Margarita Athanasiou is an artist and poet living in Athens Greece. She makes videos, memes and publications and is active in the local scene; she co-founded the Athens Art Book Fair, is one of the organisers of the Athens Festival of Queer Performance and is half of the musical duo “ZHMY”.
Eleni Bagaki is a visual artist with a Master’s in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins, London. In her practice, she reflects on desire and contemporary relationships through personal experience and observation. Drawing inspiration from feminist/queer perspectives in the fields of cinema, literature and visual arts, her works emerge as stories, poems, films, songs, sculptures, or something else, and are usually presented in an exhibition context. She has been an-artist-in residence at Fogo Island Arts, Fogo Island (2019), IASPIS, Stockholm (2018–2019), Pivô, Sao Paulo (2018), and Kantor Foundation, Krakow (2017). She received the NEON grant for artistic production in 2018, and the OUTSET grant for her exhibition A book, a film, and a Soundtrack, Radio Athènes, Athens (2017). She has exhibited at Signal (Malmö), New Studio (London), L’Inconnue (Montreal), Benaki Museum (Athens), Family Business (New York). She is based in Athens, Greece.
Theodoros Chiotis is the editor and translator of the anthology Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis (Penned in the Margins, 2015). Other publications include Screen (Paper Tigers Books, 2017) and limit.less: towards an assembly of the sick (Litmus, 2017). His work has appeared in Litmus, Datableed, Forward Book of Poetry 2017, 3:am, Adventures in Form, Shearsman, amongst others. His project Mutualised Archives received the Dot Award by the Institute for the Future of Book and Bournemouth University; he has also been awarded a High Commendation from the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 2017. His artist book a dataset of one’s own was part of the exhibition Around My Room.
DOLCE publications Sina 62, Athens, Greece
Dolce is a publishing house that produces, distributes and occasionally prints artists’ books and related publications. Founded in Athens in 2017, situated in the book-making and publishing heart of the city -downtown- operates as a risoprinting studio running seminars and open days on a regular basis. Dolce publications are distributed in Greece and abroad and have been awarded in design competitions. Apart from the art books and publications dolce is also the publisher of the only crime fiction theory magazine in Greece and is expected to run its own series of crime fiction and other literature related works starting June 2019.
Ioanna Gerakidi is a writer, curator and educator based between Amsterdam and Athens. She holds a BA in Media and Communication Studies (University of Athens) and an MA in Critical Studies (Sandberg Instituut). Her research subjects rotate around philosophies of language and paralanguage and feminist, queer, performance and anti-colonial studies. Her work focuses on becoming with alternative methods of sociability, reaching the impossible, staying with the unknown. She has collaborated with and curated group shows/events for LIMA, Amsterdam Art, Athens Biennale, Hot Wheels Projects, Subrosa Space Athens, Stoa42 and Snehta Residency among others. Her texts, when acting as performative gestures, have been presented at Kunstverein Amsterdam, De Stroom, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, CAC Vilnius, Haus N Athen, Athens Festival, Performance Biennial, BIG – Biennale Interstellaire des espaces d’art de Genève more. She has contributed in several publications, platforms and magazines (such as Mousse, Collecteurs Platform and Mister Motley) and she has lectured, initiated and led workshops and reading groups for several academies and alternative educational programs in Europe, such as Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Rupert, Athens School of Fine Arts, Document & Contemporary Art PhD program, BAK and Noiserr among others. Some of her past and forthcoming residencies include: Rupert Residency, Syros Sound Meetings, Paf and NEON Curatorial Exchange Program. From September on she will be co-curating the program of State of Concept (Athens) and she will be mentoring the practices of Onassis Air Program’s participants (Athens).
Evi Kalogiropoulou is a visual artist studying and working in both in Athens and London. Evi has studied in Athens School of Fine Arts and she accomplishes a Master in Royal College of Art in Moving Image path. Now she is an Artsit in Residency in Somerset house Studios.Evi works mostly with moving image installations, experimental films, and sculpture; her projects explore ideas associated with the inclusion/exclusion, cross-culture identity, female figures in Ancient Greek mythology frames and sci-fi environments.
Maria Toumazou (b. 1989, Nicosia) is based in Nicosia, Cyprus. In her practice she rehearses gestures that mediate the tensions of material and affectual labour. She completed her BA in Art Practice at Goldsmiths College where she was awarded The Nicholas and Andrei Tooth Travelling Scholarship in 2011 and her MFA from Glasgow School of Art in 2014.In her practice, usually sculpture and writing, Maria Toumazou deconstructs “contemporary and traditional Cypriot working culture, embodying personal and politically charged themes.” A common thread links her interest in objects at the moment when form opens up towards alternative usage frameworks, and extends, in a similar way, to spaces, social groups and instances where autonomy, via the rethinking of once influential values and invisible bonds, emerges. Over the years Toumazou has initiated collaborative projects as part of her practice that stand as independent modes of production in themselves, such as Neoterismoi Toumazou (Neo Toum), a project space and collective based in Nicosia, and MARIA†. editions, a publishing imprint based between Nicosia and New York.
Recent shows include: Soft stone documents, curated by Jan Verwoert, Limassol Municipal Arts Centre – Apothekes Papadaki; Athens and Its Periphery in Regards to Contemporary Painting, curated by Hugo Wheeler, The Breeder Gallery, Athens; Chill-out Reading room, Independent projects booths, Art Athina; The Future of Color, The Cyprus Pavilion at Biennale Arte 2017, curated by Jan Verwoert, Venice; Terra Mediteranea: In Action, curated by Yiannis Toumazis, Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre; Double Parrhesia, Catalyst Arts, Belfast; Vanity: How to burn bridges you haven’t built, curated by Evagoras Vanezis, Garage, Nicosia 2016: Bradleyxx, Glasgow International 2016, Across the City Programme; AyeBaDome:Super, curated by Peter Eramian, Thkio Ppalies, Nicosia;. dr.gum, Akureyri Art Museum, Akureyri.
My posting frequency is rapidly declining (currently at about 1 a year, maybe 2) but I refuse to give up the blog- so here is a transcript of the poem, or whatever it was (pop lyrical text, I think I described it as), that I read as an intro to Shaka McGlotten’s keynote, Knitting and Knotting Love, at Transmediale 2019.
I’ll post up the video as well soon!
“Anyway, as we were invited to do something more “performative”, I decided that instead of presenting a formal intro, I would try and channel some of the themes in Shaka’s talk- particularly reciprocity, attraction, attachment and love mediated through material, digital and cosmic networks- within a form of collaborative authorship.
So, with their permission I’ve woven together their talk with a whole backlog of iPhone notes written in various states of crushing or being crushed, with the help of some rhyming code, to create a sort of pop-lyrical text on love as both a manifestation of ecstatic, erotic energy and something that gets all too messy, and all too readily packaged up into the heteronormative couple form…”
A cosmic game of hide and seek.
reaches out to brush my cheek.
We joke about the many hues of blue.
Hair dyes washed out like free fall too.
You smile with the heat of my attention
with this level of eyeball retention
You could be putting me towards your pension
Now I don’t even stop for air,
Quantifying vibes that aren’t even there
My marks are mixed in the numinous ones
we associate with falling in love.
Expanding across borders to speak in half-tongues
of whatever nonsense you can think of.
She has my finger in my throat and in my eyes,
While we work out how to both end up looking like nice guys.
“If you want to stay in control,
You have to do to something to fill the hole”
“No, no,” G-Skillz protested in vain-
giggling and blinking like sixteen again-
It may not even matter to you
but Kit was bossy as a professor too.
And they know the output, some kind of delight.
My eyes ran with tears of the endless night
It was all just white, the white of eyes rolled back in the bin.
dive in, feel the soft air and salt water slide over your skin
Heart palpitations, new notifications,
nipples getting hard, the winning scratch card-
I don’t want to come I don’t want to give way
When freezing an angry fake smile on my chin
like one of those cheap Lidl face masks claims to be clay
As it scours off the top layer of your skin
Sure, they’re always ready to get naked together,
But he just dropped the compass altogether
of your seemingly quiescent smartphone screen,
an act made touchy by our attachments in between
Asphalt hits my cheek as I lie in the dust
how I got here is anyone’s guess
but I can get myself a little high,
in the spot where the land meets the crisp blue sky.
Where my poles ran wild in every direction
magnets deranged by rumination
Cars drive by regardless as I am much smaller than before
Sleep comes as a sweet friend who never asks for more
Where I wander now makes no sense without you
Searching for something, anything to plug into
The realm of Hungry Ghosts grows ever near
reflecting black mirrors of your own gut fear,
Nobody has even asked how I got to this cliff face.
Maybe my mind is the channel thru which they access this space?
Far from him again, far from anything I call love
All I ever wanted was to feel unashamed of
your feelings, and that fine ass, and
all of it is made of the same old stuff,
and most of it’s just recycled guff
What’s love but a second hand emotion?
What’s desire but over-designed gamification?
Let’s see you with your pants off then, see what you’re all about
I don’t even follow through what I’m attempting to carry out
Just cos you’re a ‘feminist’ doesn’t mean that you should
do what like any old regular dickhead would
My housemate says don’t put that on twitter
which is funny bc that’s also what you said
through the hangover heavy, the dawn cold bitter logout and delete, reinstall and repeat
you’re so clueless you probably don’t even realise this post is about you
I try to look at it, say get over yourself.
Like what you do to your Self, forgets itself.
Obviously none of this makes sense
Tantra isn’t about transcendence
but about facing your own impermanence
Ying and yong, ping and pong
all the clues were red, red heart, orange smile, green face
So how was your security experience today?
black hole, black box, funny ghost, tumbleweed, not so funny ghost, cry face
Who needs a heart when a heart can be toxic?
So I am going to overstate her case against love
For the good of others with every reason I can think of.
Kathy- I feel extremely tired and sad,
thinking of what we could have had
Maybe you haven’t twigged before,
and I don’t know who I trust anymore.
How can I do this to a supposed friend?
Since this performance has no end
Sparky is animated while talking about his realization.
last time i check the app says I’ve done 740 hours of meditation
even more now I started on the anti-sleep medication
but whatever you do, you can’t escape you
that’s the bit that even Headspace can’t do
And all bonds soaked through with power plays too-
I remember that he fears me a bit, and that’s just fine-
While i’m making a mess Of lives intertwined.
Sparky casts a very broad net
into the deep feels of my regret
here on it’s ambivalence all the way round
catching traces of songs as they echo valley down
I no longer puff up useless men.
Plant them where they’ll never sprout hope again
And that includes (the many) people I’ve only fantasised about-
Sparky waits patiently until my story’s spun out.
I remove the plastic and I know I’ll survive- I always do.
I may not be fucking HAPPY but I am better now too
You call me friend, and that’s not entirely bad.
I felt so safe and loved with kin, even if you never had
Thankfully there’s playfulness as well-
This whole damn building is their hotel
For all of it is just molecules, don’t you see?
Yeah, nobody sees through you more than me
Shaka McGlotten is a social anthropologist with a background in the fine arts. They are the author of Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality, and Dragging; Or, the Political Aesthetics of Drag. They have co-edited Black Genders and Sexualities with Dana-ain Davis and Zombie Sexuality with Steve Jones. They are currently working on Black Data. Their work has been supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Akademie Schloss Solitude, and the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation.
