I’m pleased to announce that an exhibition of new work by UBERMORGEN that I’ve curated opens this week at Kasseler Kunstverein.
The exhibition deals with psychopathy and narcissism, and links these conditions to our technological culture and capitalism.
For much more information, please visit http://no-limit.org/
I’ve always been interested in publishing — from the zines I made as a teenager, to the articles I’ve written for magazines over the years, to the blog I kept as a Master’s student (back when it was a hot thing to blog), and now for the past three years at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media, initiating and leading the e-publishing programme as part of my Blowup series of events.
Over this past three years, there have been many lessons learned in terms of both producing and distributing content in eBook form. In May this year I was invited to give a talk entitled The eBook as a Vehicle for Re-dissemination and Creation, as part of Off The Press: Electronic Publishing in the Arts, a conference convened by the Institute for Network Cultures and hosted by the Boijmans Museum. The talk sums up some of my thoughts on the eBook as a form — in particular as a unique platform to give new life to old content, to repackage and remix, and to inspire groups to rapidly generate content which responds to current events (“booksprinting”).
As 2014 draws to a close, I looked back over the year and thought it timely to share the link to my talk on e-publishing alongside links to download the eBooks that I produced at V2_ this year (which all relate to themes of innovation, materiality, and extreme scenarios). They are free to download, so enjoy, and happy holidays!
Recently I gave a talk at Nottingham Contemporary on a panel about Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). The other panelists were Francis Halsall and Graham Harman, and the round table discussion afterward was moderated by Francis Love and Andrew Goffey. The evening started with a great video art piece by Elizabeth Price, User Group Disco. You can watch the entire set of talks on YouTube. Below I’ve pasted my notes and some of the images I showed, to give you a sense of what my talk was about — it’s a bit faster than watching the video. Click on any image to enlarge it.
How the art world deals with objects: archives
The Andy Warhol Archive in Pittsburgh plays host to basically everything that Warhol ever owned, including 610 boxes referred to as “time capsules”. Our late Uncle Andy had a habit of tossing things in boxes by his desk, and then when they were full, sealing them up, dating them, and putting them aside. Some very odd things have been found in these boxes. Entire pizzas. Slices of birthday cake. A mummified foot. Et cetera. At the Glenn Gould Archive in Ottawa, similar odd collections of personal effects linger on. The pianist’s trademark gloves and caps, of course, but also, a collection of all the hotel keys he ever pinched from the hotels he stayed at during his concert career.
Of the items in Warhol’s boxes, Tom Sokolowski, Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, says: “Everything in his life, in an artist’s life… was meritorious of recollection”. I wonder if it is. I speculate that I would gain no insight into Warhol from being able to handle an old pizza that Warhol purchased, never consumed, and then put in a box. I doubt that seeing Gould’s hotel key collection would tell me much about his character, though maybe I’d notice which hotel chain he liked best.
But this is how it goes in the art world: the holy of holies, the hand of the artist, dictates what is important, not whether or not the objects themselves are of genuine cultural significance. At first I thought hanging on to Andy Warhol’s pizzas and Glenn Gould’s hotel keys was absurd – just throw them in a 3D scanner in case a scholar really wants to know what Andy took on his pizza later on and dump the original. I thought it was messy, un-curated, un-critical and maybe even lazy. Now I see it a little differently: once in the cardboard box, or in Gould’s apartment, an ontological levelling took place and the pizza is on par with the wig; the keys are on par with the piano. It’s perhaps impossible to say what clues will be unearthed from these objects. From any object.
How I have dealt with objects in my own curatorial practice (sometimes)
The way that thought, as it is expressed through language, intersects with thought as it is expressed through material forms is a central curatorial concern of mine. Particularly today, when artists collaborate with and are influenced by such a wide variety of actors, including philosophers and scientists, understanding this intersection and creating productive frameworks where these worlds meet is arguably one of the key functions of a curator.
In the case of the exhibition and eBook developed under the name Speculative Realities, I was intrigued by the recent continental philosophical turn towards materialism and the object. I think that concepts put forward by Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism hold great potential for spurring a conversation about how philosophical thought can be in dialogue with, or provide additional insights into and context for, contemporary modes of art production.
