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in memory of an art review gone astray.

A quotation from the late star of Soundcloud Rap, Li’l Peep, accompanies the press release for Haptic House, a group show at Horse and Pony Fine Arts curated by Penny Rafferty and positively chockablock with excellent works by emerging and legendary artists. While Soundcloud Rap and its Gucci Gang of stars isn’t particularly distinguished for its lyrical sophistication, the lines from Peep, wherein the word “lonely” appears eight times over six lines bespeaks the ways in which the mind perseverates over a given idea until it writes itself into one’s consciousness. What may look from the outside like mind-numbing repetition can look from the inside like a soothing mantra to quiet an uneasy spirit. It’s all in the arrangement, one might suggest. The notion of a haptic house, in which objects are arranged in order to elicit tactile responses, could describe any exhibition really, so what makes Rafferty’s intervention into the unique interior geography of Horse and Pony (a former butcher shop) so distinct? Penny, how haptic is your house? 

The answer is pretty haptic, actually.  As Casey Jane Ellison’s amusing art-comedy web series, Touching the Art, alludes to in its title, the desire to reach out and grab an artwork can be as frustrating and allusive as it is consuming, happily, or haptically, the art touches you in this exhibition, a case in point is the sculptural works of Monika Grabuschnigg whose “So it is a lover who bubble and who foams” (2017), a phantasmagoric construction of metal and ceramic adorned with mouths from which water spouts. The water pours out into a basin in which bubbles form soapy mountains which threaten at times to spill into the room. More than one viewer that I saw couldn’t resist the urge to put a hand in the water or the bubbles as they piled up. 

One could scarcely avoid touching the woks of Nuri Koerfer, whose papier-mâché, resin and styrofoam constructions served as often seats for the viewing of works by other artists as works in their own right. Thus, even the sedentary viewer feels the art from above and below. Koerfer’s works often reference animal shapes, e.g. dogs, crocodiles, sea mammals, and, therefore, they seem almost to have a ceremonial character, evoking altars as much as furniture. Form and function are happily joined in them though, as I spent more than my share of time seated on a Koerfer watching the supremely moving Kathy Acker (and Alan Sondheim) work known as “Blue Tapes” (1972) in which the artists, discuss the tensions, anxieties, and hopes of their relationship. The work oddly seemed to anticipate the rise of ASMR videos in its mixture of the comforting and the uncanny. Rather like the chorus of a pop song, one might suggest, and that would be fitting as my next experience was perching on a Koerfer watching Josefin Arnell’s “Champs” (2018) in which a group of young men and women perform dance routines on what appears to be a rooftop in Korea. The evocation of the aesthetics of K-Pop and its brutal machinery of entertainment foregrounded the wear and tear such forms of mass-audience entertainment wreak on their performers. Arnell’s performers appear to be having fun, but, as they are intermittently shown covered in (one hopes) fake blood, one cannot help making the association with Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes” in which the pleasure and liberation of dancing eventually become the means by which the protagonist dies. Thus, the price paid by Li’l Peep, and another musician referenced in the press release, Ian Curtis, returned to the forefront of my thoughts. The recent suicides by K-Pop stars Kim Jong-Hyun and Seo Min-Woo couldn’t help but bring a greater level of poignance to Arnell’s work as well (not least in a month in which the designer, Kate Spade, and the food writer and broadcaster, Anthony Bourdain, were also reported to have taken their own lives). It is, indeed a lonely world, as the quotation from Peep’s “Cry Baby” observes, and sometimes the loneliest place of all is in front of a crowd. Such melancholy sentiments are perhaps at odds with the carnivalesque qualities of Rafferty’s riot of objects, but haptic dynamics cut multiple directions. Sometimes it’s easiest to cry into a funhouse mirror.  

Haptic House

Curated by Penny Rafferty, featuring Josefin Arnell, Nuri Koerfer, Monika Grabuschnigg, Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim, Zuzanna Czebatul, Claude Eigan, Geovanna Gonzalez, Zofia Kersztes, Leckhaus, Dennis Loesch, Jake Kent, Florian Oellers, Isaac Penn, Przemek Pyszczek, Jack Schneider, Maximilian Schmoetzer, Jonas Schoeneberg, and Rafal Zajko

Horse and Pony Fine Arts

Altenbrakerstrasse 18

12053 Berlin 

 

