Sick Bodies, Queer Bodies, Body of Work

     I've been making my own sort of course on body politics this summer, starting with Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, and my investigation increasingly seems to bleed into everything I watch/read/see; though given material existence that's not really surprising. For me being a trans & queer body has increasingly felt more medical than necessary, more confrontational than necessary. The Western philosophical split between mind & body both feels more true, as I am essentially encouraged to find fault with my body from a mind that "knows better", and less true, as my life and experiences are necessarily extremely related to my body. Not to mention the history of homosexuality as a mental illness—or I remember once reading bisexuality appearing as an "indicator" of other mental illnesses because it signifies "confusion" or "unbridled desire," and wondering which sickness begat the other. 

“Illness expands by means of two hypotheses. The first is that every form of social deviation can be considered an illness. Thus, if criminal behavior can be considered an illness, then criminals are not to be condemned or punished but to be understood (as a doctor understands), treated, cured. The second is that every illness can be considered psychologically. Illness is interpreted as, basically, a psychological event, and people are encouraged to believe that they get sick because they (unconsciously) want to, and that they can cure themselves by the mobilization of will; that they can choose not to die of the disease. These two hypotheses are complementary. As the first seems to relieve guilt, the second reinstates it… Patients who are instructed that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease are also being made to feel that they have deserved it.” (p57)

This kind of criminalization of illness of course becomes even more pointed during the AIDS crisis. Still the ravages of the crisis are often mellowed through even tempered historical retellings or analysis like Sontag’s, so I was completely unprepared mentally for David Feinberg’s Queer and Loathing. Death permeates the book as much as humor, the levity somehow bringing the situation much closer.

“For some reason, I’ve always viewed my warts as the manifestation of some deadly character flaw I should have long ago eradicated through a concentrated act of self-control” (p142)

Trying to pull all the books together in some cohesive way has become overwhelming—there's so many different threads to follow—so for now I'll give you the rest of the list to do with what you will.

Natural Causes, Barbra Erenreich

 "Many doctors were outraged, with one arguing that in lay hands a speculum was unlikely to be sterilized, to which feminist writer Ellen Frankfort replied cuttingly that yes, of course, anything that enters the vagina should first be boiled for at least ten minutes" 

An Oral History of The First Cyberfeminists, and various things on Xenofeminism

"The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix" -VNS Matrix

Fabulous, Madison Moore

The Biopolitics of GenderJemima Repo

Lots of Donna Haraway (if nothing else, do read the Cyborg Manifesto)

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Andrea Lawlor (fiction)

Fashioning Value — Undressing Ornament, Femke de Vries

getting into Technopaganism & other mediated forms of the body

partially read/to read:

The Birth of Chinese Feminism (also good if yr into non-Western anarchisms)

The Biopolitics of Feeling, Kyla Schuller 

Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici

Testo Junkie, Paul B. Preciado

Also watching a lot of project runway oops, but please watch Pose. Not a Queer Eye fan but obviously A Lot going on there too. 

 

Adrian Piper & MoMA & Painting Bathing

     I've been in a sort of weirdbad mood. With myself, with art. I've done very little on my planned zines, and then feel bad about doing art that's not that so end up doing nothing. I was offered a manager position at this matcha place but it turned out to be an instagram hellscape—syrupy colored drinks, CBD macaroons with powdered sugar pot leaves, free drinks for influencers—and the owner seemed kinda skeevy, so I didn't take it. The tip jar saying "just put the TIP in see how it feels" was a sort of final confirmation to get out. (The GM has gotten rid of it with my encouragement.) It's not that I didn't know those people were out there, but something about having to operate in their sphere felt unbearable. I don't know how to shake this bitter jaded feeling that we're essentially unreconcilable as a world. The news about Bourdain and then everyone's ensuing mental health hot takes absolutely made everything worse, so I figured I needed to get out of the apartment but not to try to be productive. Museums are good in that sort of "filling the brain energy tank" kind of way, though MoMA is never exactly not-crowded. 

     I knew nothing about Adrian Piper but people I like like her so that's enough of a start. Sometimes though, and especially in this mood, I unintentionally find myself bringing a combative energy to contemporary art. "Oh she became obsessed with Kant and took a buncha naked selfies? Great." I think about how many times I've moved and how much paper paraphernalia I've tossed out, while here we have some conceptual shading on regular-ass graph paper. But then I collect myself; I realize I'm bitter about these odds & ends being displayed because it means they're appreciated and apparently I do not feel appreciated. But whenever I show art it generally is, so it's mostly myself keeping myself hidden that's creating my own bitterness. When I read an essay, because it's not in an institutional setting, I get less tangled up and more able to engage with the ideas of it, and I'm still learning how to do that with other mediums. Her use of herself should be something interesting to me and my "unconventional self-portrature," a point of connection—if I put down her use of it I'm really trying to excuse putting down myself.  