More info on their work here:
Lost to the Phosphorus, 2017, performed at Somerset House, London. Photo: Dan Wilton
The performance Lost to the Phosphorus involves me reciting a text in Greek and English, while wandering around the space with a torch in near-total darkness, drawing ‘evil eyes’ (το μάτι, an apotropaic device common in eastern Mediterranean countries) on audience members’ hands.
Like a bouncer or security agent providing or refusing access, they don’t know why they have, or have not, been given an eye, or what the nature of their been included or excluded means. I was thinking about the arbitrary nature of who gets access to cultural and national enclosures- from cliques to countries- and how that’s enforced in the name of preventing contamination.
Contamination as the spread of emotional contagion through biological, physical, digital networks, when bodies must be understood as so entangled within these forces that any sense of a border containing interior subjective experience and identity dissolves, reflecting as Stacey Alaimo puts it, ” a kind of enfolding in which everything presumed to be outside of the properly human is always already within.”
At the same time, on a material level, borders are enforced and identities cannot, do not, just mutate into each other- assuming otherwise is to ignore the very real differences and privileges afforded by certain passports, accents, ethnicities.
This was partly informed by my experience of Documenta in Athens, specifically around ideas of mutating, traversing and exchange (between Germany and Greece, most obviously) when there is a clear power differential. I’d thought of Athens as almost like a medium or proxy that the institution chose to speak through, and while nobody claimed it was/ could be a frictionless process, I sensed an inability to fully perceive and embody that difference and the gritty remains of mistranslation…
Often bought as charms from tourist tat shops, the evil eye also alludes to the figure of the tourist, who can mostly enjoy their ‘difference’ whilst traversing borders. On an obvious level the text slips between language borders, disintegrating into a sort of pidgin ‘Gringlish’, that only fellow bilinguals can fully understand. Here it’s non-Greek speakers who get left out- which, in an art context, means mostly Anglos, northern Europeans and Americans, who are ordinarily accustomed to both linguistic and physical access/ inclusion.
Lost to the Phosphorus, 2017, performed at Somerset House, London. Photo: Dan Wilton
The text also describes the evil eye as a tool of social classification, cast on those deemed enviable, vulnerable or different, who stand out from their cultural context in some way. I wanted to link this to the sense of not belonging to one’s adopted culture and having to modify accents, behaviours, speech to fit in, to cross the border into ‘passing’, and the ways these are embodied, are bodily as well as psychic. Also the body being ‘spoken through’ in the form of disease, where lodged beliefs/ traumas/ affects not present in the conscious mind are seemingly ‘expressed’ somatically, or converted, in the Freudian schema- which, as Eleni Stecoplous points out, problematically reinforces the long-held rift in Western thought between the mind and the body. I came across her writing around somatic intelligence after making this performance, but found many resonances in her understanding of “language not as discourse or communication but as energetic force, and a belief that the material word had visceral effect on bodies”, so that certain words in the ‘mother tongue’ (Greek in her case; mine is actually English) have a warmth and intimacy that are bound up in muscle memories and love-built bonds.
Speaking of love, I partly wrote the text through an excruciating period of heartbreak where I felt so acutely absorbed into another person’s consciousness that I couldn’t separate myself emotionally or physically. The performance is meant to evoke a ritual, a ‘cleanse for inner intensities’- perhaps an attempt to dissolve that connective tissue.
As Anna Tsing says, ‘everyone carries a history of contamination’, where purity is not an option, and while she’s talking more about the interconnectedness of food logistics, market barters, global travel routes and digestion in an ecology of biophysical/ technical relations, I was thinking at the time of emotional contagion too; how it travels through digital networks in viral images, moods and memes. And how intimate relationships also require openness to emotional blending and contagion, where (in my experience anyway), you can easily lose a sense of your own borders, a sense of yourself even: the ‘eksatsis’ of going beyond the self.
Meanwhile, in the performance, the techno beat, hand-marking, dark room and allusions to pills/ drugs to suggest a space of ecstatic hedonism, ritual and euphoric loss of self-consciousness, but also solipsism- just partying on, losing yourself, oblivious to what’s going on outside (including the dead body on the beach).
still from video by Alexandra Masmanidi @ Hot Wheels Projects
Performed at Hot Wheels Projects in Athens Greece, January 2018 as part of Speak Through You, an event co-curated by Erica Scourti and Ioanna Gerakidi, and featuring Ioanna Gerakidi, Juliet Jacques, Erica Scourti, Cally Spooner and Jesper List Thomsen. A video of the performance by Alexandra Masmanidi is here. This text came from a conversation with Ben Eastham, responding in particular to his question about ‘the means by which you attempt to “slip across borders” and what precisely those borders are’. Read his article for Mousse, Getting Lost.
An evening of readings, videos and performances from a group of artists working through the embodiment of voice, inscription and linguistic dynamics. Exploring the haptics of auto-ethnographic writing, found text and technology-assisted transcription, the event features diverse schemas of approaching voicing, mouthing and speaking through self and others.
With contributions from Ioanna Gerakidi, Juliet Jacques, Erica Scourti, Cally Spooner, Jesper List Thomsen.
The evening is initiated by Ioanna Gerakidi and Erica Scourti, in collaboration with Hot Wheels Projects and is accompanied by a forthcoming publication of a collection of texts by the contributing artists.
Readings and Performances
Jesper List Thomsen will be reading from a work in progress (yet to be titled) The Body, The Body, The Tongue; The Neoliberal I; Blackbirds. He will also show a painting featuring a nine meter long line, the length of the average human digestive tract starting from the mouth and ending at the anus.
Lost to the Phosphorus (2017) by Erica Scourti
Moving through darkness and the application of makeshift apotropaic devices, a text exploring psychic, linguistic and somatic contamination slips between registers of intelligibility, trying to find a way to resist solid borders.
Chorus Parade*. It Rips My Instincts. by Ioanna Gerakidi
Chorus Parade is a composition of erotic letters and sounds written for past, current and future lovers.
Chorus Parade is a text about love, lust, desire and grief.
Chorus Parade is an invitation.
When words are arrogant, voices are wilfully loud.
Sertraline Surrealism is a fragmentary text that explores how concepts of the ‘mad, neglected genius’ and the ‘convulsive woman’ fed into the Romantic and Surrealist movements, and how they impact upon younger artists, through a reading of gender-neutral writer/artist Claude Cahun. In this performance, Jacques reads from the work to a soundtrack by Vladislav Delay, looking at how misogyny and mental health stigma continue to affect creative choices.
United In Stomach Flu, London Weeps by Cally Spooner
A reading from a novel in progress on states of rehearsal, Galileo’s telescope, out-of-work speech writers, sweat, shame, false tears and outsourcing.
You Will Be Free (2017) Juliet Jacques
You Will Be Free by Juliet Jacques
You Will Be Free responds to Cookie Mueller & Vittorio Scarpati’s ‘Putti’s Pudding’ – a series of drawings and texts made together as the two lovers were dying from AIDS-related illnesses in 1989 – utilising a quote from Mueller’s writing as a point of departure for Jacques’ poetic reflections on the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis, as well as notions surrounding death, the body and afterlife.
I Statementsby Erica Scourti
A continuous self-centred monologue of statements generated from the artist’s diary written into a loose associative text.
OFF CAMERA DIALOGUE by Cally Spooner
Recalling a marketing practice whereby the voice and words of employees are coached, tweaked and scored to the point of musical crescendo to produce a smoother corporate image.
Ioanna Gerakidi is a writer based both in Athens and Amsterdam. She holds an MA in Critical Studies Department of Sandberg Instituut and she has collaborated with Athens Biennale, 3 137 Artist Run Project Space and Mister Motley Magazine, among others. In 2016, she co-initiated Uh Uh Uh Umm Reading Group and in 2017, she co-authored, edited and self-published the book ‘I EAT THE WORDS AND THEY TASTE OF HISTORY’. She currently works as an editor for Collecteurs Platform and as a tutor for Gerrit Rietveld Akademie. During 2018, she will also spent a few weeks as a resident at Rupert Foundation.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker. In addition to publishing two books, Rayner Heppenstall: A Critical Study (Dalkey Archive, 2007) and Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015), her fiction, essays and journalism have appeared in Granta, The Guardian, The London Review of Books, Sight & Sound, Frieze and many other publications. She lives in London.
Erica Scourti was born in Athens, Greece and is now based in London/ Athens. Her work has been shown internationally at the Wellcome Collection, Microscope Gallery, New York, Hayward Gallery, Munich Kunstverein, EMST Athens, Autoitalia and South London Gallery. She has recently published an essay in Fiction as Method (Sternberg, 2017).
Cally Spooner is a choreographer and writer. Her recent exhibitions include The New Museum, New York and The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (in 2016). Whitechapel Gallery, London (2017). Her live productions have been presented by (including) Tate Modern, Perfoma 13 and Tate Britain. Her novel, Collapsing In Parts, was published by Mousse in 2012, her books of SCRIPTS by Slimvolume in 2016. Her company OFFSHORE IN forms wherever it finds itself and is emerging throughout 2018 – 19.
Jesper List Thomsen
Jesper List Thomsen is an artist and writer. He is also a part of Am Nuden Da. Recent exhibitions and performances include A Social Body Event, Serpentine Gallery, London; Hollis and Money, Künstlerhaus, Stuttgart; Hand and Mind, Grand Union, Birmingham; The boys the girls and the political, Lisson Gallery, London; One Hour Exhibition, South London Gallery, London. His writings has recently been published in Material; Cadavere Quotidiano; Versuch, Notes and Projects.
When I started researching this series I was interested in what has became of institutional critique- a strand of artistic practice centred on critiquing institutions like museums, galleries and the art market, usually from within. Part of my interest stemmed from reconciling myself with being resident in an establishment like Somerset House, with its august past and all the expectations that seem to go with it (at least to outside observers), and the fact that generally I tend to show work, or do talks, mostly in institutions…
So one of the questions I had was how artists balance working within the structures, institutions and existing frameworks of their day while attempting to also critique them- and without being totally hypocritical in the process? Institutions both provide visibility, support, a space for experimentation and of course validity as an artist, which is crucial for those with diffuse practices, working across performance and writing; however their legitimizing role can also be one of sterilising and in the worst cases, coopting and instrumentalising.
With these thoughts on my mind, I’d read Living a Feminist Life, by Sara Ahmed, which describes in lucid detail the pressures of existing as a lesbian woman of colour within an institution- in her case, Goldsmiths, and her eventual departure from it- fittingly, given the current news, bc of their intransigence in the face of accusations of sexual harassment and assault within it.
What I liked about her book was it’s account of one person’s way of living, that is neither unrealistically unoptimistic nor hopeless, given the challenges she faced. As an ethical proposition of how to live, I got to thinking about texts from faith traditions that I’d read and which have helped me over the years but I’d been too shy to talk about public, bc of my ambivalence towards organised religion, and the politics of spirituality (which are usually, ‘no’ politics, a position that is dangerous in today’s climate). These were books like Dark night of the Soul by St John of the cross, The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila, the Tao Te Ching, The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva and many more.
