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Visit People's Park Plinth

Nervous Systems – Algorithms and our everyday life

Valie Djordjevic

What does the comic book heroine Wonder Woman have to do with the lie detector? How is the Situationists’ dérive connected to Google Map’s realtime recordings of our patterns of movement? Do we live in Borges’ story “On Exactitude in Science” where the art of cartography became so perfect that the maps of the land are as big as the land itself? These are the topics of the Nervous Systems exhibition. Questions that are pertinent to the state of the world we are in at this moment.

The motto “Quantified life and the social question” sets the frame. Science started out as a the quantification of the world outside of us, but from the 19th century onwards moved towards observing and quantifying human behaviour. What are the consequences of our daily life being more and more controlled by algorithms? How does it change our behaviour if we are caught up in a feedback loop about what we are doing and how it relates to what others are doing? Does this contributed to more pressure towards a normalized behaviour?

Art from now to then

These are just some of the questions that come to mind wandering around the densely packed space. You have to bring enough time when you visit “Nervous systems” – it is easy to spend the whole day watching the video works and reading the text panels.

There are three distinct parts: the Grid, Triangulation and the White Room. Each treats these questions from a different perspective. The Grid is the art part of the show and features younger artists like Melanie Gilligan with her video series “The Commons Sense” where she imagines a world where people can directly experience other people’s feelings. In the beginning this “patch” allows people to grow closer together, increasing empathy and togetherness, but soon it becomes just another tool for surveillance and optimizing of work flows in the capitalist economy – an uncanny metaphor of the internet.

Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, 2014, Courtesy: Galerie Max Mayer
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, 2014, Courtesy: Galerie Max Mayer

The Swiss art collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik rebuilt Julian Assange’s room in the Ecuadorian Embassy – including a treadmill, a Whiskey bottle, Science Fiction novels, mobile phone collection and server infrastructure – all in a few square metres. The installation illustrates the truism that history is made by real people who eat and drink and have bodies that are existing outside of their role they are known for. Which is exactly why Assange is confined since 2012 without being convicted by a regular court.

The NSA surveillance scandal does not play a major part in the exhibition as the curators – Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective and Anselm Franke, head of the HKW’s Department for Visual Arts and Film – rather concentrate on the evolution of methods of quantification. For this reason we are not only seeing younger artists who directly deal with data and its implications but go back to conceptual art and performance in the 1970s and earlier.

The performance artist Vito Acconci is shown with his work “Theme Song” from 1973 and evokes the Instagram and Snapchat culture of today by building intimate space where he pretends to secrets with the audience. Today he could be one of the Youtube ASMR stars whispering nonsense in order to trigger a unproven neural reaction.

Harun Farocki’s film “How to live in the FRG” on the other hand shows how society already then used strategies of optimization in order to train the human material for the capitalist risk society.

From art to social science

Installation view, triangulations Photo:Laura Fiorio, Haus der Kulturen der Welt
Installation view Triangulations Photo: Laura Fiorio, Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Triangulation is the method to determine the location of a point in space by measuring the angles from two other points instead of directly measuring the distance. As a method it goes back to antiquity. In the exhibition the Triangulation stations give a theoretical and cultural background to the notion of a quantified understanding of the world. Here the exhibition give a rich historical background mixing stories about the UK mass observation project where volunteers made detailed notes about the dancing hall etiquette with analyses of mapping histories and work optimization.

The triangulations in the exhibiton are written by eminent scholars, activists and philosophers. The legal researcher Laurence Liang writes about the re-emerging forensic techniques like polygraphs and brain mappings that have their roots in the positivism of the nineteenth century. Other triangulations are about Smart Design (Orit Halpern), algorithms, patterns and anomalies (Matteo Pasquinelli) and quantification and the social question where Avery F. Gordon together with curator Anselm Franke speaks about the connection of governance, industrial capitalism and quantification.

“Today’s agitated state apparatuses and overreaching institutions act according to the fantasy that given sufficient information, threats, disasters, and disruptions can be predicted and controlled; economies can be managed; and profit margins can be elevated,” the curators say in their statement. We see this believe everywhere – the state, the financial sector, in the drive towards self-optimization. A lot of the underlying assumptions can be traced back to the 19th century – the believe that if we have enough information we can control everything.

Like Pierre Laplace and his demon we believe that if we know more we can determine more. The problem is that knowing is only possible through a specific lens and context so that we become caught up in a feedback loop that only confirms what we already know to begin of. Most notably this can be seen in the concept of predictive policing which is also present in the triangulation part of the exhibition. Algorithms only catch patterns that are pre-determined by the people who program them.

What we can do – The White Room

Going through The Grid of the art works (the exhibition architecture by Kris Kimpe masterfully manifests a rectangular gridlike structure in the exhibition space) and reading the Triangulation stations the visitor is left a bit bereft. Is there still hope? One feels like at the end of George Orwell’s 1984 – the main character is broken and Big Brother’s reign unchallenged. This is where the White Room comes in. Here the visitors can be active. The Tactical Technology Collective provides a workshop programme where one can learn about how to secure one’s digital devices, how to avoid being tracked – on the web or by smartphone, what the alternatives are to corporate data collectors like Facebook or Google.

Installation view The White Room Laura Fiorio / Haus der Kulturen der Welt
Installation view The White Room Photo: Laura Fiorio / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

In the end the nature of internet is twofold and conflicting: on the one hand it allows for unprecedented observation and monitoring, on the other it is a tool for resistance connecting people who were separated by space and time. It is not yet clear if this is enough or if (like the radio and other technological media before) it will be co-opted by the one’s in power.

This leads me to one problem of an otherwise very necessary and inspiring show: For all its social justice impetus that narrative that is presented here is very androcentric – there are few if any feminist, queer or post-colonial perspectives in the exhibition. If they are presented then from the outside. This is not a theoretical objection as women, people of colour and other minorities (who are actually majorities) are especially vulnerable to the kind of hegemonic enclosures on the basis of data and algorithms. In a talk in the supporting programme the feminist philosopher Ewa Majewska gave some pointers towards a feminist critique of quantification: the policing of women’s reproductive abilities, affective labour or privacy as a political tool. More of this in the exhibition itself would have gone a long way.

The exhibition is accompanied by an interesting and ambitious lecture programme. The finissage day, May 8, is bound to be especially interesting. Franco Berardi, Laboria Cuboniks, Evgeny Morozov, Ana Teixeira Pinto and Seb Franklin are invited to think further about digitial life, autonomy, governance and algorithms.

Nervous Systems. Quantified Life and the Social Question
March 11 – May 9, 2016
Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin
Opening hours and information about the lecture programme on the website.