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Nervous Systems – Algorithms and our everyday life

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.

Bypassing Cartography- part 1

Featured image: XRay by Claude Chuzel

Introduction.

“One of the most consequential outcomes of this ubiquitous mode of organization of social life is that we have become so accustomed to relating to space in “either/or” and “here/there” terms that we have become mentally trapped inside this binary border-based model, making it difficult to imagine alternative ways of territorial organization.” Popescu [1a]

Maps inform us where things are situated. The borders depicted in each map propose a different view on the social conditions, attitudes, and interactions with others in the world. The AntiAtlas of borders project shows us different approaches for understanding “the mutations of control systems along land, sea, air and virtual states” and their borders. It has done this through the combined contributions of social and ‘hard’ science researchers and artists, all engaged in creative practices including Internet art, tactical geography, filmmakers, performers and hackers. The project also includes other relevant actors such as people working as professionals for customs agencies, surveillance industries and the military.

This is the first of two interviews with Isabelle Arvers who has collaborated with the IMERA team (the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Research of Aix-Marseille University), to curate this expansive and dynamic project. The first interview discusses the operational side of the project and the next interview examines selected writings, artworks, projects and ideas featured as part of the project.

The Texas Border, Joana Moll and Héliodoro Santos Sanchez. Link
The Texas Border, Joana Moll and Héliodoro Santos Sanchez. Link

Marc Garrett: Before we begin the interview it would great if you could tell us when and where the exhibitions, events, publications and other parts of the project begin?

Isabelle Arvers: The AntiAtlas programme will run from 30 September 2013 to 1 March 2014 and will be composed of five initiatives: an inaugural international symposium, two exhibitions, a website and the publication of a book. The International Conference will be held from 30 September – 2 October 2013 at the New Conservatory of Aix en Provence. The main aim of this conference is to present the results of the interdisciplinary workshops that took place in the last two years at IMéRA et at the Higher School of Art of Aix-en-Provence.

The AntiAtlas of borders will present two interlinked exhibitions. The first will take place in Aix-en-Provence at the Musée des Tapisseries from 1 October to 3 November 2013. The second will take place in Marseille at La Compagnie creative arts centre from 13 December 2013 to 1 March 2014. The two exhibitions will present works developed in collaboration with social scientists, researchers in the hard sciences and artists. They will offer several levels of reading and forms of participation. Visitors will discover new works, engage with transmedia documentation and participate in experiments. They will interact directly with robots, drones, video games, walls and systems. The aim is to encourage everyone to reflect on how we are directly and personally affected by the transformations of borders in the 21st century.

Borders, Simona Koch. Link
Borders, Simona Koch. Link

The final version of the website www.antiatlas.net/eng is an online extension of the exhibitions. Most importantly, the website provides access to works of net.art and artistic interventions in the form of an online gallery of works. This website and its documentation will extend the progress and reach achieved by the project. It will act as an archive and documentation site for the general public, artists, researchers and institutions.

In 2014, an AntiAtlas of border publication will be produced, gathering publications of researchers and artists on different and selected themes of the international conference and the two exhibitions.

Dynamic Map of Foreign Citizens Detained at State Borders, Olivier Clochard (Migreurop) 2013. Link
Dynamic Map of Foreign Citizens Detained at State Borders,
Olivier Clochard (Migreurop) 2013. Link
Paparazzi Bots by Kenneth Rinaldo. Exhibition view.
Paparazzi Bots by Kenneth Rinaldo. Exhibition view.

MG: What has been your involvement with AntiAtlas?

IA: When I met the IMERA team (the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Research of Aix-Marseille University), they were looking for a curator in order to disseminate the outcomes of the past three years of seminars they conducted on borders. I saw this project as a great opportunity as there was a political dimension within it that attracted me. Also, I am deeply interested in tactical media and tactical geography and by new forms of visualisation and new aesthetics related to systems of control like drones, robots, satellites or surveillance cameras.

I wanted to create a participatory event that would allow people to follow our work online and offline. I also wanted to mix different kinds of works from research in the hard and social sciences to artistic installations, websites, games and videos. To do so, we decided to create a website www.antiatlas.net that would gather artworks, research articles and interviews, an online gallery and also all the presentations given during the different seminars conducted by IMERA on borders during the last three years. Thanks to the website, we were able to launch a call for proposals as I wanted to get the testimonies and the voice of migrants about their vision on borders.

