“What Do We Know?”

In the February–March 2017 issue of Mousse, I published “What Do We Know?,” an essay about art in the so-called post-truth era, philology in the op-ed pages, the comparative merits of The Purge: Election Year and Hamilton: An American Musical, the likelihood of political promises being enforced via blockchain, and what might be lost if we strive to Make America Ancient Greece Again. The essay considers works by Victor Klemperer, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Zoe Leonard, Adam Curtis, Paul Chan, and Giorgio Agamben. The essay is currently only available in the print edition, but here is the beginning (and here is a PDF):

Late last year, following Donald Trump’s promotion to the most powerful office on the planet, the artist Paul Chan published “New No’s”, a postelection free-verse “protest against the drift of American society towards what is most un- American.” He wrote: “No to clickbait as culture / No to news as truths / No to art as untruths / … No meaning without meaning / No means no.” To me, this signaled a tectonic shift in culture as a response—perhaps the only viable response— to the desecration of language and disregard for empiricism that are Trump’s hallmarks.

Perhaps battle lines are needed. But can we decry dissimulation in general without giving up the right to fabricate, falsify, impersonate, and otherwise use words to deform and disfigure the world? After all, we can’t quarantine politics—which ideally hinges on the credibility of speech—from brands of art and entertainment that are inclined to skewer popular notions of sincerity, transparency, and, well, “meaning.” Instead of striving to Make America Ancient Greece Again, I wonder, as I skim the torrent of articles questioning the role of art and artists, if we might seek a balance between premodern politics and postmodern sensibilities.

“Unknown Makers”

In the October 2016 issue of Art in America, I published “Unknown Makers,” an essay about how, as digital technologies enable increasingly accurate reproductions of artworks, museums—as well as artists and lawyers—are grappling with the complex aesthetic, legal, and political implications of copying. The essay ranges from the Met’s copyist program to Courbet to the “piratic Enlightenment” to Oliver Laric to legal dilemmas regarding 3-D printing to Mahayana Buddhism to Nefertiti to Duane Linklater. An excerpt:

I may enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sketchbook and pencil in hand, and walk through the stately hallways until I arrive in gallery 811, where Gustave Courbet’s The Source (1862) hangs. I may take a seat on the glossy wood bench, place the sketchbook on my lap, train my eyes on the nude woman whose arms thrust into a cascade of spring water, and attempt the most perfect copy. I may not use ballpoint pens, ink, markers, fountain pens, or watercolors, but I may use crayon, pastel, or charcoal if I’m on a supervised tour that grants permission. I may not photograph the painting, even as I witness visitors momentarily pause between me and The Source, elevate iPhones, and blithely jab thumbs into screens. I may have to fight the urge to hiss at the offenders, such is my concern for this institution being turned into a classy Instagram backdrop.

“The Sound of Digital Spaces”: Interview with Kunstkritikk

On November 15, 2016, the Nordic online art magazine Kunstkritikk published an interview with me, which focuses on my recent sound work Subjective Assessment. Below is the interview in its entirety.

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Alexander Provan, writer and editor of the web journal and publishing house Triple Canopy, recently visited Oslo on the occasion of Norsk sakprosafestival (the Norwegian Non-fiction Festival). At a panel debate at Litteraturhuset Saturday 29 October– alongside writer Ola Innset and the artistic director of Kunsthall Oslo, Will Bradley – Provan addressed questions such as how our social relations and patterns of behaviour are shaped by digital technology. The discussion highlighted the pressing need to reflect on the problematic aspects of this technological development. One of the key questions for Provan is the way digital file formats govern how we perceive the world. In connection with this discussion he presented the sound work Reality Formatting (2015–2016). The work explores some of the problems caused by digitalization, but also its positive aspects – such as the improved opportunities for distributing and accessing various forms of content.

In Reality Formatting we follow a so-called expert listener as he assesses audio material that has undergone various forms of compression. The work documents the process that sound undergoes when it is digitized, thereby foregrounding how digital standardization, which claims to be neutral, independent of all politics and ideologies, actually encompasses a considerable social component. Who decides what the sounds we are presented with should sound like? Provan identifies the ideal listener who has been a key factor in the creation of widespread audio formats: the audiophile, middle-aged Western man. In what ways does his cultural background and preferences affect the spectrum of sensory experiences available to us?

