Out of Our Hands

Catalogue Essay for the Goldsmiths MA Digital Cultures Degree Show at Goldsmiths, July 2017

Full text:

The graduating students in the MA Digital Culture programme have titled their degree show Out of Our Hands, a phrase that signals a transfer of agency and accountability onto a more powerful entity – in this case, onto the fate of technological advancement. As the exhibition graphics hint, agency and control is transitioning from human hands to the posthuman hands of the digital. The projects in Out of Our Hands take the digital to include the Internet, new media, code, software, hardware, data, networks and computation.

 

As the digital revolution steadily pushes forward, we increasingly hear examples of technology’s sweeping influence on societies across the globe: e-commerce sites practicing consumer profiling, Facebook altering algorithms to successfully manipulate users’ emotions and Cambridge Analytica’s data-driven campaigning contributing to the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.1 These reports are symptoms of what Alexander Galloway identifies in Protocol as “market monopolies of proprietary technologies [...] they are imposed from without, are technically opaque, centrally controlled, deployed by commercial concerns, and so on.”2

 

All too often, citizens have little choice but to passively accept the sweeping technological advancements changing the face of our current digital culture for the sake of technological progress, corporate profitability, user experience, information capital or national security. However, the practitioners in Out of Our Hands eschew this passivity by taking matters back into their hands and disrupting, creating, appropriating and giving visual form to the otherwise invisible yet all-encompassing facets of today’s society – what Deleuze calls a society of control.

 

In 1992, Deleuze foretold the consequences of technological advancements in his essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” Unlike Foucault’s disciplinary society, where power was held in specific spaces of enclosure such as the prison, factory or family, a society of control sees previously enclosed structures dematerialize into networked systems. While this technological embeddedness gives people the feeling of mobilization and freedom, it also allows opportunities for control to multiply beyond enclosed structures and permeate all aspects of both personal and professional life. Such constant synchronization gives rise to work demands at any given moment, nonstop attention to entertainment and the normalization of constant surveillance for the sake of protection. He calls for us “only to look for new weapons.”3

 

Fortunately, technology as a field of practice has an ethos of open-source information and hardware remains commercially available. With the right technological know-how, practitioners can appropriate and use technology beyond its prescribed uses. This accessibility gives opportunities for people to resist the control that Deleuze foresaw and work towards creating their own digital ecologies, precisely what the Digital Culture students aim to achieve. Their wide-ranging concerns include the software used by corporations, social media behaviors, surveillance and privacy, social subjection, hacking, black box technologies and the use of large collections of data. Their projects are supported by theoretical research, such as Benjamin Bratton and Jennifer Gabrys on planetary scale computation, Vilém Flusser on digital code as language and Maurizio Lazzaro on social subjection and machinic enslavement.

 

The show begins with the work of Compiler (http://compiler.zone/), a new media art platform led by Tanya Boyarkina, Oscar Cass-Darweish and Eleanor Chownsmith. Compiler takes the distributed and participatory systems of new media art and applies it to a localized and community context. Their cross-disciplinary programme of exhibitions, workshops, discussions, performances, and screenings proposes a synaesthetic experience of technology – one that expands the possibilities of the senses – afforded by our collaboration with technical objects and the virtual world. The installation, Cryptobar, combines cryptography and cocktail-making to explore notions of data footprints, surveillance and privacy.

 

Air Water Stack, by Marlene Ronstedt in collaboration with Ahmed Alsharif, is a live installation that visualizes Internet traffic rates using content delivery network Akami. What results is a computer-generated montage of geographical imagery. Akami can host vast amounts of global data, offering a powerful host for companies such as Facebook and Airbnb but also a potential site for cyber attacks. Simon Crowe’s web application rars.online looks at Amazon’s product recommendation system and explores the ways it groups consumers according to their habits. The project also introduces the potential to disrupt Amazon’s recommendation system through feeding it search queries based on the complex codes of critical theory or modernist literary fiction. Alisa Blakeney’s Paradatabase investigates the structure and protocols of display of digitized museum collections in order to understand the aesthetics and politics of collection. The resulting installation – itself a collection – creates a narrative that balances the fiction of ideal forms with the reality of physical objects.

 

Other projects are driven by a motivation to demystify the inner workings of technological devices. Toni Quiroga’s Re-animator experiments with raw materials inherent to contemporary technologies. The project aims to introduce noise to black box technology to trigger animated, autonomous and unpredictable behavior. Joe Downing’s ongoing site-specific research into the Laurie Grove Baths has led to a technical close reading of a building with a biopolitical function. The installation, Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness, references the social and moral history of personal hygiene by recording conversations in real time and placing them onto soap with which visitors are invited to wash their hands.

 

Interactivity can be found in Yeunjeong Kim’s Human Code: What is Behind You?, a real-time installation that invites audiences to explore code as a language of communication. Human Interference Task Force, an ongoing project between Anna Mikkola and Matilda Tjäder, evolves from the resonance between humans and computing. Using sensors to edit video footage, image and audio according to the movements of passersby, their installation aims to recognize the incomputable and transfer ambience into acts. David Vannen’s The Contract looks at social platforms as sites of both identity performance and totalized labor in the digital economy. The interactive work invites audiences to perform gestures using their own digital identities in return for a reward, calling attention to the commodification of user data.

 

Each project takes steps towards shaping the terrain of digital culture. Encompassing an interdisciplinary approach that pays equal attention to art, philosophy, politics, technology, computing and cultural studies; the projects on view are characterized by technical literacy, artistic sensibility, and theoretical contextualization. By doing this, they give visual form to some of the newest and most significant aspects of digital culture.

1 Hannes Grasseger and Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Motherboard, 2017 January 28. Available online at https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win.

2 Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), p.121.

3 Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October Vol. 59, 1992, p.4.