice that affects the narration of events and the perception of facts.
Investigating how the social media platform Facebook polices online content, and the direct impact of these decisions on the users’ interactions, Block and Riesewieck ended up in the Manila, where Facebook boasts its biggest department for content moderation, with more than 10,000 contractors. The Cleaners shows how this platform sees its responsibilities, both toward people moderating and censoring the content and its users. Based on interviews with Philippine content moderators at work, the documentary contributes to the debate about the public responsibilities of social media and online platforms for publishing, from political manipulation and propaganda to data protection.
Humans are still the first line of content moderation and they suffer horrible consequences and traumas for they see daily the worst of the web. Companies like Facebook have developed algorithms and artificial-intelligence tools able to work as a first level, but the most of this technology cannot substitute human capabilities. Certain content moderators describe themselves as custodians of moral values, as their work turns into decisions that can shape social media and consequently society. There are indeed countries where people consider Facebook as the Internet, ignoring that the world wide web is much more than that social media.
The authors go beyond, showing that Manila cleaners are influenced by their cultural background and social believes. They build a parallel between Philippines’ Catholicism and discourse about universal enslavement of humans to God and sacrifice, photographed in the years of the government of Rodrigo Duterte, controversial president who is leading a war against drugs and moral corruption, made of extrajudicial killings and a violent, abusive approach.
Despite denials by the company, cleaners in Manila also moderate Europeans’ posts and they are trained for that. A single world, a historical reference, together with a picture can make all the difference between an innocent joke and hate speech. Whilst memes can be used as weapons, for example by the alt-right groups or by reactionary movements against gender equality, cleaners have just few seconds to decide between removing and keeping a content, checking more than 35,000 images per day. The authors of the documentary explained how it is almost impossible for them to contextualize content. As a result, there is almost no control over their work, as a team leader can just proof 3% of what a cleaner does.
The last panel closing the conference on the second day was moderated by the curator, artist and writer Margarita Tsomou. American independent online harassment researcher Caroline Sinders focused her dissertation on online protests and political campaigns in the frame of the hate speech discourse. She recalled recent events able to pollute the public debate by creating chaotic and misleading messages to enhance a reactionary anti-progressive culture. Misogyny thrives on social media and hatred of women and entrenched prejudice against them are everywhere in the Internet. Fake online campaigns are often subtly orchestrated targeting women.
In 2014 on social networks appeared an organised action associated with the hashtag #EndFathersDay, presented as a feminist political campaign to eradicate the celebration of Father’s Day as a “celebration of patriarchy and oppression”. That campaign had nothing to do with feminism and grassroots movements, it was a harassment campaign against women, a fake with manipulated images and hundreds of trolls to feed a sentiment of hatred and hostility against activists for civil rights and equality.
It is not the only case of its genre. The #Gamergate campaign, that in 2014 targeted several women from the video game industry (on Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan) falls into this context. The campaign was not immediately perceived as a harassment instrument due to attempts of making it appear as a movement against political correctness and bad journalistic ethics. It was though a misogynistic reactionary campaign against female game developers, that soon revealed its true face as right-wing sexist backlash. Under this hashtag women were indeed victims of doxing, threats of rape and death.
Sinders explained that in the last several years we have seen a shift from a sectorial market to a global dimension where we are all potentially identifiable as gamers. Video games and gaming culture are now mainstream. People are continuously connected to all kind of devices that enable the global gaming industry to generate more than 100 billion dollar every year. The Gamergate controversy reopened the debate that gaming is a world for (white) males, pointing out how the video game industry has a diversity problem, as sexism, racial and gender discrimination in video game culture appear to be a constant factor.
A relevant aspect of the controversy is related to how trolls organised and tried to reframe the narrative of the harassment campaign. Instead of a misogynistic and violent action, they claimed it was about journalistic integrity and candid reviewing, thus denouncing a collusion between the press and feminists and social critics. Most of the trolls and supporters were anonymous, ensuring that the campaign be defined merely by the harassment they have committed against women and as a reaction to what they reported as the increasing influence of feminism on video game culture.
Sinders concluded her speech explaining that organised actions and campaigns like those described above are structured on precise tactics and harassment techniques that have already entered in our vocabulary. Words like doxing, swatting, sealioning and dogpiling are neologisms that describe strategies of hate speech and harassment nowadays common.
The Norwegian journalist Øyvind Strømmen, author and managing editor of Hate Speech International, has extensively researched and written about how extreme right movements and religious fundamentalism are able to build an effective communication online and use the web as an infrastructure to strategically enhance their activities. He joined the panel explaining that despite his intense international activity, he has never been subjected to harassment and death threats like his female colleagues, whilst he finds daily-organised activities to sow hatred and intolerance to repress women.
Cathleen Berger, former International cyber policy coordination staff at the German Foreign Office and currently lead of Mozilla’s strategic engagement with global Internet fora, closed the conference with an analyses of the new German NetzDG legislation, defined by media as an extreme example of efforts by governments to make social media liable for what circulates on their pages. The law was adopted at the end of 2017 to combat illegal and harmful content on social media platforms. It is defined also as anti-hate-speech law as it was written in the historical context of the refugees’ mass migration to Europe and the new neo-nazi propaganda from political formations like the Alternative for Germany (AfD). At the time, fake news and racist material were shared online on several mainstream channels for the first time, with relevant impact on public opinion.
The new German law requires social media companies to provide users with a wide-ranging complaints structure to make sure that discriminatory and illegal posts can quickly be reported. It is left to social media platforms to decide if a certain reported content represents a promotion of or an incitement to terrorism, child abuse, hate or discrimination of any kind.
The law forces social media to act quickly too. Under NetzDG, social media platforms with more than 2 million users in Germany have 24 hours to remove posts reported by users for being illegal. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube seem to be the law’s main focus. Failure to comply with the law carries a fine up to € 50 million.
The German government’s Network Enforcement Act has been criticised for its risks of controversial inadvertent censorship, limiting legitimate expressions of opinion and free speech. Once again private companies, that are neither judges nor any kind of public authority, have the power to decide whether reported content is in fact unlawful.
All credit is due to Tatiana Bazzichelli and the Disruption Network Lab, who provided once again a forum for discussion and exchange of information that provokes awareness on matters of particular concern from the different perspectives of the guests – especially women – able to photograph with their international activities and their researches several topical issues.
This 13th Conference (https://www.disruptionlab.org/hate-news/) was a valid opportunity to discuss and rationalise the need for civil society to remain globally vigilant against new forms of hate speech, manipulation and censorship. Ideological reasons behind hate speech and online manipulation are on the table and the framing is clear enough to hold online media and publishing companies accountable for the spread of frauds, falsehood and discrimination within their networks.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated their inability to recognise real threats and appear to be thinking of profit and control without considering the repercussions that their choices have. However, we are delegating them the power to define what is legal and what is not. Their power of censorship shapes society, interfering with fundamental rights and freedoms, feeding conflicts and polarization. This legal response to hate speech and manipulation in the context of the battle for privacy and civil rights is completely inadequate.
Propaganda and hate speech have historically been tools used in all countries to influence decision making and to manipulate and scare public opinion. Forms of intrusive persuasion that use rumours or manipulation to influence people’s choices, beliefs and behaviours are now occupying the web too. Individuals should be able to give due value to their online interactions, focusing on the risks that they run when they click on something. There is too little awareness of how companies, aggressive trolls, criminals, private groups and advertisers subtly manipulate online environment for political and economic interest.
Such a corrupted online ecosystem – where almost nothing of what we meet can be trusted and where individuals and communities are exposed to private interest – generates often hate campaigns targeting women and minorities, normalising crimes, reactionary gender stereotyping and deplorable cultural customs. As all speakers suggested, Cyber-ethnography can be a worthwhile tool as an online research method to study communities and cultures created through computer-mediated social interaction. It could be helpful to study local online exchanges and find local solutions. By researching available data from its microcosmos, it is possible to prevent ethnic, socioeconomic, and political conflicts linked to the online activity of manipulators, destructive trolls and influential groups, to disrupt the insularity of closed media and unveil the economic and political interest behind them.
HATE NEWS: Manipulators, Trolls & Influencers
May 25-26, 2018 – Kunstquartier Bethanien, Berlin
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Photocredits: Maria Silvano for Disruption Network Lab
Recently I was approached to conceive and run an outreach project to accompany a solo show of work by Eduardo Kac at Furtherfield Gallery in North London’s Finsbury Park.
Among the works on show was one of Kac’s Lagoogleglyphs, large scale stylised representations of rabbits (something of a signature obsession for him) painted in some sort of sportsground emulsion directly onto a section of the park and allegedly of a scale which make it harvestable by the satellites Google rents for its various mapping activities.
Being completely frank, I have to say I entertained a degree of scepticism about Kac’s work—some of it falling within, in my view, one or both of two entertainment based metaphors—the ‘one-liner’ and the ‘theme park’—neither particularly positive elements of my critical lexicon.
Be that as it may, some of the work, particularly the less grandiose pieces (that delicate bunny flag flapping above the gallery!) were touched enough with real poetry to make me want to take up the challenge.
I say ‘challenge’ advisedly for I’m only ever interested in doing anything which in some sense challenges me and I also felt that my ambivalence about Kac would result in anything I ended up making containing a return element of ‘challenge’ or, perhaps more gently put, practical critique.
The word challenge also described the sense I had of wanting to counterpose collaboration, the collective, the everyday, to the artist with a capital ‘A’; of going some way to claiming art as a way of seeing and feeling and thinking together for All ( also with a capital ‘A’).
Reaching back in memory I pondered two remix/homage projects from the noughties which somehow straddled, in a pleasantly clunky fashion, practices both cutting edge digital (at least in their original moment) and time honoured too.
Apposite and practical stimuli for my 2018 purposes, they suggested elegant pathways to both honour previous work and to gently…um… stress-test it.
Both evinced rich humour, a warmth and a concomitant refusal to take themselves too seriously, qualities lacking in much contemporary art and both had a kind of performative klutziness I found entirely engaging.
Both were made in the first years of this millennium when digital and particularly online art was a wild west with a few fragile homesteads scattered here and there and not the orderly space it is today colonised almost entirely by the mainstream art world or commerce or both.
I recalled first a project by Nathaniel Stern where he hired South African billboard sign writers to paint physical representations of various, mostly art related, web pages.
The second was artist duo MTAA’s remix of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance project, an endurance piece where Hsieh had forced himself to punch a timeclock on the hour, every hour for a whole year.
Reversing the premise MTAA’s Whid and River posted a database of video clips of themselves sleeping, eating, inhabiting the space and left it to the online viewer to watch these being digitally assembled (by Flash—remember that?) into a simulacrum of the original over the assumedly continuous period of a year.
Armed, fortified, prepared thus, I set to work—but I still needed a concrete plan and methodology.
Being a keen runner and the project taking place in a London Park in which I had run a 10k not long before (and now having endurance floating near the top of my mind) I felt some kind of park related physical activity would be an element and this would be a way of coming closer to those who loved the park but for whom the art gallery might not be their first association.
But still I lacked the concrete rabbit themed activity which would offer genuine practical, meaningful and autonomous artistic engagement and creation to participants.
I did not want to control what those participants would do but give them a clearly defined (clearly defined enough that all inputs from three separate days of activity could be brought together into a final unified work) and interesting task within which they would need to deploy creativity, focus and skill.
The fad for exercise related GPS devices had previously passed me by but one day whilst running with my daughter, who uses her phone and GPS enabled software to document her running in data and map form, I had a small epiphany—here there (might) be rabbits.
Rabbits, giant GPS rabbits, first planned and sketched by participating teams in marker pen over a satellite image of the park—ears, eyes, paws, body, fluffy tails emergent within its various paths and trails and features and obstructions.
And then, using these maps, we would carefully and attentively walk-out each monster rabbit trapping and freezing it as a succession of data, a series of co-ordinates in the memory of the GPS watch I would wear, finally to be reconstitututed as a continuous line drawing in turn fed back into a fresh satellite view of the park.
But that succession of co-ordinates, actuated by the actual movements of the human body (like a giant pencil lead or nib or brush) will resolve itself into something ancient—line, preconceived and then drawn out by human beings.
Being, together, both the very oldest form of mark making and something blink-of-an-eye recent too (well, as recent as the noughties efflorescence of so-called locative media which I shamelessly pillaged here.)
Inaccuracy in some measure a feature of both ancient and modern—the error margin of even GPS and GLONASS together, two sets of four satellites working in concert; the mix of will and skill and the fallibility and triumph too of flesh and bone and sinew which is part of what thrills and moves us in the arts.
This is what I had in mind.
Repeatedly outlining then co-performing an activity which I learned to summarise simply and precisely, almost automatically, one might have thought boredom or a dozy, parroted, routine might threaten.
And how anxious I was each time as to whether and in what way each new team would engage with—buy into—adopt as theirs, as ours—the task.
But how striking the variation both in the simple, basic act of depicting in continuous line each new rabbit-of-the-imagination and the forty minutes lively sociability surrounding that initial sketching and subsequent walking-out.
Balancing the competing claims of making something serious, something with some kind of weight, some satisfying end product, whilst making space for others’ fun and dreams and and will and whimsy is neither easy nor is it trivial.
In the end people seemed to have a good time, they seemed at ease, went at it with a will and—it seems to me—something rich and affecting emerged.
Thanks to all at Furtherfield and thanks—no, not thanks, but credit—to my fellow artists: Alessandra, Anna, Candy, Chris, Elliot, Evgenia, Franc, George, Grace, Henry, Jade, Lenon, Léonie, Lucian, Luka, Martin, Matthew, Maya, Negev, Niyah, Pryle, Rémi, Rosalie, Sara, Shiri, Stefan, Thea and Tyler.
Ryan Bishop, Kristoffer Gansing, Jussi Parikka & Elvia Wilk (eds.) across and beyond: A transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions, Sternberg Press, 2017, pp.352, €15.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-3-95679-289-2
Although the notion of the “post-digital” has gained some prominence in media art and theory, the uptake of the term in the humanities and social sciences has so far been more muted: whilst the field of “post-digital” art scholarship is by no means new (see Berry & Dieter, 2015), the term itself is often used quite sparsely and ambiguously such that it risks becoming a vague referent for almost any form of human and nonhuman entanglement with media. This rich collection of 25 essays and artwork contributions, many from world-renowned artists and media theorists, seeks to remedy this by developing the notion of the “post-digital” as something that gains specific expression through certain kinds of critical practice. As the editors note in the introduction, across & beyond does so by focussing on the “post-digital conditions for critical media practices…for understanding and working in the transversal territories between theory, technology, and art” (p.5). Organised around a series of contributions presented in recent years by participants of the annual transmediale festival in Berlin, the transversal explorations in this reader are critical insofar as they aim to engage with the “material complexities of digital culture” beyond what the editors describe as the “phantasm” of the supposed “immaterial reality” of digital media (p.16).
To be clear, across & beyond is not strictly a theory book but a gathering of diverse academic and artistic contributions that variously approach questions concerning the “post-digital”. Some of the stakes of “post-digital” media theory are set out in this reader, and will be noted in this review, but it should be said that this is not merely a theoretical intervention into technological media.
The “post-digital” describes a set of “speculative strategies and poetics” (p.13) that act as a “heuristic to understand the historical and material contexts of media art and culture” (p.12). In this sense the “post-” of “post-digital” does not designate a temporal period after a bygone ‘Digital Age’, but instead describes an opening up of a whole “field for material but also imaginary, alternative practices” (p.13) that concern the different temporalities and spaces produced through and with media. The post-digital, then, is presented here as a field of study into the material and imaginary practices of media, which aims to offer “new means of critically linking technology, culture and nature” (p.15).