After the event, Kunstkritikk met Provan for a talk about standardization of sound and the technical, historical and social conditions that govern it.

How did the standards project come into being?

I had been thinking about the standards that underlie the Internet and contemporary technologies for quite a while. A few years ago, an academic friend introduced me to a sociology book which treats standardization as a coherent tendency with its own history. This history goes back, for instance, to the development of the metric system, to the engineers and scientists around the world who advocated for uniformity in measurement beginning in the 18th century.

It is possible to chart a trajectory from the emergence of the scientific worldview to the rise of bureaucratization to the development of all-encompassing non-governmental regulatory agencies (primarily the International Organization for Standardization) to the advent of the Internet and the technical bodies that are necessary for it—and all sorts of disparate but interconnected technologies—to function. All current media formats have come out of these histories.

Focusing on sound, what led to the compression formats we have today?

This begins in the early 20th century with the telephone industry, especially with Bell Labs. By analyzing peoples’ hearing, Bell determined what kind of information was necessary in order for people to actually understand what someone was saying. Bell’s scientists extracted all unnecessary frequencies, so that they were transmitting the absolute minimum of information. This meant that they could pack more signals onto telephone lines, which is the birth of compression. Compression begins with an analysis of the human senses, which is then incorporated into the technology. You can’t really separate biology from the MP3.

You have devoted an issue of Triple Canopy, as well as a sound piece, to this topic. When you began your research, how did you decide what sort of formatting to focus on and what you wanted to explore?

I was concerned with how we might understand and represent these obscure phenomena that condition our lives. Unless you are trained to understand TCP/IP and the protocols that constitute the Internet, it is almost impossible to think about them with any kind of specificity. It’s one thing to present this information, and quite another to show how the phenomena actually shape our lives on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to research the subject and uncover the technical procedures in order to invest them with narrative, both in the contributions to this issue of Triple Canopy and my sound work, Reality Formatting.

Narrative could be considered a form of expression more suited to the age of the novel or the cinema. What made you employ narrative to explore standardization?

Narratives make things easier to understand! And I’m interested in what narratives can and can’t do in relation to contemporary experience. Complex technologies resist narrative, and this acts as an obstacle for our understanding of them, what they do, how they change us and shape social relations.

With Reality Formatting, I felt that I needed to present a narrative that hinges on a subject who experiences these standards, and who is aware of the ways in which they’re conditioning not just his perception of media but his memories. You could tell someone that in twenty years they might associate MP3 files with certain periods of their life, but that’s not going to be compelling unless you can convincingly represent that experience.

My impression is that standardization functions as technological processes, that then affect the culture. Your work Reality Formatting is set up as a listening test where an expert listener evaluates different sounds and determines which ones are degraded and which are not. The narrative clearly formats the person as well, presenting an instantly recognizable type: The middle-aged hi-fi-fetishizing listener.

We’re all formatted in certain ways. As part of the research for this work I read technical documents published by standards agencies that facilitate these “subjective assessments” of audio reproduction systems, and I watched videos of people on Youtube testing their expensive hi-fi systems. I don’t understand why the audiophiles are posting these videos, since you can’t experience the system when the sound is compressed into a Youtube clip. What you get is a primarily visual experience. You see this guy – it’s always a man – walking up to his stereo, putting on a CD or a record, pressing play. And then it’s just the record playing for three minutes. It’s almost always classic rock, prog rock, or contemporary soul music. The music is terrible.

In your piece a series of audio clips are repeated, subjected to different types and intensities of compression. The differences in the repetitions generate attentiveness towards the degradation. This is of course a vital part of the expert listener’s task in order to identify what constitutes lossless compression. Another thing that happens while listening to your piece, is that you as a listener become aware of the different properties of various compressions.

In my work what you often hear is a memory imprinted in a particular sound format. Our memories are not independent of the media that preserve them. These include vinyl records, CDs, 35 mm photographs, JPEGs, MP3s, and so on. A vinyl record, like an MP3 or any other compressed version of a recording, is degraded. Any recorded media is degraded, compared to lived experience. I am not denouncing our memories and experiences as artificial for being tied up with these media, but it’s important to know the degree to which these media have their own characteristics—which are not exclusive to the media, but are also properties of our own bodies and minds. What I’ve tried to do is to create a composition that exhibits the qualities of these media and suggests how various kinds of degradation are essential to the ways in which we experience the world—and not necessarily lamentable.