What brought me to the point of considering this particular interaction between philosophy and art was the experience of co-curating the anchor exhibition of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival 2012, which was themed The Power of Things. The exhibition was an overt investigation of materialism and objecthood, and was influenced by Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, vitalist philosophies, and the idea of ‘vital beauty’ as described by John Ruskin. For an exhibition that still might be classified as a ‘media art’ or ‘electronic art’ exhibition (indeed we still use the term ‘Electronic Art’ within the name of the festival itself) it was remarkably lacking in glowing screens and interactive experiences that required triggering sensors. Instead, the exhibition hall was mostly filled with objects: a ball made up of all the naturally-occurring elements on earth (Terrestrial Ball by Kianoosh Motallebi), a nano-engineered artwork composed of the “blackest black” (Hostage Pt. 1 by Frederik de Wilde), a sculpture made of salt and ice that changed over time (Sealed by Jessica de Boer), and numerous other examples.
Following the construction of this exhibition, containing such a range of materialities and posing different questions and challenges to the viewer, it struck me as an obligation to examine the questions that were raised by this exhibition further. And so I began to eavesdrop on the international conversation that has been taking place about Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. Something about the return of the thing and thinking beyond the human realm is capturing imaginations beyond the halls of philosophy where these ideas tend to reside. The draw of such thought to the arts is also pronounced. As art critic Rahma Khazam observed: “Although SR [Speculative Realism]’s counter–intuitive theses and dismissive attitude towards humanity in general have their detractors, [but] for its supporters in the art world, the mental gymnastics it imposes are part of its appeal.“
Certainly for me, the allure does lie in a fundamental shift of curatorial thinking, to reconsider relationships between material and immaterial processes, and between ‘matter’ and ‘what matters’. Plus the object is in a bit of a crisis. From Uncle Andy’s factory (and the shambles of “verification” of which objects were actually fashioned by the artist or his deputy) to Damien Hirst’s hundreds of assistants that push processes of commodity production to its most eccentric limits, we have observed how in step the art market is with broader processes of globalisation. It is worth bearing in mind then, that despite our radical impulses in some fringes of the art world, we too are subject to the same forces.
So I decided to dive in. Blowup, which I launched as a label at V2_ in 2011, is a series of events and exhibitions that investigates topics ranging from art for animals to speculative designs for future objects, etc.
Inspired by OOO and Speculative Realism, I commissioned two artists and one collaborative duo to make new artworks reflecting broadly on concepts within Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism. The artists were Tuur van Balen & Revital Cohen, Cheryl Field, and Karolina Sobecka.
My curatorial process involved close conversations with a range of artists who were already looking at notions of non-human-centredness, or materialism, or a democracy of things in their work. Throughout the commissioning process, I dialogued with the artists and gave them texts (in particular, each artist received a PDF of Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Things) and I waited some time before revealing the identity of the other artists to any particular artist. In this way, the works were developed autonomously, without any collaborative dialogue around the actual production process or outcome.
The final exhibited four works, while substantially different, also had several points of convergence.
A fundamental return to and concern with nature became apparent; mountains, clouds, and living plants figured strongly in the group of works. Interestingly, a wry sense of humour can also be perceived in each work: the absurdity in Cheryl Field’s disembodied fingers and tongues; the chance interactions with random landowners in Karolina Sobecka’s Cloud Maker experiments; the sheer stretch of the imagination involved in Tuur van Balen and Revital Cohen’s night garden for communication between hares and the moon.
Finally, it is worth noting that while we laboured on producing this exhibition and conducting interviews for the accompanying eBook, interest in the wider world in this philosophical turn manifested into other exhibitions simultaneously: Resonance and Repetition, curated by Rivet in New York; Things’ Matter, curated by Klara Manhal in Vancouver; and The Return of the Object, curated by Stefanie Hessler in Berlin. What this suggests in anyone’s guess, but to me it signals that grappling with the concepts and consequences of these philosophical movements has been assumed as a priority for art of this moment.
How curators deal with objects (sometimes)
The art world is generally not good at this levelling thing in a broad sense. However things have, and continue to, open up bit by bit. Art and design are no longer necessarily consigned to different museums. The art formerly known as new media is coming out of obscurity and into the MoMA’s collection.
The Maybe, 1995 at Serpentine Gallery, curated by Tilda Swinton and Cornelia Parker, included Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box as an artwork, alongside Napoleon’s rosary, one of Churchill’s cigars, and as pictured here, one of Tilda Swinton’s expired passports and a goblet thrown from the cliffs of Dover.
“The Brain” in the Fredericanum at dOCUMENTA (13), curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, included objects like Eva Braun’s compact powder and other objects to display and map out a partial range of the curator’s thought.
Rosemarie Trockel curated an exhibition at the New Museum in New York in 2012 entitled “A Cosmos” presents an imaginary universe in which Trockel’s own artwork from the past thirty years is juxtaposed with objects and artifacts from different eras and cultures representing many of her artistic interests.
Of course it goes without saying the exhibition on now at Nottingham Contemporary, The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey also fits this pattern: drawing attention to form and meaning without asking an artist to sanctify each object. An unsigned urinal is just a urinal, or is it?
Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. A chair, an image of a chair, and the dictionary definition of chair presented together. A consideration of the object at its best, I’d say – how is the definition different than the image, the object? Materially of course there are many differences, but all are deeply connected to the same concept. And perhaps most challenging, it’s not Kosuth’s chair, Napoleon’s chair, Hitler’s chair or Lady Gaga’s chair, it’s just a chair selected and photographed by the institution that installs the piece.
Of course instruction works not just by Kosuth but by others, has been followed by other genres of works pushing limits of materiality, like the example of Tino Seghal raised in the first talk tonight by Francis, and so it is worth remembering that while the art market may largely revolve around objects, whole areas are also unconcerned with or openly reject them. In a way the curatorial act is always also simultaneously an artistic instruction work, placing objects and designing experiences. And if we as curators can reconsider the object, on its own, inspired by OOO and related philosophical movements, the range of expression we present to the public can only benefit, and become more complex and more subtle.
Recently I gave a talk at Mapping Festival in Geneva, as part of a roundtable entitled “Life Through the Eyes of Machines”, with Dan Williams and moderated by Nicolas Nova. [What follows is a very condensed version of my lecture. Click on any image to enlarge it.]
My talk was entitled “If a computer can’t find your face, do you not have one?”, which is a quote from an artist’s statement for the project A Machine Frame of Mind by Brooklyn Brown. Brown’s project looks at machine vision as a material to be designed, and posits “…that the machine-readable world is something we are both constructing and should continue to design for in order to demystify and expose advanced technological processes. Shifting perspectives allows for the discovery of other realities that offer control and enjoyment of how we are seen and understood by computation.”
So I opened the talk with existential questions, “how we are seen and understood”, and in particular about human faces and their importance within the subject of the machine’s gaze. I also threw in a quote from Walter Benjamin (gathered from a paper by Bernard Rhie, more on him later): “To experience the aura of a phenomenon means to invest it with the capability of returning the gaze.”
From Brown’s work I transition to discussing the outmoded pseudoscience of phrenology, wherein mapping regions on one’s face and head, and making detailed measurements, used to be seen as a way of understanding a person’s “true nature”. Phrenology is quaint and laughable, but the desire to afford so much importance to the appearance of the human head surfaces in other ways, such as our ongoing squeamishness regarding face transplants. Perhaps the taboo about face transplants is in part to do with the lack of instant results (often several operations are required, and the face must reform to the new structure underneath) but also the simple idea, despite the life-changing and positive results for the recipient, that it is as though the person who received the face is no longer them, is wearing a mask.
I was delighted to recently discover the work of American scholar Bernard Rhie, who writes extensively about the importance of the human face and particularly about the late writings of Wittgenstein regarding faces. I quoted from one of Rhie’s recent papers:
“…I suggest that by seeing the connections between aesthetic perception and the way we perceive faces, we can better appreciate the deeper stakes of ongoing theoretical disputes about the concept of aesthetic expression: especially debates about whether the expressive qualities of artworks are real or merely due to the projections of aesthetic beholders. What’s ultimately at stake in such disputes, I will suggest, is the proper acknowledgement (or denial) of the expressiveness of the human body. Philosophical debates about the expressivity of artworks, that is, serve as proxies for debates about the ontologies—and, in particular, the expressive nature—of human beings as such.”
Moving on from the face and its place in our social cultures, I discussed how reality will be sculpted by machine vision, making it easier for machines to navigate, and not necessarily people; and also the aesthetics of this newly-sculpted reality. Here I briefly touched on the “New Aesthetic“, which was described as such by Bruce Sterling: “The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is.”
I also added that sometimes there is nothing for the machine to see or process, and what happens then? Dutch artist Sander Veenhof‘s Google Glass Screensaver demo video is a humourous answer to that question:
From the face and and the aesthetic of a machine readable world I moved on to security, sousveillance, and use of the (machine-read or human-collected) image as evidence. In this area there is no better place to start than with Canadian computer scientist Steve Mann, widely recognized as the father of wearable computing, and who has been wearing a device called the EyeTap (basically: a camera and small screen embedded in a wearable viewing apparatus) since the 1980s.
In a recent interview I conducted with him for Volume Magazine, I asked him about a recent incident wherein various perpetrators attempted to forcibly remove his EyeTap device in a McDonalds in Paris.
