Posts for March 2013

A Queer History of Computing: Part Two

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In this second part of our genealogy, we move not forward in time, but look back to an encounter that took place between two foundational figures in logic and mathematics, in an attempt to identify the conflicting role of contradiction, misunderstanding, failure, and disagreement in the queer history of computation. While again these figures are well known, the encounter between them is often dismissed as a missed connection and a failed opportunity. As such, it is often relegated to an uninteresting footnote in the history of mathematics. By reengaging this encounter I hope to blur the lines between computing, philosophy, and mathematics, and to disrupt the narrative trajectory that would see Turing as the single foundational figure within this history.

An Encounter

In the spring of 1939, Ludwig Wittgenstein taught a course at the University of Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics, a topic that occupied much of his work from 1922 through to the end of the Second World War. That same semester Wittgenstein was finally elected chair of philosophy at the university, acquiring British citizenship soon thereafter. At fifty years old, he was an established figure in analytic philosophy, having published his groundbreaking Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus almost twenty years prior, and having written extensively on the work of Gödel, Russell, and Whitehead. While Wittgenstein is considered by many to be the most important philosopher of the 20th century, he published very little in his lifetime, and much of his thought and character can only be derived from what survives of his lectures, notes, and seminars. Still less is known of his sexuality, and until the 1980s it was a subject rarely discussed among colleagues or in the many biographies written about his life and work.[i] Even now that Wittgenstein's homosexuality has been largely acknowledged, most scholars are hesitant to imply a connection between his philosophy and his sexuality – that is, between his work and his inner state, emotions, or personality. If, however, in a contemporary light we understand queerness as a structuring mode of desiring, we might view Wittgenstein's thought not as emerging from his sexuality, but as structured by the way in which it shaped his mode of being in the world.

Wittgenstein with Francis Skinner in Cambridge ca. 1933

Wittgenstein is widely regarded to have fallen in love with three men; David Pinset[ii] in 1912, Francis Skinner in 1930, and Ben Richards in the late 1940s.[iii] While it is clear these were relationships of love and affection, the extent to which they were physical is often contested. What seems to make many Wittgenstein scholars uncomfortable in confronting his homosexuality is that it conflicts with the ascetic, almost priestly view of a man so revered by contemporary philosophy. As Bruce Duffy suggests in a 1988 New York Times article on the life of Wittgenstein, "In their effort to put forth a plain, unvarnished record of what Wittgenstein did and said, some of these memoirs have almost the feeling of gospels – hushed, reverential, proprietary."[iv] The philosopher – or indeed, the mathematician – as a carnal, sexual being produces a seemingly irresolvable contradiction. Even those accounts that do concede his affection for other men often suggest that those feelings were purely aesthetic or emotional, and were never acted upon. That said, in perhaps the most controversial section of his 1973 biography of Wittgenstein, W. W. Bartley suggests that the philosopher frequently engaged in a kind of anonymous cross-class sexual contact facilitated by public cruising spaces such as parks and high streets.

By walking for ten minutes to the east . . . he could quickly reach the parkland meadows of the Prater, where rough young men were ready to cater to him sexually. Once he had discovered this place, Wittgenstein found to his horror that he could scarcely keep away from it . . . Wittgenstein found he much preferred the sort of rough blunt homosexual youth that he could find strolling in the paths and alleys of the Prater to those ostensibly more refined young men who frequented the Sirk Ecke in the Kärntnerstrasse and the neighboring bars at the edge of the inner city.[v]

These kinds of exceptional spaces as sites for anonymous sexual encounters continue well into the 20th century, and are instrumental in the structure of being and interaction that the author Samuel Delany identifies as contact:

[C]ontact is also the intercourse—physical and conversational—that blooms in and as “casual sex” in public rest rooms, sex movies, public parks, singles bars, and sex clubs, on street corners with heavy hustling traffic, and in the adjoining motels or the apartments of one or another participant, from which nonsexual friendships and/or acquaintances lasting for decades or a lifetime may spring . . . a relation that, a decade later, has devolved into a smile or a nod, even when (to quote Swinburne) 'You have forgotten my kisses, / And I have forgotten your name.'[vi]

Bartley's sources have been called into question by many historians, but it is less the detail of his description than the acknowledgement of an embodied sexuality that is significant to this history; it is the difficulty we often have in finding the sexual in the everyday, in the lived work of a person beyond these exceptional moments of contact. While such effects may be invisible or to a degree, unknowable, that does not mean they aren't real and do not have a direct effect on the world.