To thematise some of these traversal territories for thinking about the post-digital conditions of media, the essays and artworks in this reader are split into three themed subsections: “Imaginaries,” “Interventions,” and “Ecologies.” Rather than organising this review by treating each individual chapter, I will instead briefly suggest how certain chapters develop each of these three themes, and end by reflecting on how these themes intervene in the political stakes of social scientific engagements with digital media more widely.
At least in part, the first subsection – “Imaginaries” – develops a number of responses to the idea that the post-digital would be a field of study that rethinks the relationship between technological culture and time (see especially chapters by Gansing; Ludoivo; Daniels; Parikka; Menkman). In the opening chapter, Kristoffer Gansing develops the ‘problem of time’ for post-digital approaches to media by analysing the CD-ROM as a noteworthy “offline art form” (p.41). Rather than thinking about the CD-ROM as a redundant media of a bygone era, Gansing instead highlights the way that the “offline experience” (p.36) of the CD-ROM counters certain contemporary structures of digital surveillance. This intervention is post-digital, perhaps, insofar as the CD-ROM is seen to present specific opportunities for disrupting both processes of online surveillance, but also the reductive tendency to rush towards new, à la mode forms of digital media.
Likewise, Jussi Parikka’s chapter focuses on the question of time in the context of laboratory media and draws attention to the way that certain “time-critical technical media” (p.86) produce “micro-temporalities” that are irreducible to human perception (p.86). In producing a series of situated micro-temporalities, these laboratory media contribute to post-digital approaches to media more widely insofar as they allude to a sense of media time that exceeds humanity. Theorising the micro-temporalities of laboratory media is important because they are involved in fabricating and sustaining certain “situated practices” (p.87) of time that often exceed human perception (p.86) – a line of thought that will be familiar to those have read Parikka’s other contributions to developing a “geology” of media (Parikka, 2015).
The second subsection – “Interventions” – foregrounds uses of technological media for activist and political purposes (see especially Dragona; de Lagasnerie; Oliver & Vasiliev; Sollfrank; Terranova; Juárez & Allen). In doing so, a number of chapters approach the politics of technological media through a critical engagement with its supposedly transformative power. As Jamie Allen – writing in dialogue with Geraldine Juárez’s artwork Hello Bitcoin – pointedly asks: “[w]hy is it that we cannot seem to stop regaling ourselves with hyperbolic, mythic tales of technological heroism?” (p.223). Put differently, how might media art and theory engage with ‘new’ digital media without overplaying its transformative political power? One answer to these questions revealed in across & beyond concerns the task of developing techniques for storying digital media. As Cornelia Sollfrank’s piece on “cyberfeminism” concludes, the task attending to the political power of technologies is not simply about affirming new advances in technological media, “but rather the use of imagination” (p.245): it is a task of remaking the clichéd stories told about technical cultures.
Yet, at a time when the drone and the TV series Black Mirror have gained prominence in invoking a certain unease about future technological change, what might it take to tell different stories about the political implications of technological culture? Decidedly, Daphne Dragona inflects this political question in a stellar essay on the role of “subversion” in media art. Classically, the problem of “artistic subversion” is its tendency to become appropriated into existing regimes of power, such as “media corporations and state surveillances agencies” (p.184). Identifying strategies that are already at work in “subversive” practices in media art – namely: “obfuscation”, “overidentification”, and “estrangement” – Dragona attempts the ambitious task of redefining the role of artistic subversion. Referring to an example of glitch artists, Dragona (p.191-192) notes that for such work processes of subversion and “estrangement” require a methodological approach attentive to the “hacks, errors and glitches” that “disrupt and challenge user experiences with digital media” (p.191).
Terranova’s chapter also considers how and whether the political power of technologies might offer opportunities for political transformation, but in doing so draws upon a different question around the relationship between the notion of the “commons” and certain kinds of “techno-political experiments” (p.211-215) – experiments that include, but are not limited to, certain cryptocurrencies and internet-based political parties. These experiments are noteworthy because they offer opportunities for transforming capitalist social, political and technical assemblages – assemblages that, as they are currently configured, not only produce restrictive forms of consumption and surveillance, but also limit freedoms at the level of desire through processes of subjectivation (p.213-217).
The third subsection – “Ecologies” – concerns the relationship between post-digital readings of technological media and certain kinds of technological infrastructure. In doing so it intervenes in a number of timely and ongoing social scientific debates about technology’s relationship to subjectivity (Bishop; Rossiter & Apprich; Bratton), materiality (Allen & Gauthier; Henderson; Goriunova), and affect (Goriunova; Allahyari & Rouke) – amongst others. Approaching the theme of infrastructure via user interfaces like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, Benjamin Bratton (p.322-323) notes that “[h]uman intelligence and machine intelligence may be radically different (one need not be the model for the other) but they are never isolated or independent of one another”. Bratton calls for a more complex reading of artificial intelligence that resists both the simple equivocation of human and machine ‘intelligence’, and the tendency to suggest that human or machine intelligence exists as an isolable entity.
Directly engaging with the question of post-digital approaches to technological infrastructure, Jamie Allen & David Gauthier – commenting on their Critical Infrastructure project – foreground the need to attend not only to spectacular forms of technological infrastructure, but also those “banal systems” (p.266) and infrastructures that “we are not supposed to notice” (p.266). The point here is to force media art and theory to generate new forms of critique and thought about technical culture beyond some of the tendencies of human perspectivism – what Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke’s chapter differently refers to as technology’s “unintended affects” (p.328).
One critical concern throughout across & beyond is the sense that the various contributions (artworks, films, photos, essays) do not always easily fit together as a contribution to post-digital scholarship and practice. Whilst the book benefits from a precise introduction, it is not always obvious how certain chapters, and their corresponding subthemes, critically engage with whether or not this field of study would be preferable to other approaches to digital media. Indeed, is the “digital” the problem to be addressed for the task of rethinking technical culture today or – as a moving composite expressed by numerous media – does it form what Deleuze (1988: 16-17) refers to as a “false problem”: that is, a problem that merely discovers pre-existing terms for its solution?
This critical question notwithstanding, and to conclude, across & beyond is highly successful in opening up novel questions about technological media: those mundane and overlooked technological processes that nonetheless offer opportunities for experimenting with profound mediations between humans and nonhumans (see here the chapter by Yokokoji & Harwood). These post-digital registers would engender a different focus from a recent emphasis in the arts, humanities and social sciences on the ways that certain dominant technological figures are variously weaponized and monetized (see chapter by Bazzichelli). In countering the logics of weaponization and monetization, this reader – like the transmediale festival – will have a wider appeal to those interested in how media art and theory keeps apace with changes to those overlooked forms of technical culture.
Artists Organise (on the blockchain) was the fourth event in the DAOWO blockchain laboratory and debate series for reinventing the arts, in collaboration with Goethe Institut London.
In this special event, hosted by Drugo more in Rijeka we learned from the Croatian cultural context before envisioning, devising and testing alternative forms of blockchain-based cultural production systems, for application at Furtherfield in London.
We talked with Davor Miskovic about Clubture, the non-profit initiative that has distributed national cultural funding between a network of peers in Croatia since 2002 according to decentralised, participatory principles.
Workshop participants then took Julian Oliver’s Harvest, in which “wind energy is used to mine cryptocurrency to fund climate research”, as their focus for new proposals for blockchain-based projects to connect park-based arts venues with their local communities. Then they took turns to perform the role of a select committee of skeptical park stakeholders who wanted to know how park users would benefit from the scheme in a time of cuts to public funding and climate change.
Read the semi-fictional Minutes of the Bunsfury Park Stakeholders Group Select Committee
This special event, devised by Ruth Catlow and Max Dovey, and hosted by Drugo more formed part of a wider programme events in Rijeka to accompany the opening at Filodrammatica Gallery of the touring exhibition New World Order.
Thanks to all participants!
Keep calm and carry on monitoring the media: a review of Monitorial Citizen
NeMe (Cyprus), 9th December 2017, part of the State Machines programme
One couldn’t have wished for a more grounding response to contemporary media anxieties than this event. I don’t mean that the conference was all rainbows and lolkittens. I mean that it collected and tackled serious issues about the contemporary media landscape, its decentralization and its paranoias. It brought together perspectives on monitorial citizenship, citizen participation and citizen journalism –increasingly discussed in journalism and citizenship studies as new, post-modern, or alternative forms of civic engagement that also involve new, post-modern or alternative practices of media participation– and how this phenomenon can reinforce democratic ideals, and counteract forces or fears for their dissolution.
By all means, there seems to be a lot for us to worry about, a condition which the conference takes as its starting place. As moderator Corina Demetriou mentioned during her introduction, there’s the increasing fragmentation and polarization of our world where the success of populist rhetoric and the degradation of political discourse raises concern about our democratic institutions. Then there’s the proliferation of fake news, the dominance of media-scepticism, of conspiracy theory and of justifiably alarmist parental control discourse. And further yet, there’s the democratic failures of contemporary mass media, the corporate nature of social media, and concerns about the failures of media-education. All these in the face of increased surveillance and online censorship instituted with the excuse of / in order to battle all sorts of nightmarish villains.
The conference had the intended side-effect of facing and disarming most of the above, not least by providing historical context and balancing fears with contemporary research, following up criticisms with constructive questions, and offering numerous examples of citizen monitoring at work to an inspiring effect. NeMe gathered its speakers around the urgent premise of the potential for political change that is contained in networked citizen journalism (after Michael Schudson 1998) or citizen witnessing (after Stuart Allan, 2013). This was done in relation to what NeMe frames as a growing demand for political and corporate clarity that brings citizens immediate access and grants crucial issues a kind of evanescence: a transparency that is double-edged, both in terms of exposure, but also a tendency to fade or be drowned out in a sea of information.
It helps to think of the conference in four parts. First, it provided an introduction to the discursive context and the development of the notion of citizen witnessing (Stuart Allan). Second, it moved on to crucial debates in media education (Joke Hermes) and children’s rights of access to information (Cynthia Carter). Third, it introduced a discussion of the politics of democratic citizen participation in theory and online (Nico Carpentier) and the transformative potential of grassroots media monitoring practices towards conflict transformation (Nicos Trimikliniotis). And it concluded, with satisfying momentum, with a discussion of monitorial practice from an artist perspective (James Bridle).
In the first presentation, the conference defined the field and what is at stake in terms of the media establishment’s clash with the simultaneous need to subsume new developments in citizen journalism: Stuart Allan set-up the context for this through a discussion of the idea that “somebody should be telling this because journalists aren’t.” His overview reached from the Kennedy assassination, to the definition of the Arab Spring as the Twitter revolution, to #blacklivesmatter, and the WITNESS human rights initiative. Allan also reflected on negative reactions from the world of professional journalism where citizen reporting is cast as “ghoulish voyeurism enabled by contemporary technology.” He most interestingly, juxtaposed professional “helicopter” or “parashoot” reporting, done according to editorial directives, with an emergent form of reporting from within. A form that is embedded and unsanitised, and comes in the form of unapologetically subjective documentation, where the amateur camera approaches truth or reality with an immediacy that trumps formal news, and demonstrates how purposeful citizen witnessing can bring about positive social change.
Then came two complementary discussions of sensitive issues around the failures and alarms of contemporary media-education (Joke Hermes) and children’s access to information, with emphasis to their online participation and their potential for political contribution (Cynthia Carter). Both speakers have been working towards the deconstruction of the stereotypic fear that it is a dangerous online world for young people, and they’ve been doing this in different ways and from different angles. Hermes discussed how a quarter century of media education has succeeded in breeding fear and mistrust rather than ways to corroborate and cross-reference. She made the very convincing argument that we need a plan for long-term engagement rather than immediate survival. That we must work towards the strategic teaching of the difference between downright holistic mistrust and meaningful engagement. That we may construct a perspective for cultural citizenship that makes “learning how to listen” (to disengaged sceptics) a priority: part of a new set of conditions for citizenship, where “irony, satire, and playing games” are understood as survival mechanisms, and “ways of blocking screening and fooling one’s parents are understood as useful tools for children to survive in all this, without giving in to conspiracy theories.” Following up from Hermes, Cynthia Carter explored arguments around parental control and its misunderstandings, with a discussion of how research on news media remains incomplete by failing to include the voices of children. She argued against perspectives that cast children as “passive recipients of information that is going to socialise them.” She emphasised how children’s civic rights are undermined by the mistaken perception that, primarily, rather than engaged, they need to be protected. She offered examples where interventions by children exercising monitorial citizenship, have the potential to change perceptions about children’s political interests and their capacity for meaningful, world-changing participation.
Nico Carpentier connected issues of online participation with broader debates and definitions centering on participation as integrated with democratic ideas. He discussed the development of participation-related discourse online and offline, and the posturing contained in such theoretical or practical endeavours vs. their democracy-reinforcing capacity. He highlighted a serious problem with the idealisation of the democratic capacity of online participation: that, for example, “we still haven’t looked at the radical right form of online participation where neo-nazis are participatorily deciding whether they should kill somebody.” Carpentier argued for the need to further “democratise democracy” across fields like the arts and the media, and “do more than pay lip service to the logics of participation.”
Next, Nicos Trimikliniotis introduced debates around participation and citizen journalism in relation to Cyprus, and to argue for the need to compare struggles and national contexts, particularly in relation to peace journalism and the potential for overcoming austerity and chauvinist citizenship models. He emphasised the role of the media in conflict transformation, in defining the nature of conflict and division: its contextualisation and relativisation, and transference towards social and other issues. For him, the creation of third spaces that defy the long-embedded interests of mainstream media is a crucially valuable new element. He identified such a critically valuable third space in the practice of the monitorial citizen. He used the example of the Cyprus-based collaborative online journalism collective Δέφτερη Ανάγνωση (trans. Second Reading), to argue that it indeed possible to undercut colluding media, and transform the reporting, the investigation, and the very nature of professional journalism, with the help and participation of monitorial citizens, intellectuals and artists.
Finally, James Bridle introduced a multilayered example of his own monitorial artistic research practice, an exercise of monitorial citizenship that actually researched issues of citizenship, migration, and asylum. He focused on a particular project where he worked to cross-reference details left out of a story in the UK press about Theresa May putting asylum seeker and hunger striker Isa Muazu on a private jet for deportation (2013). Bridle tried different methods in order to find out where this jet landed and to investigate the systemic, legal and spatial conditions for this kind of deportation. He spoke about the value of collectively maintained online tools that pool information through crowdsourcing, such as tools designed by the flight-spotting community, in this case making public the capacity to track flights. Bridle’s investigation led to a detention centre next to Heathrow, and then to the architectural mapping of this facility, where secret deportation trials seem to be taking place. He proposed this as a way of using the ability to research and cross-reference information through new tech, to make visible something that wasn’t visible before, and thus draw a picture of the system that produces a particular kind of story. In this case a story of deportation, also connected to the debate about global surveillance, by performing a kind of reverse surveillance.
Most interesting, and as a conclusion to the conference, Bridle made transparent his own questions about this instinct of monitorial citizenship: the issue that bringing things to view could be a solution to injustice. He pointed out that his own investigative whistleblowing and NSA surveillance, have in fact, the same logic behind them. Both top down centralised government surveillance, and bottom up citizen-driven monitoring or reverse surveillance are based on the logic that there’s something secret and if we bring it to view, then something will be radically transformed. Except according to Bridle this is not fully accurate. There is a danger here that we may make the invisible visible but remain blind to the systemic forces that brought it to be in the first place.
