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

Derek Curry derekcurry638 at gmail.com
Sat Sep 29 05:01:56 AEST 2018

Hello everyone, this has been an interesting discussion.  Thanks for
inviting me, Byron!

Many good points have been made here.  I like Paula’s examples of Christian
Phillip Müller’s work (unintentionally) revealing how a physical body in
space can be rendered invisible, it contrasts nicely with Jennifer's
example of border agents using data to track individuals in space.  It
reminds me of Deleuze's statement that "Individuals have become '*dividuals*,'
and masses, samples, data, markets, or '*banks*.'" Paul’s point that the
geopolitical demarcation between the US and Canada is not something that
can be seen physically, but can be rendered by a GPS, or possibly surmised
from a map is also apt.  Geopolitical borders are theoretical and
technological constructs, the result of measuring devices and political
decisions, which often have no physical analogue, such as a coastline or
river.  They exist only on, and perhaps because of, maps.

Though, even maps can be ambiguous at times as Francis Alÿs demonstrates in
his *The Greenline* (2004).  In the video, Alÿs is seen walking along the
armistice border that separates Israel from its neighboring states. The
armistice line was drawn by Moshe Dayan, the commander of the Jerusalem
front in the Arab-Israeli War, with a somewhat think green marker.  The
width of the marker on the map left some ambiguity as to where specifically
the armistice border is, and the Six Day War in 1967 resulted in a question
of whether or not the border is still recognized.  In my opinion, this is
one of the heaviest topics related to a border a contemporary artists can
deal with.  The video is historically informative, text explaining the
history of the line and an image of the map are shown, but no political
position is taken. The video begins with the statement:






This raises the question of not only what constitutes a border or a nation
state, but what the role of an artist or theorist should be in dealing with
a subject like this.  Given that borders are not just geopolitical
constructs, but contain national identities, laws, economic opportunities,
etc., it is difficult to imagine a single artwork that could deal with all
of these aspects.  Displaced bodies—migrants, refugees, or blue collar
workers who have lost their jobs as a result of globalization—are much
easier to depict in a viscerally compelling way than the techno-political
causes of their displacement.  New media works on this topic are usually
very compelling; John Craig Freeman’s *Border Memorial*, which Byron has
already mentioned, is one of my favorite works on this subject, and the
Electronic Disturbance Theater’s *Transborder Immigrant Tool* is in my list
of favorite hacktivist works.  And I can think of works that address the
technological or political nature of borders.  Julian Oliver’s project *Border
Bumping* (2012-2014) demonstrates this by showing how your cell phone may
enter a country long before you do.  But I struggle to think of artworks
that embody the complex dynamics that are (at least part of) the root cause
of displacement, such as automation or outsourcing of a job or free trade
agreements.  For example, the effects of NAFTA on the agricultural industry
in Mexico, which is one of the main causes for migration to the US is
rarely addressed directly in the visual arts even though there is a
plethora of academic literature on the subject.  The simultaneous inability
of Mexico to impose tariffs on imported agricultural goods imported from
the US, particularly corn, a traditional staple of a Mexican diet, combined
with the heavy subsidization of these crops by the US government resulted
in a large percentage of rural Mexican farmworkers unable to find
employment.  As viscerally compelling as images of migrant workers from
Mexico are, why someone would leave their family and community and risk
their life crossing a desert to work under the threat of arrest and
deportation for less than minimum wage is seldom addressed in artworks.
This techno-political situation is often the subtext for many artworks—the
explicit connection of EDT’s *Floodnet* to the Zapatistia uprising on the
day NAFTA took effect (Jan. 1, 1994) is one example.  But a clear
understanding of cause-and-effect requires specialized, if not esoteric,
knowledge that is not easily represented.  If an understanding of (and
control over) the complex interrelations between politics and technology is
relegated to politicians and technocrats, what agency do artists have in
these situations?  Are they to be relegated to the role of documenting the
effects of a complex problem, or can they participate in creating solutions?

The struggle between technocrats and the power elite is elucidated quite
well in Habermas’s “Technology and Science as Ideology”.  This is an
oversimplification, but, Habermas describes how the technocrats and power
elite are often at ideological odds, but must make compromises in order to
maintain their own positions in society.  In his definition of technocrat,
Habermas includes the scientific management of society—so economists,
social scientists, and some bureaucrats also fall under this rubric.
Technocrats are the class that currently define what a border is in the
physical, economic, and technological senses.  Technocrats are ultimately
beholden to the power elite, but they do have a range of choices they can
make within a set goal.  For example, how much leeway does software
developer at Google have when determining the location of a border on
Google Maps?  These choices can sometimes soften the control the power
elite has over the general public.  This raises the question, if, as Byron
and Paula suggest, it is the artists rather than the technocrats who are
willing to enact radical measures against authority, is there a way for
artists to have more agency in this situation?  Can artists have influence
over the type of domination enacted by the power elites and the technocrats
they employ?  Or, are artists also beholden to the power elite for their
own consecration so that they may stop short of a full critique when it
implicates the individuals who fund the biannuals they participate in, or
sit on the boards of the museums they hope will one day host their

My own opinion is cynical in this regard, having developed intellectually
under institutional critique artists—most notably Andrea Fraser.  But, I
also don’t see why artists can’t also be members of the technocratic class.
I consider myself to be a fringe member of this class as my artwork often
utilizes financial technology or machine-learning, and I sometimes teach
graduate-level analytics courses.  To be clear, I am *not* suggesting that
addressing complex sociopolitical problems with  technological solutions is
the correct course of action.  But rather, that artists and other creative
practitioners could, or rather *should*, contribute a self-reflexive voice
to the conversations regarding technological solutions that are already
happening.  Documenting problems after the fact, like the previously
mentioned work of Laura Poitras and Trevor Paglen, is a good, if not
necessary start.  But, if artists are going to enact truly radical
change—we need to play a role in the development and critique of new
technology before it is implemented.  It is often said that the technology
we experience on a daily basis is at least ten years old.  If artists are
not on the forefront of what is being developed for the next decade, we may
be essentially relegated to the role of creating eloquent, compelling
critiques of the previous decade.  Like Alÿs’ video, these critiques may be
poignant, poetic, and politically relevant, but they are unlikely to enact
real change.

What constitutes a border and what a border will mean ten years from now is
currently being negotiated inside the campuses of multinational tech
companies, in lobbying firms that carry sway over elected officials, as
well as in public and private universities and think-tanks like RAND.
While access to many of these spaces and individuals is extremely
difficult, these are the spaces where radical change is possible to enact.
It is here that ideas are still in flux, emerging, and malleable.  What I
am advocating is currently beyond my own capabilities, but my hope is that
there are already creative practitioners infiltrating these spaces and
impacting what borders will become in the future.

On Mon, Sep 24, 2018 at 3:02 PM Paula Burleigh <pburleigh at allegheny.edu>

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> 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.
> Best,
> Paula
> 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
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
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