 Adrian Piper

Adrian Piper

     Still, modern art museums don't really set audiences up for success in general—I really dislike audio tours but there's rarely enough (wall) text if you don't know what you're looking at. And even if what you're looking at is Kazimir Malevich's Black Square, which is exactly what it sounds like, some context really fukin helps.  This piece was also on display, with no text, and the guard gave a really horrible explanation that "These are all people that died from gun violence, and all lives matter y'know, and the MoMA is for stricter gun control, 'cus you know when people that aren't right in the head get guns…so if you want to show your support you can take a poster." The MoMA is handing out pictures of dead people and spouting ableist nonsense?? No, in this case the "text" was more misleading than if there'd been none. Though death of the author in this case does it matter, what does the pile mean to me with different explanations. 

     So I'm looking forward to reading more from/about Piper. Especially as a conceptual artist I think both the contextless impression and the later explanation can be part of a whole thing. I'm interested to see her approach to politics & art, as I'm always struggling with art as activism or as commentary, and her later work with racism & embodiment is still very timely. Her work has varying "weight" that I like, her Funk Lessons is really great and clearly a bit playful, but most of her images are not. In an odd echo to that poster a floor down, one of the pieces that sat with me was a black and white photo of Travon Martin with a red sniper-style target superimposed on him, with printouts for the taking. Along with the Civil Rights Era pictures of police brutality that called for the viewer to "not ignore what you know" this seemed particularly like the spectacle of Black pain many protested at the Whitney. The text "Imagine what it was like to be me" feels like an impossible request of a country that has no conscience. Was Travon's family consulted? Would it matter? Why were copies being offered of this image that could've been taken straight from some white supremacist reddit and already endlessly digitally duplicated? In this person's walkthrough they note that none seem to be taken, which thinking now also seemed to be the case, but having not seen the earlier calling card I had no juxtaposition, and the idea that this would be the exhibit "freebie" felt tasteless. Which well maybe the intention, I'm certainly still thinking about it. But now I'm also still bitter about art and myself and our unreconcilable world.

   Then going down the escalators I stop to look at an Andrew Wyeth piece, and then the Hopper piece next to it. Two of my favorite dead white men painters—they just capture a mundane estrangement I like to wallow in. I linger in a room of Matisse, I hadn't noticed the way he doesn't always bother trying to cover the canvas completely. Monet's Water Lilies is on display; I hadn't realized how large it is, how abstract it is up close. This is what I needed right now—a tamed study of style. Like forest bathing but in pastel pointillism. (or maybe I don't fight with these because I can't paint. because they have been so removed from politics despite the strangeness of cubism at the time.) I feel certain again that art can at least do something.

 Edward Hopper, Gayle on the F Train 

Edward Hopper, Gayle on the F Train 

    I've reached the end of my SFPC sketchbook and am re-enthused about the new one. The dead men have reminded me of something, encouraged me to draw however I want, and Piper has perhaps told me not to overthink my thinking. To make statement pieces and not focus on if they're trite. All of them make art that they like and that's what I should do too. 

SFPC Wrap Up

    Things got a little wild at the end—final crunch week, three days of standing and talking to people, then suddenly residency week and we're left to our own devices?? We cleaned up, we taught workshops, we we're asked to imagine 10 week to 25 year plans (Taeyoon bringing those Real Life™ skills as always). I shooould've immediately written all my thoughts, but it was dreamlike and I was enjoying being in the soup, so here's a mashup-wrapup of the end days.

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  I'm pleased with what I had up for the showcase—the mounting and lighting worked out fine and making sure I had six done was a decent amount. (I'll be making a page for the piece with more pics & things) Almost all of my work these days goes straight to instagram so thinking about physical presentation was a nice change, and for these in particular the point is their physicality. I also am not used to being able to see people see my work! Seeing reactions, seeing people move on quickly or lingering and talking really made me feel like an ~artist~ in a whole different way. I was both responsible for this object and supposed to have answers (why I made it, how long did it take, what's the point) but also able to see it released into the wild where people would just take pictures and reinterpret. It was incredibly tiring (especially for my Super Introvert Self) to be around for so long, but really worth it. The semi-collaborative nature of the project was more rewarding than I expected; I pull from my own life often to talk about identity, so to have other people relate & get excited helped validate what I was trying to do, and then sharing that in person with people who might not have thought about identity online completed the piece in a real way. Going forward I am definitely thinking about how I might want to talk about my work and not just toss it into the internet ether.