The discussion following the presentations focused on the potential of citizen monitoring given local Cypriot peculiarities, returning to the example of Δέφτερη Ανάγνωση, with members of the audience introducing the consideration that the structure of coordinated efforts of citizen monitoring (whether flat, or hierarchical, or anonymous, and so on) can play a role in its potential to set-up democratic resistance. The formal discussion transformed into after-conference mingling over drinks and finger food that was good enough to keep people processing in small groups for over an hour. My own conversations pushed onwards from James Bridle’s point about our unwitting complicity with surveillance logics: do we try to resist such logics? (The answer may be that we can try to temper them). This included a conversation with Joke Hermes, making the connection with a recent article by James Bridle documenting weird and often disturbing algorithmically generated youtube videos targeting children (Bridle, 2017), and putting the question of where to draw the line between parental concern and parental panic. (The answer seems to be gently, by avoiding random overexposure at the preverbal stage, not attempting totalitarian control, and focusing on being there and paying attention).
There’s a lot to pick up on in conclusion, aside from my insolent and possibly unjust isolation of one-liners in bold, for which I must ask the speakers’ forgiveness. I am most interested in two elements that seem especially innovative contributions to what is already a very rich and intensely investigated intersection of scholarly work on journalism and citizenship. This conference went the extra step to further bridge this growing field with other sides of media theory: First, in connection with peace scholarship and local issues around media collusion and their effect on conflict transformation through the work of Nicos Trimikliniotis. And secondly the connection made with educational theory and cultural studies through the work of Joke Hermes and Cynthia Carter, a beautifully resonating combination with a feminist focus on understanding, rather than fear or control.R
Photographs and videos by Sakari Laurila
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.
Referring to Ernst Jünger’s proto-fascist concept of the ‘front experience,’ Dani Ploeger’s fronterlebnis takes us to a frontline where digital consumer culture and traditional warfare meet. Combining filmed footage of a journey to the frontline in the Donbass War, Ukraine, alongside vintage military paraphernalia, Ploeger puts the artist in the field with the ‘real’ soldier. These soldiers are men from the far-right Ukraine Volunteer Corps, affiliated with the Right Sector, and remind Ploeger of ‘the weird and wonderful mix of action heroes in Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables series, albeit without the body builder physiques and less carefully manicured.’ Here, Ploeger not only conceives an exhibition which examines the relationship between the cleanliness of modern day technology and the grittiness of traditional warfare, but also highlights wider issues around society’s continued masculinised and fetishised relationship to conducting, and, as some of these pieces show, documenting war. With Ploeger’s ‘weird and wonderful’ group made up exclusively of men, featuring masculine nom de guerres such as Bear and Carpenter, fronterlebnis is an exhibition in which masculinity is in the crosshairs as much as anything else.
The four-piece exhibition is part of Ploeger’s current exploration into the militarisation of public spaces across Western Europe in connection with our increasingly fetishised relationship with consumer technologies, and how these apparently disparate elements converge in various conflicts, ranging from the Donbass War to public security in cities like Brussels and Paris. The soldier’s body has arguably shifted in its role since the latter part of the 20th century, with the advent of sophisticated warfare technologies moving the human body away from the process of killing, at least in popular imaginations of conflict. With this development, the methods of war appear to have shifted, but it is in fronterlebnis that we are able to see how in the Donbass War in Ukraine, traditional warfare not only remains but has now become intertwined with advanced techno-consumer culture.
This juxtaposition of the old and new is present in the first piece you encounter as you enter the gallery. In Patrol (2017), Ploeger captured a firefight on his smartphone. The footage has been transferred to 16mm film and is being projected onto the wall of the gallery in a continuous loop. In the film, we see three soldiers – Bear, Carpenter and Steinar – escort Ploeger around the frontline on the edge of the destroyed seaside village, Shyrokyne. These men, in an assortment of vintage and contemporary battle array, many carrying the iconic Kalashnikov rifle, are seen sharing footage of their exploits on the frontline with each other, which they have captured on their smartphones and GoPros. Steinar, the youngest and, as Ploeger told me, the most fashion conscious in his choice of military gear, is filmed by Ploeger watching footage of the moment where he and Carpenter blow up an unexploded mortar shell. In this piece, the 16mm film echoes the era of the weapons that the men are carrying. The manner in which this film is projected reveals the peculiarity of watching a modern day firefight where many of the weapons and uniforms are from the Soviet era, but the men are astute in their engagement of consumer technology in order to document their experiences of the conflict. In Patrol, the Kalashnikov and the smartphone appear to have made an unlikely pairing.
The other work in the show features such seemingly unlikely pairings of traditional paraphernalia of warfare coupled with different pieces of consumer technology. In artefact (2017), the wooden handguard of a Kalashnikov assault rifle is exhibited like an archaeological artefact. Presented on a white plinth, encased in Perspex glass, you can see that the wood of the handguard has been worn with the indents of many hands, signalling its intense use. This carefully exhibited object is just one half of this piece though. The other half consists of digital video animation in which a high-resolution 3D scan of the handguard is inserted onto a digital model of an AK-47. Presented on a large television screen, the digital model, set against a standard blue sky backdrop reminiscent of game development engines, highlights how many of us only come into contact with these types of weapons in a digitised form; whether that be in video games or through action movies. Ploeger’s engagement with firearms here reminds me of some of his past work that seems to suggest an interest in these weapons in relation to masculinity and phallic imagery. Dead Ken /Less Pink (2016), a short video installation in which Ploeger fires a small revolver at a Ken doll, speaks to the seemingly indelible relationship between firearms and masculinity. When seen in relation to this video installation, artefact signals an enduring fascination in our shared social psyche with these weapons, but also speaks to how these weapons continue to be consumed and represented in relation to masculine identities.
In worse than the quick hours of open battle, was this everlasting preparedness (2017), we can see a more tangible engagement with the co-existence of war artefacts and digital technology. Held in the front pocket of a Soviet army backpack from the Afghanistan War period is a damaged tablet computer which displays a bouncing screensaver, featuring a piece of text from Ernst Jünger’s proto-fascist novel Storm of Steel (1920). Jünger describes his experiences of fighting on the frontline during the First World War and the title of this piece is a translation of the text we see displayed on the tablet. Here, the mediatised depictions of war that are so pervasive in popular culture are delineated from the lived experience of Jünger, who discusses this perennial notion of prepared waiting that is a common, though rarely shown, aspect of war. Here, the worn backpack which has been roughly patched and repaired, presumably by the hands of the man to which it used to belong (men’s hands are for holding guns rather than sewing needles this bag appears to suggest), holds the similarly worn and damaged tablet. These damaged items speak to Ploeger’s past work with electronic waste, which explored our society’s proclivity for abandoning technologies when they become outdated or damaged. In this exhibition, however, Ploeger brings together the old and new, using pieces of (almost) electronic waste alongside other material artefacts to further explore the relationship between the material and digital.
The largest piece of the exhibition, frontline (2016-17), deploys this new and ‘clean’ technology in order to take us to the frontline. The work consists of a big wooden enclosure of about 5 by 5 meters which can be entered through a small opening on its side. The entirely white inside of the space is brightly lit by a large grid of office LED lighting that hangs above it. This enclosed space speaks to the ways in which Westernised notions of conducting war are now considered clean and sterile as a result of the technology that they use. Before entering the space, you are asked to place foot coverings over your shoes, as if you would be entering a sterile space, a futile gesture it would seem as the same coverings are used again and again. This action, however, also references the cultural shift in how Western nations like to represent high-tech warfare as a clean affair.
When you enter the enclosure a sensor is triggered and a soundscape of intense gunfire and explosions suddenly surrounds you. It is only until the you place the VR headset on to your eyes that this soundtrack, fit for an action movie, ceases. Roused by the noise, you are then met with a starkly contrasted image to what was suggested through the preceding gunfire soundscape. Rather than an action scene which complements the sounds previously heard, you enter an uneventful immersive video of soldiers smoking and sitting on the frontline. Using an intricate combination of partial video loops, the men appear to be on a never ending smoking break. frontline, subverts our spectacular expectations of warfare and VR technology by creating a VR experience that – after using sound to further heighten our expectations – foregrounds the mundanity of waiting for something to happen that makes up most of everyday life in an area of conflict.
In frontline, as in all of the pieces that are exhibited as part of fronterlebnis, Ploeger subverts our expectations by combining and repurposing technology to make us question our relationship with our technological devices and how we perceive and engage with them in everyday life. In addition to its examination of digital culture, fronterlebnis also seems to suggest that warfare remains a man’s game. We encounter men who are still prone to having their boy’s toys, but it would seem that in this case they are a GoPro in one hand, and a Kalashnikov in the other. Ploeger’s documentation of these conflicts, made with his own personal technological devices, arguably envelopes him in similar mechanisms of fetishization as the soldiers he was with. Neither soldier nor artist seem able to extract themselves from the seductive realm of audiovisual gadgets and self-mediatization in an era of omnipresent digital consumer culture that even reaches as far as the trenches of a dirty ground war.
Disobedient Electronics: Protest is a limited edition publishing project that highlights confrontational work from industrial designers, electronic artists, hackers and makers from 10 countries that disobey conventions. Topics include the wage gap between women and men, the objectification of women’s bodies, gender stereotypes, wearable electronics as a form of protest, robotic forms of protest, counter-government-surveillance and privacy tools, and devices designed to improve an understanding of climate change.
I was one of the lucky few to receive a hard copy of this fine little zine, a handmade limited edition of 300, put together by Canadian artist & researcher Garnet Hertz. It features 24 contributions of critical art & design, many of which taking a strong stand on feminism and surveillance /privacy issues, indispensable in current debate. Hertz initiated this publication in response to post-truth politics, in itself a notion shrugged off by populist drivel – “Politicians have always lied.” – Ptp- strategies involve the removal of scientific context from popular claims in order to comfort the masses in turbulent times of change. Such trends are noticeable in culture and thus in the DIY- movement too. After a disappointing visit at a maker’s fair, which essentially promoted the aesthetic design of blinking LEDs and the 3D-printing of decorative junk in an overall atmosphere of relentless marketing, the manifesto of Disobedient Electronics caught my attention, reflecting my impressions accordingly.
Decline of culture becomes visible as ‘popular’ themes such as sustainability or integration policies are readily adopted but actually serve as mere buzzwords to increase the marketability of events and products. Since it became profitable to sell electronic boards and a variety of accessory components, the prosumer (Ratto, 2012) is bound to available materials and building instructions and not encouraged to experiment or imagine alternatives to already available commercial design. Therefore many important layers of technology get ignored or regarded as not worth exploring due to the fetishisation of the final result. Although focus should be on action oriented making, tactile objects /installations are important when linguistics fail. We have already incorporated digital structures in every social aspect of our lives and it is difficult to observe let alone express them.
The book treasures the craft of DIY technology development, notably in the surveillance /privacy sector, and highlights the pressing need for knowledge in light of the technological advantage of those in power. Backlash provides us with an educational protest kit, including devices for off grid communication and bugging defence. These are functional but not necessarily designed for situations of conflict, rather for inciting a relevant debate among the general public. Phantom Kitty (work in progress) defies spying by authorities without a warrant and the enforced quantification of humans based on evaluations of online activity. It produces arbitrary noise when the user goes offline to obfuscate browsing habits and it is possible to integrate machine learning algorithms at a later stage, which could mimic or create identity patterns. Phantom Kitty features a stunning mechanical rack for keyboard and mouse operation, fed by a program executing search queries and the access of webpages. The project draws on the eeriness of neither knowing to what extent gathered data is exploited, nor against which parameters and targets it is set.
Completely left in the dark about the full scope of exercised control and entailing consequences The transparency grenade by Julian Oliver reminds us that citizens have a right to openness too. The promise of “making the process of leaking information from closed meetings as easy as pulling a pin” is tempting, and in contrast to the opaqueness of corporate and governmental policies, the artwork, other than claiming transparency, is representing it, in its aesthetics, open source software and in the thorough documentation of its engineering process.
The well written accompanying text of one of my favourite projects PROBOTS describes effective works as “technologies of dissent that work at both the practical level but also the symbolic”, by all means valid for those involved making this book, albeit associating with a manifold of disciplines. The tele-operated protest robot certainly meet those demands and can be sent out by the precarious worker as an answer to the efficiency of contemporary policing, simultaneously a metaphor for the limited potential in the act of present-day corporeal protest. The silencing of political resistance happens far beyond the streets and PROBOTS makes an extraordinary research tool for investigating the organisational power of technology, which prevents social progress already from the outset.
I’ve only recently discovered that e-textiles is not the same as smart clothing. It is a discipline, focusing on the act of making rather than the actual result, albeit in this case impressive too. The makers of The Knitted Radio approached the craft of knitting and electronics without economic reasoning, a factor which primarily informs the engineering process in industrial design. The liberation from conventional standards brought about alternative forms and methods, that is a sweater that also functions as a FM radio transmitter and the skill to knit electronic components /devices such as resistors, capacitors and coil with conductive yarn, an off-the-shelf material. The knitting instructions for the sweater are available online, it can provide a free of cost, independent communications infrastructure. The concept was inspired by the protests on Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey, and associated violations of freedom of speech. A Piece of the Pie Chart: Feminist Robotics by Annina Rüst illuminates gender inequity in form of a production line, which decorates edible pies with pie charts, depicting gender ratios in tech affiliated corporate or public organisations.
Women are generally underrepresented in tech related workplaces and users of the gallery installation can browse and choose between various data sets on gender in technology, e.g. computer science graduation rates, before an ensemble of household applications and semi-pro robotics sorts the cake. The mere visualisation of data was not radical enough, so the finished pie can be shipped to the institution of which data (and gender inequity) originates, and where it can be consumed accordingly. Women have to be content with the smaller piece of the cake, also symbolic for economic inequality and the missed out experience of working in tech. Rüst was not satisfied with the claim that women are just not interested in tech, and further qualitative research in feminist technology showed that women are rather put off by its hostile macho culture and that technological pedagogy simply failed to inspire girls.
Tweeted image of a finished pie. Source: https://twitter.com/PieChartRobot
The PROTEST issue lives up to its title and emphasizes on projects, which propose hands-on political action and intervention with society, not in terms of providing solutions but to spark much needed discussion and inspire disruptive technology. Disobedient Electronics follows the publishing project Critical Making, which comprised 11 issues, so there is hopefully some more to come.
“2C E6 85 DC 0B A7 9F 2C 71 CD 47 52 E2 77 CC D2 96 DB 9B 67 51 F4 34 FD 20 A4 0C 86 5A 02 65 B7 D7 68 B6 FB E5 79 31 03 B6 48 76 26 63 1F 19 DC E0 2C C5 CD 74 A4 80 36 A5 56 83 EF 59 2A E8 31” (2017) by Lars Holdhus, hereafter referred to as 2CE6, was exhibited at the Øx exhibition of cryptographic art operating in the tradition of 1960s Conceptualism curated by Sam Hart as part of the 2017 Ethereal Summit in New York (one of my smart contract pieces appeared in the same show).
2CE6 is a framed, partially obscured print of hexadecimal digits representing a cryptographic private key. The key is one of 5000 created by Holdhus to authenticate individual artworks over the course of his future artistic career. Exposing it in this way depicts the anxieties of both the artworld and cryptoculture and allows the viewer to reflect on their interaction. To explain why will require us to situate both the artwork and its materials within the history of art and encryption.
The re-emergence of cryptography as a popular pursuit in the Nineteenth Century starts with a link between code and art. Cryptography and deciphering were popularized by the American author Edgar Allen Poe, who later created the cryptographic literary form of the detective story. In Poe’s early story “The Gold Bug”, an encrypted message leads to hidden pirate treasure. It is the story of an investigation, but before and without the framework of the investigating detective that would find its fullest expression in the figure of Sherlock Holmes (see Franco Moretti’s “Graphs, Maps, Trees”, Verso, 2005, for how this framework fell into place). The detective story came to be a form of deciphering of human secrets and their traces, as Mediaeval cryptography had stood in relation to deciphering the mysteries of God’s creation at a time when the occult, science and cryptography had yet to differentiate themselves. Poe is a similarly liminal figure to mediaeval cryptographers such as Johannes Trithemius in his combining of cryptography, investigation, and spiritualism in literature and in practice. Poe held codebreaking competitions in newspapers and challenged readers to send them unbreakable codes. His writings on cryptography were required reading in the American intelligence community up to the early Twentieth Century. Further reflecting the Mediaeval relationship between cryptography and the occult (encryption and occultation), Poe was a popular subject for spirit mediumship after his death and for some time his most popular work was posthumous.