“In 2012, Mann was assaulted at a McDonalds in Paris, with his EyeTap forcibly removed, despite producing a doctor’s letter indicating that the EyeTap can only be removed with tools. McDonalds has issued a few statements regarding the incident, but denies that he was assaulted by any staff member. In response to this action, (which was documented with the EyeTap, of course), Mann christened the corporate backlash against sousveillance ‘McVeillance’. The ethics of sousveillance and how it is countered by McVeillance is an issue highlighting the massive power of corporations to prevent us from documenting our own existence. Mann avers that sousveillance has both moral positive and moral negative possibilities, so a categorical (i.e. Kantian) moral imperative against it (i.e. McVeillance) is necessarily a moral negative, and that in addition McVeillance is “illegal, as per human rights laws”.”
The integration of machine vision with the body, and the public discomfort with this (this is not the first time Mann has had his device forcibly removed), raises the questions of the legal grayzone these technologies inhabit — when watching or when watching back. Mann is in fact trying to draft legislation to address this, because the law is a slow beast and without prodding, there may never be any guidelines to counter McVeillance.
The whole incident at McDonalds was captured by Mann’s EyeTap, providing some damning evidence against the perps. The tonnage of images collected by Mann and those who will inevitably follow him (Mann is constantly streaming and transmitting) raises further issues about the possible nefarious uses of such images: one can easily imagine hired hackers destroying your database if they know you have images from a crimescene, for example. To solve this Mann suggests redundant storage and communities of trust, but even with that in place this will remain a sticky issue.
As seen in the image above, Mann’s pioneering work in its current stage looks eerily like what Google has developed and named Glass. If Google’s dreams come true and many of us are soon wearing a Glass, what are the right and wrong questions about this turn of events? The wrong questions, I would suggest, are how cool or uncool it will look, how much it costs, or whether saying “OK, Glass” to it to activate it will become tiresome.
Better questions are: what will be our unwitting collaboration with industry? How will Google make $ from your daily life? An easy example is Google Glass tracking your eye movements over shop shelves — valuable data that can then be sold back to the shops so they can understand why the zit cream isn’t selling. Artist Janek Simon recently produced an open source system for tracking eye movements and exhibited the system as well as the resulting images at Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw. The images were lovely and indicated where people’s eyes lingered: some obvious places, some not so obvious. It’s easy to see how this is interesting information for several parties.
Raising this issue of the value of where the eye rests, what we see, and the “attention economy” gives rise to an interest in the possible “deletive reality” that machine vision poses — not unlike the concerns of the hacker eliminating your database of images when you record something that could hold someone criminally liable — we could simply choose to not see certain things in the first place, like the homeless person on the corner. In fact an art project that has already identified this is Artvertiser by Julian Oliver (dubbed “improved reality”), wherein users can hold up a viewing apparatus that allows them to view the city with art in the place of advertising billboards.
Then there are the very limits of the systems we create. Machines are our creations — they are limited by the imaginations and capacities of their creators. Humankind has long been fascinated by the possibility of creating machines that can do tasks as well as we can, or better. The Mechanical Turk is an example of an early automaton (1770, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen) which amazed viewers — a machine was able to beat humans at chess! Later it was revealed that the secret of the Turk’s success was a midget chess whiz hidden in the cabinet underneath, running the show.
Many years later, Amazon, better known as an online bookseller, creates a system called Amazon Mechanical Turk. The system matches workers with tasks — or HITs, (Human Intelligence Tasks) in their parlance. The HITs are varied and sometimes strange, but have one thing in common: they are tasks that humans can do very easily, but computers would find difficult. For example, looking at a series of images and being able to sort them into pictures of dogs or pictures of cats. Amazon Mechanical Turk workers perform these tasks for pennies.
Another prominent example of the differences between machines and their human overlords is the way that computers have been able to finally truly overtake humans in the realm of chess — Kasparov vs. Deep Blue being the moment of truth. But despite the ability of machines to play chess, it has taken much longer (and many would argue it is still a long way off) that computers can reliably beat proficient humans at the game of Go, where the highest compliment is the ambiguous “good shape”.
We are left contemplating a world wherein (for now) anything built by humans can be foiled by humans. Reality will be increasingly sculpted to facilitate machine vision and other kinds of automation, therefore new methods of subverting these systems will also be invented (using creative uses of makeup as one method — see the CV dazzle project by Adam Harvey, which was discussed at length in Dan Williams’ talk). This reality-sculpting may look crude, because the systems we design are, for the time being, far cruder than we are. Tasks that require human intelligence to see to easy completion, ranging from playing a game of Go to identifying a photo of a cat on Amazon Mechanical Turk, will remain important for the near future. Etiquette on using your Google Glass in public remains an unsolved mystery, though your actions will become far less mysterious once analyzed (perhaps by Amazon Mechanical Turk workers).