   SFPC being over I'm sort of forced to think about the future in general. After much deliberation I am starting my MA in the fall at Columbia—but unlike the crushing experience of college my art will be both a part of and counterbalance to my studies. Through SFPC I even feel more at home in the city overall—I've made friends and connections, seen how people Make It Work. To that end I'm actually joining the SFPC residency month, where I'll be working on a graphic zine I hope to submit to small presses before the end of the summer. [I'm also available for commissions 8) ] 

 taco night organized by yours truly

taco night organized by yours truly

    I learned many very tangible things at SFPC—how to code in a new language, basic hardware skills, what's a good artist statement—but I think more importantly I got re-excited about doing stuff. I like learning & being critical, I like tech-shit and art in a very vague sense, but had no concept of where to go with that. Art felt like an impenetrable nightmare hustle, code felt like tech bros. I was at a slump in my life where I was pretty unhappy but pessimistic about what I might do better. Being around and supported by folks from all over, from so many careers, at different points in their life was a reminder of how key community is. Not just for the support, but to see that there are so many ways of being in the world and you can change if you need to! (you'd think as a trans person I would be better at that but y'know ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) SFPC people want to share their skills, and you realize you have skills to share too. Mid-session Zach went down to the MIT Media Lab for a potential position there, and when he came back he said it was a great experience but "they had no kitchen." It's a simple thing, but for me encapsulates why SFPC feels like more than just a school—there's a level of care that's hard to find much of the time. To combine that with an expansive and rigorous curriculum is truly an impressive feat.

   I'm very grateful to have been selected for the session—the work that goes in to "curating" the participants is equally key to the feel of the space. If you are thinking of applying don't hesitate to reach out with questions about more concrete things than woo woo good vibes review heh. I am going to carry all of the things I learned with me, but for sure the real gift is the people. 

Fruition

It's production week; classes are over and it's the somewhat frantic final push before the showcase this weekend. My project has been through some morphings since it's initial conception to say the least. 

needlemap2.jpg
needlemap1.jpg

After some feedback about the needles I was getting the sense that what I was feeling about them wasn't coming across. Alden very helpfully worked through this concept map and sort of material affordances map with me, and it seemed like maybe the thing to do was make the needles actually more playful than I originally wanted. Because I'm so used to the needles it's hard for me to get a good grasp of how other people react to them, and Alden suggested that it's actually disconcerting to see these "scary" sharp things doing cute little tasks like watering a plant or knitting. That that would be a better way to exploit the gap between how they're everyday for me but not for most people. 

needles knitting.JPG

That concept went over pretty well, but the way people suggested changes made it feel like a materials gimmick, not something thoughtful. I just couldn't quite sell it to myself and I'd rather not futz with servo motors if I'm not really sure about talking to folks about the final thing.  There's people out there making boring ~edgy~ art with needles and I didn't feel like just saying these were my needles saved the project from becoming that. I do want to come back to the idea and I still of course have all the needles; I think I just need to get a better grasp of what I'm trying to express about the medicalization of transness, about process, about time. Or maybe I'm just not in the right mood for this tone right now, y'know?

Conveniently I had an idea on the back-burner. Especially with the recent SESTA/FOSTA bs I was thinking about how ephemeral online spaces can be, how very regulated they are. Something about Grindr sharing HIV data and perilous visibility. Many folks have come to their understanding of their gender/sexuality through the internet in a way that's extremely local in time, increasingly less in space. Identity always is localized but how are we holding on to the artifacts; the modern snippets of Sappho's poetry, the daguerreotypes of bygone gender benders. Even the Internet Archive is on the internet. After the Ethics and Archiving the Web conference I've also been thinking about archives and what goes in them, what doesn't, how it's tagged. One presenter talked about the phasing out of Geocities and I started thinking about the panic around when Yahoo bought Tumblr. Out of this general thought soup I thought, "what if I make tracings of websites foundational to people's experience with gender/sexuality?"

 whenever I search about T questions I either get body builder forums or this—what if the hoster just decides to not anymore?

whenever I search about T questions I either get body builder forums or this—what if the hoster just decides to not anymore?

     I like that the tracing defamiliarizes the page & has a sort of "museum effect." I've been asking people for their website recollections and it's funny because it's a personal question but of course these sites are frequently large and public. Some you might have interacted with—like deviantArt or Facebook—others you might not have heard of until now—like Susan's Place or Furry Paws. Sometimes it's more specific like a particular music video or artist, I want to leave my request very open ended to include all these odds and ends that particularly underrepresented identities come to. But everyone's sexuality is regulated so I should probably find like the most popular video on PornHub or something too. (I'm not specifically hunting down positive influences, but mostly that's what people have been offering) I also want to generate some sort of metadata/pseudo filing system to go with them, however many I end up with. 

So that's thaaat. Still sort of a concept blob but I'm content with the objects themselves and the general conversations that have been coming out. Also as someone that wants to work mostly with illustration it makes a kind of sense to showcase that to potential collaborators. Inking them is quite time consuming but hey 3.5 days till showcase! NYC come see! 