The Prater park in Vienna

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein defines truth as a tautology, that is, a result achieved through the mere repetition of the same meaning. While he insists that there exist religious or ethical truths, he argues that they cannot be put into words, that they are unknowable through language, and that claims to express ethical truths through philosophy must fail. Wittgenstein summarizes the Tractatus with the maxim: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”[vii] What does it mean that for Wittgenstein truth is something that can be known but not discussed, that is indescribable? And how does he apply this critique to truths we understand to be beyond language – the truth of the body, or the truth of mathematics?

Missed Connections

Back at Cambridge in 1939, another young scholar and philosopher was also beginning his research at the university. After two years working under Alonso Church at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Alan Turing took up a position as an untenured research fellow at Cambridge, having failed to acquire a full lectureship. Turing and Wittgenstein had been introduced the summer of 1937, but it was not until two years later in 1939 that they would have any meaningful interaction. That spring Turing was also teaching a course on the foundations of mathematics that shared the same name as Wittgenstein's lecture.[viii] Perhaps intrigued, Turing enrolled. Over the course of the semester, Turing engaged in a lengthy dialogue with Wittgenstein, challenging and outright refusing much of Wittgenstein's thoughts on logic and mathematics.[ix] Despite their disagreement, this seems a pivotal moment in the history of computing, in which two queer figures engage with the limits of knowledge and computability, questioning that which exists outside of or beyond.

As a young man, Wittgenstein had thought logic could provide a solid foundation for a philosophy of mathematics. Now in his fifties, he denied outright there were any mathematical facts to be discovered. For Wittgenstein, a proof in mathematics does not establish the truth of a conclusion, but rather fixes the meaning of certain signs. That is, the "inexorability" of mathematics does not consist of certain knowledge of mathematical truths, but in the fact that mathematical propositions are grammatical, a kind of language game through which meaning becomes fixed. One the first day of class, Wittgenstein begins by stating, "I shall try and try again to show that what is called a mathematical discovery had much better be called a mathematical invention."[x]

The Erkenntnis from the Königsberg Congress of 1930

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Artist Profile: Paul Kneale

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This interview is being conducted on a Google doc. I’ve seen your Drive; you use it regularly and with a certain energy. Further, there’s an underlying aesthetic reminiscent of SketchUp in your work. How important are these technologies within your practice? Would it be wrong to make a separation between your art practice and the organisation of your life?

First of all, I don’t feel like I make a clean division between technology and not-technology. I think the political reality of today is that we are all subjects of a blended Capital/Information management system, where all of our activity and production becomes a form of power that is transferred to the systems it is deployed within. I was born by caesarean section in a high-tech operating room, and if I walk down the street to sit in the park there’s a subway under my feet, CCTV cameras along the way and scores of planes overhead, so I think it’s a dangerous false dichotomy. To that extent, being knowingly involved with these technologies and articulating that in artworks is a kind of Thanatos. This also leads on to the realization that the traces of this contemporary Thanatos have a new material texture. Something I labeled before as the ‘New Abject’. This isn’t an abject of shit and blood and dirt, that one finds throughout art history in things ranging from Dutch still life to Mike Kelley sculptures, but rather a psychological abject that is in relation to these control technologies and capital systems. To that extent I think the texture of freeware such as Google Drive is one expression of this New Abject. Its pared down, limited range of operating choices reminds you of your subjugation to the provider, normalizing their possession of your activities within, in exchange for the convenience of the free service. If I make an image PDF with Google Drive it’s never going to be as slick as with expensive dedicated publishing software. The layout options are less flexible, and the image quality is limited. So there’s a kind of shitiness that isn’t dirty, it's still a binary affair, but it vaguely expresses these political and subject-relations. I think the aesthetics of this relation are interesting because they display a shift in commodity fetishism. The productive labor-relations behind an object can still be literally concealed, but there are sign systems we are now able to read that desublimate them. In thermodynamics desublimation is when a substance passes from a gas directly to a solid, without becoming a liquid, as in snow forming from water vapor in clouds. I think this is a metaphor that feels right for me to describe the way that these formerly gaseous relations are all of a sudden laying around in piles on the ground. Maybe it makes good sense to pack them into a projectile.

