How to Improve your Algorithm

Chris Fite-Wassilak on reclaiming the digital landscape

In 1999, science-fiction novelist William Gibson told an anecdote on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs about how he came up with the notion of ‘cyberspace’ for several short stories and his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Although he didn’t invent the term, his imagination helped to popularise its use and prefigured the implications of social interaction in the nascent world wide web: ‘With cyberspace, I found the first Sony Walkman – which is still my favourite piece of late-20th-century technology – and for the first time in my life I was able to take the music I wanted to listen to into any environment. And while moving through space with it, I saw a poster in a shop window for the first Apple IIc, which immediately preceded the first Mac, and I looked at that and I thought, “What if the relationship to the information that this machine processes could be like the relationship I’m having to my music that my Walkman processes?” Somehow I could see that this stuff was going to get under our skin; the Walkman is very very physically intimate technology and computing, as it was then, wasn’t very physically intimate – but I thought, “Why not?”’

Around the time Neuromancer came out, Chicago-based sci-fi buff Leo Melamed was penning his own book, inspired by the launch of Pioneer 10, the 1972 space probe with Carl Sagan’s 10-inch inscribed plaque designed to communicate basic facts about humanity to any intelligent aliens who might encounter the craft. In the resulting story, The Tenth Planet, the probe is found in another solar system by a federation of five planets that are run by an all-encompassing computer named Putral which must decide how to respond to the unexpected message. The innovation in the story, though, is more in its application than in its insight. Melamed was a lawyer who happened, at the time, to be chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. By the time the book was published in 1987, he had reimagined Putral as a way of transforming the standard open-outcry floor of stock trading, and that same year he launched Globex, the world’s first electronic trading system that changed the trading of stock index futures and the global financial landscape forever.

Melamed tells the story of his innovation humbly, in a rambling casual monologue, occasionally pausing to glance over his shoulder at the four computer screens and one tablet that line his desk ticking away with graphs and trading information. This extended interview is the backbone of Dublin-based artist Fiona Marron’s immaculate video After Automation, 2013. Melamed’s exposition is intercut with scenes from an Atlantic fibre- optic cable repair ship. Running along the seabed, these cables link continents carrying the information we incessantly ping pong back and forth. In her exhibition ‘Co-Location’ at Rua Red in Dublin last year, the video was projected on to a screen mounted within Inverted Catafalque, 2013, a wooden upright octagonal frame constructed according to the design of the trading pit of the world’s oldest exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade. The seating provided for the screening was a pair of heavy-duty cases that normally house some of the optic cable repair equipment on display in the exhibition. As Melamed talks about information passing between planets and companies, we are seated among a series of concrete examples of the media for such exchanges.

Marron’s research in previous work has followed the trail of economics and the histories of stock exchanges: in After Automation, she finds a narrative that manages on the one hand to recount a familiar ‘science fictions are happening now’ trope, but on the other also exposes futures stock trading as the speculative fiction that it is. We are left somewhere in between; there is the vindication of feeling like you have uncovered some sort of paradigmatic conspiracy theory, yet this is tinged with guilt because of course you rely on these transatlantic wires as well. But does that mean you owe something to this seemingly affable man, who is ultimately also an economic bureaucrat? Gibson’s origin story is somewhat more alluring, but that is as much to do with what it doesn’t mention as with what it does; its emphasis on tactility and phenomenological perception is expressly non-economic and apolitical. Try reading it again, but this time imagining it as a testimonial for a transhumanist operation clinic. Is it still alluring? Melamed’s concerns seem more detached to a monetary ignoramus like me, but he is simply on the business end of the same stick. The extent to which we are implicated in technology is perhaps disclosed in how we use it. Both Gibson and Melamed are notable figures in that they straddle the narrowing gap between ‘digital’ and ‘real’ dimensions, but what marks out the importance of their activities is simply the recognition of a space for interaction and defining it.