I’m not sure Ahmed intended her book to read as a spiritual account or how-to manual- though there is a section on how to be a killjoy- but as an inspiring and affirming text, it seemed to me to share some of those qualities of personally-drawn insights which can nevertheless collectively guide others and therefore function pedagogically in some way.
Following more research into the lives of saints, I became interested in the pedagogical function of medieval hagiographies, and the ways that they both described a particular, though generic life, and were intended to instruct other lives- a bit like the texts I mentioned earlier, but also perhaps like self-help literature does now, which almost always draws from the writer’s personal biography (or “journey” in the industry lingo) in order to deliver some life lessons.
I was also interested in how female saints must’ve walked a tricky line between displaying- or performing- their mysticism in order to to be believed and accepted as holy women, and having to stay within the confines of accepted orthodoxy- prescribed, of course, by the major institution of its day: the church, and its gatekeepers, the male priests.
live public google hangout performance: repeating back every gesture and word, that others in the call spoke or wrote.
As most lives of the saints were written by men, to what extent did their ventriloquism of the women’s experience legitimise it and help grant the mystics religious authority? How did female mystics, perhaps through no fault of their own, become mouthpieces for the church? What happened in the cases when they crossed the line from divine possession into what was considered demonic possession?
Given my work’s focus on archives and outsourced autobiography, another aspect which interested me was the role of hagiography as life-writing, and how it relates to the branding and representation of the self. When I told Alicia and Sarah about my book project The Outage, where I commissioned a ghostwriter to write my fictional memoir gleaned only from my online presence and digital footprint, Alicia said, oh, you have your own hagiography!
So, how are memoir, ghostwriting and hagiography connected- and could autohagiography, as in the case of lay holy woman Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438)- whose ‘Book’ is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language- be seen as a precursor to the self-branding afforded by social media- along with the tendency to dismiss it as a vanity project, especially in the case of women?
the Twitter afterlives of Margery Kempe- img courtesy Alicia Spencer-Hall
The role of the female body in medieval mysticism was also of interest to me, because of the way it seemed to both create a route into religious authority for women while potentially trapping, or limiting them.
Somatic mysticism, which was primarily displayed through miracles involving the body as in the case of St Christina the astonishing who both endured physical pains of extreme heat, cold and lactated salvific oils from her breasts, was especially associated with female saints. The female body was believed to be more soft, porous and pliable, perhaps echoing the ways that many centuries later, women found a prominent role in spiritualism and mediumship, and then telephony and telegram operation, because their apparent lack of intellectual and physical density made them better ‘channelers’ and transmitters of the message.
Christina the Astonishing from 1630 Fasti Mariani calendar of saints.
In my own work I have explored the idea of channeling and automation, thru using software like predictive text, algorithmic readings of my daily diary, automated search tools, or generated bot texts (as with my Empathy Deck Twitter bot) as way of exploring personal experience channeled through sociotechnical interfaces. Questions of authenticity, agency and control recur in this work which asks how subjects can speak of lived experience with their ‘own voice’ as well as with and through what traverses them. (as Paul B Precaido says “I’m not interested in my emotions in so much as their being mine, belonging only, uniquely, to me. I’m not interested in their individual aspects, only in how they are traversed by what isn’t mine’.)
The Fox sisters, famous for their role in the Modern Spiritualism movement.
If medieval assumptions about the female body created both possibilities for agency and for further entrenchment of stereotypes about femininity, this tension resonates today and through generation of feminist artwork, with many female-identified artists grappling with questions of embodiment and the representation of the body in their work.
The series’ title Dream Actions is drawn from a passage by feminist writer Shulamith Firestone, quoted in Ahmed’s book, which also centers on a bodily gesture, or rather the refusal of one: her ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement was a smile boycott, “allowing women to instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles” and by implication wider gendered norms of bodily behaviour.
How can exploring the lives and embodied visions of medieval female mystics provide another window onto how female agency has been expressed, accounted for and represented?
Hopefully this intro has given an overview of my interest in some of themes coming to them as a newbie, but to discuss them in more depth with people who actually know what they’re talking about, I have invited two scholars:
Sara Salih, who is a Senior Lecturer in medieval English at Kings College London, with a long-standing interest in mystical writing and its reception and Alicia Spencer-Hall, author of Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, she specialises in trans-historical critical engagement with literature of the Middle Ages.
Around nine months after the Empathy Deck went live as part of the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition ‘Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond’, the live ‘twitter bot with feelings’ received a mini-makeover. To accompany its relaunch I wanted to give a little background on the project, so I set out to write what was meant to be a short essay about the subjects it touches on. Unfortunately, my first attempt came to a halt, partly due to an overwhelming sense of dread that I would fail to cover the concept of empathy from an adequate number of angles, or in sufficient depth.
What people mean when they invoke the word empathy can differ greatly; it appears frequently in journalism and cultural production, in genres as diverse as self-help, marketing, spirituality, neuroscience and politics, not to mention art and literature. It’s meaning has also shifted numerous times in the hundred or so years since it first came into English usage via eighteenth century German aesthetic theory, where the term Einfühlung, literally meaning ‘feeling-into’, described the viewer’s active participation in a work of art. In 1908 it entered the English language as the neologism ‘empathy’, coined from the Greek ‘em’ for ‘in’ and ‘pathos’ for ‘feeling’; by mid-century it was increasingly associated with interpersonal relationships, and has been a popular topic of psychological research ever since. While I don’t go into any depth on the history of the word, (Madgalena Nowak’s essay is a great primer in it) my text reflects the most widely-understood current meaning of empathy as a cousin of compassion: a broadly positive psychological mechanism that enables feeling for, and with, others.
For those not on Twitter, or who don’t follow it, the Empathy Deck (@empathydeck) is a bot, made in collaboration with programmer Tom Armitage, that responds to its followers’ tweets with a one-off ’empathy card’: a digital image combining my hand-made collages with text drawn from my diaries, plus self-knowledge and advice literature like astrology, personality tests, and dating types. A matching emoticon, key-worded descriptively or according to its healing properties and other attributes (amethyst for money problems, passion-flower for insomnia) completes the picture, creating a culturally-contingent backend of remedies and expressions. The text’s tone is somewhere between an overly-literal friend, always eager to share (or compete) with a ‘me too’ anecdote and a smattering of advice and a demented version of the motivational quotes that feature on tea bag tags, posters, skin (as tattoos) and social media, especially within female-dominated platforms like Pinterest.
The bot’s card format also brings to mind tarot decks and their new-agey cousins like oracle, goddess, healing and angel cards, often written by self-help authors like Doreen Virtue; my own ‘guidance’ cards, which I’ve been making over the years as meditation aids and as support for bad times, partly inspired the project. Drawing on these existing templates for self-advice in a broadly female-dominated marketplace, the Empathy Deck emerges from what Lauren Berlant calls an intimate public that would be recognised as part of women’s culture, which binds together disparate strangers through affective ties and a shared worldview. Magazines, chat shows, blogs and other forums all help to bolster this culture, creating a space for sharing experiences that are both particular and generic: heartbreak, family struggles, body issues and so on.
Instead of producing variations of ‘you go girl’ typical of liberal feminism and platforms like Pinterest, however, the Empathy Deck is more prone to communicating what Sianne Ngai has termed ‘ugly feelings’, signaling a refusal of the shiny, happy people of wellness culture who are normally conjured up by images of meditation, yoga, and self-help. Promoting a me-first, individualist self-care ethos, the pursuit of wellness often, problematically, puts the responsibility for feeling good (and bad) in personal, rather than in social structures. At the same time, anything that helps you live with and through bad feelings seems worthwhile, or simply necessary. The writings of Audre Lorde and Sarah Ahmed propose self-care as a radical act of self-preservation in a racist and patriarchal system that favours and promotes the flourishing of some bodies over others; as Ahmed says, “We have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires the death or removal of others.”
As symptomatised by In Goop Health, Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest foray into monetising self-care, wellness lifestyles usually assume and require privileged access but tend to obscure the fact that feeling good is so much easier if you already have the time, money and entitlement to follow through with the recommended rituals and products. As some of the examples below suggest, I wanted to embrace the feelings normally banished from the wellness dreamworld, in the lineage of writers like Ngai and Ahmed, while still making something that might have a therapeutic side effect and help shake a shitty mood when it pops up in your Twitter feed.
“Sooner or later everything ends, Why the fuck would he want to be friends”
“With Uranus well angled, you may be amazed at the positive answer you get, But this limbo is testing my patience, I can feel it”
“My first email, my 1st tweet I felt my heart pounding
An actual pain there, as I realised I cannot compete”
Despite my ambivalence towards self-help, the Empathy Deck‘s source text is derived from a practice very much associated with it: keeping a diary, in the tradition of Julia Cameron’s morning pages. For the makeover, I added in another 40,000 words of diary text- a particularly painful process given how awful the last few months have been. In between trying to not hurt the people it may seem to refer to or hurt myself through exposing unmanageably embarrassing or painful bits, while leaving enough in for it be a gesture of vulnerability worth making, redacting the diary text was one of the project’s most challenging aspects for me.
Unlike most bots, the Empathy Deck doesn’t reconstitute the source text but quotes directly from it. Its steady stream of verbatim diary text could therefore be seen as a collaborative autobiography or outsourced experiment; now that the cards are in their thousands, anyone who cared to could read them through as a randomly-ordered version of my internal monologues, 140 characters at a time. My experience with The Outage proved that outsourcing one’s autobiography to an actual human is a lot more complicated and emotionally risky (there isn’t much chance I’d fall in love with a bot, however wonderful its code). Unlike a human, however, it can’t be depended on to tactfully leave out the bits that make me sound stupid, or to intelligently weave together a narrative through an understanding of chronological time. Pulling from a span of six years of writing, the bot’s temporal randomness has actually served to shield me from shame, since it’s impossible to know which period of my life it’s taken from.
While the bot generates the text, it is triggered by and therefore dependent on its followers, whose tweets prompt the scanning of the diary and the extraction of text: if nobody followed it, it wouldn’t say much. And if people tweeted about things I never write about, like football or childcare, it wouldn’t talk back much. However, if they talked about hating childcare or loving football, it probably would respond: as a ‘bot with feelings’, it’s triggered especially by emotive, affective content, which I weighted by ‘favouriting’ particular words. The outcome could be seen then as a sort of codependent, collaborative writing experiment which implicates the bot’s followers (many of whom overlap with my own) but is guided by what I’ve deemed to be worth responding to.
Despite the bot’s friendly demeanour, the continuous, silent scanning of tweets could also be harnessed for repressive surveillance ends, especially when the trigger words are hidden from the users. Even well-intended deployments of tweet-monitoring have been badly received by social media users, most notably Radar, a free online app launched in 2014 by the suicide prevention charity Samaritans. Alerting Twitter users if it spotted keywords that suggested that someone they knew ‘may be struggling to cope’, Radar was rapidly taken down after complaints about data protection and privacy issues. Despite some similarities between the two applications, as I explain in more detail later, the Empathy Deck screens out words associated with serious mental health struggles, in acknowledgement that unlike Radar it was never intended specifically as a therapeutic tool. It’s acceptance by Twitter users also reflects people’s tendency to trust artists’ benign intentions or to put faith in art works as broadly contributing to cultural good.