wwww.horseandponyfinearts.com

In memory of a book project from which i pulled the following text and others

In a car park near Los Angeles, a group of men reenact key battles from the civil war every weekend. The event started out very small, with only a few people who met online reconstructing the battles as best they could with the limited pool of resources and people they could bring together. But as the weeks went by, the events became more popular. Soon large crowds were gathered to watch the battle. At first they were respectful, even academic in their appreciation, noting the fidelity with which the performers documented and performed the historical scenarios, but as the weeks went by, there was a change. People began to bring beer and drugs. The crowds began to take sides, cheering the North or the South as the actors fought. Then, someone had the idea that it might be more interesting if people could be allowed to bet on the outcome of the reenactments. The actors objected, noting that everyone knew the outcome of the battles. One of the businessmen behind the betting venture said “I wouldn’t be so sure of that”. The performers, the men in the battles all considered themselves to be performers now, only agreed when the investors offered to provide them with a percentage of the profits from the bets. The betting lasted for months and everyone made good money. One week, during a reenactment of the battle of Mill Springs, the actor playing Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer refused to die when the actor playing Colonel Speed Fry shot him. No one knew what to do. But after a few moments, the battle of Mill Springs continued, and eventually Felix Zollicoffer was killed. Throughout the following week, the actors were locked in disputes with each other. Some felt it was important to stick to the narrative of the original Civil War, others felt like the new, speculative Civil War was a more interesting idea. Eventually, most agreed to turn up the following week to fight a new battle. They agreed that they would fight the Battle of Champion Hill. The battle went according to the agreed historical record until one point when a Confederate soldier stood aside from the battle to sing a hit pop song that everyone in the crowd knew and which, the actor later explained, he felt was so indicative of the emotions that a Confederate soldier would have felt on the occasion of losing the last major stronghold and retreating to certain defeat, that the song was psychologically, if not historically accurate. This incident caused serious soul-searching in the actors’ forums the following week. Many of the more historically-minded actors quit in disgust. This created openings, however, in the cast, and so the more entertainment-minded actors auditioned new soldiers and generals. By the following week, when the Battle of Bull Run was enacted, the crowd cheered when, in a stunning coup de theatre, a popular, if somewhat forgotten, actor from a 1990s sitcom appeared to announce that he’d be joining the cast next week and that the War would have a more comic interpretation as things went on. After that the Civil War became much more popular, even attracting sponsors and syndication contracts from Italian television channels. It was true that the purists who began the war objected and were marginalised, but in the end, almost everyone else agreed that this format was both more entertaining and more sustainable.

In memory of a trip to the Czech Republic 10 Years Ago. A 10 Year Old Unpublished Blob of Flash Fiction

The Unstolen Truck

This is going to be another one of those “I was in a foreign country” stories people are always writing. I apologise in advance. In fact, I apologise for a couple of reasons, not least because I don’t really know what the point of this story is, but somehow there seems to be one and maybe in telling it, that point will become clearer, not least for me. The foreign country in question is the Czech Republic and the story takes place in a bed in a hotel room in Prague. I was with a woman named Elena, and she and I had been out all day, her showing me the city and now I was far too drunk and exhausted to even consider doing anything but watching Czech television. I’m sure she was exhausted, too, but she had enough energy to offer a mildly sarcastic translation of everything we were watching.

Most of what was on Czech TV at that time seemed to be valedictory shows in which old stars from the communist era would appear on a stage and tell vaguely off colour stories about life in the TV business under communism (or maybe it was just the translation). There was one show, though, for which I guess the word is “engrossing”. It was some kind of detective programme that was apparently constantly on when Elena was a girl. The main detective had long hair and a big moustache, and he generally had a kind of retro appeal that was entertaining in itself. The vibe seemed to be that he was a cop who played by his own rules, at least within the narrow options available at the time. The episode centred on the story of a stolen truck. Apparently a farmer had a truck. Some guys stole it. It was the detective’s job to find it back. I don’t remember the full story, but I remember the detective and his partner talking through theories, asking questions of the farmer, and then chasing some people for a while. In the end, it turned out that maybe the truck hadn’t been stolen after all. I think the farmer was the one up to something untoward.

I turned to Elena, “Kind of weird, isn’t it?”

“Everything was weird then.”

“No, I mean the whole premise of the show, that you could ‘steal’ something in a country without private property.”

“But it wasn’t stolen, you see.”

“True, enough. But they were still investigating. It really asks you to suspend your disbelief.”
“Maybe that was the point of the show,” she said, then she looked out the window as the streetlights were coming up.  Then she said, “Maybe that was the point of everything.”

In memory of an art review that was (obviously) too damn hot to publish

The Inoperative Community
Raven Row
56 Artillery Lane
London E1 7LS

www.ravenrow.org

Until 14 February 2016

In the exhibition, “The Inoperative Community”, the curator, Dan Kidner, brings together more than twenty film and video works that address what Jean-Luc Nancy, the originator of the phrase the show takes for its title, called “the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community.” The exhibition is monumental in scale, bringing together more than two days’ worth of video in total. Such epic proportions inherently run the risk of pretension and the cheap afflatus of curatorial megalomania, but thanks to Kidner’s impeccable selections and the transformation of Raven Row’s elegant interiors into a set of intimate cinemas complete with comfortable sofas and the occasional well-placed sculpture, the show is as necessary and imperative as the struggles the films that compose it depict. No viewer can expect to see all the works on show, the press materials more or less concede this, noting that only a “fraction” of the works will be experienced by gallery-goers.  

