Personal Proxies

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.

the call out for assistants & brief

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]

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Scenes from Personal Proxies last night at Somerset House! #blockuniverse2016

A photo posted by Block Universe (@blockuniverse) on

Erica Scourti – Personal Proxies

A photo posted by Block Universe (@blockuniverse) on

In the second half, the assistants take over, presenting their own responses to the theme, to my work and to notions of replacement, reinvention and afterlives…

Hi Skye Arundhati Thomas @skyita here 🙋🏾 #ericascourtiforblockuniverse #personalproxies

A photo posted by Erica Scourti (@erica_scourti) on

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Skye Arundhati Thomas:

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.

__________________________________________________________________________

Afra Zamara
[a reinterpretation of Inner Planets (2014)]

Personal Proxies from Afra Zamara on Vimeo.

___________________________________________

Maria Sotiropoulou

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Other pics

#EricaScourti performance @somersethouselondon part of #BlockUniverse @blockuniverse #performance

A photo posted by Burcu Yuksel (@artkurio) on

Erica-Scourti-Courtesy-Block-Universe-©-Arron-Leppard-4

Amazing performance

A photo posted by Rebecca Lennon (@rebecca.lennon) on

Dark Archives – interview

A VERY long interview with Annet Dekker about my Dark Archives project, on view at the mo at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, and online; it was understandably too long for them to publish in full which is why I’m putting it here. Short/ edited version here: Archiving our (Dark) Lives: Interview with Erica Scourti

videos here (best viewed on smartphone)

[END- text by Linette Voller, read by Kati Karki]

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.

DARK ARCHIVE_4 (LUCK)
[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.

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[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.

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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.

Map not to indcate

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.
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[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.

THE GAME

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…

8a319c86-147d-4a27-8377-7c430aeaf823--00000--Lee-Lozano-General-Strike-Piece [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.

IMG_4108However, 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!]

Scourti-1

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 (2015) LIVE- 4
[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.

outage on tender
[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.

DARK ARCHIVES VIDEOS

the Dark Archive videos- being released between Feb and May 2016- click here for a very loooong interview between me and Annet Dekker about the project…

ME- text by Joanna Walsh, read by Tom Woolner and Erica Scourti

END- text by Linette Voller, read by Kati Karki

 

 

when everything’s clean we can start again

 first posted on Auto Italia’s blog as a postscript to On Coping: A Reading for Liverpool (The Royal Standard, Liverpool, summer 2015)

An experiment in efficiency and time-keeping: 2 hours to write up some ideas & quotes relating to the device-cleaning workshop run as part of On Coping. Screenshots I took while writing are presented along with screenshots people sent me during the workshop, responding to the words on their cleaning cloths and more generally to our discussion around maintenance (digital, sanity and otherwise), storage, over-load and other fatigues.

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I’m sittin in bed I write this, on my phone. Somehow it felt like this immediacy would make me write more concisely. I need parameters- apparently the task stretches to fill the time, or time stretches to waste all day on a task that could’ve taken an hour. Very familiar.

I’m writing on Evernote, which, I discovered the other day while trying to delete old apps off a new phone, is classified as a Productivity app. Most things are- why use an app unless it saves you some time? When you’ve saved all seeking materials that last forever time then you can start living. I used to have a motto- an adaptation of youth is wasted on the young (is that it?)- that goes ‘Life is wasted on the living’.

Spending so much time managing life that there’s no time left to live it.

What’s any of this got to do with the phone and laptop cleaning workshop😑 😑 well- I just spent the morning doing a ‘brain dump’ which is another sort of efficiency/ prosciutto tool.

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I meant productivity not prosciutto obvs.

So here are some notes.

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Evernote has bizarrely added its own little post-it logo unless it wasn’t obvious what they were. This is definitely a sign that it’s a productivity app- post-its are a shorthand for brainstorming blue sky thinking/ out of the boxing/ dreaming up a new start up for (most likely) a new app

Okay. Going back. Here’s a quote:

“maintenance of digital infrastructures are forms of labour very rarely discussed”
“infrastructure is also the invisible and time-consuming labour that underpins our electronic world” Judy Wajcman, Keynote at Transmediale 2015

I’d been doing this phone cleaning project for a while already when I came across this quote/ sitting and cleaning other people’s phones and then keeping the dirty screen wipes.

