September 24, 2011

The Resilience of Meaning

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Stephen Willats is interested in both information networks and networks of meaning, each connected to real people in real locations. In Willats’ art, these networks intersect and overlap in complex ways; words, pauses, gestures, posture, and spaces between, all contribute both information and meaning to exchanges that are captured as “Data Stream: A Portrait of New York” (2011). For Willats’ one man exhibition at Reena Spaulings on East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown (The Strange Attractor, Sept 17- October 23, 2011), he created a long, two-sided wall for us to scan, or crane or squat to study. Ten rows of 57 images and texts of specific individuals make up a grid on this wall, recording parts of Delancey Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City in March 2011.

How does one relate to these images and data? Willats invites us to join him and co-create our own ontology; we perform our becoming in the gallery as we engage with the installation. Information as images and text is mounted down low, in the middle and up high; we parse it for ourselves, connecting to some bits and not to others. We study the photographs, rubbings, and words, seeing aspects of our lives captured visually, but only partially. We make our own meanings in relation to the complexity of a “strange attractor.” As time moves on, and/or new visitors and objects are juxtaposed, our constructed meanings shift again and again.

While my title above comes from Tiziana Terranova’s 2004 essay examining the cultural politics of information, Willats takes his title from the mathematical concept that cybernetician Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002) adapted to his concerns. A strange attractor is both a geometrical pattern characterizing a complex, chaotic system, and a dynamic object that is dissipating into chaos. The tension inherent in this dynamic pattern sustains a tenuous convergence akin to learning. For von Foerster, a “strange attractor” was one way to understand mid-century modern life, helping to define what is humanly knowable or not. Second-order cyberneticians like von Foerster aimed to generalize the feedback and control mechanisms from engineering and science to focus on the unpredictable, open relationships in society. Similarly, Willats’ colleague and mentor, Gordon Pask (1928-1996) and other scientists such as W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972), used the “black box” problem as a means of understanding not only what we know (epistemology), but also how we know it (ontology).

Scholar of science studies Andrew Pickering noted that “Black Box ontology is a performative image of the world. A Black Box is something that does something, that one does something to, and that does something back—a partner in, as I would say, a dance of agency.” Willats and his collaborators, with recording devices, still and video cameras, performed together up and down New York streets on two cold and wet days last March, creating multiple views of the city that, in turn, help us see and understand the give-and-take between objects and people in new ways.

Pickering has written brilliantly about the ontology of cybernetics, which is key to Willats’ art: “[C]ybernetics stages for us a vision not of a world characterized by graspable causes, but rather of one in which reality is always ‘in the making,’ to borrow a phrase from William James.” Second-order cyberneticians and artists like Willats recognize both the impossibility of ever fully observing each other from within their own embodied selves, and the significance of observing social systems within which individual minds and bodies perform. The contingency and opacity of relationships among ideas, material objects and observers is ever-present in what is being observed, stressing the “in the making” and performative aspects of our interactions, in other words, the resilience of meaning(s).

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Stephen Willats, Data Stream: A Portrait of New York City, 2011

Data Stream, detail: Delancey Street

Data Stream, detail: Delancey Street

[1]Tiziana Terranova, “Communication beyond Meaning: On the Cultural Politics of Information,” Social Text [Technoscience] No. 80 (Fall, 2004): 52; Paul Pangaro, “The Past-Future of Cybernetics: Conversations, von Foerster and the BCL,” in An Unfinished Revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory | BCL 1958-1976, Albert Mueller and Karl H. Mueller, eds. (Vienna: Edition Echoraum, 2007): 164.

[2] Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010): 20, 19.

November 7, 2010

Notes on “Archiving Memory in the Age of Digital Technologies”

I am still playing conference catch-up. Between September 23 and October 3, 2010, I went to two conferences, the Imagining America conference in Seattle, and the Society for the History of Technology conference in Tacoma.

Diana Taylor

Diana Taylor

For now, I just want to share my notes on the keynote talk on September 24, 2010 by Diana Taylor at Imagining America. Taylor is an amazing academic and activist known for her book, The Archive and the Repertoire, and her work with the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas, the website and archive of which is based at New York University. Her talk was titled, “Save As…Archiving Memory in the Age of Digital Technologies.” She read her paper very fast, so my notes are sketchy. But it was a great talk; it’s lousy (for her!) she had a bad cold. The reason to post this now (SIX months later!) is that Imagining America just released a print version of this talk as a Foreseeable Futures pamphlet.