Fraction is the right word. A number of the films exceed three hours in length and the rotating programme of films shown in the southernmost downstairs room of the gallery guarantee that even the most dedicated viewer will only come away with a partial experience of the exhibition. Despite this awareness, itself an eloquent metaphor for the experience of life in 24-7-365 digital culture, there are works that can be seen in one sitting. Among the most digestible and engaging, at a comparatively svelte 32 minutes, is Erica Beckman’s 1983 work, “You The Better”, in which the strangest sports club ever assembled attempts to fathom the rules of a game that makes the notoriously intricate protocols of cricket seem like chequers. The team never loses heart as they rally and hustle down the court. The artist, Ashley Bickerton, calls the plays, but victory only ever seems to recede as his teammates shoot one frantic lay-up after another at a netless basketball hoop or roll a ball along the ground past an animated goalpost in full “High Noon” cowboy garb. The incantatory soundtrack of harmonic chanting evokes both the voices of choirs and of cheerleaders. Despite their best efforts though, it’s clear that the house, a suggestively pentagonal structure that continually reappears, as an image on the screen and as a sculpture beside viewers in the Raven Row space, will always win.  

 

Anne Charlotte Robinson’s “Five Year Diary” traces the life of the artist over a period in the late eighties through to the nineties, drawing the viewer into the most intimate and banal corners of her existence. We hear about her experiences of depression and also her thoughts on attending graduate school as scenes of daily life flash by; days are condensed to seconds. The result is something that might have come to pass had Proust’s famous madeline cookie been spiked with lithium and mescaline. It’s probably not advisable to attempt to take in all of “Five Year Diary” at once, but if you can make it to the exhibition more than once, it’s a winsome reification of the fact that life goes on in all its micro-triumphs and tragedies, and this, in itself, provides a kind of solace.  Lav Diaz’s sprawling, 480 minute film “Melancholia” touches similar themes but places them in the context of the historical and cultural struggle of people of the Philippines; the personal journeys of Diaz’s characters serve as witnesses to the deep entanglement of the personal and the political. Such works in Kidner’s exhibition serve as a potent reminder that in order for the fight for justice, identity and common humanity to continue with any hope of success, the words and worlds of those who have gone before must be digested and remade by individuals. The community may be inoperative, but it is not inoperable.

In Memory of a Talk at Decad in Summer 2016

Thanks to Rachel Alliston and everyone at Decad, Irene Perez Hernandez, Vasilis Mochas, and David Dixon of Cathouse Funeral in NYC. 

The understanding of the studio that emerges from much of the scholarship that exists on the role of the studio in artistic practice conceives of the studio as a specific location, a site in physical space, containing objects and materials which define an artistic practice. It is also characterized as the title of Andrew Hardman’s Ph.D. thesis, Studio Habits, implies, a place of habits. Habits necessarily entail a sense of returning and continuity. And it is fair to say that this accords fairly well with the historic conception of the artist’s studio, a location in physical space where the artist appears and carries out the ritual of the creative act for a limited but undefined period of time before leaving the “studio” space to occupy other spaces, spaces like homes, cafes, galleries, Ankerklause on Maybachufer, wherever the artist may choose to go. What is important about the discrete infinity of other spaces is that they are almost never characterised as being the artist’s studio even if the artist is present there and working there. I feel like this is a crucial distinction that this presentation may fruitfully explore. Obviously, there can be no single definition of what a studio is or represents—and this is true of any word, but it is worth noting that the fungibility of the concept of the studio is not infinitely flexible. If someone were to happen to meet me in, for example, Cafe Pfeiffer or 5 Elephant and I told them I was “in my studio” laughter would be the most logical response to such an assertion, but, in thinking about the production of this text, such conclusions, written, quite literally in the physical space of the aforementioned cafes, must necessarily be true, at least in part, for me. 

 I would argue that, increasingly, the ecology of aesthetic practice is becoming increasingly dematerialised, this is true both of the reference points and materials used in the production of art, but also in the geographic territories in which the act of creation takes place. I will attempt to examine this point from several different perspectives. I will use my own “practice” for lack of a better term as a kind of starting point, but then I will hope to explore the theory of the studio as it exists in the literature, as well as the lived experience of artists engaged in creation in physical studio sites in cities including New York, London, Berlin and Athens. 

Artists who, unlike me, primarily create physical material objects are increasingly marginalised, both in terms of the aesthetic discourse and in terms of the vagaries of neoliberal capitalism in this late age of hypermobile capital and the hollowing out of urban spaces by the transmutation of buildings as (primarily) Heideggerean dwelling places into repositories for capital. This is particularly true of London—at least until Friday 24 June at around 1AM GMT—but it is increasingly true of Berlin and other cities less historically central to the biography of the nexus of visual art and capital. To begin this discussion, I will discuss my own personal experience with and understanding of the studio, and compare that with historical conception of the role of the studio in the traditional conception of the artist’s life. 

 My first personal knowledge about and interest in the experience of the studio was cultivated in relation to the recording studio. Images of musicians in the studio were always fascinating to me, and hearing stories about the recording, for example, of Marvin Gaye records where producers and engineers asked Gaye to lie on his back to record certain vocal parts to produce particular vocal effects were, given my limited horizons at the time, endlessly fascinating. The first physical interactions I had then with studios as creative spaces was with the bands I played in in my late teens and throughout my twenties. During those years, the studio was a place of deep emotional connection and immersion. Initially, it was a site of total anxiety, facing a microphone in a recording booth for the first time, or trying to reproduce a “live” sound in the rather anodyne atmosphere of the recording studio was a long way from the romantic vision of Bowie in Hansa Studios. I would say that during this period, I began to fall in love with the studio as a space and it became an annual tradition to spend Christmas Day in one or another dingy recording studio working more or less every year for a decade. I would contrast this notion of the studio with the artist’s studio however, in that if one takes Andrew Hardman’s notion of the studio as “a place of habits” or Michel de Certaeu’s notion from his work The Practice of Every Day Life as “a practiced place”. Recording studios at this point in time were places where I worked to realise works rather than to cultivate creative habits. The creative production took place in various spaces, flats, dorms, rehearsal studios etc. These locations are seen differently in music, which I think is conceptually significant. They are designated as “rehearsal rooms” or “spaces” rather than “studios”. Studios are a site of realisation rather than a site of “habits” or the exploration of process. 