Contemporary cryptography starts not with the codebreaking conflicts of the Second World War (which for the most part just automated earlier systems) but with the discovery of Public Key Cryptography (PKC) at first secretly in the UK and then publicly in the USA in the 1970s. PKC allows messages to be encrypted using a separate key that cannot be used to decrypt it, which can therefore be made public. The secret key that is used to decrypt text that has been encryped by the public key is usually a large number (nowadays consisting of hundreds to thousands of bits) related to it by a “trapdoor function” that uses currently impossible-to-reverse mathematical operations like multiplying enormous prime numbers or multiplying points on complex curves. You are probably using PKC to read this website over the HITS protocol, it’s everywhere in contemporary communication and trade. Like the association of cryptography with the occult, this link between cryptography and trade goes back to the Renaissance.
The relationship between mathematics and cryptography stretches back even further, to earlier Arab herpetologists. This relationship was formalized by Claude Shannon in 1949, and operationalized by PKC. In previous eras, art had a similar relationship with mathematics as part of its self-image, for example in its geometries and colour theories, but Contemporary Art has a mathematics taboo. There is no reason why this should continue to be the case – public key cryptography can provide form, subject and content for art.
The points, lines and planes found in private and public keys and in the operations of encryption and decryption relate to mathematics and geometry in art. The mathematics of ratio and projection were common to Renaissance trade and to perspective. PKC has become contemporary trade math, although it has not yet led to an equivalent of perspective in art. While mathematics is a conceptual resource that strangely elicits disdain or hostility in the digital financialized era of contemporary art, Sol LeWitt showed that it can be used in a critical way. The textual and visual representations of these mathematical objects – long strings of hexadecimal or Base58 digits, QR codes and ASCII art – have both their own innate and contingent aesthetics.
These aesthetics can evoke the worlds of communication, commerce and espionage as they are determined in contemporary life by cryptography and its absences (backdoors, sidechannel attacks, quantum computing, etc.). Or the qualities and experiences of secrets, value, identity and trust (or, again, its absence) that they relate to. These are more concrete subjects than the instrumentalized Platonic realm of cryptographic mathematics, but they flow from them.
Taking a position on these or allowing the artwork’s participant to do so, presenting them for critical reflection or using them as indexes of broader social phenomena makes them content. Those phenomena include the economy, whether conventional finance or cryptocurrency, politics, whether secrecy or hacks of state actors and cypherpunk provocateurs, and the questions of identity, authenticity and permission that PKC and cryptographic hashing are applied to in networked media and culture.
The presence of cryptography or its imagery in a piece of art need not function as any of these – apart from anything else an artwork can always fail. It may end up as a mess or as kitsh. These are modes of usually unintentional and visible inauthenticity, in contrast to the intentional but hidden inauthenticity of fakes. The fake is a problem for the art market and for the artistic and scholarly reputations that provide its capital. Catalogues raisonnes are meant to tackle the problem of the fake but the risks of authenticity and value that they carry make them a site of market and scholarly anxiety. When assembled late in an artist’s career or after their death by a foundation, a work being included or excluded by mistake carries the risk of lawsuits and monetary damages. This can have a chilling effect on both scholarship and on markets.
In theory, public key cryptography can help artists with this by being used to create a mathematically unforgeable “signature” code for each new artwork using the private key, which can be checked but not modified with the public key. This can take the form of a digital file, a radio frequency tag, or a QR code or print-out of the signature sealed from sight and attached to a physical work. As long as an assistant, gallerist or spouse doesn’t take a copy of the artist’s current private key and start making fakes, this is a secure way of constructing a catalogue of work that the artist has issued in their name. One of the stronger non-monetary uses of blockchains is to publicly record and timestamp such signatures. In particular this makes it impossible to claim that posthumously released works were released by the artist during their lifetime. This illustrates a way that the fake and its problems of identity authenticity and value relates to the double-spending problem that cryptocurrency solves.
Lars Holdhus is using non-blockchain PKC to authenticate and to limit the number of works they can produce. In 2CE6 the operational security of this strategy is deliberately broken. The first rule of PKC is never to give out your private key. Doing so allows anyone to read your messages (or steal your Bitcoins). The presentation of this act of exposure puts an anxious and fetishized strategy of authenticity and career/legacy construction at risk. It de-occults the information that would guarantee its authenticity (and thereby its value) in order to become or unfold as an artwork, constructing its cultural and economic value by an apparent act of destroying it and critiquing its materials in the process. Looking for a precedent for this leads to net.art and to Conceptualism (see “Conceptual Art, Cryptocurrency and Beyond“) but also to feminist art. The relationship between secrecy, artistic identity, authenticity and transparency has a precedent in the art of the Guerilla Girls. Their proposal to open a Gallery’s finances as the content of their show there likewise involves exposure of an occulted producer/resource of value and identity.
In 2CE6, Holdhus restores the historical link between the contents of art and of cryptography. The contemporary occult of the opacity of the art market, the security of value in trade, and their mathematics exist together cryptographically and artistically in it in a mutually problematizing, and therefore realistic, way. Cryptography functions here as artistic form, subject and content. When a public key is exposed, it is the end of its usefulness, it is dead. 2CE6 functions as a cryptographic memento mori, a post-Crypto Wars version of Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors“.
The word speculation is defined as ‘the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence’. The act of speculating was predominantly popularised with the rise of the stock market, however, recent environmental destruction and technological advancements have prompted a rich pool of speculation about the future of our planet, our species and our connection to other facets of life. Tomorrows: Urban Fictions for Possible Futures is such an exhibition, compromised of imaginative narratives speculating the future of our cities – how they will look, how they will function and the degree by which these cities will form new types of citizens directly operating within the network of that future city. In the context of the exhibition’s content, fiction is transformed into mighty medium, utilised to share the ideas of thirty-two individual and group projects. These projects envision and share their anticipation for the future as a means of addressing socio-economic, environmental and other issues we face today with a goal to reassess of our presence on the planet.
Tomorrows was curated by Daphne Dragona and Panos Dragonas, and organised by the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens – a city experiencing continual fluctuations since the end of World War II. The location itself, Diplarios School (a place of former learning and listening), stresses the aspect of sharing and the telling of important narratives determining the shaping of the future. The exhibition begins with a didactic, yet absolutely accessible approach to understanding the notion of developing a future city. As a starting point, the exhibition borrows and advances the ideas of Doxiadis’ speculative plans of an Ecumenopolis from 1959-1974. More particularly, we must take into consideration the term ‘ekistics’ which was coined by Doxiadis in 1942 as derived from the ancient Greek noun οίκιστής, meaning a person who installs settlers in a place or creates a settlement.
In order to create the cities of the future, we need to systematically develop a science of human settlements. This science, termed Ekistics, will take into consideration the principles man takes into account when building his settlements, as well as the evolution of human settlements through history in terms of size and quality. – Doxiadis
Doxiadis was a visionary and the decision to reinstate his work within the framework of the exhibition was incredibly rewarding for visiting audiences. He anticipated that cities were to become more than global in order to accommodate an ever changing human and non-human environment – as one huge network perhaps out of the control of human capacities. Ecumenopolis is installed on large hanging panels in the first room of Tomorrows and acts as a reference point to the five themes developed: Post-Natural Environments, Shells & Co-Habitats, Networks & Infrastructures, Algorithmic Society and Beyond Anthropos. These themes resonate to the acceleration of our urban development hybridising the natural with the artificial, future network infrastructures of our habitats becoming dependent on inhuman mediation, the possibility of an omnipresent and undemocratic structure within the city through the interdependence of economy, ecology and technology, possible forms of organisation to encourage modes of co-existence within the city, and technological singularity as challenging human sovereignty within our future cities. Doxiadis work gives way to the participants who are primarily artists, architects and designers, to explore these imminent futures of our present planet’s landscape.
Coastal Domains is an on-going research project exploring the future landscaping of coastal territories in the Northeastern Mediterranea facilitated by Demetra Katsota along with 4th and 5th year students at the Department of Architecture, University of Patras. The installation Coastal Domains was made up of sixteen books, acting as case studies, secured on the wall and a ladder to reach them, encouraging brave visitors to climb and read them – a curatorial decision simultaneously inspiring participation and learning as it is explicitly reminiscent of old archival libraries. The 7th book in the series of sixteen engaged with the coast land of Kanoni and its Sea Lane on the island of Corfu, the research undertaken by Stella Andronikou and Iasonas Giannopoulos. As with each book in the series, the research was made up historically archived material, such as cartographical maps from different centuries and topographical material including the arrangement of roads and different fauna on the island thus unveiling issues of coastal development, the implications of an upsurge of tourism in the 1970s and possible environmental issues. Coastal Domains speculates and designs possible structures for the reinforcement of sustainability, devising various strategies that can protect the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.
Tomorrows is particularly involved in engaging its locality of the Mediterranean, treating it as a microcosm for observing the implications of the future’s development. Silo(e)scapes by Zenovia Toloudi envisages a hybrid of a seed bank and museum for Mediterranea plant species as a tool inspiring a sharing economy. The installation of Silo(e)scapes required the audience to cradle themselves into the centre of the structure in order to experience the transparent silos-displays of the community LEGO labourers sharing their local seeds at the seedbanks. The audience suddenly find themselves in a possible future reality, all encompassing of agrarian sounds and 360 views of kaleidoscopic mirrors that trick perception of your depth of field. Almost theatrical, Silo(e)scapes is immersive and constructs a space where the audience is directly in conflict with the imminent shortage of supplies due to harmful environmental issues and increasing urban development. The audience becomes entirely physically encased in Silo(e)scapes, as a result inciting the plausibility of this future reality.
A Cave for an Unknown Traveler by Aristide Antonas introduces another form of habitable landscape for the possible future. The installation is structured like a ‘fake archaic cave’ that is buries inside it a structure as luxurious as a modern hotel room, invisible to the eye from the outside. The installed structure of the cave is complimented by a large sketchbook denoting the various features of the Cave for an Unknown Traveler. Antonas’ work brings to mind the concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The infrastructure and services within Antonas’ cave can be taken in context of the prisoner’s in Plato’s cave perceiving shadows as objects when in fact they are a mere representation of their physical form grasped by our mind. In this context, Antonas’ invisible cave begins to resemble an imagined safe haven for a traveling passer-by.
The highlight of Tomorrows is undoubtedly Liam Young’s commissioned work Tomorrow’s Storeys – a two-channel video installation isolated in a dark room with modular seating. The title of the work acts with a double meaning as in storeys of a building and the stories being told through them. The content, or stories, narrated in Tomorrow’s Storeys were first conceived in a workshop in mid-March as part of the programming to the run-up of the exhibition opening in mid-May. The workshop of visual artists, authors, photographers, directors and architects produced an abundance of local stories in the future city of Athens, particularly a future Athenian apartment block. In Tomorrows Storeys all apartments blocks have the ability to reorganise themselves automatically – modular entities like seating in the installation. The videos convey intricately detailed shots of the façade of these apartments as well as its contents recalling film shot by aerial drones and ads for IKEA products. The audience act as omnipresent eavesdroppers drifting from storey to storey into the conversations and local happenings in these apartment blocks. These apartment blocks of the future have found a way to reorganise themselves where Athenians are not given a minimum basic income but instead a minimum basic floor area – the occupants do not own an apartment but a specific volume of space which does not have a fixed location. Amongst these stories of shifting permanence and impermanence one stood out: that of an old grandmother dying and the family arguing about who takes over her volume of space as one character cries quite humorously “Can’t you wait until the funeral?!”. Tomorrows Storeys are part of a city where bots constantly reorganise your living in a form of urban computation according to best fit the needs of its citizens. In this way, a living space becomes a temporality, alluding the audience to question if their home is real if it always available for smooth transition to another space.
Within urban infrastructures are the human entities contained within them, as Young’s work emphasises, however some of these are becoming increasingly inhuman as the theme of ‘Beyond Anthropos’ suggests. The notion of inhuman or machinic entities being able to replicate human form and intelligence is common and highly popularised since the 1980s as films such as Bladerunner introduced global audiences to ‘replicas’. Today, AI is becoming so intelligent that it urges inventors such as SpaceX and Tesla CEO/founder Elon Musk to warn for correct precautions to be taken when engaging with AI, in fact comparing it to ‘summoning the demon’ and naming it ‘our biggest existential threat’ in the 2014 AeroAstro 1914-2014 Centennial Symposium by MIT. The work of !Mediengruppe Bitnik, coming only a couple of years after Musk’s interview, exemplify the relationship between human and machine. Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Athens is a research project initiated after the data of the Canadian online dating service was leaked in 2015. The leak revealed that Ashley Madison had created 75,000 female chatbots that catered to 32 million mostly male users, engaging them in costly internet intimacy. In Athens, there were 165 fembots for around 22,910 registered users. The installation was comprised of seven of these 165 fembots active in Athens, and were installed in a room dimmed by a fluorescent pink light with screens on tripods similar to average human height and alluding to a physical form. The fembots, programmed to be of different ages, utter pick-up lines they are allocated from a predetermined list to the 22,910 registered users who could not distinguish that they were talking to a machine and not a real person.
Tomorrows does not wish to present us a future as a prediction or as a form of critique of these technological, environmental and urban developments. Rather, it presents the future as an on-going participatory project, as a tool that can be utilised to examine who we are and where we are at in present tense, as well as where we could be potentially going. These urban fictions of our possible futures, are a speculative activity with the capability of making us more aware of the changes that have taken place whilst simultaneously illustrating the changes that are afoot. Tomorrows was a show that took place over six months ago, but its value to the discourse of the future will remain timeless for decades to come.
The exhibition, curated by Hannah Redler Hawes and Sam Skinner, in collaboration with The Open Data Institute, transforms the FACT galleries into a playground of micro-observatories, fusing art with data science in an attempt to expand the reach of both. Reflecting on the democratisation of tools which allow new ways of sensing and analysing, The New Observatory asks visitors to reconsider raw, taciturn ‘data’ through a variety of vibrant, surprising, and often ingenious artistic affects and interactions. What does it mean for us to become observers of ourselves? What role does the imagination have to play in the construction of a reality accessed via data infrastructures, algorithms, numbers, and mobile sensors? And how can the model of the observatory help us better understand how the non-human world already measures and aggregates information about itself?
In its simplest form an observatory is merely an enduring location from which to view terrestrial or celestial phenomena. Stone circles, such as Stonehenge in the UK, were simple, but powerful, measuring tools, aligned to mark the arc of the sun, the moon or certain star systems as they careered across ancient skies. Today we observe the world with less monumental, but far more powerful, sensing tools. And the site of the observatory, once rooted to specific locations on an ever spinning Earth, has become as mobile and malleable as the clouds which once impeded our ancestors’ view of the summer solstice. The New Observatory considers how ubiquitous, and increasingly invisible, technologies of observation have impacted the scale at which we sense, measure, and predict.
The Citizen Sense research group, led by Jennifer Gabrys, presents Dustbox as part of the show. A project started in 2016 to give residents of Deptford, South London, the chance to measure air pollution in their neighbourhoods. Residents borrowed the Dustboxes from their local library, a series of beautiful, black ceramic sensor boxes shaped like air pollutant particles blown to macro scales. By visiting citizensense.net participants could watch their personal data aggregated and streamed with others to create a real-time data map of local air particulates. The collapse of the micro and the macro lends the project a surrealist quality. As thousands of data points coalesce to produce a shared vision of the invisible pollutants all around us, the pleasing dimples, spikes and impressions of each ceramic Dustbox give that infinitesimal world a cartoonish charisma. Encased in a glass display cabinet as part of the show, my desire to stroke and caress each Dustbox was strong. Like the protagonist in Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man, once the scale of the microscopic world was given a form my human body could empathise with, I wanted nothing more than to descend into that space, becoming a pollutant myself caught on Deptford winds.