Throughout the Empathy Deck‘s lifetime, I’ve been tagged and mentioned numerous times in its followers’ tweeted responses, as if the bot is a sort of version,stand-in or proxy for me. As with many of my previous projects, likeThe Outage andDark Archives, the Empathy Deck explores the distance between artist and artwork, performance and performer, which is a question for all artists in era of publicly-performed profiles, but perhaps especially for those like me who often appear ‘as themselves’ in their work.Sharing many of the same followers, and speaking in similar ways, is the Empathy Deck account just a lightly fictionalised version of ‘Erica Scourti’?Perhaps a better question is why the @erica_scourti account – and by extension anyone’s Twitter account – would be considered ‘real’, not fictional, staged or artificial. For Bertolt Brecht, the theatre audience’s tendency to uncritically believe in and identify with the illusory characters on stage was facilitated by the intoxicating effects of empathy. Instead, he sought to prevent empathy, allowing for the adoption of a critical attitude toward the play- and by extension, wider sociopolitical concerns- through a series of ‘distancing’ techniques like direct address, using placards and songs. These strategies foregrounded the artifice of the theatrical medium and crucially, the distance between actors and characters, so that spectators would be less likely to feel kinship with them as ‘real’ people.
Translated into the ‘social medium’, spectators suspend disbelief about the artificiality of speaking to a potentially limitless public as if addressing a friend with nobody watching;like the characters in a theatre production, the Twitter self is often taken to be ‘real’ despite its being obviously presented on a social stage for others to watch. As a version of me, Empathy Deck signals the extent to which all Twitter avatars are a performance, despite the audience’s habit of uncritically accepting them as unmediated expressions of selfhood. Perhaps my lack of control over it means the Empathy Deck is actually more ‘truthful’ than my own social media performance; it’s certainly more liable to make me cringe, especially when sharinganecdotes of drunken puking orpetty professional envy to someone I’m trying to impress. Becoming aware of social media as a medium also helps recall its corporate nature. As is well known, but easily overlooked, Twitter and Facebook are profit-making enterprises that assume users will accept the exchange of a free service for the monetisation of their participation and information.
In an era of endless digital duplication,Hito Steyerl has highlighted the economy of presencewhich increases the value of artists’ physical presence at face-to-face gatherings like the talks, Q&As and workshops that make up both the events programmes of most art institutions and the revenue streams of many artists (including me). Steyerl suggests that the proxy holds out the potential for withdrawal, or strike, or subterfuge; a proxy self could allow provide decoy cover for a withdrawal from regimes of visibility, self-representation and promotion, allowing the artist or citizen to be both nominally present and physically absent. If I was to become permanently absent through death, as a proxy of me the bot could carry on tweeting out bits of my interior monologue forever, in a twilight of digital immortality. TV dramas like Black Mirror have explored this potential for a proxy self simulated from digital archives and it’s easy to see how this could translate into a future service targeting the bereaved; as Oreet Ashery has spoken of in relation to her own work, death, and the eternal digital afterlife, are the new horizon of capitalist expansion.
Standing-in for meas analways-on, automated proxy on Twitter, the Empathy Deck almost spares me the ‘work’ of being present on social media: responding to friends, professional acquaintances and total strangers, as well as coming out with unprompted tweets. For many people, especially those whose profession involves being a ‘cultural commentator’ of some kind, as it does for many artists, writers and curators, maintaining a social media presence can feel like real labour. Now that essay-length comments are acceptable Facebook etiquette, those who engage in lengthy, exhausting and demoralising Facebook arguments- very often people of colour- inadvertently provide a personally taxing, and unremunerated, public service by educating friends and other lurkers. Even those who avoid comment battles often feel self-conscious and cautious about their voice, or lack of it, leading to cycles of quitting and reactivation. Combined with the FOMO and self-comparison apparently endemic to social media, this constant low-level performance anxiety that suggests that the ‘work’ of being a coherent communicative character online is now a stressful, boring and time-consuming undertaking, rather the fun social activity it is sold as.
Identifying the maintenance of online presence and communication as a new area of labour, apps and software are attempting to automate aspects necessary to it, such as personality, tone and ‘voice’. Email assistant Crystal claims to speed up the process of writing nuanced emails by personality-testing both you and your recipient before suggesting what tone to use. Attempting to automate the work of authentic communication, it quantifies human interactions and tries to find a formula to replace them with. The new suggested responses when you reply to gmail emails on your phone, and predictive text apps that I’ve worked with like Swiftkey, which log into users’ Gmail, Evernote, Twitter and Facebook accounts in order to learn from them, fulfill a similar desire to automate effective communication.
Empathy is also increasingly sought after by corporations trying to make interactions more ‘human’ at scale. Reflecting a growing awareness that empathy is a key tool for improving profits, an empathy ranking tool, encourages business to view it as a quantifiable skill, particularly in their customer-facing communications and PR. In practice this often means ‘cutey-fying’ the interface through adorable avatars, sprinkling emojis across copy and adopting a chummy or emotive tone for even the most tedious correspondence. Mail Chimp for example promises ’empathetic automation‘ through delivering ‘messages that feel handcrafted and authentic to the recipient’ (along with plenty of emojis). If as Eva Illouz argues,affect is made an essential aspect of economic behaviour within ‘emotional capitalism’, it makes sense for corporations to mobilise the production of ‘authentic’ emotion at scale. However, scaling up ‘true humanity’ for business presents monumental challenges, as the CEO of TeleTech points out, presumably since humanity itself- and qualities aligned with it, like affect, empathy and emotion- cannot yet be replicated for scaling.
As a kind of automated mail art project, the Empathy Deck also asks whether one-to-one, ‘human’ size formats can be meaningfully scaled up. In previous mail art and gift-giving projects I sent postcards, gave away drawings on Freecycle and emailed friends and strangers short Instagram videos in exchange for their adding metadata; the backgrounds used in the deck also resemble the handmade cards I give to friends and family, which are like artworks in their own right. By automating both the card-making process and their sending out to thousands of recipients, the bot attempts to replicate micro-gestures of personal gift-giving at scale, so that instead of one friend receiving a unique card, 2000 Twitter users (including a few other bots) now do. But what is lost when gestures of friendship, giving and interaction are scaled up? Is it the one-to-one, singular quality of the exchange which is valued, because of its assumed ‘authenticity’ and even ‘humanity’? As Erika Balsom says, the authentic is aligned with the human and positioned against the machine,and is valued accordingly. Reflecting a ‘persistent phobia in the machinic copy in Western bourgeois culture deeply rooted in principles of private property and individual authenticity’ [Balsom, After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation], whatever can be created to formula and rolled out en masse, whether package tourism, coffee shop design or customer service scripts, is denigrated as inauthentic, robotic or ‘fake’. Generated by a bot and capable of endless iterations for a limitless audience and time-span, the EmpathyDeck embraces the fakeness of the machinic copy. However, its use of personal diary content comes dangerously close to providing a template for businesses to ‘humanise’ their automated interactions.
Despite being a bot, i.e. a machine, people’s interactions with the Empathy Deck, especially retweets and replies, also suggest that it’s somewhat capable of creating moments of relatability or connection. Maybe it’s the unstaged quality of automation which is charming; unlike humans, you couldn’t really accuse a bot of trying to seduce, flatter or manipulate you. Some of the humour also derives from the bot’s occasionally bizarre confabulations of text, or the complete misreading of the original tweeter’s meaning, which creates a bit of distance from the tweet that is itself potentially therapeutic. Perhaps there’s also comfort to be had in the knowledge that bots just don’t get it, and therefore aren’t going to be replacing (all) human jobs quite so quickly. However, jobs previously seen as innately human – like therapy, care and journalism – and the skills or attributes they require – like attention, empathy and creativity – are increasingly being automated. As Helen Hester has argued, digital assistants of all sorts are being drafted in to do the work of secretaries, mums and wives, i.e. the affective and emotional labour of reminding, maintaining relationships and patient listening, traditionally gendered female. Drawing on Nina Power’s work, she points out that trying to automate this work renders these skills both so valuable they need loads of money to be spent on replicating and scaling them, and so worthless that ‘even an app’ (or bot) could do it.
Although therapy may seem like the ultimate human job, like other forms of care work, it is not beyond the reach of automation. The original chatbot Eliza, which responded very sparely to people’s typed musings and questions, was herself a sort of therapeutic AI, or at least was perceived that way by the people who interacted with her. At a time of increasing cuts to mental health services, automated therapy has been proposed as a way to alleviate financial strain on health services, replacing costly human advisers with bots likeLittleShift,Wobeot, designed bya clinical psychologist at Stanford and Tess, launched by therapeutic AI company X2AI. Described in her bio as a ‘psychological artificial intelligence’ promising ‘mental healthcare for everyone’, Tess is accessible for conversation via a smartphone app. The that fact that Tess, renamed Karim for the purpose, was beta-tested in refugee camps in Beirut suggests, however, that automated therapistswill be administered to service users without the means to pay for more costly, longer-term therapy; as LittleShift’s press says, ‘Therapy is expensive. Give yourself the tools to feel less anxious.’If trials prove successful, its not hard to imagine bot therapy eventually replacing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy,the treatment most widely prescribed on the NHS, that was adopted as standard in 2007 by the UK government,because of its apparent speed and success in getting people back to work. Both LittleShift and Woebot are based on automated CBT, seemingly turning one of the main critiques of this form of therapy, that itoffers‘a manualised, one-size-fits-all method that is imposed “top-down” on the client’, (i.e. that it’s mechanical) into a selling point.
The automation of palliative care, and care of the elderly, brings up similar ethical questions, and at least in the West, there is little appetite for actual robots replacing human carers. In Japan, however, lifelike humanoid robots (like my namesake Erica) are already being used in the care of the elderly, as well as in other roles. In his book The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics, Louis Chude-Sokei argues that the greater unease around anthropomorphic robots in the West is directly related to the history of slavery and the treatment of Black people, which has bred un underlying fear of an exploited, enslaved race rising up to take revenge against its oppressors. Drawing on author Karel Capek’s sci-fi play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) which popularised the word ‘robot’- from robota meaning ‘serf labor’, and figuratively ‘drudgery’ in his native Czech – he also points out the parallels between the ethical questions AI and robots raise now, and the questions once asked of slaves. Do they have souls? Do they feel pain? Can we fall in love with them? And perhaps most importantly will they revolt against their creators? While attitudes towards AI canilluminate wider ethical issues, the continued mistreatment of actual humans by other humans continues to be a more urgent consideration, particularly when decisions of life and death are increasingly outsourced to machines, from military drones to computerised housing benefit assessments.