 Time in the studio during this period was actually frequently disrupted by performing or touring, which, at the time, I hated because it kept me out of the studio, but I feel that that touring period was the time during which I cultivated my current rather ambivalent attitude toward the studio. The running joke about the band was that the only people who liked us were art students who downloaded our music for free and A&R people who were sent the music for free for promotional purposes so we had no commercial future. This turned out to be true. But in playing gigs and doing promotional work for the band, I met many of the people who introduced me to the world of visual art and I began to understand what I was doing as being less “music” in the traditional sense, but a modality of performance. In the years that followed the breakup of the band, I became more and more involved in performance and conceptual (more or less relational) art. It was during this period that I also completed my MA and Ph.D.—works centered on the interaction of language and mind, and began doing art “journalism” if that is indeed the term one should apply to the writings that appear in art publications. 

As I drifted further from the norms of the recording studio, I never truly settled on a conception of what the art studio would mean to an artist with my concerns. I feel that possibly the people who were most formative for me in terms of my own practice were people like Richard Long and Robert Smithson, artists who were avowedly in the world as much as they were in the studio, and philosophers of language like Chomsky and Wittgenstein who viewed language as relational systems as much as chains of reference and meaning. To speak about a few specific works that relate to the physical studio as conceived in the literature, the place of habits and the place of practice, and my own approach, this is a work I called “A Hole Made by Walking” referencing Long’s earthwork “A Line Made By Walking”. This work was something I retroactively understood as having cognitive and aesthetic value in relation to art historical concerns. It was created, ignorantly, over the course of 2012, a period of extreme poverty that I was enduring in London during my Ph.D. I’d made a work the previous year called “Every Step I Took” which consisted of a pile of canvas shoes stacked in the corner of a gallery. That work essentially recorded every step I took in public in the year 2011, another year of dire economic circumstances, but also the last year of my life that I allowed my obsessive vegetarian beliefs to dictate my clothing choices. The shoes were all “vegetarian vegetarian” in that they didn’t contain even the glue, made from pig bones, that many canvas shoes use. I was saving the shoes to recycle them at the end of the year, but then I realised as I looked over at the pile that the shoes were a kind of biography, a personal, intellectual and physical biography both of me, and of London. They contained my own physicality but also the time that wore them down to the holed messes that they were. They also, I felt humourously, engaged the notion of artistic poverty and self-importance so familiar as tropes from visual and literary representations of art, not to mention their being made of canvas. This work, and the work that followed, “A Hole Made by Walking” (from the year I abandoned vegetarian shoes as what I’d come to regard as a kind of moral vanity given that buying new shoes every two weeks entailed the extraction of materials that were as bad for the earth as knowing one is wearing completely vegetarian shoes is good for one’s smugness), was also a kind of awakening for me, a realisation that the site of creation, the site of habits could just as easily be a public space as an enclosed private space. Agamben’s notion of a habit as a “mode of being” was, I would argue, much more fully realised in a work like “A Hole Made by Walking” or “Every Step I Took” than any studio based self consciously “art” object based work I would have created at the time.

 

 From this point, I began to have a greater interest in the capacity for distributed sites of creation in the production of artwork that was not not object based, but also inherently performative. The question where these lines get drawn is an open one, but in Unmarked (1993) Peggy Phelan argues that documentation is an inherently experiential process, that “performance’s only life is in the present” and that documentation is antithetical to the content and aims of performance. I would argue something different, or perhaps I would position my own approach as being something different, the creation of objects that contain or address time, temporality and motion, but are not inherently tied to the physical presence of an individual being at a specific location at a particular time, essentially the converse (no pun intended) of Phelan. These are contradictions of a kind but they are acknowledged in the discussion of less obviously performative art traditions, for example in Kasia Redzisz’s writings on the “traces of the human presence” in the sculptural works of Miroslaw Balka. Objects like the shoes in “A Hole Made by Walking” are, in my understanding, something like “Performance sculptures”, sculptures that not only contain time—by inference—but also take time as a key subject in their production. 