Dirt as a kind of medium, an encrypted trace- it tells you ‘something happened here’ but it doesn’t say what. It preserves privacy. It’s also a very micro/ personal scale of materiality of technology- even what Ingrid Burrington refers to as these ‘black amulets’ collect and carry traces of their use, a literal embodiment of the time spent swiping tapping zooming scrolling. Truly intimate data. Wiping off someone else’s intimate data proved to be pretty awkward. A sense of anxiety thT somehow it gave me access to something hidden, something hidden behind the lock screen.

There’d been so much talk of how the internet isn’t immaterial-

“The Internet doesn’t exist, but its effects are real”

– how the greedy server farms guzzling energy linked our everyday devices to much wider geopolitical networks of value, profiteerring, war. And here’s me worrying about the commodification of human consciousness. But I do worry.

At the time I’d also been thinking of what sort of relationship artists have with their audiences, collaborators and friends and family and how these come into their work. I was thinking that I probably care too much about what they think- I have this fantasy that some artists really Don’t. Give. A. Fuck but they’re probably pricks so never mind- and that maybe I shouldn’t acknowledge this thru gestures of attention-giving

My new phone still has my old shortcuts on it (another effieicny tool!) so as I wrote the above, this appeared:

“Giving attention is giving love, is giving away something u haven’t got” (any time for)

I agree with that, mostly. I think it’s a fudged version of Lacan On Love. But love and care and attention are often forms of gendered labour that- like maintenance in general- is less ‘important’ than the grand gestures. The grand gesture of buying flowers so all your friends see, and say aww isn’t he great? but neglecting you in the day to day living of a relationship- not doing the dishes, or asking what’s wrong when you’re pulling that face. The grand gesture of launching an amazing new app/ start-up/ platform/ feature etc, whose functioning relies on successfully culling beheadings, porn and other NSFW content from its feed- millions of microtasks perforned daily and to no applause by mostly underpaid women from parts of the works like Bangladesh where We don’t have to worry about their deteriorating mental health.

Someone’s got to do it though/ and no, there’s no app for it, not yet. Hito Steyerl talks of the process of deciphering buttholes from bunches of pixels

‘What are the social and political algorithms that clear noise from information? The emphasis, again, is on politics, not algorithm.’

[ Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise]

Just went for a loo break. The idea is I’m going to write for two hours. I’ve heard- and it seems true- that if you just focus on ONE TASK- you’re much more likely to finish it. And that by tricking yourself into writing (or doing anything else you have a love-hate relationship with) for a very short period of time, you might end up with a book. Multitasking as a curiosily ineffective way of saving time. From the Manifesto of Rivolta Feminile, a group of Italian feminists active in the 70s-

We detest the mechanisms of competitiveness and the blackmail exercised in the world by the hegemony of efficiency.

Attributing high value to “unproductive” moments is an extension of life proposed by woman.

Rivolta Femminile Manifesto (1970)

What is an unproductive moment? Sometimes we lie together and I try and feel ‘oh, THIS IS SKIN’ or as in the zen saying, ‘every moment is the best moment’.
Moments aren’t in competition with each other.
The other day he said I was competing with the duvet, coz I suggested he was hugging it, instead of me. Competing with an inanimate object, a new low!

But really. Things have so busy in the past six months (or is it a year?) I can’t even imagine. I’ve become my own worst nightmare- colour coded to-do lists, post its all over my wall, a million schemes. And a fear that I’ll never have time to do ANY of it, like a full blown fomo grass-is/greener syndrome, looking for value everywhere and being unable to find any, anywhere. I will look back at this and say ‘that was burnout’- as if it only happens once.

Burnout, treading water. Cleaning and re cleaning- the work is never done. However clean it is, soon it will be mucky, soon the storage will be filled up and I’ll be deleting photos and videos quickly to try and take another. Even the photos are in competition with other, even tho there is endless space for our ‘moments’ now, as endless as the energy used to prop up the cloud(s) is endless.

>> After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage?

Mierle Ladermen Ukeles- Maintenance Art

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So in this workshop. We sat in a circle, on the floor. A kind of group therapy situation (I assume- I’ve never been to one) with optional, though entourages sharing. Embroidered screening cloths were passed around, which were used to clean dirty devices with, in between digital cleaning: deleting, moving, sitting, unfollowing, logging off. Like an AA meeting, an opportunity to confess and rectify some digital sins, mute some people, ask why you can’t delete those photos of your daughter even tho they’re backed up in 5 places. A dream of disconnection, which only has value in relation to the norm of connection and mostly seems to be undertaken with a book deal or article in mind.