Attempting to build a rudimentary ethics and consideration into the bot, the Empathy Deck‘s coding follows rules that allow it to operate autonomously in the public, non-art environment of Twitter. For the relaunch, I worked with Tom to tweak the bot’s original behaviour to make it more responsive to particular users, for example by ensuring that new followers get more responses to begin with, as a heads up that it isn’t broken or ignoring them. A degree of throttling has also been introduced, so that long-term followers and prolific tweeters will experience a tailing off over time, to prevent over-familiarity fatigue; while the bot pays attention it also demands tweeter’s empathetic attention, particularly if, as I suggested earlier, the bot is seen as a stand-in for me. Despite being the least immediately visible aspect of the project, the linguistic constraints coded into the Empathy Deck as its ’empathetic framework’ are to me one of its most important. This comprises a ‘kill list’ of names of friends, frenemeies, plus current and past employers that help avoid awkward revelations, for example, if a boss’s name popped up on one of the cards in the context of a damning anecdote, or a friend’s name exposed a secret disclosed to me in confidence.
More importantly, the kill list also contains a huge collection of offensive words that I never want the bot to come out with. This is more of a precaution, since I can be absolutely sure that I haven’t used any of it in my own diaries, and as the other texts the bot uses are self-helpy, they’re unlikely to be a source of racist, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, ableist or otherwise offensive language. But you never know, and rather than risk a freak conjuncture of words, the kill list acts as a precaution against the bot ‘accidentally’ saying something that I would not be OK with saying myself. Despite the fact that huge corp Microsoft didn’t think this through before letting loose their own AI Twitterbot Tay, which swiftly learnt off its followers to tweet offensive racial slurs ‘with abandon and nonchalance’, to me this is an obvious move. As other bot coders like the guy behind Appropriate Tributes bot (@godtributes) have already compiled these (horrific) lists and made them freely available, there really isn’t a justifiable reason to not utilise them.
Buttressing the kill list of words the Empathy Deck will never say, and duplicating much of its content, is another collection of stop words that it will never respond to. This covers very sensitive words like suicide, plus particular place names, and a comprehensive list of hate speech. Not responding to hate speech seems obvious to me, but as one audience member suggested, a racist epithet may have been used ‘as an example of what not to say’ or in order to express disapproval of, rather than agreement with racist attitudes. By blanking apparently well-intended tweets like this one, the argument goes, the bot is coded to assume the worst of people. To my mind though, using racist language as an ‘example’, normalises it and the political attitudes behind it, framing it as ‘just another word’ or ‘just another opinion’, under the guise of ‘free speech’. So I would prefer the bot to assume the worst.
Given the rampant misogyny and racism on Twitter, I would also assume people aren’t using this language in order to disavow it but more likely to harass and intimidate the people who those words target. Responding would not only literally duplicate the word’s circulation and visibility on Twitter but also would implicitly cast the tweet as one worth engaging with. And while I do believe there is real value in challenging people’s attitudes where possible (if they are definitely not trolls) a bot couldn’t be trusted to do this, or to understand the nuances of context; somebody could be discussing the alt-right without being alt-right, but a bot wouldn’t know the difference. This is why responding to retweets, and to linked images or articles is blocked: even if it was feasible to read the linked content, it couldn’t correctly grasp its political leanings, let alone come out with an adequate response.
The alternative could be to fall prey to the ‘liberal trap’ that Suhail Malik articulated while introducing the ShutdownLD50 discussion at Goldsmiths earlier this year: namely the far right’s formula for duping progressives into supporting them by crying ‘free speech’. As he suggested, this works by their making outrageous statements, for example about immigrants, then appealing to liberals’ assumed commitment to ‘free speech’ as a fundamental value of liberal democracy when pulled up on it. Casting those who correctly call it out as hate speech as the ‘real fascists’, intent on shutting down free speech and by extension democracy (this usually where book-burning analogies come in), the far-right leaves liberals in a quandary, or trap, of being unable to articulate a position of both supporting free speech and having a line to draw. By ‘coding a line’ at hate speech, the Empathy Deck at least tries to build in the position that refusing to debate with or hearing the ‘side’ of racists and fascists is perfectly consistent with a commitment to free speech, and to empathetic relations. Of course, refraining from the use racial slurs is the setting the bar extremely low in terms of challenging and ending structural racism, and can only be considered an absolute starting point- which all the more reason to ensure that this glaringly obvious step is implemented when coding linguistic, text-based bots.
The stop words list also has a function called Tragedy Mode (which is always on) that prevents the bot responding to subjects considered too sensitive. As mentioned before, these include words like RIP, bomb, suicide, disaster and specific names and places, which get updated to reflect unfolding events. While this measure attempts to convey respect for genuine suffering, the list of place names also reaffirms the West-centrism of social media, and of news reporting in general; thousands of deaths and tragedies occur worldwide outside of Europe and America without being widely reported or shared (Facebook’s ‘mark yourself safe’ button has been criticised for the same reason). And despite the many inbuilt precautions, the bot also has an emergency stop function, which has been deployed a few times in response to tragic events; however ‘personalised’, automated responses are clearly not appropriate for all situations. Of course, as a bot primed to respond to feelings, it’s arguable that these are exactly the sorts of situations it should be on hand for. But despite the bot’s ability (and partial aim) to contribute to its followers wellbeing, as the legalese attached to the project says, this is not meant to be a therapeutic tool, in the sense of an evidence-based approach to supporting a grieving, depressed or anxious person. And while it may seem that I keep pointing to the bot’s limitations, and what it can’t do or can’t be trusted with, to me this is the real work: the totally human decisions which shape any automated agent or AI, and the real humans who will be affected by it as a result.
With all these constraints and precautions built in, the bot starts to look a bit like an institution, or even a corporation; like any other entity that operates within a public space that is not exclusively art-related, the Empathy Deck upholds certain ethical and legal standards. Many artists disavow this kind of constraint, using the ‘mirror argument’ that claims art is meant to reflect society, not judge it; this can, however, mean passively reflecting and reinforcing existing attitudes, stereotypes and power relations rather than challenging them. Others champion an Artaud-inspired cruelty, believing that artists should shock the public by transgressing standards of decency. Depending on the artist’s intentions,I have some sympathy for these approaches, which can actively challenge the hegemony of oppressive institutions and assumptions, as in the work of Jean Genet for example. However,an artist’s desire to transgress accepted norms can also shade into replicating hostility towards already vulnerable subjects, especially if it’s the ‘liberal’ art world who they aim to shock. While some gallery goers may be genuinely shocked by white supremacist attitudes being ‘ironically’ reproduced in a gallery context, white supremacists themselves would probably just be happy.
As artists increasingly start experimenting with automation in generative artworks, I think it will become more important to ask questions around accountability and responsibility. These are not new questions, since Mallarmé’s dice-throwing, John Cage’s use of the I-ching and even Sigmar Polke’s‘poured pictures’, such as Séance(1981) all hand over a degree of authorial agency to an external process or automated method. And just as these artists or writers claim authorship over the outcomes, I believe that artists have a responsibility for what results from the scores, protocols and chance-based methods they make use of- whether that be deciding to quote verbatim from an existing cultural source, or coding a bot or live video.
Questions of responsibility are further exacerbated by the flow of words and images outside the art-world and into wider publics via the internet. Who’s responsible for what circulates if it’s an automated agent or generative method that creates the work? It appears to me that despite more artists experimenting with bothrobotics and generated art-forms (Jordan Wolfson, Ian Cheng, Jonas Lund to name but a few- quite often male, as it happens) the ethical, social, political, and gender considerations of employing automated agents requires more scrutiny (for example as offered by these responses to Wolfson’s work). With this text, I hoped I’ve sketched out some of the reasons I think these are important topics for present and future discussion while outlining some of my own research that working on theEmpathy Deck has lead to.
This was written as an introduction to daylong event in October 2016 called Sweet Talk: The Achatic Rites, that Candice Jacobs and I worked on together.The recording is here.
By way of introduction I wanted to draw some links between the day’s themes, which include technology and ritual as modes of exploring identity, and the connection between personal and collective experience.
Rituals, when conducted by individuals and collectives, could be seen as ways as affecting and transforming both the identity of the participants and the outcome of cosmic events; like magic, and spells, they are gestures and incantations with agency, that have the power to influence and manipulate the world around them. Whether the focus be inscrutable, unfriendly gods, unpredictable elements of nature, or ones’ romantic affairs, rituals are performative by nature in that they attempt to control and ultimately changethe world around them.
All kind of apps, software, and new techs similarly promise to change the world, or at least one tiny part of it, and it’s no coincidence that words alluding to magic and sorcery turn up all the time in tech, from set up ‘wizards’ to ‘magic wands’. (Florian Cramer’s Word Made Flesh talks about tech/ magic in much more depth- really good read). Meanwhile Silicon Valley solutionism casts the fresh-faced men of tech as healers (saviours?!) of the world’s social and ecological issues with the magical mantra ‘there’s an app for that!’
Through the work of the invited artists, whose research touches on sigil-making, astrology, free parties, and the complexity of living with ambivalence in a fucked up system, this event also explores different forms of agency- political, personal, magical- asking to what extent individual rituals and gestures can have any collective agency beyond personal transformation.
As well as ritual, divinatory practices like the throwing of lots or bones, or reading sand, or tracing the stars and movement of birds was another vital way that ancient cultures made sense of their world and exerted some control over their future. All divination depended on deciphering patterns within chaos, gleaning meaningful information through accurately picking out the signal within the noise and translating into legible narratives.
The Fortune Teller, Kamal-ol-Molk (کمالالمُلک)
In a networked world, statistical readings of bodies of data similarly rely on the accurate reading of sense out of chaos, signal out of noise, with the aim of accurately predicting future behaviours and desires- all of which are vital to online economies, which depend on conjuring up profiles, ghostly doubles in a digital plane. The oracles and seers of today are (as Emily Rosamund put it) algorithmic witnesses, that know what book you want to buy and which person you should date…
Whether it’s bones or data being read, the correlations and correspondences that are deduced always end up reflecting the society they originate in, and betray a confirmation bias- i.e. apophenia or pareidolia: seeing what you already believe to be there, whether it’s faces in clouds, a winning streak at the casino, or that all criminals fit a certain racial and social profile. Reading data, no matter what tools are used, is never neutral and always depends on belief, whether conscious or not. Confirmation bias is also what’s used to rubbish astrology- as in, you intuitively read into it what you need/ want to and discard the rest- despite the fact that objectively ‘proving’ its predictions has never has been behind the popularity of horoscopes and astrology.
Maybe belief could be seen as form of agency- an invisible force that acts to make the world readable, manageable, hospitable rather than a cruel, indifferent or meaningless. The intangibility of belief is also what many artists and thinkers have concerned themselves with- revealing unseen biases, unearthing hidden structures, making visible what ew take for granted politically and socially under the assumption of it being ‘natural’ or innate. This is what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the ‘paranoid’ reading so crucial to traditions of critical thought, though she proposes an alternative approach of ‘reparative’ reading, which assumes an affinity with the subject being examined- a sort of friendliness and closeness, instead of the assumed distance and aloofness of criticality.
from Wealthy White Wellness Woman
Anyway, that’s a bit of a digression, because more tangibly we will be looking at the ways that particular dreams, hopes, ideals and inner experiences relating to them are also now commodified and commercialised, since it’s obvious that spirituality- from astrology to meditation- has also been coopted and repackaged as the pursuit of wellness as a lifestyle.