Cartographies by Hackitektura. Exhibition view.
Cartographies by Hackitektura. Exhibition view.
Close up - Tactical cartography of the Straits, in progress (Beta State - Side A) madiaq indymedia and hackitectura.net. Production: osfa
Close up – Tactical cartography of the Straits, in progress (Beta State – Side A) madiaq indymedia and hackitectura.net. Production: osfa

Very quickly we understood that we needed to get more funding and partners, so I offered to seek media, private and institutional partnerships as well as to manage the communication of the entire event. This fundraising was needed to promote a global vision of the antiAtlas of borders and to link all the parts of the event: from the website, to the call for proposal, till the international seminar and the two exhibitions. Because of my multiple engagements in the project, I became one of the 5 co-producers of the programme.

MG: This is a complex project. It is noticeable that there is a diverse and dynamic, cross section of different practices being bridged to make it all happen. Has it been difficult to combine all of these practices so they can relate to each other coherently?

IS: Combining all these different practices was a wonderful and exciting adventure. During one year and a half, we worked very closely with the scientific and artistic committee and tried to exchange as much as possible between different visions and ways of working. I learned a lot from researchers and was amazed by the deep understanding and knowledge they have on the subject of borders. Thanks to their research and to their approaches to this issue, I was able to get a very diverse understanding of this complex subject. From me, they discovered the online communication and the power of the web and social networks to diffuse and share the information. They also got a better understanding of the tactical media field and we learned so much from each other that this experience is already a beautiful success in sharing and learning from passionate human beings. I come from media art world and I tried to respond to a scenario that the committee conceived with artists’ works, which is a very different way for me to work. This time I had a script to follow; the way I did it was to try to find some ludic interactive installations, as well as documentary projects or games, in order to allow the experimentation of the subject by the audience. They trusted me even if it wasn’t a field they knew well.

Robot ADM8, Rybn, 2011. Link
Robot ADM8, Rybn, 2011. Link

MG: Do you feel that it has de-compartmentalised these varied fields of knowledge successfully?

IS: What was particularly positive in the last seminars on borders we organised was that they allowed plenty of time to discuss and facilitate the exchange between the different perspectives. A specific example is a game project resulting from the collaboration between an anthropologist – Cédric Parizot – and a interactive laboratory from the Superior art School of Aix-en-Provence, which is led by the artist and game designer Douglas Edric Stanley. The idea is to create a “crossing industry game” drawing on the data collected by Cédric Parizot on trafficking. The collaboration addressed the visualisation, contextualisation and re-appropriation of a field of knowledge through game mechanics. I think that this experience really enriched all the team. The anthropologist was able to analyse his data in a different way, while the interactive students got closer to the reality of trafficking as they were experiencing through a game.

There are many other cross-disciplinary projects made in the framework of the AntiAtlas. I would say that what we want is to multiply different experiences and forms of knowledge on borders across and between the separate but intersecting fields of art and science. The exhibition is conceived to mix everything: research through the documentation space, researchers’ interviews, counter cartographies, interactive installations on biometrics and surveillance technologies, applications to divert control systems and documentaries providing a wider point of view on multiple dimensions of borders and their representations. Artists and researchers meet three times per year, some of them collaborate on trans-disciplinary projects, so that the conditions to meet and de-compartmentalise these fields are created. This is only the beginning. The process still needs to be pushed and facilitated as the antiAtlas is an attempt to create a new kind of cross-disciplinary encounter, let’s see how it will evolve!

Conclusion.

This first interview with Arvers attended to organisational and operational aspects of the inter-disciplinary border-crossing within AntiAtlas project. The complex task of collating, sharing and collaborating to make it all happen at all could use its own map. The processes and engagements that evolved as the project took shape involved a collaboration of many different fields and practices, individuals, groups, organisations and cross cultural relations. This transdisciplinary approach helps us to unpack the deep levels of the meanings and value of crossing borders, in an organisational sense. Their dedication to transcend the seemingly ‘scripted’ blockages and restraints echoes a strong feeling that we need to re-assess the maps given to us, and what this means.

“What is needed to escape the modern mental “territorial trap” are ways of seeing and drawing that reveal what the geographical abstraction of the borderline obscures. It is only in this way, then, that we will acquire the necessary tools to think through a technologically enabled world of border flows and portals” Popescu.[1b]

Notes:

Isabelle Arvers is an independent author, critic and exhibition curator. She specializes in the immaterial, bringing together art, video games, Internet and new forms of images by using networks and digital imagery. She has organized a large number of exhibitions in France and overseas (Australia, Canada, Brazil, Norway, Italy, Germany) and collaborates regularly with the Centre Pompidou and French and international festivals. http://www.isabellearvers.com/