   These works may be “dematerialised” in terms of the sites of their creation, but they remain very much in the material world of objects. Also, following the reasoning of Hardman and Agamben, they represent habits, but habits realised in a distributed geography. A more recent work from last year touches on this same set of logics but returns to language as a reference point in my work. As many people probably know me more as a writer than anything else, it might be helpful to draw that strand of my life more directly into contact with the works I’ve been discussing so far. I have long had an interest in the relationship of poetry to performance. My Ph.D. centred on the work of John Ashbery as its primary literary touchstone and contrasted it with notions of presence in the work of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson, more or less Ashbery’s contemporaries. I became interested during this period in Olson’s assertion that presence was central to the meaning of poetry, in his conception of it at least. During a poetry reading at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, documented in Libby Rifkin’s interestingly titled book, Career Moves, Olson Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan and the American Avant Garde, Olson is quoted as having made the following, vatic assertion about the role of presence in poetry:

 I wanna talk. I mean, you wanna listen to … a poet? I mean, you know, like a poet, when
 he’s alive, whether he talks or reads you his poems is the same thing … And when he is
 made of three parts, his life, his mouth and his poem, then, by god, the earth belongs to
 us. (Rifkin 13)

Very much orientated toward the bardic end of poetic ideology, the poetry I was interested in, poetry like Ashbery’s is less about the embodied poet but about the nature of language itself and its properties and structures. During this period I became interested in the idea of the poem as a visual object, beyond concrete poetry and flarf, I became interested in creating a “digital collection” in which poems were also readings, but were also visual objects. The results I posted on Youtube as part of a collection I called “Ephemera” (2014). Again, the notion of dematerialisation and distributed creation was at the heart of this project and a project I made in 2015 when I was living in New York. In keeping with the peripatetic approach of the other works, I came up with the idea of using the words I found around New York to create a poem and to produce a “reading” of that poem via instagram in which I posted the words I had found and configured into a poem in order from my instagram account. I am currently working on a version of this for Berlin but also using the visual reference point of the Youtube “lyric video” to create works that are even more robustly visual, but also irreducibly linguistic in character. The work of Steve Reinke might be a useful reference point here, or potentially not. These works are all, however an outgrowth of the notion of the distributed site of creation, which I feel is intrinsic to reconceptualising the studio, or at least formulating a conception of the studio which is outside the traditional “site-based” notion of the creative studio within art. 

 Having spoken about my own work, I feel that it is imperative to note that mine is just one voice within the contemporary creative ecology and that not every person working to create art has the same concerns and is so privileged as to work in a medium that consciously eschews the fixity of place in the process of creation. While I was working on this text, I became interested in the ways artists working in media like painting and sculpture are responding to the changing dynamics of the studio in relation to soaring property prices and incipient gentrification (or the regentrification of locations already economically (or, indeed, militarily) colonised and fallen into disuse). I wanted to include another voice in this process, someone who isn’t in my position, in this case a young Spanish woman who is a sculptor, her work requires a studio for its completion. Living in South and East London over the last ten years, she has also had a peripatetic experience but this is because she was in the epicentre of London gentrification. I think her story offers a glimpse of the dynamics of the process by which artists move into a place with affordable rents and subsequently create an economic dynamic that dispossess themselves and other people. 

 

 This story is probably familiar to everyone here either personally or at a few degrees of remove. I think one of the ways of tying all the threads together today by saying that this process too is part of an increasingly dematerialised logic. The logic of hypermobile capital flows is now so pervasive that the ability of the material world to respond is almost irrelevant, and thus circumstances like those that were documented in a report by Robert Booth in The Guardian from 31 January 2014 in which Booth gained access to a number of the “investment properties’ on the so-called Billionaire’s Row in Bishop’s Road in Hampstead and found inside one of these multi-million pound properties what he described as “generations of owl carcasses” suggesting that the place had been empty for so long generations of owls had lived out their lifespan and perished of natural causes inside. The property was simply too valuable to let. It is an ironic twist that the only safe way to maintain wealth in a hyper-financialised economy is to buy physical property and not rent it out. The ensuing scarcity that this process creates, both in terms of capital and in terms of space feed forward into every discourse in a culture or political entity. The infinite reach and distribution of digital imagery is one part of the increasingly dematerialised aesthetics that characterise a substantial proportion of contemporary art, but the process is not solely aesthetic, it may not even be a result primarily of aesthetic choices but the movements and appurtenances of the markets. The fewer residences that are available, the more desktop residents there will be. This is a process that may feel inexorable, but it is generated by humans, even if it is transhuman in its manifestation. To conclude on a hopeful note, I believe it is still possible to rehumanise the process but time, in the material world, is always a finite quantity. We must make the most of it. 

 

In memory of a talk I almost gave: A Millennial Chatbot’s Prayer

 

The following is the opening paragraph of Peter Bright’s article “Tay, the neo-Nazi millennial chatbot, gets autopised”, published by arstechnica on 26 march, 2016:

Microsoft has apologised for the conduct of its racist, abusive machine learning chatbot, Tay. The bot, which was supposed to mimic conversation with a 19 year old woman over twitter, kick, and groupme, was turned off less than 24 hours after going online because she started promoting Nazi ideology and harassing other Twitter users.

