thinking

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. 

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.)

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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. 

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.