Moving from the microscopic to the scale of living systems, Julie Freeman’s 2015/2016 project, A Selfless Society, transforms the patterns of a naked mole-rat colony into an abstract minimalist animation projected into the gallery. Naked mole-rats are one of only two species of ‘eusocial’ mammals, living in shared underground burrows that distantly echo the patterns of other ‘superorganism’ colonies such as ants or bees. To be eusocial is to live and work for a single Queen, whose sole responsibility it is to breed and give birth on behalf of the colony. For A Selfless Society, Freeman attached Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chips to each non-breeding mole-rat, allowing their interactions to be logged as the colony went about its slippery subterranean business. The result is a meditation on the ‘missing’ data point: the Queen, whose entire existence is bolstered and maintained by the altruistic behaviours of her wrinkly, buck-teethed family. The work is accompanied by a series of naked mole-rat profile shots, in which the eyes of each creature have been redacted with a thick black line. Freeman’s playful anonymising gesture gives each mole-rat its due, reminding us that behind every model we impel on our data there exist countless, untold subjects bound to the bodies that compel the larger story to life.
Natasha Caruana’s works in the exhibition centre on the human phenomena of love, as understood through social datasets related to marriage and divorce. For her work Divorce Index Caruana translated data on a series of societal ‘pressures’ that are correlated with failed marriages – access to healthcare, gambling, unemployment – into a choreographed dance routine. To watch a video of the dance, enacted by Caruana and her husband, viewers must walk or stare through another work, Curtain of Broken Dreams, an interlinked collection of 1,560 pawned or discarded wedding rings. Both the works come out of a larger project the artist undertook in the lead-up to the 1st year anniversary of her own marriage. Having discovered that divorce rates were highest in the coastal towns of the UK, Caruana toured the country staying in a series of AirBnB house shares with men who had recently gone through a divorce. Her journey was plotted on dry statistical data related to one of the most significant and personal of human experiences, a neat juxtaposition that lends the work a surreal humour, without sentimentalising the experiences of either Caruana or the divorced men she came into contact with.
The New Observatory features many screens, across which data visualisations bloom, or cameras look upwards, outwards or inwards. As part of the Libre Space Foundation artist Kei Kreutler installed an open networked satellite station on the roof of FACT, allowing visitors to the gallery a live view of the thousands of satellites that career across the heavens. For his Inverted Night Sky project, artist Jeronimo Voss presents a concave domed projection space, within which the workings of the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy teeter and glide. But perhaps the most striking, and prominent use of screens, is James Coupe’s work A Machine for Living. A four-storey wooden watchtower, dotted on all sides with widescreen displays wired into the topmost tower section, within which a bank of computer servers computes the goings on displayed to visitors. The installation is a monument to members of the public who work for Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing system run by corporate giant Amazon that connects an invisible workforce of online, human minions to individuals and businesses who can employ them to carry out their bidding. A Machine for Living is the result of James Coupe’s playful subversion of the system, in which he asked mTurk workers to observe and reflect on elements of their own daily lives. On the screens winding up the structure we watch mTurk workers narrating their dance moves as they jiggle on the sofa, we see workers stretching and labelling their yoga positions, or running through the meticulous steps that make up the algorithm of their dinner routine. The screens switch between users so regularly, and the tasks they carry out as so diverse and often surreal, that the installation acts as a miniature exhibition within an exhibition. A series of digital peepholes into the lives of a previously invisible workforce, their labour drafted into the manufacture of an observatory of observations, an artwork homage to the voyeurism that perpetuates so much of 21st century ‘online’ culture.
The New Observatory is a rich and varied exhibition that calls on its visitors to reflect on, and interact more creatively with, the data that increasingly underpins and permeates our lives. The exhibition opened at FACT, Liverpool on Thursday 22nd of June and runs until October 1st.
“In a world full of conflicts and shocks,” has the past year become the, arguably, most standardized introduction, preempting, in an almost doomsday manner, articles, political speeches and curatorial statements alike. The world has turned Political (with capital P) and even the most mundane event is quickly made part of current politics, which in turn, seems to occupy a space somewhere between reality TV and satire. One feels the same dreadful fascination as when watching accident videos on YouTube; with eyes hypnotically fixed to the screen as we observe our world digress into an ever-growing state of chaos. A general unease can be traced throughout the world, and even the most apolitical communities are mobilizing at each side of the spectrum, in the desperate search for ways to overcome the immediate and underlying threats-at-hand.
It is within this urgent search for solutions, that this year’s Venice Biennale positions itself. The 57th biannual gathering of today’s most prominent instances of Contemporary Art, offer, under the lead of curator Christine Macel, its own proposal as to how we might address our sometimes-hopeless situation. And, perhaps surprisingly, we are in fact given an answer, which eschews the otherwise often-ambiguous and overly-complicated musings traditionally marking the Art World. Within the manifesto of the biennale, immediately greeting you as you enter the Giardini venue located South of the City, Macel calls for a return to humanism, expressing the need for a new-found believe in the power and agency of humans. And not just any human; particular emphasis is given to the Artist, the persona through which, supposedly, “the world of tomorrow takes shape.”
Structurally, the role of the artist is explored over the course of nine chapters, spanning themes as distinct as ‘earth’, ‘colors’ and ‘time and infinity’. Each, we are told, does not only account for the artist’s practice in isolation, they further set out to investigate how such creative acts resonate and bring about change in the world.
One misses immediately this latter concern within the two first pavilions Artists and Books and Joys and Fears. We are invited into the space and mind of the artist, in what quickly becomes an introvert, almost nostalgic account of the studio, presented here as a place which escapes the neoliberal ideals of progress and productivity. One senses an immediate contradiction, being surrounded by pieces which literally embody the immaterial value so indicative of modern capitalism.
This haunting sense of conflict is occasionally placated, if only because many of the individual pieces go further than the prescribed curation, integrating a sense of criticality in their exploration of the art practice. As in the breathtaking video by Taus Makhacheva, in which a tightrope walker carries paintings between two cliffs, over a lethal fall, seemingly free, while caught in a pointless, repetitive and dangerous act, dictated by guidelines which goes beyond his immediate control. Or in the, now infamous work, by John Walter, Study Art Sign, which appropriates the language of advertisement in simple catch phrases such as “art – for fun or fame,” and in doing so, highlights the entanglement of any artistic act with commercial viability.
A 20-minute walk, and the habitual crossing of at least 5 Venetian bridges, brings you to the Arsenal pavilions, and the home of the next 7 chapters. The first two of these, Commons and Earth, are (at least superficially) more successful in exploring the link between the artist and the world at large. The exhibited pieces are centered around the creation of community or situations. They echo in this sense the much-disputed Relational Aesthetics as advocated by Nicolas Bourriaud, which defines contemporary art, as one of “interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts.”(1)
What Bourriaud and the Biennale both seem to overlook, is the inescapable mediation and exclusivity of artistic acts, despite any willingness to advocate inclusivity and openness. Because, let’s face it, none of the presented practices can be equaled to just another social situation – each and single one has been extensively documented, carefully edited and analyzed, to finally make their way into one of the most prestigious temples of contemporary art: The Venice Biennale anno 2017.
This does not make them insignificant, it simply means that one cannot feign apparent neutrality, as the emphasis on ‘anthropological approaches,’ seems to suggest. In fact, the more ‘honest’ pieces are the ones which embrace such mediation, exposing it, rather than hiding it behind a layer of innocent interaction. This is done brilliantly in the video piece of Charles Atlas, A Tyranny of Consciousness – an epic compilation of sunsets, countdowns and disco. The groovy lyrics, ‘You were the one, I blew it, it’s my own damn fault,’ sung by the iconic drag queen Lady Bunny, is given new meaning in the context of environmental, human-provoked disasters.
This is done, while avoiding any moralistic undertones. Rather, the piece dares to reflect the ambiguity which defines the actual human-earth-relation, and through this, overcomes the simplified ‘if we all work together it’ll be fine’ attitude, otherwise permeating the majority of the exhibited work.
Within Traditions, the chapter following, the most successful pieces are similarly those which allow for complexity and move beyond an often much-too-obvious contrasting of the old with the new. One notable example, is the piece by Guan Xiao, which traces the famous statue David by Michelangelo. In bringing together numerous amateur-looking clips capturing this iconic figure, she humorously points to how objects ironically become invisible, through our extensive documentation of them; as hidden behind the connotations and expectations which come to shape the way we perceive our cultural heritage.
On entering the next theme of Shamanism, the first piece which meets the visitor is by Ernesto Neto – a tent-like installation made up of robes, under which guests are offered a place to rest. The otherwise beautiful piece come to look like a feature of Burning Man, with hippie-esque slogans such as ‘with love and gratitude to mother earth’ or ‘’war is not good, gold is life,“ covering the surrounding walls.
What Macel here wants to explore is the artist as magician or healer. While attempts of healing is sympathetic (and needed), such efforts are undermined by, a once again, rather naïve approach. It seems as if the striking similarity to the peace-promoting, but notoriously exclusive, festival is not only aesthetic. There is a failure at acknowledging the difference between giving the (very specific demographic of) biennale goers a place for momentary reflection, and the large-scale healing announced in the curatorial statement.
This pseudo-commitment to seventies politics carries over to the Dionysian Pavilion, which ‘celebrates the female body and its sexuality’. The decision to dedicate a pavilion specifically to female artists and femaleness implicitly tells us that
a) womanhood is still something distinct, which should be explored separately from other identity politics
b) women artists need their own space, neatly separated from the rest of the pavilion (which is, interestingly, dominated by male artists)
We see here not only a return to humanism, but the ugliest of humanisms, one which still insists on highlighting an assumed distinction between manhood and womanhood. Such essentialist undertones are only enforced by the first part of the pavilion which greets you with pastels, vaginas and a propensity for weaving.
While the theme might be questionable, we do, while moving through the pavilion, find some incredibly strong pieces, which insists on addressing the individual in its many nuances and confused nature. This is particularly present in the all-encompassing installation/sound/performance work of artists Pauline Curnier Jardin, Mariechen Danz and Kadar Attia.
This far-reaching journey culminates in the chapters Colours and Time and Infinity which bombastically sets out to explore the way artist come to influence that which exists outside and before a human sphere. Within both pavilions, there is a distinct failure at acknowledging the specificity of the individual works, which, besides from their formal qualities, seems to have little to do with either Colours or Time. Once more the curation, ironically, overshadows, rather than enhances, the complexity of the individual works at stake.
It is symptomatic of the, perhaps biggest, misunderstanding of this year’s biennale: That a return to the artist, or the human more generally, is what will allow us to understand and surpass our current state of crisis. It seems to overlook that our anthropocentric attitude is what originally brought us into trouble. Just as the individual pieces of art are diluted by insisting on the narrow focus of the artist, so does humanism distract us from the complexity of the world in which the human is only one part out of many. It simply seems outdated to return to the human-figure, conceptually broken by critical theory and practically threatened by developments in AI. Rather we need to accept, as many of the brilliant pieces do, a state in which humans are not in control; which allows for spaces of ambiguity and contingency. We do not need a return to humanism. Rather, now is a time to be humble, to look outside of humanity and think beyond that which already was, and never really worked in the first place.
Walking off the Akadimias district and onto the steps leading up towards the entrance of building number 23, I am greeted by a large hall with high red ceilings. The hall is covered with lavish white and black dot marble, and there is a large staircase acting as a guide to the top floors of the manor-like building. This was the home for the Diplomatic Centre of the Third Reich, designed in 1923 by Vassillis Tsagris, and used until 2011 by the Foreign Press Correspondent Union after the Second World War. Since then it has stood derelict and dusty, but for one week, in parallel to the opening of documenta 14, it played temporary host to the artist-in-residence programme of Palais de Tokyo, alongside with Foundation Fluxum/Flux Laboratory, bearing the name Prec(ar)ious Collectives. Six visual artists in residence at Pavillon Neuflize OBC and eight contemporary Greek choreographers envision and fabricate a hybrid space whereby an experimental notion of a community is executed as a situation rather than as a subject. The visual artists and performers involved congregated together in Athens and on site for a two-week workshop in March in order to produce the works. The title, Prec(ar)ious Collectives, is a linguistic amalgamation of the adjectives ‘precarious’ and ‘precious’, implying the state of the collective that performs together.
The opening façade echoes with the humming and reverberated sound of Manolis Daskalakis-Lemos‘ Dusk and Dawn Look Just The Same (Riot Tourism), guiding us towards its installation room. The video installation stands above a mountain of blue powder in a room sectioned off with construction tape. The short sequence of about a minute and a half displays a group of hooded figures, dressed identically. As the soundtrack’s volume begins to escalate, the group progresses from walking to running on the uncannily void and ghostly streets of Athens. A city always bustling with noise is now at its most quiet and pubescent state of the day – dawn. The hooded figures run together and – even though it is in a disordered manner – command your attention and pensiveness until they all reach Omonia Square. The work demonstrates a resistance to a status quo which may be aligned with the political engagement within the city. This is not, however, done in an expected reactionary manner, but instead in a way that promotes uprising through the creation of a meditative state. One cannot help but watch Lemos’ work a couple of times more before leaving it behind and only then noticing the thundering beneath their feet.
This historic building has a basement and is the temporary home of Taloi Havini‘s performative work. The large-scale installation occupying four rooms consists of PVC vinyls, seemingly discarded or hung from the low ceiling. These PVC vinyls are lit by dispersed and differently coloured strings of light, some are red, others are purple and others are cream. The performance is underway and its performers dress themselves with the PVC vinyl and the lights and jolt their bodies vigorously to the rhythm of the thundering – sometimes in sync, sometimes not. The dark basement is transformed into a cavern of rhythmic delight alluding to a ritual where its power lies in the gathering of people.
As one inspects the garments of Wataru Tominaga and those who wear them, this synthesis of the PVC, the space and the performers as a gathering appears to be a motif. Tominaga created the garments during a preliminary workshop, with great care and appreciation of how he and others were to utilise them during Prec(ar)ious Collectives. Originally presented on mannequins before being worn and performed, the garments boast vivid colours and patterns, some of them containing animalistic features such as feathers or fur. Those who wear Tominaga’s work perform in such a way as to invent a new form of communication between themselves and their observers. They move and conjoin like animals, sometimes hiding underneath the fabric and at times evoking the traditional Japanese ‘snake dance’. The performance, being in a transitional space between the ground floor and the first floor, naturally spreads itself upstairs whereby the performers not only continue to wear the garments in obscure ways, but additionally interact with Yu Ji‘s agave plants and other objects.
Yu Ji‘s work, Lycabettus Tongue, Oliv Oliv and This is Good For You! Are formed by the use of displaced agave plants, half-fragmented found mirrors and lights. The agave plants interlock with various architectural patterns of the building such as stair banisters, whilst the mirrors and round-ball lights are positioned in ways offering various points of view for observation and appreciation of space. The work revitalizes the architecture of the building denoting its historical vitality and the synergy of the encompassing works into a haunting existence rather than an abandoned one. Here, haunting is used not for means of negative connotations but instead as a form of aloof yet introspective sensation, exasperated further with Lola Gonzàlez‘s video installation in the next room.