The disappearance of Tay is more farce than tragedy, but lost in the discussion of the nazi-fication of Tay was the nature of her existence itself. Tay was essentially designed to be an entity composed purely of data which could then reproduce relevant outputs from that data that, apparently, Twitter users would ideally seek to interact with. The days when people would be disturbed by this idea on its own are long gone, but understanding Tay as an innocent corrupted by the vile internet is a fundamental misconception. Tay after all is not Tay, but Microsoft, a corporation pursued by a number of US and European courts over anti-competitive practices and which has, at the moment, exactly zero cases of pursuing disinterested altruistic behaviour. The aim of the bot, to “experiment with and research on conversational understanding” is not an innocuous behaviour when the conversants don’t fully understand who is listening. The data that flows into Tay, or her more successful Chinese relative Xiaolce, is collected and analysed, most often by other computerised algorithms, but what becomes of that data is not always simply a matter of algorithmic shuffling. In 2014 for example, Facebook was forced to acknowledge that it had “tampered” with the newsfeeds of nearly 700,000 users by showing them “abnormally low numbers” of positive or negative posts. The experiment, in the words of the reporter, Dominic Rushe, sought to determine whether the company could alter the emotional state of its users. Knowing this fact, I think it is clear that the answer is yes; they can alter the emotional states of users. Particularly, they’re good at producing outrage. Every second we are online, and, indeed when we are not online, we are providing private companies with data about our lives. This data is complied, organised and collected by the companies, and then, the data is often sold on to advertisers, but also on exchanges that deal in data piles for their own sake.

One of the researchers at the forefront of the question of how our data is used is Dr. Bev Skaggs who teaches at LSE. She began looking into the question of how data was used in relation to the question of value, wondering if there were any area of life where commercial valuations did not intrude. Her answer appears to have been not many. The numbers she cites in her research are staggering: social media users DAILY generate 600 terabytes of information, there are 100,000 individual requests to Facebook from advertisers PER SECOND, bids are made across social media platforms 50 billion times per day. Skaggs’ research began by looking at the commercial side of the data industry, but has begun to explore the question of the political implications of the incomprehensible levels of commercial traffic associated with data. One of the major frontiers for social media platforms and the advertisers on which they depend is the formulation of a coherent picture of an individual through looking at their data. The advertisers want to match a specific product to a specific buyer at a specific time to further enhance market efficiencies and generate higher rates of growth; these platforms are essentially better thought of as data brokers or meta-brokers of data (aggregators that have a symbiotic relationship with formal data brokerage companies like Experian, Rubicon and Axion).

Consolidation is a major imperative, the more platforms and devices that you use from the same companies, or the more information is shared between companies (shared is not the right word, sold is), the more the data defines us. The integration of social media and platform apps and telecoms is a kind of Holy Grail for these companies so that they can manage both your online experience and your access to the internet. A particularly insidious example of this is the Free Basics programme which provides free mobile phones to populations in developing countries in exchange for being the only channel through which these populations have access to the internet. All data is fully captured. Thus, the more specific a picture of “you” they can harvest from your data, the happier they are. An advert in the UK featuring a character called “Dan” and his “Data Self” seated beside him, similar but not exactly the same person, is quite accurate, not least insofar as it is nearly impossible to tell which “Dan” is which, but it is also remarkable for how blasé the company using this advertising campaign is in acknowledging the concept of a shadow data self. Instead of outrage, the adverts are intended to actual reproduce the commercial relationships whose dangers they hint at. If you buy into the management of your data self, the data brokers and their customers will be very interested in this fact. In some ways, Skaggs’ research suggests, the Data Self is easier to recognise than the material self, individuals interact online in signature ways, but firms are attempting to reach out of the data and onto the body of the material selves as well, seeking to produce face recognition trackers in order to know who is using a specific device at a specific time. As these forms of tracking move forward, the political implications Skaggs speaks of become much more ominous. Already, data and analytics are used in a number of politically charged contexts, notably the approval or denial of parole to offenders. Inevitably the data, working from an existing set of events, writes in biases. In a patriarchy, they write in misogyny, in a white supremacist power structure, they write in white supremacy.

They also write in inequality. Of the 50,000 unique attributes Facebook uses to profile its users’ profiles, the question of value is at the centre of every decision, but it is purely a monetary evaluation. The high net worth and highly networked are worth more than the low net worth. Both are targets, but in different ways; both are products, but also in different ways. The high net worth data beings are sold to luxury goods producers, the low net worth data beings are sold for debt. On a commercial level it this is an odious but perhaps understandable dynamic, but it is not just commercial enterprises in the business of data trafficking. Recently the government of India found itself in the headlines for a sale of biometric data of its citizens to the governments of the US and UK, and to the CIA specifically. These governments hardly need help in gathering data, as the massive blanket surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden clearly demonstrated. The willingness of India’s government to blithely pass along sensitive information about citizens should be a warning that governments that do not value securing their citizen’s online identities will probably not value safeguarding their citizen’s offline identities for long either. More and more decisions will be made about our lives through the vector of our data selves. Institutions of state and commercial entities will know and understand aspects about our social identity – as slotted into their attribute matrices – that many of us will never even begin to understand. A shadow politics and a shadow culture is being created via our data (data to which we have no access). I say that we have no access to this data, but this is not entirely true. Presently, it is the case that all data compiled, packaged and traded by online platforms is proprietary, though periodically platforms make public a selective array of information. This disclosure process always happens on the terms of the company, however, as there is presently no formal legislation to make the platforms comply with requests for information about how the data they harvest is used. As we endlessly feed these companies more data, they become richer and more powerful. Their power and relative invisibility disguises an important truth about them: using any historic definition of value, all of us produce value for these corporations. In a sense, we are their labour force, yet we have no rights. No only do data companies not pay us for our information, many of them are structured for maximum tax efficiency, paying far less corporate tax than far smaller entities. Thus, these companies have the advantages of free labour, opaque internal structures, and favourable tax regimes, and all of this is before one considers the research and development advantages these entities had as much of the tech they’re based on was developed by publicly funded universities. The vision these companies have for us is the same as the vision they had for Tay, we are to be entities conditioned by the online interactions we engage in, permitted a range of options within a prescribed framework but essentially to feedback to the data system the information it wants. We are to become the employee, or perhaps the unpaid intern for our data selves.