She began by referencing Clay Shirky‘s writings, and saying that access and preservation are not “co-terminous” with our time. What we know is radically altered by how we know it. The usual interpretation: body as ephemeral and archive as knowable and fixed.

Repertoire: collective thinking, knowing in place vs. Archive: but these are not static binaries

Digital databases combine “archives” with life. This phenomenon doesn’t usher in the age of the archive, or a new version of repertoire, but instead a mixed aspect that draws on and alters both.

The digital and the virtual are not interchangeable.

The new digital era is obsessed with that which is archived, conflated with “save,” “upload,” etc.

Collection, library, inventory, museum

Archive as fetishmurky understanding of what is saved, what is forgotten, and the political connotations of that

Place/thing/practice->each relies on other for its authority

Digital technology seems to hold promise that people can produce and control information (though surveillance also an issue.)

Taylor in her book noted the abuse of archive by constructors of past.

What is gained or lost by using the word “archive” to describe upload?

Hemispheric Institute (HI) archivetrilingual HI digital video library (HIDVL); postcolonial archive (Digital Iron Mountain)

Also HI has commissioned work; also born digital, ie, Amnezac

Politics of the copy (save as)return the original to owner

HIDVL—process of selection and validation does reproduce elitism, unlike YouTube: initially went after “classics” of performance in video that were in danger of being damaged (c. 2000)

Skeuamorphs like stickies, trash can, on computer can help users adapt.

Place/thing/practice change online, seeming “nowhereness” of digital archive; multi-sitedness of web

Time Magazine’s online archive has “erased” its own traces (ie, ads)…anti-archival

Anxiety about loss and forgetting feeds fascination with archive

Who owns the digital? How do we “act” online? Re: betw digital and repertoire?

Data and digitsways of experiencing ourselves shifting

“making” vs “adding” friends on Facebook

Taylor wrote about online collaborative teaching: “Translating Performance” Profession 2000 (MLA, 2002)

September 20, 2009

Guerilla Art Action Group

Five booklets from Half-Letter Press

Five booklets from Half-Letter Press

Temporary Services (TS)–through Half-Letter Press–has been producing wonderful little booklets of interviews, which now number five. One of the “Temporary Conversations” was with Jean Toche of the Guerilla Art Action Group (GAAG). Formed in 1969 and enduring through 1976, GAAG consisted of Jean Toche, Jon Hendricks, and Poppy Johnson, with occasional others. The bright orange booklet (2008) that features TS’s interview with Toche has illustrations provided by Jon Hendricks.

I really enjoyed driving back from Chicago with Brett Bloom of TS and hearing more about the process of this interview. The entire interview was conducted using snail mail!

One excerpt from the booklet–which you can buy from Half-Letter Press–that has been sticking with me, is a 1971 communique by Hendricks and Toche called Esthetics and Revolution:



Seems like a good description for getting through life in general.

August 16, 2009

The Big Neighborhood Supper

Chickens, chard, plums and cabbage

Chickens, chard, plums and cabbage

About 25 of us gathered on a fairly warm and humid August evening to enjoy The Big Neighborhood Supper. Artist Maggie Taylor worked hard all summer to collaboratively organize workshops , conceptualize a group gathering around local food and drink, and produce a meal in a lovely setting. She pulled it off, and then some! In Maggie’s back yard, we sat around home-made tables from discarded lumber found in an alley; set with 60-year-old china, vases of flowers from Rachel’s garden; placemats made from photos of local fruits, vegetables, and chickens (see photo); decorated with fabric and candles hanging in trees; and sprigs of herbs on each place setting. We all pitched in to prepare the food, and what food! Pesto and bread (thanks, Pekara!), chilled cucumber soup, salad greens with sweetpea currant tomatoes, grilled veggies, vegetable frittata, and half cantalopes filled with mint ice cream and warm plums. WOW. Almost everything was local, grown by the people who came to the meal. The four children, three dogs, and many adults were quite content when I left at 9:30 last night. We shared memories of food production and I met many new people, or got better acquainted with people who have been around as long as I have, but I haven’t talked to much. (Three of us were 56!) Thanks SO much, Maggie and all BNS participants!

December 8, 2008

Imagining America, Part One

Promotional material for Cornerstone Theater's "For All Time"

Promotional material for Cornerstone Theater

A friend recently asked me what two things I learned from attending the annual conference of Imagining America in early October 2008. In general, I will say that 1) it matters to see people in their home milieu, and 2) it demystified public engagement work for me. The conference was quite small, and mostly West Coasters, which makes sense given that it was in Los Angeles. So to be able to see what Angelenos are doing in Los Angeles meant that I saw evidence of incredibly hard work, against tall odds, by a relatively few people.