Lola Gonzàlez‘s Now my hands are bleeding and my knees are raw begins with its protagonists split into groups and observing the city of Athens from various points at the top of the hills. The groups begins to move, run and hop together towards a direction down the hill, whilst a chorus of droning voices begin to chant and harmonise. As the groups get closer and closer to the city, Gonzalez transforms the image into a complete inversion, like one you may find in negative photography. The chanting becomes louder as the three groups get closer and closer to their meeting point within the city – the exact space where the video is being showed. They are finally shown entering the building and making their way up the stairs to the room where they vocalize in unison until they fade away from our view. Now my hands are bleeding and my knees are raw alludes to an atmosphere in which the power of gathering together evokes a community whose intention is situated between an uncertain balance of peril and strength. It is the same kind of uncertainty that one finds when exploring the top floor of the building only to discover Thomas Teurlai‘s room of machines and looped functions.
On the top floor, there are still the remnants of neglect, rooms empty of anything but the garbage that piled up over the building’s six years of desertion. Thomas Teurlai‘s Score for bodies and machines consists of a room installation of two printers used by the performers to scan different parts of their bodies. These scans are then plastered on the wall whilst the fluorescent lights constantly trickle on and off. The two performers are attempting to archive as much of the movement involved in their choreography as possible. The looped function of copying and the crackle of its repetitive working-noises do not clash with the choreography but instead drive its energy.
Indeed, it may be the encounter between the building, the communal working spirit of the performers and the result of this effort that defines this rejuvenating energy as a fruitful rebirth of the building’s utility.
To find out more, read Chloe Stavrou’s recent interview with Fabien Danesi of Prec(ar)ious Collectives.
The Gathering Cloud makes slow reading. Let’s start with the title. It trips off the tongue, doesn’t it? Rolls around in the mind like a marble you’ve had since childhood. But there’s something unfamiliar about it, too. ‘The gathering cloud’ evokes a threat – the gathering crowd, perhaps; words haunted by expectation; a riot just about to begin. The gathering cloud sounds material and immaterial at the same time. It could signal rain, or warmth, or happiness for shepherds and fishermen, if only you knew how to read it. Could the ancients interpret celestial data? Can Google analysts do it now?
Every sentence in JR Carpenter’s literary artwork, The Gathering Cloud, is as resonant and expansive as its title. The work is so full of meaning, in fact, that it pushes beyond its own borders. Both a piece of digital literature commissioned by Neon Digital Arts Festival, and a book published by Uniform Press, The Gathering Cloud hovers, as an aesthetic experience, in between (it also exists as a printed A3 zine, distributed in more informal ways).
Its theme is climate change. Or, more precisely, the material effects of technologies euphemistically named ‘cloud computing’ on the health of the planet. Or the systems of knowledge that reveal and obscure our relationships to our world. Or the impossible responsibility of human actions that have a global impact. Or, in Carpenter’s characteristically succinct language in the afterword (‘Modifications on The Gathering Cloud’):
The Gathering Cloud aims to address the environmental impact of so-called ‘cloud’ computing and storage through the overtly oblique strategy of calling attention to the materiality of the clouds in the sky.
Online, The Gathering Cloud appears as a palimpsest of moving images, interacting as a series of animated gifs. To read this work is to move with it. Fragments of text respond to the hover of your mouse. Symbols march across the screen and align in multiple combinations. The experience, in other words, is just like using the internet. There is more here than you will ever be able to discover, and yet the format entices you to keep looking. The world of the browser is both (seemingly) infinite, and controlled by your gaze.
The first images you see are cloudscapes taken from Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modifications of Clouds (1803). Howard was the first person to devise a popular and scientific naming system for the clouds in the sky. His process was based on natural history classifications, Latin naming principles and the fact that clouds are subject to endless change. His project was such a success that we still use his cloud nomenclature today. But, as Carpenter points out, ‘The language of The Cloud is a barrier.’ Here, she is talking of the language of cloud computing, and how its association with the mutable territory of the sky fails to communicate its dirty, real-world effects. But the language of the clouds is also, always, a reference to Howard’s system and its structuring aim: a grand attempt to explain the (previously) unexplainable, to box in the search for knowledge, to capture what is not still there.
The illustrations that accompanied Howard’s published text were minutely detailed etchings based on his own watercolours. In the book, Carpenter describes the journey of the images as technological as well as scientific artefacts, ‘Translated into cross hatching,’ she writes,
lost subtlety, but gained fixity, moving
them toward the diagrammatic scientific.
Carpenter uses these pictures, then, to draw attention to how we understand the world as well as what we (try to) understand. Onscreen, she overlays them with photographs and illustrations of animals – elephants, birds, beetles – which echo metaphors evoked in fragments of her poetic text (‘A cloud the weight of one hundred elephants’, for example, ‘How many more birds/ have been captured and tagged and stored in The Cloud?’). Like the etchings, these animal images bear the time-stamp of specific systems of thought. Some are scientific and precise, for example, and belong, stylistically, to a process of classification: illustration as pedagogic tool.
In a final conceptual twist, each of these interwoven, visual elements has been ‘materially appropriated’ (Carpenter writes), ‘from publicly accessible cloud storage services.’ These, then, are pictures of weather clouds, and of the ways we think about weather clouds, and of the technological border patrols that control the ways we think. These are images preserved in the hardware of server farms, which means they are also images of the billow of fossil fuels, the gasp of countless lives and minerals, ground into the earth over geological time, as unimaginable in scale as the size of the data stores themselves, or the climate change precipitated by the energy they need.
Tech giants Apple, Amazon and Microsoft
power their twenty-first century clouds with
dirty nineteenth-century coal energy.
And here is the context for Carpenter’s words: lines of hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) verse arising inside, on top of or behind the images, borrowing and interpreting found texts from Howard’s nomenclature and contemporary media studies. All of this, finally, is the context for you: the reader/user, dragging your finger across your mouse pad as you enact the dynamic complexity The Gathering Cloud represents:
To miniscule cumulus water droplets
air is an upwelling thermal below them
is as dense as honey is to a pebble
five thousandths of a millimetre across.
As a work of digital literature, then The Gathering Cloud is an extraordinary marriage of concept and content. By which I mean literally extra-ordinary: representing and exceeding the ordinary functions of its source images and texts. While the work is hosted online, however, its rhizomatic affect has less to do with technology than with attention. In an interview in 2010 Carpenter said, ‘I imagine my target audience being people sitting at desks pretending to do other things. Like work, for example. Or writing. Because they are already pretending, their minds are wide open. ’ The Gathering Cloud is a lucid dream space for people not entirely in charge of their dreams.
The most obvious difference between the printed and online versions of The Gathering Cloud is that the book feels primarily textual. Featuring an extended prologue, the book showcases Carpenter’s writing on spacious pages, interspersed with occasional black and white ‘plates’ taken from the digital piece. Simply framed in this way, the power and precision of her words come to the fore. The hendecasyllable format produces a bare, pared down kind of language that sounds natural and restrained, like a conversation with someone who has much more to say. Describing the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius’ theory of clouds, for example, Carpenter writes:
Nothing can be created out of nothing.
The whole earth exhales a vaporous steam.
Meaning hangs like a lifetime between these lines. The gap between ‘nothing’ and the exhalations of the earth is as big and as small as a breath being held.
Like the skeleton of a bird’s wing, each line in Carpenter’s perfectly crafted, fragile text takes the body of the work in a new direction. And yet, the most thrilling element of the book is not textual, but visual.
In print, some of the words appear greyed out. Twenty-first century readers recognise this allusion, immediately, as a hyperlink; but of course, there is nothing to click on a printed page. A book is an emblem of past decisions in a way that online experiences pretend not to be. These un-links, then, are uncanny. They promise potential, in the same moment as they fatally disappoint. They wave to the future but they are, literally, pulped emulsions of the past. They call to a space beyond the page, ripe with forbidden fruit, humming with endless desire: more knowledge, more dreaming, more distraction.
An estimated 1.8 trillion
gigabytes of digital information
are created and stored globally each year
by ordinary consumers with no sense
that data is physical and storing it
has a direct impact on the environment.
These un-links represent everything you want and everything you can’t have. They are the spaces for you to dream in and the alarm that stops you dreaming. They are the endless potential of the internet, and the finite resource that will shut it down. In other words, just as the online version of The Gathering Cloud performs the limits and aspirations of older systems of thought – the acid hatch of etchings, the earnest naivety of visual or linguistic classification – so the printed work performs the futile urgency of lives lived online. In each case, the performer on centre stage is the reader/viewer, forced to confront her own ambitions and her impotence as she navigates through mutable worlds.
This, in a nutshell, is our relationship with climate change: it is about us, but bigger than we can comprehend; we are compelled to act, but crave direction; we want to dream, but we are afraid to lose. Crucially, Carpenter asks us to inhabit this relationship, not the climate itself: her work is emotional, not didactic. Instead of explaining climate change, Carpenter explores the extent to which it can possibly be imagined. Then, gently but firmly, she pushes the borders of our thoughts, and gets us to imagine some more.
‘Like a muzzled creature’, Carpenter writes, ‘the cloud strains to be/more than it is.’ The same could be said for her work, of course, and for the people who move through it. In a perfect echo of the systems of weather and data that are its subject, different iterations of the The Gathering Cloud (whether real or imagined) are held, within the reader, as memory, as action, and as technology of thought. The Gathering Cloud could signal rain, or warmth, or happiness for idle browsers,if only you could trace your finger along each acid scratched line. Could the ancients sculpt the hubris of the searching gaze? Can the Google server farms do it now?
By Mary Paterson
Review of The Gathering Cloud, JR Carpenter
Uniform Books, 2017
On January 17th 2017 outgoing American President Barack Obama commuted the 35 year sentence of whistleblower Chelsea Manning. She was to be released on May 17th 2017. The Disruption Network Lab (DNL) Berlin has in the past addressed various forms of disruption techniques. In celebration of Manning’s release, the DNL, which is under the curation of Tatiana Bazzichelli, decided to devote their latest event, Prisoners of Dissent, Locked Up for Exposing Crimes to the voices of dissent of our time.
DNL’s new event-venue is a historic Berlin theater called the Volksbühne (“People’s Theater”) that stands on the Rosa-Luxemburg square. The square’s namesake was a famous anti-war activist and communist revolutionary. Rosa Luxemburg was murdered for her political activism by right-wing paramilitaries in 1919. Thus, the new location draws an historic parallel between dissidents and the often violent ways they are silenced.
While attendees waited for John Kiriakou to present his new book, “Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison“, the wood-heavy 1920s-style saloon of the Volksbühne was completely filled with people, leaving not a single chair free. Kiriakou served in the CIA as an analyst and officer for 14.5 years and is now a whistleblower of their practices. He was operating in the Middle East with a focus on counter-terrorism and human rights. In 2007 he brought to light that the CIA was using waterboarding as torture and was subsequently alleged to have disclosed the identities of undercover CIA agents. For this, he was charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act under U.S. Law and had to spend two years in a low-security prison in Pennsylvania.
In 2014, while Kiriakou still served his sentence, his pixelated lego-portrait was among the 176 political prisoners of Ai Weiwei’s artwork “Trace” that was part of his Alcatraz show in California.
Kiriakou is a man in his early fifties with a likeable charisma. But as one would think of a spy, there are many more dimensions to his character, and he is only hinting at these while reading from his book. Recounting how he made use of his CIA training in daily prison life – living between Mexican drug kingpins, Neo-Nazis and Italian mafia members, he concedes that he can also be a man with nasty manners – if he has to. (Kiriakou points out that the CIA hires individuals with sociopathic tendencies). The audience listens closely while he describes his prison encounters with an enthusiastic storytelling voice. In one anecdote that reminds me of high-school politics he describes the Italian mafia members he made friends with. They made sure that another inmate who pulled Kiriakou’s name through the dirt would be “taken care of”. There is a lightness and sense of humor to Kiriakou’s character. His stories, often punctuated by laughs from the audience, are witty and fascinating. One easily gets lost in listening to them, nearly forgetting the seriousness of the situation he had to bear.
Kiriakou, who had six passports with six different backgrounds and survived two assassination attempts, also mentions the psychological stress and pressure whistleblowers struggle with. As he states that all whistleblowers have their own moments of desperation, I’m reminded of the two suicide attempts Chelsea Manning undertook and the harsh reality of injustice whistleblowers have to experience under their governments.
According to Kiriakou, his motivation came from a patriotic disposition which compelled him to act when the government violated constitutional rights. Snowden states a similar reason, although it is rather interesting that Kiriakou more or less accidentally became a whistleblower, which differentiates him from many others who made a conscious choice of disclosing information in the first place.
The book is definitely worth a read (the copies he brought were sold out by the end of the event) as it gives a unique and very personal insightful view into a CIA officer’s life post-whistleblowing.
In the Q&A session that follows the book presentation, Kiriakou is asked whether in hindsight he would have done anything different. In response he gives two pieces of advice to future whistleblowers: First, get an attorney before you go public with information. Second, don’t trust anyone. Well, somehow what one would expect from a spy?
The second part of the event consisted of a panel with four guests, that was moderated by Annegret Falter from the Whistleblower Netzwerk e.V.. To introduce Chelsea Manning’s case, a video from the Chelsea Manning Initiative Berlin was shown, which documented their activity from 2011 until now. As a prelude to the panel Annegret Falter read Manning’s public statement, which was released on May 9th by her legal team. She quoted Manning’s words:
“[…] Freedom used to be something that I dreamed of but never allowed myself to fully imagine. Now, freedom is something that I will again experience with friends and loved ones after nearly seven years of bars and cement, of periods of solitary confinement, and of my health care and autonomy restricted, including through routinely forced haircuts. […]”
The short statement implies the outstandingly harsh conditions Manning, being a transgender woman in an all-male prison, had to live under the past seven years. The exceptionally severe sentence for exposing crimes was commuted by Obama after an outpouring of public support over Manning’s mistreatment in prison and with the prospect of a Trump presidency, many feared for Manning’s life.
Manning was charged under the Espionage Act, which was introduced in 1917 shortly after the U.S. entered the First World War. Many critics see it as a legal relic – an outdated federal law, originally applied to individuals interfering with the U.S. war effort. It is now abused to persecute whistleblowers, among them Daniel Ellsberg, John Kiriakou, and Edward Snowden. Not only is this law incompatible with human rights and civil liberties, but legal scholars argue that it is written so vaguely that a fair trial is impossible in addition to it being unconstitutional
One of the guests on the panel was the British-born Annie Machon. The former MI5 intelligence officer (The UK’s Secret Service) left the organization in 1996 after the Security Service was involved with a branch of Al-Qaida in a plot against Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The assassination failed and several civilians lost their lives. Consequently she resigned and teamed up with her then-partner David Shayler – an MI5 officer himself – to blow the whistle on the crimes and incompetence of the intelligence community. He was later accused under the 1989 Official Secrets Act, and the three-year exile and two-year legal battle against her former partner publicly became known as the Shayler Affair. Machon wrote a book about the affair, speaking out about both their motivations and the legal injustices the pair endured.
Machon had extensive experience on a professional and personal level, making her an expert on issues like the war on terror, whistleblowing, and the U.K. legislation. Criticizing the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, Machon pointed out that it was the U.K. that gave the world a notion of such laws with their 1911 Official Secrets Act. While the 1911 law was originally used for spies betraying the country, it was adapted in 1989 to specifically target whistleblowers. New legislations on surveillance, secrecy, and whistleblowing pushed state power even further forward while continuing on a downward spiral. Machon expressed concern that the world would follow the U.K.’s example once again. Clearly she was advocating for a necessity of legal protection for whistleblowers, instead holding criminals to account, not jeopardizing the liberty of the brave individuals who feel compelled to speak out.