To quote computer scientist Alan Kay: “Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.” In relation to standardization, would you say a similar process is in place? If you were born after the MP3 do you even notice it or is it simply the standard format?

On a certain level this is more about people having an affinity with what they’re used to, with the version of reality that they understand to be their own—which is formed in youth. In 1956, a researcher conducted a study of Ohio State students to see how they’d respond to new hi-fi technologies. They were invited to listen to advanced hi-fi systems, which provided superior representations of sound compared to the cheap record players they normally used. The students almost uniformly rejected that experience. They had decided what they wanted sound to sound like. They rejected the imposition of a new experience of their favourite records that might overwrite their memories. They were presented with something that was conspicuous as technology, and they said, “No, we don’t want technology. What we have is not technology, and we’ll stick with that.”

The expert listener in my work is struggling to have a completely objective experience of the sounds being played, but he can’t divorce them from his memories. He recalls hearing, on a jukebox or radio, degraded versions of songs, which become all the more meaningful as he strives to suppress the memory. The point is to suggest how quantification may be incorporated into our experiences and memories, without necessarily degrading them. The experience of media can be extremely meaningful while also being about the deprivation of meaning.

I am reminded of a classic piece of sound art, I am Sitting in a Room by Alvin Lucier. There is a remediated version of it, produced by a Youtube user. He has recorded a recitation, uploaded, downloaded and reuploaded this again and again to Youtube. The process reveals the properties of Youtube’s formatting and compressions, turning the visuals into blurry, impressionistic large pink and blue pixels, and the sound into angular water splashes. It comprises a technological portrait of the listener, but also of the digital rooms that we inhabit, how these file formats with different forms of standardization all come with their own signatures. What characterizes the formatting of the digital rooms we inhabit?

The technological answer would be very precise. The more pedestrian answer is that they sound like memory, or mediation. Which is also to say that they sound like how we listen along with all other listeners. MPEGs and MP3s are not made for individuals sitting by themselves in their rooms, but to be distributed quickly and easily and with minimal degradation. What these file formats sound like is all of the world listening at once, or rather like the fiction of the universal subject. There’s a massive listening machine that seems to include everyone in the world, but in fact excludes just as many people because certain kinds of sounds cannot be heard, certain kinds of experience cannot be had. The decisions about what sound should sound like and what film should look like have been determined by technical bodies populated almost exclusively by European and American engineers and audiophiles. This means that we don’t really have a way of assessing how sound, video or images might otherwise be experienced.

There’s this part of your piece where the audiophile listener seems almost to acknowledge his own inadequacies in terms of meeting other cultures. Listening to Haitian singers he remarks that he does not know how they are supposed to sound, and listening to a Chinese two-string violin, the Erhu, he notes that there are certain frequencies he would prefer to lose. What is the consequence of middle-aged, Western men being the ideal listener?

The history of recorded sound excludes so much information. Whenever you listen to an archival audio recording or watch an archival video, you have to speculate on what the scene actually looked or sounded like. The MP3 is a sophisticated tool for determining what people are and are not likely to hear, or fail to hear. The sounds that were used to devise the format are from the Western classical and pop repertoires, which means that other types of sensory experience are banished from the realm of recordings.

Despite the fact that the technical bodies that have shaped these standards tend to represent themselves as apolitical, there are politics involved. In fact, the promulgation and enforcement of these standards—for media and technology but also for manufacturing and trade—represent a predominant form of governance, which Foucault called “government at a distance,” and which may now supersede the power of nation-states. The International Organization for Standardization is emblematic: It establishes guidelines for all kinds of economic processes, and also for graphical symbols, road signs, file formats, satellite communications, environmental responsibility, etc. The idea, which is rather utopian, is to take the regulation of all aspects of human activity and communication outside of the realm of politics, so as to ensure that the purpose remains the easing of barriers to communication and economic exchange. And once everyone else has signed on to these protocols and processes, which do the work of governance, you’ve got to comply as well.

Review of the Eleventh Gwangju Biennale

On October 7, 2016, I published a review of the Eleventh Gwangju Biennale in the online magazine 4Columns. An excerpt:

Like so many exhibitions and publications in the past several years, the eleventh Gwangju Biennale—The Eighth Climate: (What does art do?)—assesses the agency of art at a time when artists seem at once to be newly powerful and notably powerless: as avatars of the creative class, their social stature and economic function are impressive, yet their ability to shape the world beyond MFA syllabi and investment portfolios remains dubious.