In the first of Adam Curtis’s trio of subjective documentaries All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, 2011, he quotes ‘Pandora’s Vox: on community in cyberspace’, a well-known 1994 essay by ‘humdog’, the alias of Carmen Hermosillo, who was an early participant in the online forums of the early 1990s. Warning of the dangers of gender disappearance and mis-idealisations online, she wrote: ‘[cyberspace] is a black hole; it absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as spectacle ... I have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and I did so myself until, at last, I began to see that I had commodified myself ... I created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board I was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.’ (The full article can be found on alphavilleherald.com.) Hermosillo’s alarm is admirable, but over 30 years after Gibson’s innocuous moment outside a computer store, the majority of us in the developed world carry a small computer on us at all times which acts as a combined telecommunications, global positioning, media producer and entertainment device on which many of us might not consistently ‘spill our guts’ but at the very least willingly provide more than enough information to data companies designed as email, image and networking services. Curtis’s work on a popular level, alongside books like Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture of 2006 (the book also formed a central impulse behind the exhibition ‘The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside’, curated by Anselm Franke and Diedrich Diedrechsen at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin last year) and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, 2012, as well as his essays in the New Yorker and the Financial Times, have helped contribute to a growing examination of the history of the recent technological past, tracing the trajectories from hippie visions of liberation, cybernetic systems and Silicon Valley success stories. Edward Snowden’s disclosures have helped spark a public awareness and debate about where those aspirations might have led us. But the next step in shifting the debate could be away from paranoia and Matrix-like reductivism to a more proactive embrace.

There is one sentence in humdog’s ‘Pandora’ essay: ‘language in cyberspace is a frozen landscape.’ The line refers to both the sense of isolation people feel when positing their personal stories online, and to their posts remaining online long after they had written them. The comment is appropriate, though, not simply because the linguistic bases of the digital realm lie programming languages. If there is a salient trait we can find in the conceptual pioneers and advocates of the cybernetic system and its rhizomatic networks, it is the neologistic tendency and the coining of new phrases. If, as Wittgenstein claimed in his Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus of 1922, ‘the limits of my language means the limits of my world’, Buckminster Fuller’s ‘synergenics’, Stewart Brand’s ‘broadcatching’ or Tim O’Reilly’s ‘Web 2.0’ (to name but a scant few from any number of ‘what I call...’ words and phrases from these figures) are the means of, if not inventing, then owning a new territory. It is this pioneering attitude, more than the technology itself, that could be seen to define the incipient cybernetic paradigm: everything is merely a ‘system’ in need of an ‘interface’.

Interestingly, in the histories mentioned above, the role of artists in all this, if at all, is as witnesses and occasional commentators – not as participants, disseminators, promulgators or creators. There is a claim to be made for Brian Eno to be the most popular proponent of cybernetic principles of the past few decades – if not for his own incessant neologisms or screensaver visual art, then in the spread of his systems-based sound work. Eno’s mentor Roy Ascott (Reviews AM351) was himself a more explicit promoter of those principles, in both his multimedia art and a series of essays from the 1960s onwards. The most comprehensively detailed exposition of his vision is perhaps his 1990 essay ‘Is There Love In the Telematic Embrace?’ The understanding of content and audience must change, he claims, in a system where the artwork is simply an interface to a wider, dynamic movement; the ‘observer’ who interacts is then implicitly a creator: ‘Love is contained in this total embrace; all that escapes is reason and certainty. By participating in the embrace, the viewer comes to be a progenitor of the semantic issue.’

In the growing debates around artistic practices since the advent of the digital realm, terms like ‘new media’, ‘new aesthetic’ and ‘post-internet’ have attempted to outline the ways in which we create and understand in this new landscape. This is necessary, vital work, but it often seems reduced to a literal definition of computer-based or originated work, overly fascinated by rough digital editing or pastel colours, and underpinned by an inferiority complex that whatever we perceive as reality will be replaced by artificial intelligence. Several recent examples of artists creating immersive installations that don’t necessarily fall under the current terms of the debate seem to highlight what might be missing from the discussion. What inspired this essay is a set of more physical installations that implicate and mire the viewer in a sense of the historiography of the recent technological past and its potential futures. Jumping between timelines, the territory isn’t exclusively digital, acknowledging that it is our actions that can be abstracted to create Big Data, and that algorithms are merely a set of instructions. Beyond Ascott’s idealistic rhetoric, these works could be seen as a few brief examples of a way to re-imagine and re-politicise the artistic relationships he desired, as they implicate and interpellate equally both artist and viewer.