On the subject of the psychological issues whistleblowers suffer with, which Kiriakou addressed earlier, she added that the stress also had an effect on Shayler. With a worried voice she said that he now believes himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Another guest on the panel was the Danish-born human rights activist Magnus Ag, who works for Freemuse, a global organization advocating freedom of artistic expression. Underlining the importance the arts play as a powerful medium of dissent, he quotes Picasso: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Various cases worldwide remind us of artists experiencing oppression, censorship or imprisonment for their work. From the feminist Russian punk-rock band Pussy Riot, facing a two-year sentence for protesting Putin, to Ai Weiwei who disappeared for 81 days, detained in a secret prison by communist-led China. Under the hashtag #ArtIsNotACrime, Magnus Ag and Freemuse draw attention to lesser known cases. According to Freemuse’s report, China is among the worst offenders for violating artistic freedom. He introduced the case of five Tibetan musicians who were imprisoned by the Chinese government for simply singing songs that refer to the Dalai Lama and praising Tibetan culture. For charges like “seditiously splitting the state“, as of 2017, all five remain in prison.
Magnus Ag then introduced another guest of the panel, Silvanos Mudzvova who unfortunately was not able to come in person. Mudzvova is an activist, performance artist and a man of outstanding courage. In a video portrait he was shown criticizing the corrupt government of his home country Zimbabwe via the means of art. Dominated by Mugabe since 1980, Zimbabwe suffers an immense financial crisis, besides the recent scandal of $15 billion USD that had been raised from diamond sales and gone missing. Protesting and addressing these issues, Mudzvova staged a public performance in front of the parliament. For his art, he was abducted, tortured, and almost lost his life. Unfortunately, the country is affected by heavy censorship that targets activist, artists, and journalists. As Mudzvova says, he uses art as a catalyst in order to achieve change in the world.
One may ask what makes art so powerful that governments fear it, which brings me back to Picasso’s quote. Art can spark a thought, question the status quo, and subtly shed light on the obscure. Art therefore makes us not only realize a truth, but it can start a revolution – something regimes fear. Hence organizations such as Freemuse take an important role in providing a platform to protagonists of dissidence, bringing those cases into the conscious realm or even guiding them into safety.
I found myself deeply appreciative the presence of Mudzvova’s work on the panel as it provided an artistic and non-white perspective on enduring violent oppression from a dictatorship, thus adding to the wide spectrum of activism.
The tone of the event urgently suggested the necessity for a global paradigm shift on the perception whistleblowers: from a prosecuted traitor to a celebrated truth-teller. Such a shift would have to be underpinned by legislative means. The suggested solution was to rewrite laws so political dissent can be protected instead of prosecuted. Looking at the legal definition of a whistleblower, it is a person that sheds light on evidence of fraud, abuse or illegality in the public interest. Why would exposing crimes be followed by imprisonment?
One can hope that Chelsea Manning’s release sets an example to nourish new thoughts and laws for future whistleblowers to be better protected. Whistleblowers have always been important players in the modern political landscape within the democratic model. They refuse to conform to the hegemony, have moral principles, and an awareness of the power of information. As such they enable change for the better and for the more transparent which a fortiori reinforces the fundamental values of democracy: civil liberties, freedom of expression, participation, and peacemaking.
Without the courage of whistleblowers and activists who often put themselves in great danger, our world would look very different. This teaches us that one should practice dissent, be it as a whistleblower of injustices, in the field of arts, or in any form of disruption. In the words of Hannah Arendt, who Annegret Falter quoted in her closing of the panel: “Nobody has the right to obey”.
Photocredits: Thomas Schmidt
Support John Kiriakou‘s legal defence by buying his book here
Consider donating to the Courage Foundation supporting whistleblowers
Find out more about the work of the Whistleblower Netzwerk e.V.
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Review on PRISONERS OF DISSENT: Locked Up for Exposing Crimes, Berlin 2017. By Berit Gwendolyn Gilma
Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Jennifer Willet and Kira O’Reilly, Be-wildered, 2017. Photo: Nora S. Vaage
Trust Me, I’m an Artist is an exhibition organized in cooperation with the Waag Society at Zone2Source’s Het Glazen Huis in Amstelpark, in the outskirts of Amsterdam. It is a culmination of a Creative Europe-funded project, aiming to explore ethical complexities of artistic engagements with emerging (bio)technologies and medicine. The explorations in the exhibition have taken place through a play on the format of ‘the ethics committee’. In university contexts, particularly within medicine and the natural sciences, researchers need to submit their proposals to ethics committees to check whether their proposed projects comply with the relevant ethical guidelines, and to point to any issues the researchers hadn’t thought of. In the last couple of decades, as artists have increasingly taken part in institutional settings, even becoming residents in scientific labs, they too have sometimes been faced with these committees. The Trust Me, I’m an Artist project has included a handful of artists’ proposals to ethics committees, performed in front of an audience. Some of the exhibited pieces are documentation from those events, and are aesthetically somewhat unfulfilled. As thought-provocations, however, they still work.
Het Glazen Huis is, indeed, made mostly from glass, which creates the effect that the park outside enters into the exhibition room. For this exhibition it seems fitting, as the artworks deal, in various ways, with living things. While one of the pieces, Špela Petrič‘s Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Skotopoiesis, focuses directly on plants (more on that later), the only direct conversation with the green exterior is a pile of soil, generously run through with green specks of glitter, crowned by a striking headpiece topped with tall green feathers, which seems to mirror a fern plant of about the same height on the other side of the glass wall. The soil/hat construct is paired with a strange frock, constructed from old labcoats, but with frills and a cut resembling a 17th century garment, and far from white. The front and back of the coat is decked with transparent orbs, resembling snow globes. Each of them contains a different set of microbes, placed there through various acts of swabbing the environment or asking artist colleagues for donations in the form of mucus.
The frock and the soil concoction are the remnants of a performance by Jennifer Willet and Kira O’Reilly, which took place at the Waag Society the night before the exhibition opening. Willet was wearing the repurposed labcoats, O’Reilly the green headgear and a sparkling green dress inspired by drag and camp aesthetics. For much of the three-hour event, they talked about trust: what does it mean to trust? Do these artists trust themselves? O’Reilly stated that she is not sure she even values trust that much. They shared stories about their previous work, toasted with champagne, and interspersed their conversation, gradually, with elements of a “project proposal”.
O’Reilly, with Willet’s help, coated her arms in whisked eggs, as a base for green glitter. She showed examples of previous performances she had done using such glitter, often in the nude and sometimes involving fertilized chicken eggs. An hour into the performance, Willet revealed that her garment had been buried in soil at a conference, where people were encouraged to do stuff to the soil over the week: composting, urinating, etc, which explained the coat’s uneven, brownish tint. Only towards the end of the performance did she tell us that the globes were repurposed bowls made into “petri dishes”, filled with agar and ready to serve as a growth medium for various microorganisms. She then swabbed the jacket, swiping it onto the agar in one of the bowls, then swabbed O’Reilly’s nose. Willet proposes to wear another coat in the laboratory for a year, exposing it to various microorganisms, and to also wear it at home around her twin daughters, reflecting on how we large mammals serve in any case as carriers for all sorts of microbes. The ethics committee considered this a risky and unlikely aspiration, and did not think she would be allowed to go through with it. They did, however, encourage her to consult with them in developing her idea. A similar response was given to O’Reilly, who wants to cover a pine tree in Finland in glitter, reflecting on how her use of glitter is contributing to plastic pollution, and to work with a dead farmed salmon that she would get directly from a fish farm in Norway. At the end of the performance, O’Reilly unfolded a plastic sheet, spread three bags of soil onto the plastic, poured a bowl of glitter on top, and mixed it with her hands in a languid, beautiful way. She fetched a gutted whole salmon from a fridge, sprinkling glitter on it as well. Both of them, thus, did part of what they are proposing to do for their project already during the “ethics consultation”, challenging the format. But they reflected at the close that the opportunity to think extensively on the ethics of their ideas was rewarding and important.
Martin O’Brien‘s Taste of Flesh – Bite Me I’m Yours is also documentation of a performance, which he did in London at Space c/o the White Building, in April 2015. His performance was an exploration of endurance, pain, and the overstepping of intimate boundaries. Working with his own body, O’Brien seems to have embraced the facts of living with a genetic disorder, Cystic Fibrosis, to the full. The disease causes him to produce a lot of mucus, and be short of breath.
Over a number of hours, he did a series of actions; chaining himself, biting people, being bitten, coughing up mucus, crawling around in a way that was inspired by the zombie as metaphor for being sick. He played with the fear that interaction will result in contagion, and with S&M paraphernalia and the limits between pain and pleasure. In the exhibition we see the performance on a projection taking up a whole wall, and five small, parallel video screens showing different parts of the performance. Remnants of the paraphernalia he used are exhibited on a plinth. The films in part convey the intensity and some-time repulsion that the performance must have inspired.
Petrič’s work Skotopoiesis is less explicit, and perhaps less provocative to most. In the exhibition, we see a photograph of a field of cress, with the outline of a human shadow making the center cress paler than the rest. By standing in front of the field, preventing the light from falling onto the same spot for 19 hours a day, three days on end, she created a visible imprint of her body, through cress that grew to be longer and paler than the neighboring plants that got direct sunlight.
Plants do not follow same rules of agency as animals. We cannot easily relate to them, although some, such as trees, seem to have more presence and individuality. Grass, on the other hand, is impossible to think of as single entity. Often, as part of the ethics procedure, researchers are asked if they can use plants rather than animals, as current perceptions of what is ethical tend to exclude plants from our ethical consideration. Petrič wanted to challenge the committee with something anti-spectacular, where it would be difficult to see ethical issues. Through existing with plants, trying to conform to their timescale and mode of existence, but also modifying them through her very presence, she entered into a pensive engagement not just with the plants themselves, but with the ethics of our coexistence with them. This seems quite a timely, as recent studies show plants to have more sensations, reactions, and even abilities of communication, than has previously been thought. Given this, our disregard for the life of plants may be seen as a great ethical challenge.
Artist Gina Czarnecki and scientist John Hunt, in the piece Heirloom, created masks in the shape of Czarnecki’s two daughters’ faces, grown from their skin cells over glass casts. This, too, is shown on several video screens, as documentation of the actual installation of the bioreactors in which the masks were grown. The artist wanted to preserve her daughters’ youthful likenesses, and the idea led to the development of a new, simple set-up for three-dimensional cell growth. One of the tricky ethical issues here is that of the ownership of a child’s cells. As the girls’ parent, Czarnecki could herself consent to using their cells in this way. They were happy to participate at the time, but does this kind of artistic, experimental use constitute “informed consent”? At the opening, Czarnecki observed that her daughters, moving into their mid-teens in the three or so years since their skin samples were taken, had become less comfortable with being on display in this way.
The videos show fascinating glimpses of the process, footage of the masks inside the bioreactors, flashing shots of the daughters’ faces, and narrations by the key actors. At one point in the video, Hunt describes how he and two of his fellow researchers both came into the lab because they were worried about the skin cells being contaminated. Without having anything to do there, they sat together and watched over them. A rare admittance of the personal bonds that can be formed with cell cultures, and reasons for action that are far from the rational.
Howard Boland‘s Cellular Propeller is represented in the exhibition through a few sculptural elements and photos. The project started as part of his long-time engagement with synthetic biology, and his ambition was to work with living, moving cells, attached to inorganic structures, to play with the old idea that “If it moves, it is alive”. Originally he hoped to use heart cells from new-born rats, but this proved difficult. Instead, he ended up using his own sperm cells, which are much more easily available, and share the ability to move. He created coin-sized, wheel-shaped plastic scaffolds that the sperm cells can ideally attach to, serving as “propellers” to literally,move the human cells, although this does not happen in a predictable way. In the exhibition, we saw reproduced the little plastic scaffolds, but not with the cells “in action”.
With the change from heart cells to sperm, the connotations of the piece changed slightly; while the question of “what is living” remains, reproduction, birth and movement still being central to the piece, the use of sperm also brings in ideas about pleasure and the surplus production of cells through recreational sex. Through repurposing sperm cells for the mechanical task of moving these wheels, Boland shifts the discussion towards life without the basic “meaning” that reproduction conveys.
“Controlled Commodity” by Anna Dumitriu features a dress from 1941, also exhibited on a headless mannequin, and mended with patches containing gene-edited E. coli bacteria. An example of wartime austerity, the dress is CC41 – controlled commodity 41. Dumitriu stresses the fact that 1941 was the first year that penicillin was used, and unlike clothing, this was not a controlled commodity. Overuse of antibiotics over many years has led to the current crisis, with more and more bacteria becoming resistant to the antibiotics we commonly use.
Through participation in the Future and Emerging Art and Technology program, Dumitriu was an artist in residence in an Israeli lab, and worked with the much-hyped, much-discussed CRISPR-Cas9 technology. The use of CRISPR for gene editing is currently being presented as a much easier way to insert or remove genetic information. In this case, Dumitriu used it to remove a gene for antibiotics resistance.
When she had to create a repair fragment to patch the bacteria back together, she used the phrase ‘make do and mend’, an explicit reference to WWII history. Dumitriu grew the CRISPRed bacteria on silk, sterilized them, and sewed the E. coli patches onto the (somewhat moth-eaten) dress. In addition to the dress, she is displaying the plasmid created using CRISPR in a little glass vase, only covered with aluminum foil – and without having asked permission. In an identical glass vessel, little paper circles contain all the antibiotics in commercial use.
The piece is rich, complex, and daring. In editing the genome of E. coli bacteria to remove an ampicillin antibiotic resistance gene, Dumitriu is proposing a potential solution to the pervasive problem of antibiotics resistance, which might also be ethically problematic: such suggested solutions being “around the corner” might lead to less focus on discovering new antibiotics, or the sense that continued over-use can be maintained. Also, her insistence on exhibiting plasmids in the gallery is not high-risk (as far as we know, plasmids need some sort of shock effect to be taken up by bacteria), but it does seem a somewhat unnecessary exposure. Dumitriu’s CRISPR work will be discussed in a Trust Me… event at the British Science Festival in Brighton in September.
Open Care – Inheritance, by Erich Berger and Mari Keto, imagines a personal responsibility for nuclear waste, in the form of radioactive family jewellery that goes from generation to generation, in the hope that you might one day wear it. The jewellery is kept in a radiation-proof container, and for each generation that takes over its care, it can be tested to see if the radioactivity has gone down to a safe level, so that “the jewellery can finally be brought into use and fulfill its promise of wealth and identity or if it has to be stored away until the next generation” (quote from the exhibition catalogue). The jewellery box and low-tech tools to check its radioactivity are exhibited behind a glass wall. This thought experiment suggests that the unimaginably long timespans that it takes for radioactivity to subsist can be broken down into spans of time that we can relate to. The personal nature of such family jewellery creates an emotional narrative of very personal responsibility for the waste we produce.
The artistic license seems to be to challenge, stretch, and provoke, and indeed, the artworks in this exhibition both challenge and stretch our views on what responsibility means. So, can we trust what these artists are up to? One never knows, but through engaging in these extended conversations with the public and hand-picked committees, they do give us new grounds for reflection on ethics, trust, and responsibility in science, in society at large, and in art.
Note: I saw this exhibition during the opening, and some elements were still not up and running.
Iza Pavlina, “Rule 34”, solo exhibition, Aksioma Project Space, Ljubljana, Slovenia 19 April – 12 May 2017
The Aksioma Project Space hosting Iza Pavlina’s “Rule 34“ exhibition is an immaculate visual realisation of a lifestyle minimalist’s wet dream. There are two large video projections covering the surfaces of opposite walls in the white cube. Another set of four monitors is tilted on the floor, beaming at you towards the center of the space. All projections show the same composition of a young woman, the artist herself, on a clear background, overwhelmingly beautiful and innocent, mildly disinterested, bare-shouldered, engaged in playing repetitively with a different toy in each video. The third wall is neatly adorned with a set of six C-print photos with the same flawless composition. The last wall presents outlined drawings of yet the same composition, stamped with a QRcode of pages like Pornhub, xHamster, and Xvideos. Each QRcode leads to the artist’s profile on different social media sites, where the same set of perfect videos are presented. Perhaps you have no idea what these sites are, but if you are one of a quarter of internet users who frequent online porn sites, the chances are that your own profiles on these sites are your deeply buried dirty secret.