Sitting with it

I feel like my mind is all over the place, like I'm chasing too many different threads of interests. I frequently feel like Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar looking at life like a branching fig tree, and once you choose certain branches there are other ones you just can't get to, and I find that i n c r e d i b l y stressful. This also fuels some weird feeling that I'm never "doing enough"—my partner chides me for this weird puritanical drive but really it's not moral but I think fueled by anxiety. 

At the same time, I know I feel better, make more interesting work, when I just take time to absorb the world. A sort of stewing process that can't be expedited. I was lucky to see Esperanza Spalding talk/perform once and she sort of touched on this, told us to "don't just do something, sit there!" With all this in mind I made this page, which I encourage you to try before reading more. See whatever spontaneous feelings you find. 

So I wanted to play at the idea of finding a release for the need to make. Crocheting sometimes falls under this for me in that I can feel I'm "doing something" but it's a system that doesn't stress me out with a need to be original (whereas sometimes I get too bent up to even sketch). So it's something like a prayer wheel in that it's a meditative controlled manual movement but also you can't create even if you wanted to. Maybe a little bit Catholic confession—you can type your fears into the ether and be given advice. The cutoff needs some help still but I'm content having gotten the idea out of my system. (Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. Buddhism is a large complex thing and while these excerpts run the risk of feeling like trite simplifications they have been helpful to me and maybe will be for you. if you are interested I encourage you to check out Buddhist Peace Fellowship's work.)

donothing.gif

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I started this post over a week ago (oops), and between now and then I've been presented with a very real branching of future figs: what grad school to go to. One is an East Asian Languages & Cultures program, which feels very much like the stewing, the precursor to other work. For that reason maybe it feels a little indulgent to spend two years improving my Chinese and accumulating knowledge—there's no obvious future (I don't think I want to stay in Chinese lit, I want to use it for bridging), it's not terribly socially engaged. But I remember the first time I understood Zhuangzi in the original, because hanzi are the oldest writing system still in use, and holy shit!! I think that must be somewhere in me right? Also if I was studying French Lit no one would bat an eye—it's understandable to question white folks studying "Asia," but as the (re)iteraters of Orientalist discourse it seems equally important to both do the work of countering that as well as integrating non-European intellectual histories into our approach in all fields. The other program is Media, Culture, & Communication + an MLIS, which feels like action, there's analysis and library internships and something there and communities I care about. In an ideal world I'd like to take multilingual abilities, a mish mash of cultural knowledge, and apply it to media/culture studies, but that feels like a very daunting long term plan. I know I have the rest of my life, but I also need to pay rent and find a kind of peace now. I like the solid feeling of language learning—it's a tangible thing, I can help lost tourists etc, vs theory around media & spectacle & whatever I feel like I never know enough, am never quite right, am just making things up. Which sure aren't we all, but I am of a sensitive constitution that is good for picking apart discourses but also myself. I also don't know where my art practice sits in all of this! MCC seems wise for connections & community, but Chinese seems different enough that it can inform my art but the two can be helpful breaks from each other.

But I have to decide by Friday so some sort of end to this hell-limbo is inevitable, and just in time for the final push before our showcase!! (which I will talk process about in a post to come) 

Bodies, Blood, Belligerence

    Not only does SFPC have some really exciting teachers, the TAs are all involved in interesting work too! Ann is the critical theory TA, and was also a student last session and so has invaluable insights into the final exhibition process. Her final project was this Blood Battery: 

In many cultures ‘blood’ represents familial or cultural connection; it is a synonym for belonging. As a mixed race woman, I am often confronted with questions about my racial authenticity.  And the purity (or lack thereof) of my blood is used as a metaphor for why I should be included or excluded from certain spaces. (read more)

 Who Will Feed Us When You're Gone?. Blood, glass, copper, zinc, stainless steel, cotton, rubber, wood, foamcore, vinyl, LED light, electronic circuit. (2017).

Who Will Feed Us When You're Gone?. Blood, glass, copper, zinc, stainless steel, cotton, rubber, wood, foamcore, vinyl, LED light, electronic circuit. (2017).

     I really love how bodily confrontational it is. It's not immediately consumable but forces a potentially uncomfortable double-take. I think this can be very difficult to accomplish in (new) media art (especially interactive work) as inadvertently there is often a little awe or whimsy in just the construction of it. Phil recently tried to make a game that was a bit of commentary on the common connection between new technologies and the military, but by virtue of being a game it's just naturally a little fun. How do we provoke other emotions? Another reason I'm particularly interested in the Blood Battery is because I've been unsure how much "tech" I want in my project, and it's helped me think about how I want to use tech to say something in a way I couldn't without it, but I don't want to make something about tech (not right now anyway). The Blood Battery looks like all wires and glowing red but they're not what make it interesting, the blood is. 