‘One of the most important things about globalisation is content is very similar region to region – LL Cool J is incredibly popular in China.’ The quote, placed next to an image of a few men sitting on a stage while above them two screens simply show the word ‘POWER’, was part of Simon Denny’s 2013 installation All You Need is Data: the DLD Conference 2012 Redux shown at the Munich Kunstverein and Petzel Gallery in New York. The work comprised a set of 89 digitally printed canvases, all mounted on railings at waist height and facing one direction. The canvases look like student-designed posters, crammed with quotes in several different fonts and with photos framed to look like Polaroids all on a fake wood-panelled background. The posters detail the Digital Life Design Conference, a high-end international networking get-together held in Munich each year (and which, since 2012, has had an annual panel on ‘art and technology’ led by Hans-Ulrich Obrist). Denny’s exhibition in the city coincided with the 2013 conference, and each poster flagged up themes for 2012 sessions: ‘The End of Illness’, ‘Start-Up Nation’, ‘University 2.0’, ‘Super-Earths’. As viewers threaded their way back and forth among the railings that guided them, they were bombarded with sound-bite quotes from speakers. (John Donahoe, CEO of eBay: ‘I think you’ll see a significant reduction on retail storefronts, but retail’s stores will still play a role. Ultimately bricks and clicks is going to be a winning formula.’) Based in Berlin, the New Zealand-born artist has made a series of works looking at moments such as the arrest of Megaupload hacker/entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, or the transfer from analogue to digital television and the equipment debris that remains after such a shift. The link between his works might be the personal reverberations and aftershocks that result from the seemingly distant techie headlines. His DLD Redux is a frustrating and fascinating maze, the determinedly lo-fi execution undermining some of the self-styled propheteering bouncing around the room. The figures depicted clearly believe they are shaping the future but, as Denny suggests, they still need to account for how those aspirations will be made manifest (or, at the very least, acknowledge that LL Cool J hasn’t been popular in Europe and North America since the 1990s).

Dublin-based Dennis McNulty has, in recent years, constructed a series of durational events that combine performance, music, cinema and sculpture, moving between prerecorded and live elements into a sort of hybrid meta-style performance. A cloud of soft equations, 2014, a work known by a different title at every venue it is performed at, developed from a project McNulty carried out for Performa 11 (Performance AM353) and has since been performed in Berlin and Dublin. It begins by contrasting the architectural aspirations of early 20th- century Russia and late 20th-century America: ‘I think we don’t know what the face of something new is’, a voice emanating from a speaker in a darkened room proclaims. The words are from architect Peter Eisenman, as the audience flips through a pamphlet which segues through details of a 1927 image of Konstantin Melnikov outside his cylindrical house while it was under construction. Each page turn is choreographed by the familiar beep from children’s guided-reading stories, the voice complemented by the staggered, shuffling sound of a group of people page-turning at roughly the same time. What defines McNulty’s performances is a layered awareness of temporal, technological and spatial contrasts. In one scene, an actor at a small lamp-lit desk reads out the press release for the 1988 ‘Deconstructivist Architecture’ exhibition at MoMA, New York, before using a small octagonal mirror to outline the room’s ceiling with the reflected light. Then another actor has a conversation with a voice playing from a vinyl record, placing transparencies on an overhead projector while she speaks. Improbably enough, the voice on the record speaks languidly about the FLOW-MATIC data-processing language and its relationship to the later COBOL programming language and the Y2K bug. The juxtapositions of soft equations posit COBOL as another expressive medium, and architecture as another language in which we are embedded. Like the work of Marron, Denny and others, McNulty creates an uneasy sense of jumping back and forth somewhere from 50 years back into the past to 50 years forward into the future, with the audience placed smack in the middle. In soft equations, the record at one point seems to get stuck, as the voice describes data that is ‘so critical, so crucial, so essential, so transient, so abnormal, so infinite, so unstoppable, the guardians are reluctant to let them come to rest, language hidden deep inside these things that control other things that control other things that control other things ...’ If we are so helplessly embedded, what do we do? We can attempt to situate and contextualise the ostensibly apolitical role of the pioneering programmer, and begin to analyse the realpolitik of the rhetoric and end uses of self-proclaimed ‘open systems’. The work here, alongside that of artists like Rolf Nowotny, Rachael Champion and countless others, opens out ways that this terrain has been claimed, and indicates other ways to understand the ‘digital’ within the wider context in which we all take part. To start with, we can at least acknowledge that we are the data, set within a landscape defined by our own language.

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and curator based in London.

First published in Art Monthly 374: March 2014.

Sponsored Links