Maria Lind, the curator of this gargantuan exhibition—101 artists in twelve venues, not to mention two catalogues, a school, a blog, a bookshop, and several forums, meetings, and other events—approaches the question of art’s agency from a number of complementary angles. The show’s title comes from the twelfth-century Persian philosopher Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, who conceived of an “imaginal” realm that exists alongside the intelligible, spiritual, and material ones; those who are sufficiently wise can enter this “eighth clime” and gain powers such as prophesy, as well as access a fund of images that sits between the physical and mental universes. The implication is that art might see and show us the world differently, mold minds in doing so, and ultimately reshape the world without directly acting on it.

“Getting Closer to the Source”

In the second issue of Accessions, the online journal of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, I published “Getting Closer to the Source,” a project that consists of a narrative and two videos and has to do with audiophile culture and the pursuit of realism in the reproduction of sound. An excerpt:

You’ve never heard anything like it. You hear the whole sound first. And when you catch your breath you search for words to describe the depth, the detail, the etched precision of the music. That stunning pair of three-way speakers is sending clean, undistorted sound to every corner of the room. At every frequency. At every level. Loud or soft. High or low. It doesn’t matter. The energy is constant. You’re experiencing three-dimensional imaging: vocal up front. Lead guitar two steps back and one to the left. Drums further back. The piano closer, almost at the edge of the sound. Suddenly you’re aware of a fullness in the music that you’ve heard before but never associated with recorded sound.

“Copy of an Original of a Copy”

On March 10, 2016, Triple Canopy published “Copy of an Original of a Copy,” an edited transcript a conversation that took place as part of the magazine’s Pointing Machines issue. The conversation, which I moderated, was devoted to the challenges posed to legal conceptions of images, objects, and data, especially as they concern intellectual property, by emerging technologies. The participants were Edward Lee, Jennifer L. Roberts, Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento, and Allyson Vieira; they discussed 3-D imaging and printing, which may (eventually) augur an age of networked production in which endlessly manipulable, ownerless objects can be outputted whenever and wherever the requisite hardware and software can be found—not to mention the printing of body parts and the reproduction of antiquities.

“The Last Platform”

In the March 2016 issue of Frieze, I published “The Last Platform,” an essay about “what it’s like to stand on the precipice of virtual reality.” Below is the essay in full.

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I load the YouTube videos of early adopters with headsets strapped to their faces. Within a few moments, they begin to squeal, curse, flap their arms, jerk their heads and, occasionally, stumble to the floor. They feel themselves to be piloting fighter jets, careering across wooden tracks in a rollercoaster, or standing at the edge of a canyon so artfully contrived as to make their stomachs clench. Their cerebral cortexes seem to peel away from their bodies, which makes them look ridiculous, and also makes me think: I need to try this.

The last time I experienced even an approximation of virtual reality was at the age of 12, when my joystick-weaned neighbour was given Nintendo’s Virtual Boy as a gift from his parents. We retreated to his basement and donned the cumbersome plastic headset, which submerged us in a realm of rapidly refreshing LED lights and three shades of red. We played Mario’s Tennis until our heads ached and our measly spines were on the verge of collapse. The next-generation headsets in the YouTube videos are made by Silicon Valley start-up Oculus VR, and look like rectangular welders’ goggles refashioned by Alexander Wang. When the ride is over and the users unveil themselves, they appear startled, discombobulated, cross-eyed. ‘How’d they put this in here?’ one exclaims.

According to Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2014 directed Facebook to purchase Oculus for US$2 billion, virtual reality will ‘empower people to experience anything’ and may very well be ‘the last platform’. While this language sounds mildly apocalyptic, the business plan is merely the supercession of our current phenomenological experiences: sitting and staring at screens, clicking and mousing with aching fingers to manipulate representations of data. The Oculus Rift, scheduled for commercial release this month, portends a ‘natural interface’ in which all markers of mediation evanesce. No tools, no icons, no windows, no swiping or pinching; you behave exactly as you otherwise would, but you inhabit the body of another person or bacterium; you drag race on Mars or crawl the ocean floor; you copulate without consequence or go to work without getting out of bed.