It’s been an hour now. I’m feeling very tired. Maybe I won’t do the whole hour after all. I’m still on Airplane mode, still on Self Control. My addictions always get he better of me, I can’t help it, I’m a Greed personality which means I always want MORE even if it’s of a Bad Thing. Like scrolling Facebook with insomnia or lingering over other people’s Moments.

Recently I’ve been thinking about hiding. And secrecy. 

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Evernote Snapshot 20150813 183703.jpg-4 Hiding from what?

From admitting I’ve been miserable, or from the fact I might just be lost. Of course like cleaning and maintaining, staying On The Path (whichever one it is) is a daily task, a constant challenge. Sometimes I look in awe at friends who seem so…buoyant and wonder how they manage without hours of meditation/ medication/ therapy etc etc. but then I’m sure that exactly how I come across: buoyant and together.

I’m going off topic now, really tired. Everytine I do. Body scan I relate thee is a layer of concrete solid exhaustion.

‘Exhaustion as a status symbol’‘ says vulnerability guru Brene Brown.

hashtag Smugbrag– for the artist who has t all and wants to make sure everyone knows about it, but also knows it gives of the wrong yuppie/ Protestant work ethic odours if shouted too loudly. One eye on the clock, or around the room for other, more unity people. Signifiers of slumming it gloss over a hard business nose. I do it too. Pragmatism- artist got to eat, artist got to produce/ project social capital, those two things don’t always sit together. Sweet compromise! The real skill lies in projecting or generating  enough social capital that those compromises, that pragmatism, gets overlooked.

Outsiders become insiders but can claim the privilege of both if they cultivate and maintain their outsiderness. But it’s a tricky balancing act. Now I’m wondering why he out Jenny From the Block on my playlist (I have theory- his playlists are evidence of love, each one carefully considers so that I read meanings into them, deciphering How He Sees Me from the choice of title- for sown reason the document with the quotes won’t load but I was thinking of Apophenia- the tendency to see patterns j chaos, human faces in clouds, winning streaks at the casino, undying love in a string of text messages, paranormal activity in random unrelated phenomena. Things make sense coz we need them to/ We don’t see things as they are but as we are, said Anais Nin.

I’m almost at an hour Nd half. My mind is wilting. I had wanted to say something about hiding, occlusion and making visible. I got so annoyed of this rhetoric of illumination- the idea that we can stand outside things, shining lights into dark corners and as if by magic, MAKE VISIBLE. it’s a thing in what could be called Infrastructural Critique- a logic of showing how the Internet or technology or sue elephants or whatever works, that suggests a critical distance, a standing beyond the issues and processes being made visible.

That implies a gif eye view, an untainted separation of viewer and viewed. BUT Everything gets dirty in the end. And every act of making visible is also a making of new knowledge- it’s not that there is an objective reality just waiting, wanting to be uncovered. Meaning, like reality, is performative- and contingent. Two people couldn’t, wouldn’t make the same thing visible in the same way. Subjectivity creeps in, but is often disavowed.

I’m running out of brain. This quote was very important to me- Wajcman, quoted at the start also points out how ‘Busyness is a cultural (not technological) construct’. Technology is social before its technical, to misquote deleuze.

“Chrononormativity is a mode of implantation, atechnique by which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts. Schedules, calendars, time zones, and even wristwatches inculcate what the sociologist Evitar Zerubavel calls “hidden rhythms”, forms of temporal experience that seem natural to those whom they privilege. Manipulations of time convert historically specific regimes of asymmetrical power into seemingly ordinary tempos and routines, which in turn organize the value and meaning of time.

Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds

Near the end now, adding quotes in a panic coz I don’t want anything to be left out. Like this is my chance which is probably true- I won’t get any more time than this. Institutional forces- of being always on, always moving, available, flexible, come to seem like somatic facts. My lateral hip pain, an outward expression of the implanted belief that I must always be busy that there is- or should not be- no off button. My batts are running low and the threads between things running low. I think I know what I mean. High performance turns on itself so that darkness becomes a cover, a safety blanket. A knowledge in darkness, that’s where I’m going. I have run out now. The ‘brilliant darkness of the unknowable silence’. Or just to the shop, my turn to cook

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Look how daft I look posing as ‘sleepy but WORKING gaddamn it’ in bed
 

By chance YouTube played me who moved my cheese and it said the most important thing is to LAUGH AT YIURSELF

so I’ll go do that now

THE END

Staying with the Trouble: Resident Artists’ Show and Open Forum

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen

STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE
Resident Artists’ Show and Open Forum
 
Friday 26th- Sunday 28th June
The White Building, London

The open studios event for the last cycle of The White Building’s #stacktivism residency programme will feature work by artists-in-residence Kei Kreutler, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, Erica Scourti and Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen around geopolitical landscapes of data, experience encryption processes, browsing decoys, satellite constellations and estranged astrologies. Working on- and off-site over this spring, their practices deal with differing conceptions of infrastructures, contemporary networks, geologies, and narratives of scale and subjectivities.

______________________
PROGRAMME

Friday 6:30- 9pm

CLEAN THOUGHTS (video performance)
Erica Scourti
“When everything is clean, we can start again”

ONE-TO-FIVE YEARS (A Workshop)
Kei Kreutler
The night will close seated in a circle. Having emerged from distributed conversations under the alias INFRA_LIFE, the workshop traditionally centres around the questions: What do you envision for the world in the next five years on political, personal and network scales? How can we re-configure or hack existing infrastructure and institutions to meet our shared goals, and what will we have to develop ourselves from the ground up? Staying with the past is also possible.


Saturday 12-6pm
All day open studio

Sunday 12-6pm

12-1pm
Exhibition Tour- led by the artists

2-4pm Open Forum

Prompted by Donna Haraway’s injunction for staying with the trouble, an open forum[n] conversation will focus on critical discussion around questions of art and/ versus activism, the complicity at the intersection of art and technology, and how contemporary global and self-scales[o] are produced.

A mix of friends, interested parties, academics, and other artists have been invited to respond to these questions in an open discussion format chaired by Erica Scourti. More details will be announced later in the week.

WHERE: The White Building, Unit 7, Queen’s Yard, White Post Lane, London E9 5EN MAP
WHEN:  Friday 26th- Sunday 28th June

INFRA_SPECTION Screening and Discussion

CS1349985-02A-BIG7pm, Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Come by the White Building for a screening and discussion featuring magic, black boxes, and red stacks, with videos from the Haunted Machines mini-conference at FutureEverything 2015 and transmediale: CAPTURE ALL 2015.

This event will be the first in a series of informal screenings, readings, and discussions held at the White Building’s studio space with current artists-in-residence Erica Scourti, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, and Kei Kreutler.

Ping us on Twitter (@Erica_Scourti@M_PF@keikreutler ) for more details, and expect there to be (some) beer.

WHERE: The White Building, Unit 7, Queen’s Yard, White Post Lane, London E9 5EN
(next to Crate, Hackney Wick)  MAP
WHEN: Tuesday 14 April 2015, 7pm

dreaming of electric tweets

Wrote this piece on affect recognition and other stuff almost a year ago and never got round to posting, later added some bits and then forgot about it. Decided to post without rejigs- it just about makes sense (except I’m no longer sleeping with screens as I have the boy to do that with)

download (1)Despite being a person who goes to bed surrounded by phone, iPad and laptop, sleep is usually one of the few places I’m not perennially plugged in, so last night’s dream of checking Twitter interactions seemed to signal a new level of saturation: an always-on zombie, dreaming of electric tweets. Not coincidentally, I’d been reading Jonathan Crary’s 24/7, a chilling indictment of life as value-extraction game where sleep holds out as a final frontier of valueless repose, along with daydreams, rest and the “useless time of reflection and contemplation”, all of which act as problematic barriers to the monetisation of all experience. For one, no technology is as yet capable of intruding into our dreams to program appearances of Twitter, or any other product, service or brand; also, unlike online behaviours, dreams can’t be recorded for clues about what sneaker or holiday destination your subconscious is hankering after. Which is just as well, since, as the facilitator of a Cryptolcass at Mozilla’s London HQ pointed out, a possible future where recorded dreams can put you in jail is reason enough to start taking privacy seriously, before it’s too late.