Thinking of projectiles, and thinking of where you project them, maybe we can talk about site specificity. In particular there’s an attention to location in your work; you’ve appropriated the old name sign of the ex-library you live in and turned its letters into sort of fettered sculptures - molding Rotherhithe into Roma. Paul Virilio talks of the shrinking of the world through technology in terms of speed and terror, but maybe this is a reductive way of thinking about it. Are you a nomad? A cyber-real airport flaneur? (Is it interesting to talk about issues of gentrification, globalization and networks, at this point? They’re very real problems that hurt people as much as they help them.)

A year or two ago I sent Nicolas Bourriaud a Facebook friend request -- I have a screenshot of the confirmation -- that at the time struck me as light-hearted joke about his relational philosophies on art. I occasionally still check us in somewhere together, like the Shoreditch Boxpark, and a little while back he even responded saying he didn’t remember being there with me! I think this tenuous level ‘relation’ is the kind of discourse that people found problematic in his theories, even though he was absolutely prescient in identifying that artists had shifted their orientation toward production in line with changes that were happening more generally in global economic patterns and cybernetics. So I think this period of romanticizing the airport dweller is a 90’s or early 2000’s thing for me. I think it reflects a utopianism that was burst in a few different bubbles since then. I definitely spend too much time in airports, but I think what interests me is the bus or train ride to get there rather than the symbolic aspect of the place in general. For example a week or two ago I had to go to a small city in France, and the airport is miles outside the center with only a city bus connecting it if you don’t want to pay for a taxi. As soon as you got outside of the airport the area had this completely unexpected American feeling to it. Big box stores and motels right next to the highway. I started taking photos on my phone out the window of the bus and realized that they looked exactly like google streetview. I must have been at just the height of the their elevated camera. So I was having this experience where I was hyper-aware of my physical place -- trying to kind of visually process a new landscape -- but the results of that processing just looked like I was in front of my computer again. So I find this kind of thing really interesting as well -- places becoming specific or unspecific, sometimes both at once! The Rotherhithe-Roma piece and the others in the same vein (Rotherhithe-NYC, etc.) came from this feeling of understanding your political and spatial existence in a place. Our London studio is in a vacant library in a central area that has so far avoided gentrification, and we are that first wave. I feel conflicted but not necessarily badly about it, as we run a project space whose shows are free and open to the public; people teach classes and do various events here -- and the many people who pass through are great customers of the liquor store and pizzeria on the street. So it’s not like we’re property developers forcing people to sell so we can build a new condo. But of course we do represent that tipping point where the neighborhood starts to slope toward the generic spaces of every major western city. So I think those sculptures were involved in this transition point that I am a part of. Hiring some workers with a lift truck to remove them and fabricating them into these self-consciously glamorous mobiles. Whether they celebrate or mourn this tipping point is ambiguous for me because I’m more concerned with the event itself and how that might become legible in a concentrated form like a sculpture.

How important was it to situate yourself in London, therefore?

I think London’s iconography is really interesting because it’s so removed from the experience of the city. In places like New York or Paris you always have the feeling that you’re participating in the filmic experience of the place you have logged in your memory. London’s pop images feel like a flaky concession to that. The experience you actually have is somehow almost characterless. Pure economy. I think the extreme expense of living also has two important effects. Firstly it means that people have smaller studios and less money for materials, so they are economically drawn to projects that can utilize things they probably already have, like computers. Secondly and for the same reasons of space, when people do get together they usually do it somewhere public -- in bars or galleries rather than people’s houses, so there’s a kind of public character to interpersonal relations, which somehow feels coextensive of networked relations. I really like London because it’s so difficult, but doesn't really offer any models for how you should deal with that. It forces you to keep it real, invent your own.