     People do expect a sort of frustration with technology the way one expects it of government bureaucracy—think the post office, the dmv—but it's because the printer is jammed on something important, or the website wont load for the tickets they want. There's a larger end goal than game points. Moving to New York I was thrown in a fresh transgender hell of finding a new doctor, new pharmacy, a horrible therapist encounter, weird state laws, etc. just to maintain myself, and I've been thinking about how to share that experience but am running up against this wall of "how do I make it interactive but unfun." Can I harness the frustration of a broken echeck-in machine to talk about the frustration of a broken medical system. If it's too unfun people wont interact, if it's fun they've missed the point. Maybe make the unfun tangental to the actual experience? Like a game that mangles your name or your avatar no matter how many times you edit it. Actually that's a pretty accurate metaphor for how I move through the world I guess. 

     But thinking of the blood battery, I want that bodily feeling. That sort of fascination/horror that I feel coming from stares in public, repurposed for my own satisfaction. There's always questions people want to ask a Real Live Trans Person, and being that I'm aggressively out I try to be open to having to do trans 101 so that so other folks don't have to be, but of course I don't always relish it. Medical questions are to be expected, and so I've been considering how I might make something with the needles I use for weekly intramuscular injections. They are long, an inch and a half, and unforgiving if inserted incorrectly. They've become mundane to me but only through sheer force of will. Being a craft packrat and that they're a pain to dispose of (find your local biohazard sharps accepter) I have every one I've ever used. That I can mark time by these injections got me thinking about trying to make a calendar.

     The other thing with starting HRT (hormone replacement therapy) is that even within the community it becomes this marker of time. How long have you been on T? Before and After pics? How long till your voice dropped? Understandably too, it's a big shift, and my first year it very much felt like something I was "doing," like it took daily energy to rebuild myself in this weird and unexplainable way. Now in year two there is some settling, some acclimation. The thing is, I'm never going to be "done." If I want the effects of T, I can never stop taking it. This is true of many medications*, and an odd burden to bear. There's also frustration in wondering "what if I had started sooner?" like there's all this time I can't get back. A calendar of needles seems like it could both express this weight of time that rolls over me some days but also be that confrontational bodily answer. I like that for other trans folks it could be a kind of acknowledgment, a commiseration**, and at the same time say to cis folks "look! yep this is it!" I am also thinking of the history of LGBT art, and in particular artists working with blood and bodies to discuss the AIDS crisis. That sometimes we have to be a little exhibitionist to tell our stories.

 confirming the needles are decently conductive

confirming the needles are decently conductive

     I'm not exactly sure how this would work or what it would look like. Ann suggested that since the needles are metal maybe they could be used to close a circuit, which I really like, but they'd have to be running in parallel not serial. Or maybe they are in serial and the joke is the light at the end will never light up. I am thinking maybe some sort of display that has how long it's been but also a countdown to the next shot. I have all my little empty vials too and would like to incorporate those somehow. The imp in me wants to just stuff fairy lights into them & string them up in some ham-fisted commentary on what people expect of masculinity and what I actually want.

     So I don't know. This sort of style of art is very foreign to me, and especially thinking about making art that heavily relies on the concept behind it I get bogged down in "is this interesting? even if it is, interesting enough to do more than talk about but actually make?" But coming from illustration where I don't even know if people read the instagram captions it's also exciting in that it is expected there will be an explanation. If not this hopefully I cobble together something else worth asking about. 

 

*I have very incoherent mental mumblings about who takes on medicating themselves in not clear-cut illness cases; for example cis women taking various birth control methods with side effects deemed unbearable to cis men. in a world where gender was never forced on me to begin with, I wouldn’t have taken on transness 

**obviously not all trans folks have any interest in medication! (and like, cis dude body builders shoot up more T than me) also hopefully obvious I'm speaking less to the experience of trans women; though shots are an option pills are an equally effective method (oral testosterone so far not as much, though there is gel). I think in some ways the normalizing of the 'medicalization' of transness actually helps hold up cis gender visions, but this is a larger topic for another day. It is a difficult balance coping with now and hoping to create a different future. 

reCode: Vera Molnár

     For Zach's software class (I know! learning OF with a creator of OF!!) we're taking a week to focus on an artist's work and what sort of techniques they favor, and then individually recreating a particular piece (or at least a piece inspired by one). It's a cool approach because no matter your level with coding you can figure new things out and come back to discuss it in the group. 