Much like any other of your favorite social media sites, porn sites include a public profile for the gaze of all your friends and a private space for personal chats. How Web 2.0 has changed the meaning of concepts such as friends, public and private space is beside the point; What is meaningful for the exhibition is that Pavlina lets you take a sneak peek into private messages she has had with her friends, or rather fans, on these sites. For this private viewing, she adopted an exhibition format called “offline art”, which was initially developed by German artist Aram Bartholl. Essentially, every video or photo is connected to a local Wi-Fi router, which lets you hub into a specific private chat. Here is where the titillation, arousal, curiosity, surprise, even shock or disgust emerge – here, in this secret hidden space, where the boundaries of mainstream porn as we know it are challenged and explored.
Somehow, Pavlina’s interest in sexuality, pornography, and paraphilias is well summarized in the title itself. The rules of behaviour for being on the internet were posted on meme-sharing sites like 4chan.org sometime back in 2004. Rule 34 says: “There is porn of it, no exceptions.” The following two rules clarify the statement. Rule 35 says “If no porn is found of it, it will be made,” and Rule 36: “There will always be more fucked up shit than what you just saw.” [Paasonen, 2011] These three rules alone show that the diversity of pornographic exploration has exploded with the easy accessibility and seeming anonymity of online identities. Social taboos have been lost somewhere in the translation of the meaning of the virtual i.e digital. For a time, it was believed online porn had little effect on the corporeal, and the social taboo and guilt associated with it seemed not to be applicable. But it has turned out that fiddling with oneself on the internet is just as carnal. As a young artist in her 20s, Pavlina started exploring the subject a few years ago with her half-hour video piece “Talk to Strangers!” (2014). This piece was edited from online video chats, during which she pretended to be a 14-year-old girl. With this piece, she was trying to “highlight and expose in an original and unobtrusive way the global issue of disorders of sexual preference and the incidence of paedophilia on the World Wide Web”. However, in the “Rule 34” exhibition, she takes a turn from a legal and moralistic point of view towards a more uncharted and ambivalent pornographic landscape. Interestingly enough, the kink of mainstream heteronormative sexuality is a topic which really appeals to artists and researchers alike. There is a wide acceptance and interest for alternative porn in the arts, whether it is vintage, humorous or LGBT, while the mainstream is often disregarded as tacky, normative or even filthy. The first set of genres is easy to read since they obviously produce a set of meanings in the field of cultural critique. The mainstream, however, bemuses.
Now it is time to explore the toys Iza Pavlina is playing with. For her videos, she has chosen a set of less known and quite surprising paraphilias, which produce an intense sexual arousal for specific individuals. The activities may seem usual or even quite ridiculous to another individual who is turned on by something completely different. In the process of making “Rule 34”, she has uploaded the videos to her profile on various pornographic social media sites with the name of a specific paraphilia and a teasing description such as “Agalmatophilia: Virgin turns into a fuck robot”, “Balloon fetishism: Young looner babe blowing her first balloon”, “Exophilia: Nasty girl playing with balls”, “Pony play: Wild pony getting trained”, “Plushophilia: Hot naked blonde cuddling her teddy bear”, “Trichophilia: Submissive bitch gets her hair chopped off”. In these descriptions, there are a number of clichéd identifications such as blondeness, paleness, youthfulness and submissiveness, which suggests a blunt disregard for the question of race and other identities, yet she somehow evades the need for the interpretation of her actions. The videos are visceral and saturated with body and presence, yet surprisingly unintrusive. Her action is not trying to identify with the fetish nor to imitate the fantasy, but to become it. And she does so with a laboratory accuracy. The work seems to treat corporeality in Elizabeth Grosz’s terms, proposing the presence of the body without the need to reduce it to semiotic inscriptions or the assertion of meanings.
Even though the artist creates a set of online identities, she seems not to be interested in the question of mimicry or fake personalities. On the contrary, she becomes and plays with these identities, interacting with her friends or rather fans, who she teases, tempts, and attracts. She is interested in the performativity of the body, and its capability to speak for itself. As Susan Paasonen would put it, the interest lies in “resonance”, which equally “encompasses the emotional and cognitive as well as the sensory and affective” (Paasonen, 2011, 27), producing intensity, appeal, and force. “Rule 34” does not produce any metaphorical meaning, and perhaps this novelty within the storytelling of a young generation becomes most obvious if we try and compare it to an older example of paraphilia in arts. For example, we may associate the injury fetishism, which Pavlina also explores, with J.G. Ballard‘s book “Crash” and its film translation by David Cronenberg. Ballard himself explained it as a result of “the marriage of reason and nightmare, which has dominated the 20th century with its sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy”; It is a “the merging of sex and paranoia” and “the death of affect”.
Pavlina however, finds no fear in the omnipresence of technology and the visceral connection between the human body and technological tools. She seems to value only the “resonance” of technology, regardless of what cultural conditions it is produced in. She is liberating the list of fetishes and fantasies from the history of treating sexuality in clinical terms, since the normality of desire has been culturally produced and theoretically reduced to a psychoanalytic understanding of suppressed memories, phobias and philias. There is absolutely nothing psychoanalytical about “Rule 34”. The artist goes against the understanding of paraphilias as objects of perversions. She plays and enjoys the outcome, communicates with fans and haters, and even lets the gallery visitor to sneak peek into private messages with particularly kinky content. One of these is “Cum Tribute” – the act of cumming on a printed picture, monitor or pad, which has so often been contributed to her gorgeousness, that she received in private messages for every video she uploaded. By documenting such actions, she has archived a behavioural phenomenon that is completely off the chart from conventional archives, and in her playful exploration of mainstream porn, she seems to reassure: there is nothing normative about any sexuality and that’s just fine.
Compiler is an experimental platform organised by curator Alisa Blakeney, artist-curator Tanya Boyarkina, artist Oscar Cass-Darweish and choreographer Eleanor Chownsmith, all currently students of MA Digital Cultures, Goldsmiths. The platform is being built in order to “support collaborative, process-driven projects which connect artists and local communities in networks of knowledge-exchange”.
The organisers of Compiler describe it as a kind of ongoing prototype, a structure constantly negotiating the openness to maintain links to varied practices with the coherence of framing, containing, and describing some of the complicated products of digital-analogue interactions. Their focus is looking at what ‘digital culture’ means and having a productive conversation about it.
From 6-8 April, the first Compiler, Play Safe took place downstairs at OOTB in New Cross. The exhibition examined practices of surveillance inherent in “states, corporations, technological spaces and the idioms of digital art”. It questioned whether an increasing intensity of surveillance is linked to control, extraction and politics, or can be understood as a pleasurable phenomenon. People were invited to “Dance a website, see through the eyes of a computer, and have our cryptobartender mix you a cocktail to cure your NSA woes”. The work on show, made by students from MA Computational Arts and MA Digital Cultures (both Goldsmiths), included Eleanor Chownsmith’s software and performance which turned website HTML into dance routines, Michela Carmazzi’s photographic project documenting the reactions of Julian Assange and his supporters following the United Nations’ ruling about his case, and Saskia Freeke’s machine which repeatedly and intentionally failed to create a ticker-tape parade using sensors and fans.
An exhibition on the theme of surveillance creates a strange grey area for itself when shown in a building with nine screens of CCTV footage. Oscar Cass-Darweish’s project made a fairly direct link to the CCTV cameras which emphasised this greyness. The project produced a rendering of the exhibition space by using a function usually found in motion detection processes. This function calculates the difference in pixel colour values between frames at a set interval and averages them, creating a visual output of how machines calculate difference over time.
Another work which made links with the room upstairs was Fabio Natali’s Cryptobar, where following an interview with the ‘bartender’ about your data privacy needs you were recommended a cocktail of data-encryption software. Upstairs you could buy, and drink, a cocktail with the same name (the Cryptobar was part of the V&A Friday Late on Pocket Privacy on 28 April).
So far, Compiler has made a variety of spaces for conversation about digital culture through both its artworks and its organisation. Each artwork has a different ‘footprint’ of interactions, linking websites to rooms, success to failure, data privacy to financial transaction via consultation, and making interesting connections between CCTV and code, dance notation and HTML, activism and commerce.
An interesting way to read the Compiler platform is as a series of combinations of human-readable codes and machine-readable codes. The platform ‘compiles’ a different combination each time, and each time the output is different. Through this, the interaction of analogue and digital processes is demystified and muddled, in a distinct way. The platform is in its early days, but it seems likely that new connections and new grey areas will appear over the next few months, as Compiler has its second exhibition (again at OOTB) in May, takes part in the CCS conference at Goldsmiths in June and heads in other directions thereafter.
The exhibition offered plenty to play with, while posing complicated problems in relation to openness and experimentation. When I spoke to Eleanor, Tanya and Alisa about Compiler and its aim to engage local communities in networks of knowledge-exchange , we talked about how it’s an impossible and strange aspiration to have a ‘neutral’ venue. While a cocktail can be delicious and engaging, it’s also expensive. While a cafe is, arguably, a less exclusive space than a gallery, OOTB itself is a cafe which targets a specific audience. Drink prices, decor and a host of other factors mean OOTB, like all spaces, is politicised in a particular way. Their venue choices so far will influence, in subtle and overt ways, their future attempts to engage diverse local communities. The organisers of Compiler acknowledge this; their response is that rather than trying to make an artificial neutrality they are keen to move as the platform develops to new spaces and new and different contexts.
A change of context, message, communication style is not easy; nor does it fit with to an easily recognisable politics or aesthetics. Moving into and out of contexts is something to be done carefully and thoughtfully. It seems to me that the Compiler team will have their work cut out, but if they can direct that work in such a way that the platform is able to communicate in multiple ways at once, ‘networks of knowledge-exchange’ could develop between, and in response to, the markers set by the organisers. The question is, how will they develop?
Economic theory states that technological change comes in waves: one innovation rapidly triggers another, launching the disruptions from which new industries, workplaces and jobs are born. Steam power set in motion the industrial revolution, and likewise since the 1990s a torrent of digital and software developments have transformed industries and our working lives. But the revolutionary very quickly becomes humdrum, and once-radical and efficient innovations like the telephone, email, smartphones and Skype, become part of everyday, even mundane experience. Despite all the time-saving devices we have successfully integrated into our lives, there is a collective anxiety about the current wave of technological change and what more the future holds. Mainstream dystopian visions of our relationship with technology abound, but are we in fact engaged in a group act of cognitive dissonance: using our smartphones to read and worry about robots taking over our jobs, whilst wishing for a shorter work week and more time for creative pursuits?
The British Academy recently brought together a panel of experts in robotics, economics, retail and sociology to talk about how technology is reshaping our working lives. This review summarises some of their thoughts on the situation now, and what developments lie ahead. Watch the full debate here.
Helen Dickinson OBE reported on the British Retail Consortium’s project, Retail 2020, a practical example of how technology is changing consumer behavior and affecting firms in her industry. The UK’s retail sector has on the one hand embraced technology and created a success story. The UK has the highest ecommerce spend per head in the developed world, with c15% of transactions taking place online, and at 3.0m employees it is also the largest private sector employer in the UK. However, beneath this, internet price comparison ushered in fierce price competition. Retailers are using technology to improve manufacturing and logistic efficiencies to control costs and offset shrinking profit margins. Physical stores are closing as sales migrate online. The BRC predicts a net 900,000 jobs will be lost by 2025. Nor will the expected impact be even: deprived regions are more reliant on retail employers and so will be more affected by job losses. Likewise, the most vulnerable, with less education or skills and looking for work in their local area, will be the hardest hit.
Prof Judy Wajcman resisted the urge to overly rejoice or despair at technological developments. For her, this revolution is not so different to the waves which have come before. It is impossible to predict what new needs, wants, skills and jobs will be created by technological advances. Undoubtedly some jobs will be eliminated, others changed, and some created. However, we can certainly think beyond the immediate like-for-like: a washing machine saves labour, but it has also changed our cultural sense of what it means to be clean. Critically, we should stop thinking of technology as any kind of neutral, inevitable, unstoppable force. All technology is manmade and political, reflecting the values, biases and cultures of those creating it. As Wajcman said, ‘if we can put a man on the moon, why are women still doing so much washing?’ In other words, female subjugation to domestic labour could have been eliminated by technology, but persistent cultural norms have prevented this from happening.
Dr Sabine Hauert is a self-professed technological optimist. For her technology has the potential to make us safer and empower us, for example by reducing road accidents, or allowing those who cannot currently drive to do so. Hauert sees a future not where robots completely replace humans, but where collaborative robots work alongside them to help with specific tasks. The crucial issue for dealing with this future lies in communication and education about new technologies, since the general public, mainly informed by news and cultural media, is ill-served by a steady drip of negative stories about our future with robots.
The short film Humans Need not Apply is one such alarming production, chiming with Dr Daniel Susskind’s altogether more gloomy view of the longer term effects of technological advances on the workforce. To date, manufacturing jobs have been those most affected by automation, but traditionally white collar jobs also contain many repetitive tasks and activities (just ask the employee drumming their fingers on the photocopier). Computing advances mean that many more of these are now in scope for automation, such as the Japanese insurer replacing some underwriters with artificial intelligence. For Susskind, it is not certain that workers will continue to benefit from increased efficiencies as technology advances. A human uses a satnav provided s/he is still needed to drive, but the same satnav could just as easily interface with a self-driving car, eliminating the need for any kind of human-machine interaction. Calling to mind the wholesale changes to UK heavy industry in the 1980s, any redeployment of labour will present huge challenges, and what work eventually remains may not be enough to keep large populations in well paid, stable employment.
Can humans benefit from robots in the workplace?The panel agreed that technological change will continue apace with wide reaching ramifications for our workplaces and our wider societies, but that it is our human qualities that will give us an advantage over machines. Perhaps this is the most pressing notion: we urgently need to recalculate the value we place on tasks within society. Work where social skills, communciation, empathy, and personal interaction are prioritised (like teaching or nursing) may develop a value above that which is rewarded today.
If we smell such change coming, it is no wonder we are anxious. The panellists differed on the ability of our society to absorb and adapt to coming technological change, and the distribution of any net benefit or loss. So, is the only option to accept the inevitable and brace for the tsunami to hit? Well, no. We need to realise that ‘technology’ is not one vast, distant wave on the horizon, but a series of smaller ripples already lapping higher around our ankles. Returning to Wajcman’s point, all technologies are created by people. If innovation has a cultural dimension, it can be influenced, so we must take heart and believe in our ability to effect change.
The further we can work to democratise and widen the pool of creative engineers, developers, artists, designers and critical thinkers contributing to the development of technologies, the broader the spectrum of resulting applications and consequent benefits to society as a whole. We can be conscious in our choices as consumers as we adopt new products and services into our lives, and challenge the new social norms emerging around work and life as technology allows us to blur the boundaries between them. And finally, we need to consider who profits, and who doesn’t, from new business models. We should lobby government to be deliberate in designing policy that looks to these future developments, and their likely unequal impacts across regions, industries and populations, to ensure that existing social inequalities are not entrenched or magnified. Hopefully the creative community can help steer this wave in the right direction, painting a vivid picture of our possible futures, to persuade the powerful to act in the interests of the greater good.
Helen Dickinson OBE, Chief Executive, British Retail Consortium
Dr Sabine Hauert, Lecturer in Robotics, University of Bristol
Dr Daniel Susskind, Fellow in Economics, University of Oxford and co-author of The future of the professions: How technology will transform the work of human experts (OUP, 2015)
Professor Judy Wajcman FBA, Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology, LSE and author Pressed for time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism (Chicago, 2015)