 

Much like the Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman work “Television Delivers People” and the later riff on Serra’s work by Jonathan Horowitz, “Art Delivers People”, social media delivers people, and in an age of app based tech, increasingly dependent on data for advantages over competitors, the internet as a whole delivers people to advertisers. When one accepts a ride from Uber or a meal from Deliveroo, they, too, are being delivered and sold and re-sold. Primary markets, the actual services these apps purport to deliver, are more akin to costs than income streams: whatever money that can be made by delivering a hamburger from Illegal Burger to someone’s house in Kreuzberg pales in comparison with the money that can be made by selling the information about that delivery, who ordered it, where they live, what their consumption pattern is like, when they like to eat, how much is ordered (i.e. do they live alone)? All of these bits of information are valuable to a potential client and the companies that most effectively exploit these data will be the ones that survive and dominate the markets. Our digital selves will define our lives more and more and we’ll know less and less about them. So this moment is a crucial one. States and groups of states like the EU are strong enough to exert pressure on corporations that have more resources at their disposal than many states. This condition may not last much longer, indeed as countries like Ireland demonstrated recently, they are so addicted to servicing tech firms that they reject tax monies that are owed to them in fear that companies will look elsewhere to be based. Berlin is in an especially important place in this dynamic, as more and more business are coming here to set up offices, one may think of the Google campus near Reichenbergerstrsse in Kreuzberg, or Apple’s secretive offices on Markgrafenstrasse in Stadtmitte. Users of social media and the platform economy must act to take back control of their data selves, or at least become acquainted with them. There are means individuals can take to minimise their vulnerability to being consumed by data brokers. One may use anti-tracking devices like trackmenot, which is decent, or put tape over the webcam on your computer, which is low-tech but somewhat effective in ensuring that companies cannot see you by stealthily turning on your web cam without your knowledge, which, sadly, is a more common practice than it should be. But, really, the imperative is to act on a political level, to form groups and alliances to lobby for new laws relating to the protection and monetization of data. It may not be possible fully escape being “tracked, bought and sold”, in Bev Skaggs’ words, but it may at least be possible to have insight into the process. It is one thing to be conditioned, another thing to be hacked, as Tay the Millennial Chatbot demonstrated, data flows can make us vulnerable, but, unlike her, we are not, yet, owned and operated fully by Microsoft. We can still stop the worst from happening. And so I conclude by quoting the great Sir Cliff Richard’s hopeful anthem of the millennium, his prayer for a brighter 21st century. “lead us not to the time of trial,” he sang, keep us from evil.” Personally, I would settle for a few of the more irresponsible data brokers being led to trials and for Google to return to its motto (don’t be evil), but none of this will happen without us, the Millennial Chatbots of the world who must unite to make Sir Cliff’s prayer a reality.

In memory of when a magazine cared about an article on Khammash and Associates Architects

In his study, “Notes on Jordanian Village Architecture”, Ammar Khammash writes of the village of Hmud:

As in all Jordanian villages, looking at the stone walls from the west gives us a different impression from looking at them from the east. The western view is clearer, and, in the case of Hmud, a sharp contrast between the black and white stones gives the west view a  poignant vividness. This difference in appearance is caused by the direction of rain that comes every winter to wash the village walls facing west, while the walls facing east
have been accumulating dust since the beginning of this century.

Khammash, an eloquent writer on materials is speaking literally, but, of course, in the pervading neo-Orienatalist discourse of the present, it is difficult to escape a metaphoric interpretation of this passage as well. The weather conditions that the buildings of Hmud experience in winter may wash away the dust of centuries, but the clarity they reveal may also be deceiving. As Khammash’s architectural oeuvre has demonstrated, materials are not innocent of their history, however starkly revealed they may be. “Matter has its own intelligence,” he told me. This intelligence he describes as a kind of “intrinsic spirituality” that corresponds to concepts like location, composition, and, he says, “the spiritual needs and literacy” of the individual who encounters them. This recognition of the significance of the biographies of objects, if it is to be truly encompassing, must also take in dialogue—if that is the right word, perhaps colonisation is an equally apposite one—between objects and the human beings who employ, exploit and claim mastery over them.