This is especially true in a stressed out, precarious workforce battling with limited time and resources- though as the name and contents of the parody page Wealthy White Wellness Woman suggests, the ideal consumer of this lifestyle is imagined as belonging a very specific, and exclusive bracket of society.
Meanwhile- beyond parody- tech moguls have their own ‘transformational festivals’, like Further Future, known as ‘Burning Man for the 1%’: an extravaganza of ideas and wellness which proclaims:
‘We are not looking anywhere but forwards. We are not going to tell you who to be.
You… are the hero.’
It’s individualist ethos echoes the ways feminist collectivity has been rebranded through festivals like Spirit Weavers’ Gathering, an all-female retreat whose slogan is ‘an embrace of the feminine and ancestral ways’ and offers a dazzling range of classes promising personal transformation. Workshops in everything from alchemy and spagryics, ‘sacred cyclical sex magic’, ‘rainbow women’, herbalism ‘for your inner witch’ are offered- many of which wouldn’t sound out of place at an arts event, where workshops/ readings on everything from chakras to cleansing to meditation are increasingly common. Spirit Weavers even offers workshops in ‘sacred activism’ and ‘ally-ship and reconciliation’- an attempt, perhaps to address the festival’s problematic appropriation of Native American traditions.
screen-grab of Spirit Weavers website
Many female artists also have drawn on magic and ritual practices in recent years, particularly the subversive history of the witch. Incorporating spells, rituals and gestures to challenge a patriarchal, racist order, artists may draw on these traditions out of a desire to imbue their actions with an agency that goes beyond the confines of the art-world and exerts some political agency. Maybe the current interest in witchcraft comes from a desire for female artists to explore a specifically feminine form of agency and even empowerment that goes beyond self-representation and the selfie politic.
Self-help books, positive affirmations, Pinterest motivational quotes, oracle and goddess cards could all be seen as commodified versions of spells and incantation, tailored for the individual and most often for the female consumer, who as Jacqueline Rose argues, operates under a constant anxiety of self-improvement. In my work I explore this anxiety around hankering after a better self by drawing on all sorts of therapeutic practices, from journaling to self-reflection to unsent letters, to personality tests; meanwhile I also regularly meditate, and often feel this is the only thing that keeps me sane and (mostly) mentally stable.
While acknowledging the benefits of these practices, I’ve wondered taking them up means swallowing the idea that in the face of dwindling of state support for mental health services, we must all be personally- not collectively- responsible for our happiness and wellbeing. Put another way, am I signing up to the model of ‘leaning in’ feminism advocated by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, which shifts the onus on individual women to overcome the obstacles of structural sexism and racism through rigorous self-care routines, including things like meditation and yoga?
This question brings forth the tension between self-care as an individualist, self-focused pursuit- just something to make mefeel better and to hell with structural inequalities that might be causing the anxiety/ depression in the first place- and the more radical promise that writers like Audre Lorde saw in it. Writing as a black lesbian feminist, at a time when she had received a diagnosis of liver cancer, she writes:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
In her widely-read text Self-Care as Warfare Sara Ahmed starts with this famous quote to argue that within a racist and sexist system, certain beings have no choice but to take care of themselves, because they are not deemed important enough to be looked after in the first place- while pointing out that is exactly these bodies who have less access to the very resources that making taking care of oneself feasible. It’s easy to make the spin class when you’ve got a childminder on hand…
She also argues against the repackaging of feminism as upward mobility for the few, for those who accept responsibilities for their “own well-being and self-care,” and instead advocates for creation of community, especially amongst women engaged in queer, feminist and anti-racist work.
The creation of communities of like-minded people dedicated to personal transformation as the route to social transformation was also a feature of the 60s counterculture, who, in opposition to the Vietnam war and the devastating effects of weaponised technology, believed that the key to social transformation lay not in changing or challenging political regimes, but in changing the consciousness of individuals.
Loadsa dudes at The Farm commune, 1960s
As Fred Turner explains in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, their ethos proposed that by living communally in exemplary micro-utopias like the Farm, a commune in the US, or by participating in festivals like the Burning Man, or through subscribing to the Whole Earth catalogue, they could provide an alternative that mainstream politics could learn from in order to transform the world. Many of these initiatives overlap with and evolved into the libertarianism of current Silicon Valley attitudes, both explicitly through festivals like Future Forward and in their sceptical attitude towards organised party politics as engines of real social change.
While in the UK the free party scene was never taken up by the tech moguls, it did develop into commercially successful festivals like Latitude, Bestival, Creamfields and many more (not to mention Glastonbury, but its history is a whole other story…).
In 1992, the heavy-handed policing and ensuing media outrage around the Castlemorton Common Festival- the largest free party in the UK, which DiY Collective (who are playing tonight) helped organise- lead to the passing of the Criminal Justice Bill . This wide-ranging act effectively made illegal outdoor parties that played music, which was notoriously defined to include “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
stills from videos of Castlemorton, 1992
The government’s desire to crack down on free parties suggests the potentially subversive nature of collective gatherings, particularly when unregulated, and uncommercial. As Silvia Federici points out in Caliban and the Witch , there is a long history of oppression of gatherings in the pursuit of social discipline; she describes these systematic crackdowns in 17th century England as an attack against all forms of collective sociality and sexuality including games, dances, ale-wakes, festivals, and other group-rituals that had been a source of bonding and solidarity among workers. Like Castlemorton, these incidents also lead to the passing of new bills to contain and prevent future gatherings taking place.
Steart Beach/ Hinkley Point 2002 (bottom pic courtesy of Becca)
In 2002 I joined the convoys heading to the Steart Beach rave, which turned out to be one of the last big teknivals in the UK (or is that just me being nostalgic/ out of touch…?!). Held over a 3 days near the site of the Hinkley Point nuclear reactor, the dystopian vibe- wasted ravers knee deep in the muddy estuary by a burning car, k-heads stumbling into ditches, trucks piled up by the river bank- was complemented by a joyous, anarchic sense of freedom, a collective ritual of release outside of the usual confines of time and space. If it felt like an outside, I think today any sort of outside has become hard, if not impossible to place, when new age and rave culture are themselves sold as brands and desirable, quotable lifestyles, and festivals are big money-makers or networking opportunities.
And as artists, how can be both necessarily within the capitalist system any one of us living in the West is, and still seek to challenge or critique it- all the while knowing that ‘critique’, ‘subversion’ and ‘transgression’ are themselves now desirable, even vital brand values for a ‘serious’ artist?
Are the rituals and collective gathering we partake in possibilities for hope and change at a social, collective scale, or just a way to feel better about my small piece of the world, or even one small part of my mind or body?
Some documentation of Personal Proxies, presented at Somerset House as part of Block Universe 2016, including the text written and read by Skye Arundhati Thomas, the video made by Afra Zamara and a Snapchat of Maria Sotiropoulou singing; all three were responses to my call out (see below) for assistants to take part in the performance.
Erica Scourti is looking for assistants to take part in Personal Proxies, a performance which explores ideas of full automation and labour via ancient Greek afterlife myths.
Proposing her replacement by proxies both human and technological, the performance closes with a staged audition, where the assistants- potential contenders for the job- present their own text relating to the themes, written and performed ‘in the style of’ Erica Scourti, however they choose to interpret this. Meant as a humorous take on anxieties of legacy and the artist’s assistant as an efficiency-enhancer in an age of ‘digital assistants’, applicants would ideally see themselves as potential candidates for the job of Erica’s assistant.
Intro text: [screenshots of text written live by Erica]
Am I alive? I awake as if from a dream. I look around me and there is new light.
It is a river that ripples softly under the shade of a tree, stretching out against the sun… a transparent sheet.
I see the city as a runny watercolour, leaking itself out…
dripping into oily rainbows spat out at the centre of the street.
THE PAUSE/THE SCROLL – THE TIME SPENT EYEBALLING
you call them – ges-tures of the digital
how about I, try and be honest, it is exactly as Foucault predicted, identity not only as the future of politics – but its currency –
eye/ball me digi/tise me – drop me down into the structure of commodity.
No room for error, the details are already folded in, the packaging, it shines, airtight.
A slippery surface, there is no room for something to slip in-side, and for that thing, the one that slips in-side, so quietly…. to be something that is true.
DIRT AS ENCRYPTION
Dirt, inside of which, exists the rhizome – the becoming, the becoming animal.
Words… are draped gently over the surface of things. Soft brushes up against the hard.
And the river, flowing all the way to our feet from the icy cold tip of the earth, brings with it a wind that pierces all the way to the bone, to the pulp inside of the bone.
Your identity wants to be unfolded: rolled out like dough, bending under the hands which hold it,
and I admire, how easily Erica, you share… yourself. Time is loose change in your pocket,
form looses definition.
MATERIAL THAT CAN’T BE READ EXCEPT AS TRACE
She took me into a dark room and gently unhooked her blouse, her sari, once a tall
serpent, lay unabashed across the floor. A scar tore down her back, it’s from… she
whispered softly, her face glowing…. another life.
Somewhere, at the end of a lo-ong curving nerve, a synapse misfired.
Beauty… is Causality.
WHEN EVERYTHING IS CLEAN WE CAN START AGAIN
The rain is running down the window in glimmering trails each drop sliding into the other,
and their collective wetness becomes me because there is something wet about me too, it is a metaphor, i think… for my sadness.
Because like I said I want to be honest and what I want to be honest about is that I miss her.
The first time I saw her was through a window like this, struck hard by the bullets of rainwater, and there she was out on the street, herself an oily rainbow, laughing… a laugh that leaped up and out straight into my ear, into the part of my ear, to be precise, that feels. A sound I did not have to hear in order for it to glisten and to be wet and to take shape.
Is there room in language for the tentative? For a photograph to be loud? For the thing that is loud to be self-doubt? Is being tentative, the same as being indulgent? To indulge in the gaps that language allows, that it maintains – the maybe, the sorry, the probably –
Is it like, you once said quoting Zizek – a tolerant hedonism?
AN ECSTACY OF SELF-CATASTROPHE you wrote – and I think it’s okay that I didn’t understand what you meant – I like how the words spill out from my tongue, and then, maybe reach, the part of your ear that really feels.
And now I think I will change my tone, I am bored of it, don’t you see – how easy it is, to be bored of yourself and just like that –
WHEN EVERYTHING IS CLEAN WE CAN START AGAIN
I woke up this morning at half-past two, I had a dream that the earth cracked underneath me, and I jumped straight in. I wrote this down. ‘Head hurts, backs of legs hurt, the soft part inside of me hurts too. everything around me feels quite blurry, tearing at the seam. I tried to write about you but it came out dirty… cruel.’ I tried to start a letter ‘Dear Erica, The words burn in my mouth, fade fast … and young. Indeed for this purpose you are a fiction, and inside of you I can collapse all of the fictions I’d like you to be. I am pacing along a jagged coast, it’s edges, unlike yours, are sharp. I am afraid of falling in, instead I think I will climb in-to-you.’ I downloaded snap chat. You asked me to post a picture, and I didn’t know how else to change my shape. I pressed down on my face and a flower crown appeared, stayed on my head even though I moved, the filter bleached my face white and I asked, what trace of my history is being erased thus? What have I been carrying around, in the pigment of my skin?
