[-empyre-] May 2020: What is a Dystopia, Really?

Byron Rich brich at allegheny.edu
Tue May 5 11:03:13 AEST 2020

Thank you to Renate for the very kind introduction. 

This months discussion is going to turn slightly away from COVID, but tangentially discuss some of the darker sides of the technologies we use to discuss, inform, persuade, and monitor the virus and its spread. 

What is a Dystopia, Really?
March 4th to 10th         Week 1:  Byron Rich (CA), Sophia Brueckner (US),  Roya Ebtehaj  (US,IR), Ben Grosser (US) 
March 11th to 18th       Week 2: Eric Charlton (US), Craig Fahner (CA), Alex Young (US)
March 19th to 31st        Week 3: KT Duffy (US), Alejandro T. Acierto (US), Ali Seradge (US, IR)

Over the past few weeks, comparisons between our current reality at Demolition Man, Marco Brambilla’s 1993 Sci-Fi thriller, and numerous other near-future tales of dystopia have been flying around all corners of the internet from Reddit to the New York Times. These comparisons, however, aren’t supported by all, notably, one of Sci-Fi’s greatest voices, Margaret Atwood. In her recent BBC 5 interview, Atwood points to the alarming use of war-like rhetoric towards the collective struggle to contain COVID-19, and the desire to point blame, which often turns into racist or hateful finger pointing towards whatever “otherness” is closest. The spread of disinformation, fake news, pseudo-science, etc. via social media has tinges of what Sci-Fi has long labelled “dystopic”, but these same mechanisms are also reinforcing communities across platforms and borders. 

The artists featured this month all grapple with the dystopias of the present, the hope in new modes of connecting, and technology as a tool to look back at where we’ve been. Like Atwood, all seem to have tinges of hope under the surface somewhere, whether it lies in the possibility of broader cultural criticality, or the very real togetherness inspired by the communal experience of the pandemic.  

Week 1:
In 2010, Ben Davis wrote what became required reading in his piece “Social Media Art” in the Expanded Field. I recently reexplored this text, one that I remember apparently not all that well, from graduate school when I would naively try to navigate the concept of the digital panopticon guided by mentors who were, and are, far more clever than I. One thing that did stick, however, was what I found to be a bizarre opening assertion that he found “the chatter somehow sad, as if visual art’s power to inspire passion among a larger audience is so attenuated that it has to throw itself on whatever trendy thing is out there, to win some reflected glory for itself.”

I’m of that generation where my first experiences with social networks was ICQ as a young teen in the late nineties, a time when the “old” internet existed. I remember vividly students in my high school art classes making work about ICQ/MSN Messenger exchanges, and producing un-ironic art pieces to pair with truly questionable music (Fall Out Boy, anyone?) for their Myspace pages. Whether physical media photographed on 4 megapixel Sony Coolpix cameras or rendered in Corel Draw, there was nothing sad about these networks or the art they inspired. Was the work good? Technically, probably not (although I do see so much of that late 90s and early 2000s aesthetic coming back into style in the work of my students)... Intellectually, however, it sort of was as we were all pirates as we stole music, remixed images, and left our digital fingerprints unwittingly across the internet for academics to decode decades later and paving the way for the emergence of the selfie and all the non-self-reflexivity it came to represent. Years prior to Davis’ penning of “Social Media Art” in the Expanded Field, artists had been responding to and making work not just about social media as subject, but for social media as a support. One of my favourites, Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM (2007), an uncanny glimpse into the near-future landscape dominated by selfie culture. 

What Cortright and others predicted was a landscape where one’s image (be it a feeling, a trite colloquialism, a photo, whatever projection of “individuality” one desires) was the content, and monetizing the delivery system for projecting an image turned the pirates of the early millennium into both the spokesperson and consumer. In the time of COVID-19, the mechanisms used to project an image (dissent, patriotism, anti-intellectualism, science, philosophy, news, feelings, etc) are using location tracking to monitor the potential and real spread of the virus while also making fortunes thanks to data gathering giants like Bytedance and Tencent, not to mention Google and Facebook. The pirates are no longer outlaws. They’re the lawyers dressed up in Harley Davidson cosplay for weekend rides to get ice cream. A pastiche of tropes that reinforce one’s belief in being part of the resistance, while really just playing it on Instagram. The biological support of a digital tracing system. Narcissism, it turns out, is one of the greatest surveillance technologies that could be conceived of. Playing on it turns the pirate into the cosplayer and furthers Foucault’s concept of biopower as the dominant means of surveillance 

The three artists featured this week, Sophia Brueckner, Ben Grosser and Roya Ebtehaj, all deftly interpret, subvert, and question the evolution and use of social media and associated technologies as surveillance tools and platforms for commerce. I’m delighted to have them with us over the coming days as we talk about their work, influences, and thoughts on whatever subject we find ourselves navigating. 

Sophia Brueckner, born in Detroit, MI, is a futurist artist/designer/engineer. Inseparable from computers since the age of two, she believes she is a cyborg.

She received her Sc.B. in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics from Brown University. As a software engineer at Google, she designed and implemented products used by tens of millions and later on experimental projects within Google Research.

Brueckner earned her MFA in Digital + Media at the Rhode Island School of Design and MS in the Fluid Interfaces group at the MIT Media Lab where she investigated the simultaneously empowering and controlling aspects of technology, particularly within computer programming, algorithms, user experience design (especially social networks), and tangible interfaces. http://www.sophiabrueckner.com/

Roya Ebtehaj is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in the Bay Area, California. Working across new media, she incorporates VR/AR, 3D, web, video, animation, photography and installation to reflect on the complex relationships between memories, stress, identity and displacement.
Ebtehaj’s art practice is shaped by the juxtaposition of her Iranian background along with her identity as an immigrant in an unfamiliar culture. Growing up in a land of paradoxes during a time of intense conflict and change, she was impelled to deal with the stress of finding her true self in such a society. https://www.royaebtehaj.com/

Ben Grosser creates interactive experiences, machines, and systems that examine the cultural, social, and political effects of software. Recent exhibition venues include the Barbican Centre in London, Museum Kesselhaus in Berlin, Museu das Comunicações in Lisbon, and Galerie Charlot in Paris. His works have been featured in The New Yorker, Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Washington Post, El País, Libération, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Der Spiegel. The Chicago Tribune called him the “unrivaled king of ominous gibberish.” Slate referred to his work as “creative civil disobedience in the digital age.” Grosser’s artworks are regularly cited in books investigating the cultural effects of technology, including The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, The Metainterface, Facebook Society, and Technologies of Vision, as well as volumes centered on computational art practices such as Electronic Literature, The New Aesthetic and Art, and Digital Art. Grosser is an associate professor in the School of Art + Design, and co-founder of the Critical Technology Studies Lab at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. https://bengrosser.com

Sophia, Roya and Ben, I’d love it if you could each introduce us to your work. 

Byron Rich 
Assistant Professor of Art
Director of Art, Science & Innovation
Global Citizen Scholar Faculty Director
Affiliated Faculty - Integrative Informatics 

Allegheny College
Doane Hall of Art, A204
Meadville, PA
(o) 814.332.3381

Allegheny Lab for Innovation & Creativity

Co-chair of Exhibitions & Events - New Media Caucus

Reference letters require three weeks of lead time. 

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