Judy Baca gave the keynote address and told the story of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which she founded in Venice (CA) thirty years ago. Now with a certain level of support, she creates digital murals at the Cesar Chavez Digital Mural Lab, funded by the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is on the faculty. I wrote about that Lab in a previous post on April 11, 2008.

So many other activities from the last few years had a presence in Los Angeles:

  • The Bresee Community Center and the Echo Park Film Center, among others, supported youth in creating media about important issues, like gentrification. Stephanie Cisneros, for example, created “Echo Park: A Different View,” which is about 8 minutes long and available on YouTube. Some of the Spanish-to-English translations are a little off, but it gives a real feel for a rapidly changing neighborhood around 2004.
  • Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe, started by Father Greg Boyle, provides jobs  for former gang members and good food for the community. I brought home a copy of the DVD, “Father G and the Homeboys,” narrated by Martin Sheen. It tells the story of an organization being built up, burned down, and otherwise hugely challenged over the last twenty years.
  • I was able to see a read-through of the Cornerstone Theater‘s “For All Time,” part of their Justice Cycle. This featured a large cast depicting experiences and attitudes toward punishment and retribution on the part of victims, families, and incarcerated people.
  • Michael John Garces and Paula Donnelly from the Cornerstone Theater led a group of about 40 of us in an engaging workshop on “Turning Community Stories into Art.” The Cornerstone is an ensemble-based company in LA that combines professional actors and community members in productions that are often original works. They’ve been refining their techniques for over twenty years.  It was great to participate in their cultural mapping exercises, and sample some of the ways they draw stories out of people with whom they co-create performances.
September 20, 2008

Continuous City

The Builders Association performed their show, “Continuous City” last night here in Champaign-Urbana. I was intrigued by the publicity, since it was supposed to be about cities, social networking, and theatre all at once, and how cool is that? The funders also touted the “boundary-pushing” and “cross-cultural” understanding of interdisciplinary art productions like this one. First of all, I’m glad that Marianne Weems, director, Harry Sinclair, writer, et al., brought this to our campus. Weems has been and is in a position to really think about arts in a globalizing world, having directed some other interesting pieces here before–Alladeen and Super Vision–and co-edited, with Brian Wallis and Philip Yenawine, a book I’ve used, Art Matters: how the culture wars changed America. In the program notes, Weems cites Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums as contributing to the development of this work. So, the bar is set pretty high.

On the plus side, the video work was pretty nifty and at times stunningly beautiful. I’d like to know more about how it was done. Peter Flaherty did the video design and you can learn more about him at The ideas behind the production were wonderful: video contributions from Shanghai, Mexico, Toronto, and KCPA, with an amusing “vlog” by Moe Angelos. Harry Sinclair as Mike was good as a globe-trotting, clueless father who, in his exhausted, unshaven way, was trying to sell a video-networking product he didn’t believe in, to people who already had satisfying in-the-flesh relationships. And his daughter, Sam, was great as a sullen, precocious, and cute kid.

But–of course there is a “but”–with all this techno-savvy and on-stage skill, the performance was ultimately about the lead character J.V.’s inability to have intimate relationships. That theme is treated much more profoundly and richly by many other playwrights. Rizwan Mirza’s J.V. didn’t convince me that he was a stressed out Internet entrepreneur. He seemed way too relaxed for that. And the metaphor of cutting off possibilities by going into a tunnel was really unsatisfying as an ending. I’m usually disappointed by endings, but this one seemed a cop-out.

Perhaps it comes down to “social architecture,” what Richard Farson in 1970 recognized as something we need to build in order to match (or compensate for, I’m not sure) the level of the technology we have set up. It seems like the technology on stage last night was flashy, sophisticated, funny, and capable of subtlety, but the dramatic storyline was too thin, too undeveloped, to support all that computer wizardry.

There were some inklings of social complexity, with food security, immigrants, and sprawl having brief mentions. It was thought-provoking as the family members were fuzzy and static-y, the images of Mike kept breaking up, and Sam kept hiding from her dad. But the evidence of resource-intensive, upper/middle-class ownership and production juxtaposed with a seeming lip service to papadum sellers in Mumbai or Vietnamese living in U.S. trailer parks rankled. Am I ungrateful that at least these folks are trying? No. Do I want more? Yes.