Then she said to me, we were on a bridge and we were really very stoned, the river beneath us gurgling and coughing falling into the hollows cups of the riverbed.. and we marvelled at how this dissolved time – the past and the present and the future all one thick flow, rush against rock – and she said to me, I don’t think I can call myself a feminist. I rolled four more joints and watched Lemonade again in my room.
Could you briefly explain what the Dark Archives project is and how you set it up?
The Dark Archives project consists of two main phases, each producing a series of images, videos and texts. The first part involved research into and experimentation with auto-editing and archiving apps like Magisto, resulting in a series of short videos, shared as they were made over summer 2015. Inspired in part by me wondering what footage or pics these algorithmic edits chose to leave out and why, the second phase addressed the idea of ‘missing media’. Here, I uploaded my full media archive, going back 15 years, to Google photos and then commissioned five writers – Jess Bunch, Christina Chalmers, Sandra Huber, Linette Voller and Joanna Walsh all complete strangers recruited by advertising for writers with experience of working with tarot, data narrativisation and story-telling in a broader sense – to search it with keywords of their choice; words like weapon, gift and love, to give a few examples.
They were then asked to speculate on and caption what they imagined to be the missing set of media for that search term: the photos and videos that somehow evaded classification. These captions were then matched with existing media from my archive, creating a new series of videos optimised for mobile viewing (which viewers can access online), along with a slideshow of all the speculative archive images, screened continuously at Het Nieuwe Instituut.
[an image from ‘LUCK’- text by Jess Bunch]
In the first stage of the project I produced a series of ‘automatic’ videos using auto-edit app Magisto, reflecting my research into the automation of jobs once considered irreplaceable by machines. Editing, a laboriously-gained skill that was until recently considered, like many so-called ‘creative industry’ jobs, to be safe from the threat of automation, can now be outsourced to an algorithm. Within the film industry, editors were usually female, so this echoes trends of labour gendered as female being replaced by automation, and apps especially, as Helen Hester and Sarah Kember have spoken of in the context of automated assistants like Siri, Cortana and so on.
[documenting withdrawal- one of my auto-videos, 2015]
Responding to users’ need to keep unruly and ever-growing media archives in order, auto-archiving apps like Carousel, and now Google, have rushed to fill the gap. These apps seem clearly oriented towards not just sorting photos, but sharing them, echoing the social media imperative to ‘share’ and the idea that experience, once captured photographically or in video, only has real value once it’s validated by others in the network. However, if the work of sharing becomes more of a chore- because you’ve got too much stuff or can’t be bothered to make 15 sec Instagram edits- than the supposedly fun, self-affirming activity users are meant to experience it as, the platforms would be in trouble . Magisto makes its role as enabler of content-sharing explicit by offering an Instagram function, helping users to circulate themselves within a network more effectively. Google’s auto-classifying similarly creates groups, like selfies and food, whose significance reflects a ‘sharing-eye’ mentality, i.e. pics taken for or understood mainly through the expectation of their being shared. Inadvertently hinting at what Kate Crawford called ‘surveillant anxiety’, the app also selects from users’ smartphone media to makes its own videos and sideshows, a supposedly helpful service which feels pretty creepy: a fluffy version of the less fluffy reality of living with a vague sense of an unknown, nonhuman gaze.
You explore the subject’s construction, or better your own, in the networked regime of the World Wide Web by means of looking into the invisible structures. What are you looking at, or for?
I would say that I’m observing myself as subject aware of her own entanglement in sociotechnical infrastructures, using my own personal experience as a starting point. So, while my work reflects the particularities of my own specific identity, it attempts to link this to broader collective experience- without, of course, claiming some kind of universal human experience or subject that I, or anyone else, can speak for. For example, almost everyone living in the West has a relationship, even if it’s a discordant one, to photo archives, or online platforms. Exploring my own experience of them, as I’m doing in the Dark Archives project is a way of addressing themes that most people will at least relate to but from my own, specific perspective which reflects my own social and political context.
As for ‘looking into invisible structures’, again, for me this phrase problematically suggests standing apart from the issues being observed, and reporting back on the results from a removed position of supposed neutrality. Not only does this assume a critical distance that I believe is untenable, but it also hints at a superiority of the looker- as if artists were able to peer into structures and see things- invisible things, even!- that other, presumably more naive people, cannot. Drawing on the observer effect in science, in which the conducting of an experiment necessarily affects it, I’m more interested in fully acknowledging that I stand within the systems being investigated, and that any insights I glean are necessarily partial, and incomplete. My thinking here echoes the work of many other feminist writers like Donna Harrway (who speaks of situated knowledge) and Karen Barad, who also stress their own embodiment within the research they undertake.
[an auto-gif courtesy of Google photo]
Also, part of my current research, including for the Dark Archives project, specifically grew out of an awareness of the limitations of strategies of ‘making visible’ and/ or exposing ‘invisible structures’. While I’d agree with the argument John Durham Peters makes about what he calls ‘infrastructuralism’, namely that ‘revealing the invisible supports that hold up the world […] is clearly allied with the feminist project of revealing unpaid and unappreciated labor’ this motif has become the default explanation of almost any artwork dealing critically with technology/ surveillance etc. Trevor Paglen’s work is often described this way, and I myself used this phrase when discussing Life in AdWords (arguing that it ‘makes visible the commodification of the subject in Web 2.0’) and in my thesis on the Female Fool, where I argued that strategies of subversive mimicry in feminist ‘make visible’ the performativity of gender identity. A quick google of these phrases brings up a few Rhizome articles, a couple of conferences, some press releases: infrastructural critique often relies on metaphors of unveiling, uncovering and exposing.
Despite their currency, rhetorics of exposure have a long heritage in Western critical thought, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s classic essay on paranoid and reparative reading makes clear. Drawing on the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ Ricouer noted in thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, she discusses the ‘paranoid’ epistemology, which places ‘an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se- knowledge in the form of exposure’. Paranoia invests gestures of uncovering with agency, as if simply uncovering and making visible the extent of state surveillance or racial discrimination, let’s say, is enough to make these long-entrenched systems wither away.
More recently, Wendy Chun warns of ‘code fetish’– the idea that by getting to, and then exposing, the ‘code’ lying beneath reality, various social and political problems will simply fall into place. This approach assumes that there exists an objectively verifiable reality or meaning prior to its uncovering, that just needs the right critical or artistic tools to get it out there, as if the act of uncovering itself was not entirely contingent on the person and method of doing it. As Irit Rogoff argues, while using the tools of critical analysis promises that the hidden meanings of cultural circulation can be laid bare, ‘there is a serious problem here, as there is an assumption that meaning is immanent, that it is always already there and precedes its uncovering.’ [‘Smuggling’ – An Embodied Crticality.]
With this in mind, rather than making certain structures visible, I would argue that every act of uncovering or making visible is making anew, is a form of knowledge generation that is necessarily subjective. Why not explore other forms of making which foreground faults, leaks and fictionalised spaces that haven’t been fully concretised, rather than this incessant uncovering?
In terms of artworks, particularly those that operate as infrastructural critiques on aspects of networked life- like surveillance, or data tracking- I’m also interested in the position from which the artist is making things visible. Experience has shown that a white, cis male is less likely to reflect on his position as the ‘uncover-er’, its implications of a God’s eye view perspective, or his identity in proximity to the institutions being studied, be it the NSA or global finance. Similarly, a white feminist intending to make visible female oppression is more likely to make assumptions about the ‘universality’ of women’s experience, thereby glossing over the specific forms of oppression that women of colour experience- as numerous example sin the music industry attest to. I think it’s important to be aware as an artist who you think you’re speaking for and also where are you shining that light from.
Tung-Hui Hu also draws on Sedqewick in his recent book A Pre-History of the Cloud, arguing that our ‘faith’ in all sorts of data visualisations is a manifestation of “a paranoid worldview in which everything is hopelessly complex but, with the right (data) tools, can be made deceptively simple and explainable: a master key or representation that explains everything”. This was part of my inspiration for the dark archive project- rather than attempting to ‘expose’ the inner logic of Google’s photo database, or trying to uncover that master key that makes sense of it all, I wanted to adopt a more speculative angle that imagines flaws and elisions in the system, and by extension asks how inclusions and exclusions to any archive happen. Catherine D’Ignazio, discussing feminist methods of data visualisation, suggests they could ‘invent new ways to represent uncertainty, outsides, missing data, and flawed methods’, which certainly resonates with my approach. Her article is illustrated with Map to Not Indicate, 1967, by the art collective Art & Language, and her caption- ‘The map depicts only Iowa and Kentucky and then proceeds to list the many things that NOT represented on i’t- echoes the thinking behind my project, which asks others to imagine what is missing from my photo archive.
In general the purpose of a dark archive is to function as a repository for information that can be used as a failsafe during disaster recovery. Could you elaborate what this means to you with regard to your current project Dark Archives?
The dark archive, as I understand its use in librarianship and archiving, functions as a back up copy- not necessarily of the actual contents but of the metadata, so that if natural or man-made disaster destroyed the archive, its contents could still be readable. In this way, it points to the future of archives and of a post-anthropocene (or, ‘Capitalocene’- an expression which attempts to apportion responsibility more precisely than vague or universalizing notion of the Anthropos) encounter with Western civilization’s huge quantity of data, which is being stored in what are, after all, physical locations that are vulnerable to attack or decay. Tsui notes the overlap between atomic waste storage companies and data centres (like Iron Mountain), suggesting an affinity between the contents hoarded in these facilities, which must be protected at all costs, now that data centres store bank records, entire companies, and other matters of life and death. Both also require specific geosocial attributes, like low temperatures, relatively remote locations and ‘stable’ governments, which foregrounds the materiality and fragility of networked life, and how vulnerable it is to climatic and social fluctuations. From his book, plus films I’d been watching, like Into Eternity, about attempts to build a future-proof nuclear waste bunker, I imagined a bleak scenario where current Western civilization’s most durable archives are either deadly energy waste products, or the material remains of data.
[Apple’s data servers]
Another aspect of the dark archive relates to accessibility, since one of its main attributes is being publicly inaccessible, and therefore, relatively ‘invisible’. In the context of my project, the media archive which I uploaded in full to Google’s photo service is a dark archive of sorts; accessible to me, but not to anyone else without a password- except, of course Google. I was interested in where this places it- is it a visible (and therefore ‘bright’) archive, in so far as its contents are both accessible and intelligible to Google? Another way of putting this is to ask where the lines drawn between the public and private sphere in the age of corporations taking on supranational powers. Alternatively, it could be considered a dark archive, since only I can access it. When ownership of digital assets is being replaced by access to them- captured in the increasing requests for ‘permission to access’ by apps, but also in the move towards what Jeremy Rifkin calls Jeremy Rifkin has called the “age of access”, where licenses and rental economies take over from singular ownership- the question of who can access what archive becomes key.