In his essay ‘The Ultimate Display’ (1965), computer scientist Ivan Sutherland eagerly described an interface that would deliver a room ‘within which the computer can control the existence of matter’, such that virtual handcuffs would be confining and virtual bullets fatal. All sense of artifice would disappear. But late-20th-century VR experiments failed to migrate beyond the heavily funded realms of NASA and DARPA. Now, thanks to the enormous market for gaming systems and various technological advances, the VR fantasy seems to be on the verge of fulfilment. VR systems are being trumpeted as tools for treating injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, fear of public speaking and training surgeons, astronauts or football players. Gaming companies and film studios promise to engross viewers and elicit visceral and emotional responses. Facebook plans to pivot toward ‘immersive videos’, if not telepresence.

At the same time, artists like Ian Cheng, Jon Rafman, Jacolby Satterwhite and Daniel Steegmann Mangrané have recently exhibited works designed (or adapted) for the Rift. Artist and programmer Rachel Rossin, the inaugural Virtual Reality Fellow at New Inc., the New York New Museum’s incubator and workspace, says that VR enthusiasts are split into two factions: those who believe that it is an ‘empathy machine’ that will colonize journalism, film and marketing; and those who exhilarate in the exploration not only of virtual environments but the phenomenological experiences that occur in them – and, ultimately, the way we understand ourselves in relation to those experiences. Rossin recently showed me I Came and Went as a Ghost Hand (2015), a sparsely populated realm of meshes and textures elaborated from images of her home, studio and paintings, all designed for the Rift. I swivelled in my chair and cautiously rotated my head as a white-gloved hand conveyed me through the simulation. I gradually lost awareness of the cords that linked my head to the computer and found myself increasingly absorbed despite the purposeful artificiality of the environment, in which fragments of images have been shorn from Rossin’s everyday life and then slotted into grids and mapped onto the models that constitute video games.

Jeremy Couillard, another artist who works with VR, is similarly focused on the disjunctions between what we perceive and what we feel to be real, but also on the possibility of legitimate transcendence. His Rift simulation, The Out of Body Experience (2015), is informed by Bob Monroe, who developed a quixotic programme for controlling consciousness in order to journey beyond space, time and death – making him the perfect avatar for VR. When I began the simulation, I was seated in a featureless room and inhabiting an alien body, while incomprehensible incantations were whispered into my ears. Soon, I departed the body, floated up a stairwell, burst through a portal and was deposited into a desert landscape strewn with cartoonish creatures and fragments of video-game architecture: swaying saguaro cacti, desiccated grass, polished tile floors. The whistles of orbiting birds melded with synth swells in the binaural soundtrack, and my stomach momentarily shot towards my throat as I dropped down a cursorily rendered cliff. Again, despite the disregard for realism, I was engrossed.

I was also relieved. After reading so many slavering articles, I had come to think of VR as the apotheosis of linear perspective, measuring space and quantifying nature to create an image of the world which seems so immediate and transparent that the medium is effectively erased. But Couillard’s and Rossin’s works unabashedly disclose layer upon layer of mediation and turn the dream of the natural interface into a joke about accessing the unconscious, which has been converted into a storehouse of internet imagery and video-game archetypes.

Of course, the creation of individual artworks that meaningfully reflect on the medium will not extinguish corporations’ rhapsodic visions of computers generating immersive environments so indistinguishable from the real world as to drain that concept of meaning. Michael Abrash, the chief scientist at Oculus, recently credited his faith in VR to the lecture delivered by Morpheus inThe Matrix (1999) about the nature of consciousness: you glean a minimal amount of data from your environment in the form of electrical signals, which your brain uses to construct a convincing illusion, which means that nothing is real! We are ‘inference machines’ and not ‘objective observers of the world’, Abrash said to a crowd of Facebook developers. As such, we can – and, therefore, should – use technology to construct experiences that, for all intents and purposes, count as reality.

The rhetoric of Abrash and his cohort has as much to do with religion as vision. Computers long ago set us on the path to liberation from our bodies and a world of our own making. How could we not pursue such salvation? As the philosopher Bruno Latour has observed, the fundamental move of science is the conversion of nature into a diagram we can comprehend. But never before have diagrams yielded images so fantastic, so convincingly natural, that our bodies might confuse them for what they picture. What will we do with these images now that we have them, and what will they do to us?