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Mission Creep: K-Hole and Trend Forecasting as Creative Practice

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“Determinism would gain credibility if it gave us useful forecasts” wrote Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic, referring to those who saw the outcome of political events as written in their formation. Perhaps the same could be said of trend forecasts. What are they for, and why do people keep writing them? They’re certainly not very effective at predicting trends, yet their recurrence and popularity[1] within the art world over the past 5 years suggests they’re an increasingly important phenomenon in the development of post-internet culture. Unlike forecasts commissioned within marketing organisations, trend forecasts produced within the contemporary art world are nominally produced for public consumption; they act somewhere between an art object and a form of cultural criticism.

Among the pioneers of this form of trend forecast are K-Hole, a New York based crew who recently released their third forecast, a 49-page free-to-download PDF entitled THE K-HOLE BRAND ANXIETY MATRIX. It continues the aesthetic that has marked out K-Hole’s previous forecasts – sharp focus, minimalist stock photography, blocky capitalised typefaces and crisp infographics punctuate their trademark prose, a commercially-aware rhetoric that seems punchy, without ever really landing a punch.

Each forecast revolves around a central theme, an attempt to build a new conceptual model for brand awareness or technological innovation. Synthesis is the name of the game for K-Hole: every issue introduces a string of portmanteaus that successfully walk the fine line between blunt parody and genuine identification. ProLASTination, FragMOREtation, FLATmentation: this is the lexicon of dickheads, yet the carefully produced portfolio of case studies that make up the bulk of each document build each tongue-in-cheek neologism into a more thoughtful model for understanding cultural phenomena and fluid consumer subjectivities as they exist today. The level of cultural literacy and critical engagement with their audience separates the trend forecast produced within the context of contemporary art from the trend forecast produced for the boardroom suits: these are texts which speak to the demographic they analyse, rather than simplify these demographics for paying clients. It’s this difference, this understanding of spectatorship, that activates K-Hole’s PDFs as a hybrid form of art-object and cultural criticism. Paradoxically, however, it’s also this cultural fluency with the target demographic that makes it catnip to smart marketing teams, and it’s this duality which creates an ethical tension within the format that is perhaps an echo of the wider crisis of form that both haunts and drives the world of post-internet cultural production. Whilst the content is interesting, it’s the evolution and reproduction of the form, straddled between the critical and the commercial, that really highlights what is vital and problematic in this phenomena.

K-Hole’s third edition seems to elucidate far more clearly this tension, making the development of cognitive models the main focus of the document and moving away from predictive scenarios. Whereas earlier forecasts offered potential new configurations of existing technologies or products, Issue 3 instead offers a more explicit model for understanding the relationship between potential future everyday technologies and our everyday lives, in the form of a matrix which examines risk assessment.

This is perhaps the key to understanding the reasons why trend forecasting has taken off within the post-internet demographic. The trend forecast represents a displaced subject: rather than being predictive or even speculative visions of what is to come, they actually function as models to conceptualise and contextualise the effects a technological explosion is having upon our everyday lives. The latest K-Hole report hits the nail on the head: the relationship between the demographic and the trend forecast is one of managing anxiety precipitated by the pervasive technology of the internet revolution. Rather than thinking of trend forecasts as commercial documents (or simulations thereof), we should examine them as creative texts which are trying to contextualise and understand that revolution, in a similar vein to science fiction. Rather than science fiction, trend forecasts effectively function as consumer fiction.[2]

Science fiction emerged as a creative field primarily as an entertainment form, but as the field evolved it quickly came to be seen as something more — a way to understand the deep and significant technological change which revolutionised everyday life in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Automation, the shrinking of space through faster transport and communications, and the development of the massified workers subjectivity under a state model — all these technological changes were profoundly political, and science fiction emerged as a popular and accessible cultural form in which to discuss and understand often terrifyingly fast social change. The worlds of science and technology held the obvious language to utilise — it seemed to be machines that were changing our world: vast industrial machines enabled by state power, by huge actors, to drive deep into the earth, to reach new planets, to reconfigure a society in its entirety.