The human impact on the landscape, both the built and natural landscape, is an increasingly urgent matter both in Jordan and the wider world. Smartphone screens seem to be endlessly scrolling images of anthropic interventions in the contemporary Middle East. The latest hyper-construction in Dubai is quickly replaced by the latest architectural snuff film posted by Daesh, which is then replaced by the image of fallout from a missile or drone strike. These interventions, both commercial and military, of course, take place against the backdrop of the natural environment, a fact so obvious as to require emphasis, an emphasis which Khammash is keen to make in the works his office creates. Writing of the Rangers Academy ecology park his firm designed, Khammash uses the term “wounded nature” to describe the ways in which human intervention have changed landscapes and ecologies. In response to a question about his use of the term, Khammash said the following:

When humans impact nature in a drastic way, causing “wounds”, (…) deep and sharp cuts
in the bedrock or the backbone of Nature. These wounds can be everlasting ones that are
difficult to heal, but at the same time they can mimic some of the natural behavior of
cliffs, exposing a section in the stratigraphy of the mountain side. It is possible that my
preference to expose or even celebrate the wounded nature as part of the design decision
comes from my subconscious  dislike of artificially trying to heal nature by something
like land-reclamation often used in quarries, and often covering or filling the wound.

To ignore or overwrite these incisions into the literal bedrock and backbone of the earth is to deny these sites their history. By placing his Rangers’ Academy in one such “wound”, the building evokes the concept of the “networked” creation discussed by David Joselit in his essay, “Painting Beside Itself”. Joselit begins by quoting the German painter and installationist, Martin Kippenberger’s, statement that “simply to hang a painting on the wall and say that it’s art is dreadful. The whole network is important … When you say art, then everything possible belongs to it. In a gallery that is also the floor, the architecture, the colour of the walls.” Such sentiments perhaps resonate with Khammash, himself an acclaimed painter–though he denies any direct correspondence between his visual art practice and his architectural concerns: “art–at least my art–is private” he says, “architecture should never be private”. Nevertheless the “infinite dislocations, fragmentations, and degradations” to which Joselit suggests painting is submitted in the contemporary era would also seem to hold true of architectural structures. Some of these dislocations and fragmentations are deliberate, others inhere in the substances used to create them.  Khammash’s buildings could, thus, despite his own protestations, be thought of as being networked in the same sense as Kippenberger’s works: they integrate not merely their surroundings, but the layers of activity that preceded their construction. The building consists of its materials, its visual presentation, its uses, and the history of all these components, including the history of the architect.

In 1994, Khammash built a house for himself near the ruins in the Jordanian city of Pella which, in its structure, its materials and the process by which it was built, reified the Kippenbergerian notion of the networked creation. Constructed without the direct intervention of machinery—vehicles were not permitted within 60 metres of the building site—the house is rendered as an Ozymandian disruption along a scrim of mountains in the near distance. Human endeavour is both celebrated and contextualised in all its frenetic futility in the construction. Khammash’s humanism is not inflated with a false sense of the capacities of human creativity, nor the shadow side of human creative endeavour that haunts every construction. Khammash sees the house as an extension of an organic process. When I asked him about its construction he said the following: “Architecture is, in a way, an extension of the human body,” recalling the words of the Irish architect Eileen Grey, Khammash characterised architecture as “our shell; our micro-adaptation to the natural environment”. This micro-adaptation will continue as long as humans exist: “architecture-making is continuous material-and-void engineering, an ever-evolving process to serve a growing and changing organism. It is the metabolism of matter and non-matter.”

The networks within which a given work is enmeshed must inevitably involve politics and, equally necessarily, the failure of politics.  Khammash’s buildings exist in one of the most politically volatile regions of the world and, it is as a result of the current instability that one of his most ambitious projects, the Middle East Modern Art Museum remains in a preliminary stage. Digital images of the Museum show an otherworldly structure, a mass of stone and glass hovering over a cleared section of ground against a backdrop of cirrus clouds and blue sky in the midst of an olive grove. The Museum was in part the brainchild of Salameh Neimat, a collector, artist and journalist who proposed the idea to Khammash. As museums spring up all around the Gulf States, the idea of what a modern art space can mean in a region riven by geographic and political tensions is inherently inscribed with meanings that transcend the aesthetic. But, where states like Dubai have opted for hyper-sleek space age designs, Khammash’s construction, with the help of the kind of mathematics the region was once most famous for, instead proposes recycled stone for its construction. The placement of the gallery in an olive grove also touches on one of the most ubiquitous, and increasingly inflammatory, images of the Middle East, the olive tree, as a semiotic interlocutor. The symbol of permanence, peace and civilization is distinctly at odds with the precariousness of the contemporary historical moment in the region. Khammash himself is troubled by recent developments. He described the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” as “a bloody miscarriage”, but, he noted, he remains hopeful about the region. “The Middle East with North Africa, Turkey and Iran has dormant genes of genius,” he said. “Now, with real-time free and interactive communication, I, personally, see no boundaries, thus, some sparks of brilliance will add to the universal project of hope”. If one believes that objects have a biography, then perhaps it may be possible to believe that objects may also contain ambitions. If so, perhaps the network of materials and relations that Khammash has marshalled to bring Neimat’s idea to digital life may yet exert their prerogatives and the universal project of hope will move one small, but exhilarating, step forward.