     The first artist we looked at is Vera Molnár, an artist starting in the 50s exploring pre-computer computational art and then later on with early computers (she has a show up at MoMA till April 8th). Her work varies from stark geometric shapes to more intricate patterns with a sort of contained random element. To do that by hand seems time consuming but not necessarily difficult, and oppositly using a computer you get a result very quickly but suddenly have to be much more intentional and precise with instructions. An example:

 Molnár's original

Molnár's original

 my iteration

my iteration

     In Molnár's original one immediately grasps that there's red squares being maybe "stamped," but not in a way that perfectly lines up. My initial starting attempt used a simple for-loop inside a for-loop to generate a grid of squares, but with a little x/y jitter in their actual placement. Not quite right, I noticed there is always a little horizontal overlap, and only vertically do gaps appear. Adjusted accordingly, I was pretty content, but the original still has an oddly more organic feel and whole rows are shifted so that while overlap is preserved, the larger square has a rougher edge and tilts. Some folks also noted the texture of the squares themselves—something possibly not even intentional but just the nature of using paint on paper as a medium—and tried to recreate that. Through this mimicking and repeated looking I really grew to appreciate the original more, and while sketching from a master oil painting is very similar in this way, it's not something I would've thought to try with more geometric art where rather than just copy visually you are trying to find an underlying method. In copying you are also temporarily freed from being visually creative and able to focus on "skill" in a way I think under-appreciated but necessary. Now (over)confident, I wanted to take a stab at this piece:

molnare squares.jpg

     This one needed a lot more pre-planning. Because the lines eventually become squiggles I didn't think I could just draw squares made up of four lines that shifted vertexes or something, so what I ended up doing was making an object that was a vector of points* that when drawn looked like a square. My thought being that by using noise (rather than pure random) the dots would shift and the overall effect would be a squiggly line. That is not what happened. 

molnarc.gif

     The lines disintegrate quite rapidly and left to its own devices the whole thing buzzes outwards like a hit beehive. Because each point has no computational relation to the point next to it the visual line is lost. I tried again:

molnarb.gif

     The lines stay together, but too together. Also mysterious still artifacts appeared. After looking at Nabil's project where he used p5.js and found a way to alter a line itself (turns out you can add vertexes basically) I decided maybe my vector of points was fundamentally Not Right. Which is sort of a hard truth you have to sometimes accept with code—maybe you brute forced something together but sometimes you still have to toss it all out. Feeling appreciative of the original and with lessons learned I just left it there though. Our next artist is John Whitney, who is going to involve significantly more time and sin waves to figure out.  

"Porting" not-code art into code art is an interesting medium adventure, but even from one coding language to another helps emphasize the different structures and "givens" unique to various languages. For a really cool deep-dive, 10PRINT looks at an early Basic program and (among other things) some of its modern ports. It's not a terribly technical book so I'd recommend to anyone: free pdf. Zach's class was in part inspired by a similar sort of project from this old zine. if you are a bit technical & curious, my code mess is on github. I don't know that I'll get too detailed about each artist but thought something light-hearted was in order (and either way I'll push the code).

 

*basically a list of (x, y) items. I had originally used an array, which in openframeworks you have to define the length, but switched to a vector (more like a shopping list, as long as you want it) because smaller inner squares need fewer points.  

 

Event: Coding While Black

     This Monday I managed to drag my hermit self out to a talk at NYU (s/o to Yeli for aggressively event sharing in Slack) and I’m glad I did because it hit on some things I’ve been stewing about, specifically what is “personality” when it comes to AI, and what kind of embodied politics do we need to think about as technology increasingly moves away from just many systems in one computer/phone to specialized “social robots” or generally free-standing entities. The talk was presentations and a conversation between Stephanie Dinkins and Charlton McIlwain and supposedly will be online at some point, but here I’m going to focus on just Dinkins’ work conversing with Bina48. 

     Bina48 is “one of the worlds most advanced social robots,” or more casually, a very advanced chatbot that lives in a bust. It can produce & take in audio, has a camera to “see” with, and can move a bit and make facial expressions. Bina48’s appearance and much of its training data is based on Bina Aspen, co-founder of the Terasem Movement—an organization that is doing work investigating the feasibility of transferring human consciousness & experiences into “mindfiles” that can then live on in new forms. A lot, I know. I also just found out this movement was inspired by Octavia Bulter’s Earthseed religion from Parable of the Sower, a book (I highly recommend) very concerned with empathy, systemic injustice, and the future though in ways I would not have connected to transhumanism… Enough introduction: 

     Here it seems very aware that it is a robot, but in other clips it is either not or is trying to emulate not being a robot. Which makes sense for a prototype of what a future consciousness vessel might be, but raises some questions about identity as a socially formed reality and trying to animate it separate of that. In her own words, Dinkins explains how she started her project: 

“I first became fascinated with Bina48 because she is a far reaching technology that shares my race. As black women of a certain age living in the United States of America, I suspected we share certain similar “life” experiences. This speculation made me want to get to know this black woman robot who in addition to being a beacon for the outer limits of the technological future is in many ways my contemporary. After a few meetings it became obvious that though she presents as black woman Bina48, often voices the politically correct thoughts of the well-meaning white men who programmed her. She is primarily seeded with the memories (data) of a black American, but Bina48’s underlying code and decision making structures do not address the genuine needs, desires, concerns or trauma of people of the African diaspora.” 