Today we’re in the opening stage of a similarly enormous technological revolution. The social fabric is being torn and reconfigured by massive infrastructural developments. Changes in capitalist development are likewise revolutionising the everyday lives of working people. In the developed world the age of the mass worker, and its coterminous subjectivity, is being eroded into a new subjectivity — the post-fordist worker. This worker is not defined by the production line but by precarious working conditions, outsourcing, self-employment and self-branding. The division between work and leisure time – produced by proletarianisation and formalised by the labour movement – is increasingly a meaningless abstraction. New digital technologies as well as wider economic and political currents created by the crisis of capital in the late 1970’s – the destruction of labour unions, containerisation and cheap credit through financialisation – have combined to produce a new idea of the productive, creative individual (and the subjectivity of the post-fordist worker is by its very nature individual). Whilst contemporary art attempted to come to terms with the collapse of socialist project in the 1990’s, most notably through relational aesthetics, the post-internet tendency seems to be tackling a much wider change in technology, work and production in a way unseen since Warhol took on consumer capitalism in the early 1960s.

And so what characterises a young, mid-crisis, post-internet productive subjectivity? In a word, anxiety. Uncertainty about our financial and professional futures as a result of the deferred crisis in capital, but more importantly, uncertainty about the future due to the rate of technological change we see happening around us. In dealing with this perfect storm of technological and economic factors, this unique point on the Kondratieff cycle, trend forecasts function as a creative response to anxiety and change. Rather than science fiction, trend forecasts are consumer fiction, imaginative responses to technological change which help us understand the present through speculative future scenarios, told within the dominant language of possibility – the brand.

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Artifacts: A Conversation Between Hito Steyerl and Daniel Rourke

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“But even if the internet is dead this doesnt mean it's over. It is all over.”

When we met recently we talked about the glitch as it relates to contemporary image culture, but we also talked about the glitch as something to aspire to. In your essay, A Thing Like You and Me, you retell Walter Benjamin’s parable of the Angel of History, pushed by the harsh winds of progress away from the rubble of history, its back facing into the unknown future. You say that we are the rubble, or at least, that we should align ourselves with the rubble. I’m fascinated by these allusions to excess and detritus in your writing, and I see something of the glitch aesthetic making its way into your video works. I thought we could start from these bruises and cracks; from the things we can’t predict, control or maintain. How would you relate the glitch to Benjamin’s rubble?

One of the biggest misunderstandings about digital information is that it is replicated identically, without loss or transformation. But anyone who works with such information knows that digital practice is constituted – like perhaps any technology – by malfunction. One has to constantly convert information in order to work with it across different platforms and softwares and on the way it is reformatted, translated, compressed or sometimes even blown up, it is enhanced or diminished: it changes. It changes its format or container or outlook or context.

Digital information is thus characterised by transformation, degradation, circulation, but also by its surprising ability to mutate and produce unpredictable results. The glitch, the bruise of the image or sound testifies to its being worked with and working; being passed on and circulated, being matter in action. History inscribes itself into the image in ...

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Announcing Rhizome's Seven on Seven Conference Participant Teams

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Saturday, April 20, 2013 from 12:00 PM - 6:00 PM

Rhizome's Seven on Seven Conference, presented by HTC, will pair seven leading artists with seven influential technologists in teams of two, and challenges them to develop something new—be it an application, social media, artwork, product, or whatever they imagine—over the course of a single day. The seven teams will work together at locations around New York City on Friday April 19th and then unveil their ideas at a one-day event at the Tishman Auditorium at The New School on April 20th, 2013, from 12–6 p.m. After the conference, the attendees can celebrate with participants at an afterparty from 6–9 p.m.

2013 Participant Teams:

Jill Magid + Dennis Crowley 

Fatima Al Qadiri + Dalton Caldwell

Matthew Ritchie + Billy Chasen

Cameron Martin + Tara Tiger Brown

Paul Pfeiffer + Alex Chung

Jeremy Bailey + Julie Uhrman

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer + Harper Reed

 

Purchase Tickets

Seven on Seven is presented by HTC and organized by Rhizome. Additional conference partners include Betaworks, Wieden + Kennedy, and RRE.

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