Another meaning of the dark archive refers to contents that cannot be located or retrieved and are therefore, functionally invisible: a nested archive within the main one, which nevertheless exerts a (possibly negative) force upon it. For example, Amazon could be seen as a very ‘bright’ archive; their business model is based on retrievability, which means that everything within it can be easily found and accounted for. Amazon has to battle against the ‘forces of darkness’ such as spam, algorimthically-churned similar products (e.g. t-shirts), and different products with very similar titles (for example, search Amazon with ‘the game’…) all of which threaten to obscure the contents with ‘actual’ value by making them unfindable. So, things must be retrievable otherwise the content of the archive can fall into a void- and the more stuff the archive gets, the darker it becomes…
[Lee Lozano, General Strike Piece, begun 1969]
Of course a dark archive may also be one that is kept intentionally secret, echoing an artistic approach of working with ‘methodologies of encryption’ (as a conference in 2014 put it). These play with gestures of unreadability, obfuscation and withdrawal from the viewer, as a way of avoiding instrumentalisation, of not being readily accessible to cooption by either market or institutional forces. Gestures of extreme withdrawal which can not be recuperated for future gain, like artist Lee Lozano’s dropping out of the art world completely and permanently in General Strike Piece (begun 1969), continue to appeal partly because of their refusal of the games of readability, accessibility and visibly- all of which are expected of artists today.
So, these different valences of the dark archive all fed into my thinking around this project, addressing visibility and darkness in relation to archiving.
Doing some Google image searches for you, I am amazed how many images come up. In an earlier interview you also said that you were ‘obsessed with documenting’ (Furtherfield), already at an early age being the one walking around with the camera. What does the image mean to you?
I have an almost ritualistic attachment to images, or at least to their collection, reflecting a lifelong desire to capture, track and mark the days of life as it passes, before it passes away. Perhaps the more photos and documents there are, the more coherent the narrative of one’s life becomes, the more readable you are to yourself as the protagonist within it. As the ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ logic of social mediated existence suggests, it’s the capturing of this life story and its sharing with known and unknown others that really validates it as a story worth telling.
However, there is an increasing amount of image traffic sent under the radar, and people are abandoning Facebook in droves, suggesting the waning of sharing affects; I have thousands of photos that I have never made public, or only swapped privately, for example through Whatsapp or email. What value do images that do not publicly circulate have- or is this a moot point, since they still technically have ‘value’ to the platform corporations they move within (remember, Facebook owns Whatsapp….).
I’m also intrigued by the recurring science fiction trope based on the idea that if every single moment in a person’s life could be captured, that life could be recreated, or simulated, in another person or machine’s mind. This fantasy of disembodied, downloadable consciousness can be traced to the beginnings of cybernetics, and its trans-humanist or futurist desire to escape the body. As Katherine Hayles explains in How We Became Posthuman, the assumption that consciousness (mind) can be separated from the body, as if the material support- the medium- plays no active role in it, has its foundations in a long tradition of Western, Cartesian thought, which separates body and mind, as well as a whole host of other binaries (male/ female, black/ white etc).
Do you think the image still relates to memory in a system that is all about consumption, distribution and circulation? In other words, do you see a different function of images in a networked computational culture?
The idea of images having a ‘function’ at all is an interesting one- of course Visual Culture as a discipline has long argued that images have agency, as carriers of political propaganda, adverts and social norms, or historical narratives to name a few, but there is an emerging sense that images now also function as and for machines– by-passing human culture (if you can even separate the two…). Ben Bratton has argued that ‘machine vision is arguably the ascendant ‘ocular user subject’, not the human,’ with many more images being made by and for machines, rather than humans and their affective or aesthetic registers. Trevor Paglen calls these images ‘operationalised’, in the sense that their agency goes beyond shaping behaviour and actually impacts real-world situations through quantification, tracking, targeting and prediction. Personally I’m more interested in how these modes intertwine, i.e. images that traverse both human and machinic realms- and I would argue that we’ve never had ‘strictly’ meat eyes. As humans we’ve always had some kind of if not inscriptive then at least communicative or mediating technology. [thanks to Emily Rosamund for some of the insights here!]
So, while digital images do still relate to memory, they’re embedded within wider systems of functionality and value generation; the reason Google’s photo service is free of charge probably has something to do with the pure potential millions of personal photos represent to act as excellent training material for their visual analysis tools. Images- especially ones rich with metadata like geolocations, timestamps and camera brands- are incredibly valuable, not, as the users may perceive them, as reminders of times past, but as nodes within a commercial network, whose full value may take years to emerge. Maybe humanity’s current image deluge is facilitating the advancement of future intelligences, whose neural networks are being honed on the daily feed of both private and public image-sharing. In this sense, the images are ‘functional’ not as memory aides but as tools for next-generation visual analysis algorithms.
Previously you asked someone to write your memoirs, The Outage, based on your digital footprint, it became a strangely personal yet distant narrative… In a way the new work builds on that, rather than asking a human person you use computer programmes to create a narrative, a history, or an archive, of your online activities. This makes your work very layered. Although at first it may look random, for me, the associations that emerge between texts, image and text (from meta-data to comments), or in the juxtaposition of images, there is a subtlety, humour and self-mockery that seems natural, but being aware of the learning process behind, creates a eerie feeling or tension between human and machine agency. Asking the question, how much influence do you still have? Do you think that this is still a collaborative process – meaning working together towards a common goal, based on more or less equal terms – or does the one gain in agency over the other?
The tension between human and machine agency, and in the increasing impossibility of making a distinction between them has played an important role in many of past works; as Cary Wolfe argues, ‘the human never was, never is, never will be human’ since the very condition of possibility of the human subject coming into being is a technology; as he says ‘it’s a technology variously called social behaviour, symbolic behaviours, language, communication, the semiotic in the broadest sense.’ That is, as mammals of the great ape family we have been always already entangled with semiotic technology- language, the symbolic- and this is precisely what allows the possibility of a subject to emerge.
So writing is a technology, and like every new development, its effects on humans was the subject of much hand-wringing, famously from Plato, for whom its heralded the decline of memory and its replacement ‘by means of external marks’, as he put it. However, the devices and wider networked infrastructures most people in the West live with are also actively archiving citizens, often unintentionally or without explicit consent, with the results feeding into consumer and social classifications as profiles, which does seem like a qualitative difference.
[Think You Know Me, live predictive text/ programmed performance 2015]
So, my work explores these tensions, using processes like predictive text, or profiling at a personal level to question in broader terms what non-human perception, agency and intelligence could be. The dangers of apportioning too much agency to machines can be clearly seen in the context of warfare, where delegating responsibility to drones glosses over the entirely social, political and human logic driving their calibration, and also in things like automated forms which determine what benefits, health care or housing citizens are entitled to.
A lot of my work includes working with other people in some way, almost to a point that they do things that might normally be done by a machine, or that could not be done by a machine. For example, in the project So Like You, while I initially used my images to search online, I then asked the people whose pictures came up as ‘similar’ to go through their own archives to find a similar image, thereby asking them to act almost like human search engines. With the Dark Archives, by inviting the writers to speculate on and imagine what is missing from a particular archive, I am similarly asking them to embody the algorithm and its operation, to work out what it includes and excludes.
You have stated elsewhere that the “devices we share so much intimate time with are actively involved in shaping what we consider to be our ‘selves,’ our identities” (Rhizome interview), reflecting back on some of your previous works and the current one for Het Nieuwe Instituut, I can imagine, even though there is a privileged position from which you are doing them, that these processes affect you, as an individual?
Yes, some of my projects have had some pretty unexpected outcomes, what I think of as their ’emergent phenomena’: the affective and emotional outcomes that were not designed into the experiment. Of course there are wider emergent properties of a technologically-mediated world; for example, the affective responses to life on Twitter (anxiety is a common one!) were not necessarily anticipated beforehand and only emerged through use. Most of my work deals with these ‘psychotechnical vulnerabilities’, often performing of gestures of risk in relation to them. For example in The Outage, giving my private data and online presence to a ghostwriter to fashion into my fictional memoir, could be seen as confronting a wider societal fear of digital trespass, identity theft and personal data leaks.
What emerged from this project was how self-conscious it made me feel: a sense that I had been objectified, made into an image that I wasn’t in control of. As the book’s narrative involves a sort of death, there was a feeling that a version of my mediated self had been killed off, and in fact my first response to the text was a feeling of reading my own obituary, which is the one piece of text you will never, ever be able to control or correct or manage. This may sound a bit hysterical now but the dissonance was very real and sent me into a tailspin that lasted well over a year; I also got together with the writer which had/ has its own complex narrative, since folded into the wider story of the project.
[The Outage, 2014]
With the change to digital archives, similar to traditional archives sources may remain intact, but their existence is constantly changing and dynamic. This is something that is clearly visible in your project. So, what does this mean for one of the main tasks of an archive – a place to store memories, what happens when a memory vault, changes into something fluid and processual? In other words, what does it mean when archives are thought of in terms of (re)production or creation systems instead of representation or memory systems?
In a sense, archives, like knowledge and autobiographies, are also potentially performative, as opposed to strictly descriptive; Derrida suggests as much when saying ‘the archivisation produces as much as it records the event.’ Perhaps every document creates (rather than describes or illustrates) the event; every search creates an archive, and every archive gives rise to a different reality. Search queries both create an archive and are potentially archival material in themselves (as the still ongoing fascination with Google’s auto-complete attests to) and as Derrida says, the archiving itself is productive of events, historical and otherwise.
This also relates to my interest in intimate data, the archive of our personal information, which is constantly expanding or contracting, and also mutable, depending on what search is undertaken. One thing that is obvious to search with now may not be fifty years from now: every historic era creates new search terms, new lenses with which to read the past. The cycles of music and fashion, the threads that carry through and are picked up years later attest to the unanticipated interpretation of contemporary life through the eyes of future generations. Every archive could be said to nest potentially limitless archives within it, lending it an unfinished or semi-fictional quality.
The dark archive seemed to encapsulate many of these ideas: a hidden, yet existing archive, whose contents may be retrieved at some future point but for now are inaccessible. What agency do these- and by extension, all other- unintelligible and obscured entities exert, if any? Is there a force in that which cannot be captured, quantified, translated? And if there is, how do we acknowledge that refusing visibility and capture is itself a privileged position, grounded in an almost Romantic/ heroic (i.e. usually coded as white, male) ideal of seeking that which can never be represented, commodified, put into words (and sold back to us as knock-off t-shirts/ lifestyle signifiers…). This in turn resonates with a yearning for the untouched, ‘virgin’ territory of an assumed authenticity- a concept as problematic as it was in colonial times as it is now. As a Greek I have found myself bristling at with regards to the portrayal of Athens as a sort of lawless, yet crucially authentic site of political ferment, unrest and all-over ‘realness’ (read: poverty). Moreover, from certain perspectives, being under the radar and escaping legibility itself depends on a privileged position of being socially average enough to disappear in the first place, as numerous critiques of so-called normcore pointed out late year.
Again Sedgwick points out that for many disenfranchised minorities, it’s precisely their unwanted, unasked for level of visibility that constitutes their ‘problem’- and the lack of agency over regulating their visibility to authority. As blockchain technologies become more widespread, meaning that a permanent record exists of any transaction made, it could be that contrary to past fears of data being tampered with, new issues will arise out of the impossibility of deletion. If every digital asset or transaction- including identity- can be traced, there are obvious political implications around visibility and the right- or at least, desire- to be forgotten, or unseen.