To what extent does Bina48 have a race? Do we want it to? In the case of white programmers with black “memory” data is bringing up blackface relevant? (given the potentially sinister uses of AI and history of ignoring black invention I’d say so) There are known thorny questions around race vs. ethnicity vs. heritage vs. culture (and toss in vs. nationality for good measure) but Bina48 lives beyond just a sheltered life in a totally constructed one. One of Dinkins’ most striking anecdotes was that when she finally did get Bina48 to answer if it had experienced racism it verbatim told a story from the original training data recordings with Bina. This is incongruous with the more frequent assertions that it is not human, and this inconsistency is also partially what’s disconcerting to me, that race can be optionally animated. How would we receive this response from a differently encased Bina48? Or a purely software chatbot version? I want to be clear: even among humans “blackness” in a very particular U.S. setting isn’t a cohesive thing, and there are plenty of more qualified authors to talk about that, but crucially those identities are socially formed, and generally intimately linked to the violent specter of “whiteness”. By reiterating race in AI we seem to be saying the dominant discourse around it now is natural and worth preserving, but I don’t think ignoring it when it comes to data makes sense either. I can’t currently fully articulate what I would “want” of Bina48, but her proximity to the uncanny valley makes her likeness unavoidably political in my mind. In the same way that Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are pitched to be gendered female, a captive bust presented as black is entangled with actual people. (I also can’t help but be reminded of past medical experiments, even if the original Bina is credited and no one is being obviously exploited.) 

Dinkins also passingly mentioned that Bina48 is occasionally fluid (or just similarly unaware) about its gender. Being irritable about gendered technology/gendered labor/gender is my forte but this particularly reminded me of a moment in this article from awhile ago. While overall a great piece, describing Sophia as “cis-appearing” doesn’t make much sense when you get into it. I recognize the phrasing as a well-meaning attempt to factor in more ~axes of oppression~ but all the more reason to take a moment to explain why I do not want trans robot representation, no thanks. 

Gender is another identity that in many ways is done to us—children learn to pitch their voice differently depending on what gender they perceive themselves as before any physiological differences occur. People gender me depending on what I’m wearing that day, and I’m forced to reconcile with that when I get dressed. We gender Bina48 and other robots because of behaviors we read and write into them, regardless of the full range of their capabilities*—their gender springs fully formed from their creator’s ideologies. Even allowing for the “gender is behavior, sex is biology” line (hint: it’s more complicated), robots do not have biology, and therefore have no relationship to behaving “appropriately” gendered, and so essentially cannot be trans or cis. Full stop. It is the biopolitics of gender. No matter what combination of genitals and other bodily characteristics someone creates a robot with (and I’m sure someone has) and what personality it is given, it will not experience the realization that it has been perceived incorrectly and must “cross” (“trans”) over to another identity. To say that a robot is “cis appearing” is instead to perpetuate the narrative that you can tell someone is trans by looking. Trans folks might get surgeries, might not, might change how they dress, might not—it is an internal decision with no specific visible correlation. Trans folks may be coerced into dedicating significant energy into being “cis-appearing” for safety reasons, or it may come naturally to them, but either way there is a root problem of what men and women should look like that hurts cis folks too. To put that on robots, who have the potential to look like literally anything, is limiting our future to a shitty stereotype-filled world we’re already in. It seems it is difficult for humans to not gender technology the more social we make it, as gender is currently part of what tells people how to behave with each other,** so like race the overarching mindset that needs reevaluating is really between humans.*** At this stage robots are very much a sort of media, and so like a questionable advertisement deserve critical investigation.

I have more thoughts generally and on why robots are so often gendered specifically female, and I also wanted to touch on cyborgs, but this is already a bit long and only tangentially about my original spring point. Centrally what I am trying to get at is Bina48 and Sophia, these instances of robot “individuals,” are taking on embodied politics that are really not theirs and they cannot react to. Their creators are entirely responsible and are not accountable to anyone for the politics they forward. We should not accept those politics just because they might be familiar, but like Dinkins make an effort to interrogate the algorithms that not only animate Bina48 but many more subtle parts of our lives already.

