[-empyre-] FW: Welcome Byron Rich to the September discussion

Paula Burleigh pburleigh at allegheny.edu
Tue Sep 25 03:47:28 AEST 2018

First, apologies for my terribly delayed response, but I have been reading
contributions by Alex, Paul, and Jennifer with great interest! Byron,
thanks very much for the invitation to participate here.

To briefly return to Paul’s initial post, I was so struck by the image of
the bikini-clad teenager, unaware that she was traversing an international
border (and certainly of her own privileged position that allowed her to do
so unchecked). It reminded me in a strange way of Green Borders (1993) by
Christian Philip Müller, who dressed as a hiker and illegally crossed, on
foot, eight natural borders between Austria and its neighboring nation
states. Müller took notes on which disguise was most advantageous in terms
of avoiding detection at each crossing, presumably information to be used
by others attempting to cross unnoticed on foot. But Müller could have
dispensed with the nine specific disguises, simply acknowledging that the
guise of a white European man could do wonders for rendering a body safely
(in)visible. In spite of the artist’s intentions, I wonder whether this
work simply flaunted presentation privilege as opposed to doing anything to
undermine established mechanisms of power.

I bring this up not to denigrate the work of one artist, but, returning to
Byron’s prompt, to consider the role artists increasingly play in revealing
and combating the spread of misinformation intended to destabilize
democratic institutions. Müller’s 1993 work strikes me as coming out of a
moment when it was enough to simply highlight the ways in which individual
bodies are subject to exercise of state power when attempting to cross
geopolitical borders. While far right, anti-immigration sentiments are
nothing new in Austria, I wonder how this work would read now. Indeed Alex
as you point out, the concept of “carrying capacity,” i.e. the population
level sustainable by a demarcated environment, has been wrenched from
ecological discourse and and co-opted to maintain population homogeneity
since the 1970s. But with the rise of power/influence of the FPO in Austria
and other nationalist parties like it throughout Europe, not to mention the
current American administration, one feels as though we’ve crossed a
threshold into unprecedented territory.  I find that I increasingly
interested in the way that artists don’t simply reveal systemic power
structures that oppress vulnerable populations, but stage interventions to
provide tools for systemic subversion. When Jennifer asks how the public is
to maintain oversight, I immediately think of works by Trevor Paglen and
Laura Poitras (most well known is their contribution to the Citizenfour
documentary on Snowden), whose practice both reveals and perhaps takes
steps towards dismantling what Paglen has called “the geography and
aesthetics of the American surveillance state.”

On a spectrum, there’s much distance to travel between Müller hiking across
borders largely unmolested by authorities, and Paglen/Poitras working with
a whistle blower. Paul and Alex, I’m curious to hear more about your
respective practices and how you see the role of the artist changing in
this current fraught moment (or perhaps it’s not changing at all?). To
place an ethical imperative on art seems like an undue burden, but as Byron
has pointed out, it does seem to be the artists rather than the technocrats
who are willing to enact radical measures against authoritarian overtures
in our political landscape.



On Sat, Sep 22, 2018 at 11:51 AM Gradecki, Jennifer <
j.gradecki at northeastern.edu> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Borders are simultaneously demarcated, and controlled, in physical and
> virtual space. When we attempt to cross borders, data and information that
> has been collected about us becomes part of the assessment process.
> Individuals are profiled in various ways—their country of origin, the
> social media networks they belong to, GIS data from their cellphone, their
> research interests, suspicious bodily movements as they wait in line for
> security—all of this captured data, and more, becomes part of our data body
> that shadows us as we travel.
> Data are central to the work of intelligence agencies and border patrol
> agents. The massive scale of surveillance in both virtual and physical
> space produces enormous amounts of data and information that agents feel
> they need to collect, share, and process. Leaked documents and ethnographic
> reports show that intelligence agents are afraid that they may not be
> sharing enough information with one another, and yet they simultaneously
> feel that they are drowning in too much information, and struggling to make
> meaning out of noise. This “collect it all” and “share it all” approach has
> resulted in the accumulation of more information than can be processed by
> human agents, leading to the perception of a need for automated processing,
> or what are sometimes referred to as “next generation information access”
> (NGIA) systems, to algorithmically process the massive troves of data they
> have collected, with the belief that software will find patterns that human
> analysts cannot perceive. This fear of not collecting or sharing enough
> data emerged following the intelligence failures of 9/11.
> Data are understood by intelligence agents to be raw facts and meaning is
> thought to be mechanically and objectively found by the analyst or
> algorithm. While these assumptions reflect an empiricist epistemology, I
> have found that intelligence analysts generally find it hard to articulate
> an epistemological methodology of their practice, even while they disavow
> deduction and intuition, which are central to their practice. This may
> leave agents susceptible to dominant epistemological shifts and arguments
> coming from other fields, like data science and Artificial Intelligence
> (AI), that bring their own sets of assumptions as they promise to provide
> technological solutions to ease the difficulties of mass surveillance.
> Companies like IBM promote their black boxed “smart algorithms” to analysts
> who do not understand how these technologies work, even while they rely on
> these technologies to make judgments.
> It is with all of this in mind that I turn to a specific instance of
> automated judgment and border surveillance. Palmer Luckey, the founder of
> Oculus, along with former executives from the CIA-funded tech company
> Palantir are currently in the process of developing Virtual Reality that is
> augmented by Artificial Intelligence to automate judgments in the
> surveillance of the border between the US and Mexico. Luckey’s defense tech
> company, Anduril, has pitched this cybernetic surveillance agencement to
> DHS as the technological version of Trump’s border wall. According to
> Luckey, the technology desired by the DOD can be described as “Call of Duty
> goggles” where “you put on the glasses, and the headset display tells you
> where the good guys are, where the bad guys are, where your air support is,
> where you’re going, where you were.” Far beyond a cybernetic aid for
> improving the perception of movement, the ideal version of this technology
> would employ Artificial Intelligence to automate judgments at the border,
> to help determine the “bad guys”. As proprietary technology, it is not
> clear what kind of data or algorithms will be used to determine who is
> supposedly good or bad. This is yet another black boxed smart algorithm
> being sold as a technological solution to the problems produced by the
> massive scale of surveillance that US agencies are attempting to undertake.
> There are several assumptions with this virtual (not to mention gamified)
> border security: that data can provide evidence of a threat to national
> security, that judgments at the border can and should be automated, and
> especially, that someone who risks their life to cross the border must be a
> threat. Trump’s Great Wall is founded on both xenophobia and ignorance
> about the broader conditions that prompt people to risk their lives to
> cross the border. The DHS and DOD appear to be taken in by the data science
> rhetoric used by companies like Anduril. Border agents should not use black
> boxed “smart algorithms” to automate judgments, especially judgments that
> contain this many assumptions. This leaves me with one looming question:
> how can we, the public, have meaningful oversight over proprietary
> public-private technological solutions to border surveillance?
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu

Paula Burleigh, PhD
Allegheny College
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History
Director, Bowman~Penelec~Megahan Gallery
E: pburleigh at allegheny.edu
P: 814-332-3383
Doane Hall of Art, A206
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