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dreamz

As well as potentially landing people in jail, technology that could directly access our minds, and dreams, would be manna for marketers, giving an even more accurate portrayal of what it is we ‘really want’, and then targeting ads to meet- and shape- these desires. The notion that ever more responsive, telematic, intimate devices and software will end up not just being able to read the contents of our mind, but to actively shape it, has also been a long-standing concern of dystopian strands of science-fiction, in books that herald the complete commodification of the soul and the pliant zombie citizens it produces. In Transmetropolitan, a dark comic series by Warren Ellis, advertising has penetrated into the dreamscape, with sponsored messages bombarding the protagonist Spider Jerusalem in his sleep. Similarly, MT Anderson’s Feed extrapolates current trends of targeted online marketing to telepathic levels, where ads pop up in users minds in response to life events- a break up, a job loss- with what algorithms have deduced would be their most likely behavioral response- ice-cream binge, shopping splurge or revenge fantasy. Most of Philip K Dick’s output could also be read as a (fairly accurate, it turns out) prediction of life once people’s affective responses can be parsed into useful data.
i2w2b While these scenarios are still mostly fictional dystopias, Google’s purchase of various AI and robotics companies, like DeepMind and Boston Dynamics, suggest that ‘divination of private consciousness’, and it’s hidden desires, is big business. Perhaps with masses of Very Big Data plus algorithms fuelled by some artificially intelligent juice, search engines will finally be able read between the lines of your URL history, emails and social media interactions and deduce what you want to search for- and buy- before you even know. Of course this still signals a belief in the separation between us (desiring humans) and them (deducing algobots/ machines/ etc), when it’s probably more a process of entanglement where it becomes impossible to tell ‘who makes and who is made in the relation between man and machine’, as Donna Harraway put it.

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But anyway, the parsing of affective responses and the insights they provide into our supposedly unfettered desires, is becoming big business. For example, new affect recognition imaging technologies promise to track what consumers ‘really’ feel/ want, according to the changing weather of facial expressions; and Dataclysm, a book by OK Cupid’s CEO book, draws conclusions from data gathered about users’ dating proclivities, thereby telling who they are when, as the subtitle puts it ‘they think no one’s watching’.

In both cases there seems to be an underlying belief that their data, or rather, the reading of it, unwittingly reveals elusive truths that not even the users themselves are truly aware of. Both rely on the algorithmic parsing of this data into ‘fact’- the muscular micro-movements into emotional states, or the eyeballing and clicking on dating profiles into facts about what men want (youth, apparently…). Needless to say, the conclusions (‘facts’) are codified by existing conventions- around what happiness, sadness etc look like, about how different genders interact (usually with the assumption that there are only ever TWO genders)- and therefore you could say, the process of reading and interpreting data has as much agency in the shaping of meaning as the data itself. That’s a long-winded, verbose way of saying that data, whatever that even means, does not just ‘mean stuff’ objectively and apart form the society and culture that’s measuring it.

under_floor_cleaning

Still, the idea of algos reading private consciousness suggests that they become both technologies for accessing inner experience, as well frustrating barriers to its efficient conveyance: an interface which enables communication but always prevents direct, unmediated, one-to-one experience, where what I feel, you feel. Boulter and Grussin call the desire to efface the medium so as to allow the represented content (of the video, computer game or innermost desires) to appear more realistically to the viewer the logic of immediacy, a longstanding tradition within Western art. This erasure of the medium or support gives the viewer the illusion of power by obfuscating the reality of the technical interface and its over-arching control of the viewing (or playing, or whatever) situation. The development of ever-smaller and more portable, wearable tech could also be seen as a desire to remove the pesky interfaces and merge more seamlessly and enjoyably with information flows.

More broadly, the notion of invisible or transparent infrastructure upholds an impossible dream of immaterial connection, and a state of denial towards the social and geopolitical realities that facilitate our tech. Recent debates around Stacktivism, for example, have emphasized the materiality of technology and the physical consequences of e-waste, energy-guzzling servers and the mineral harvesting involved in hardware construction. Stacktivism, has been described as ‘a conversation about those hidden technological and social infrastructures and the conventional metaphors that mask them: the cloud, the smooth and playful industrial design, the invisible interface.’

messiah
Getting off that fluffy cloud and scratching the surface of these smooth machines by becoming aware of the very material conditions that support them becomes an act of resistance against the ambient control of interface-less technology that aims to unite us with the contents of the network. If our data has become perhaps an interface through which our ‘inner world’ is mediated and known, then scrutinizing this process could also be about making visible the very real, material ways it’s collected, used and monetized through our always-on, and always-on-us- technology.