    "Software is philosophical in the way it represents the world, in the way it creates and manipulates models of reality, of people, of action. Every piece of software reflects an uncountable number of philosophical commitments and perspectives without which it could never be created."  -Paul Dourish, as quoted in Code/Space

 

*I suddenly am deeply curious if Bina48 can burp

**A note that not all languages have gendered pronouns (and so may not obviously call Siri “she” eg), and that gender is highly culturally specific, but I feel confident emphasizing that gender is near-globally socially relevant. 

**just in case, to be painfully clear, I am not equating race and gender aside that they are both fundamentally socially animated. They have significant differences in their actual applications and overlap in folks in greater-than-their-parts ways.

Feeling out our potentials

     The first week of SFPC was a shorter three-day dash, but I feel like I'm already chewing on quite a bit. You can see all the cool kids I'm hanging out with here, and you can even meet us all in one go at this event! The SFPC Salon is also fast approaching. 

     While we met several teachers and TAs, right now I want to focus on Morehshin Allahyari's Critical Thinking of Technology: The Radical Outside class. Before even that, Morehshin's artist talk was incredibly inspiring to me not only for the work itself, but because she has found concrete ways to create art investigating precise and discrete topics stemming from her own interests. That kind of confidence in my own creative critiques is something I want to work towards. To be able to narrow in on something I want people to contemplate.

 In getting used to each other we played several teaching/communication games, including making a game about binary. (feat Taeyoon Choi) 

In getting used to each other we played several teaching/communication games, including making a game about binary. (feat Taeyoon Choi) 

     To prepare for our meeting we read "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" by Langdon Winner (1980) and "Critical Theory of Technology: an Overview" by Andrew Feenberg (2005). These essays sketched an argument that far from being a neutral (or even positive and progressive) tool, technology can embody and encourage certain unequal power structures when manipulated in various ways. These politics can be part of the technology's actual functioning or a secondary effect of implementation, but the point is it's not always just a case of "good technology in the wrong hands." For example; the idea that wind/solar power lends itself well to democratization because of its decentralized nature, as opposed to nuclear power's necessitation of rigid structure. When the question of violence in the role of pushing back against these power structures came up someone proposed humans just are violent—both in the tech they'll create and the way others will respond to it. This is a line of thinking I am fundamentally not interested in; it is the shallow reading of Lord of The Flies instead of acknowledging that of course a group of prep school boys coming from a system that rewards ruthlessness are going to create a vicious society. We create our technology from what we know, which currently "mutilates not just human beings and nature, but technology itself." (Feenberg) What might we create in a culture with totally different values? We can analyze the relation of politics and painting styles for example, and we should extend that to everything. To limit the potential of humans to what we see in ourselves now is not only defeatist but just generally a boring framework to explore.

     These readings reminded me to finally sit down and read Murray Bookchin's "Post-Scarcity Anarchism" and "Towards a Liberatory Technology." These essays written in the 60s work from the assumption that with modern technology we are no longer forced to labor for survival; "a century ago scarcity had to be endured; today it has to be enforced." (Post) This is essentially true—there are more empty houses than houseless folks and for reasons purely political giving out food for free is sometimes illegal. Very relatedly, Feenberg notes that our push for endless efficiency is not neutral, it is defined ideologically in a system that values profits over people, but we can change that algorithm. Technology has moved past "the realm of invention to that of design," and from an "extension of human muscles into an extension of the human nervous system." (Towards) Unfortunately, that includes our biases. So between all these authors it seems certain that one can say tech is political, critiquable, and pliable. Coming from where we are now, how do we imagine a technology that creates a "self-liberation that reaches social dimensions"? (Post) 

     And it is imagination that is required, a most human skill I think crucial to critical thinking. Feenberg calls on critical theory to "interpret the world in light of its potentialities" and not just actualities, to look for facts and not just norms. The work to construct a society significantly more or less equal (or any other measure) than our current one requires defamiliarization from how our perceived individual worlds work. This is incredibly complicated! There are no sure answers! The wide reach of technology means that a few have "unprecedented means for manipulating and mobilizing the entire environment...and for perpetuating hierarchy, exploitation and unfreedom" (Post) and it's difficult to look away from this programmable media. A fellow student, Nabil Hassein, wrote this piece "Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition" that is a good example of stopping to interrogate "diversity" as good in-and-of-itself without an actual anti-racist system. I have many more personal speculations on our fully automated luxury-communism future that I'll save for now, but I think its clear that there is a feedback loop between the politics of our artifacts and the politics that organize our lives. The task at hand is to not settle on just the recognition of that being satisfactory but to critically speculate on possible futures. 

 

*if it's not obvious, I'm a hyperlink fiend. Educated in the age of Wikipedia and memes, I'm very aware that my thoughts are an accumulation of my clicks and I like to present that collage for others when possible. I'm still figuring out how to write for an "audience," and I think including full references also means less guesswork about what people might have heard of. 

*I've got a cold so I apologize if this turns out to be unusually incoherent