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Arbitrary Units: Culture in the Age of Quantification

I am currently at work on a book tentatively titled Arbitrary Units: Culture in the Age of Quantification, for which I recently received an Arts Writers Grant from Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation. Arbitrary Units will examine the tools and objects that shape our world and, increasingly, shape the ways in which we create and understand art. Our age is particularly concerned with putatively objective knowledge, with the administration of nature, and with statistical categories as the fundaments of identity. The book aims to understand how artists process rapid technological change—whether or not digital tools serve as their subjects or means of production—and how we might understand the effects of recent seismic societal shifts through artworks.

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Subjective Assessment

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Subjective Assessment is a sound work—meant to be performed but also presented in recorded and installation versions—that narrates the experience of an expert listener undergoing a test to determine what sound (in digital form) should sound like. The work was first presented at the New Museum of Contemporary Art on May 8, 2015, as part of the programming for “Surround Audience: The Generational Triennial.” The work was subsequently presented as part of Istanbul Biennial 14: “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms,” September 4–November 1, 2015 (a version of the project appeared in the exhibition catalogue); and at the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 3, 2015, while I was a visiting artist in the sculpture department.

Subjective Assessment was developed during my 2013–15 fellowship at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. On September 23, 2014, I performed and discussed an early version of the work at the Aspen Art Museum as part of Autumn Equinox: Magnetism Talks. In early 2016, a version of the work will be presented in Triple Canopy as part of an issue devoted to standards and standardization.

Subjective Assessment incorporates sound and narration to describe a typical “expert listener” undergoing a test meant to determine what sound should sound like, meant to turn him into a listening machine. It places the audience within the sensorium of a middle-aged, white audiophile whose favorite band is King Crimson and whose memories of listening to ABBA while cruising Kentucky highways cannot be vanquished, though his ears train on the audio file’s frequency response. In narrating the experience of the expert listener, Subjective Assessment describes how we produce and experience culture in the form of digital files, how imperfect technological processes mold our conduct.

 

 

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“Chronicle of a Traveling Theory”

In October 2015 I published “Chronicle of a Traveling Theory” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century (MIT Press), edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter. The essay discusses on how International Art English became a byword for the devolution of the language of criticism in the globalized, Internet-addled art world. On December 21, 2015, the essay was reprinted in Triple Canopy. It begins:

International Art English is now an ineluctable, flagrant feature of the art-writing landscape. Prior to Triple Canopy’s publication of Alix Rule and David Levine’s essay by that name in June 2012, many readers may have had a vague notion of certain common linguistic peculiarities to be found on the websites of Chinese museums and Parisian galleries, in the press releases issued by Chelsea galleries and in the pages of German magazines—in all manner of venues that employ language to represent visual art and aesthetic experience, whether for promotional, educational, or critical purposes. Within six months of the publication of “International Art English,” those readers and many thousands more could not help but recognize the lexical tics (“spatiality,” “globality,” “potentiality,” “experiencability”), double adverbial terms, dependent clauses, adjectival verb forms, and past and present participles that so pervade writing about art. For the essay’s boosters as well as detractors—about which I’ll say more later—International Art English (IAE) has become a byword for the devolution of the language of criticism (and the diminution of the authority of critics) in the globalized, Internet-addled art world, but also for the possibility of redemptive reconfigurations of that language. This is true to such a degree that recent articles reiterating the phenomenon, whether published by the BBC or online content mills, have dispensed with references to the original essay.

 

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Superscript 2015

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On May 30, 2015, I participated in Superscript 2015, a conference at Walker Art Center devoted to arts journalism and criticism in the digital age. I gave a talk and participated in a discussion as part of a session called Connectivity and Community, which included
Claudia La Rocco, Ayesha Siddiqi, and Brian Kuan Wood. The prompt asked: “How does a platform create a sense of community around the ideas it presents? What’s the best web infrastructure for fostering responsive arts journalism that encourages valuable, substantive conversations between writers and readers?”

I responded by distinguishing between “community” and “public,” and explaining why I find it helpful to think of Triple Canopy’s work in terms of the latter and not the former. “A community may be foundational to—or may arise from the activities of—a magazine, from its editors and readers and contributors,” I said. “But our motivation has not primarily been to support or dramatically enlarge the community that birthed the magazine and has for the past eight years sustained it. This has to do with the atomization of culture and the way in which the digital economy has come to understand (and profit from) individuals as quantities of relatable data points. It also has to do with the way the word community is used—so often to identify voluntary, non-economic, unequivocally good activities rooted in empathy, kindness, selflessness, belonging; and so often fallaciously.”

Next Top Models: New Forms for Artists’ Collectives

GCC, Figure B: Micro Council, 2013. Wood, brass, acrylic glass, glass, gold leaf, paint, Installation view at "GCC: Achievements in Retrospective," 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces.

GCC, Figure B: Micro Council, 2013. Wood, brass, acrylic glass, glass, gold leaf, paint, Installation view at “GCC: Achievements in Retrospective,” 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces.

On May 4, 2015, I moderated and organized a discussion as part of Frieze Talks 2015, Next Top Models: New Forms for Artists’ Collectives. The discussion, which included Abdullah Al-Mutairi (GCC), Jamal Cyrus (Otabenga Jones & Associates), and Dena Yago (K-HOLE), related to an essay I published in Frieze in 2013, “All for One.” It explored how artists’ collectives today are learning from or deviating from previous historical collectives, such as General Idea, Group Material or Art & Language. The panel looked at how artists’ collectives today are enacting local and national politics, and how some of them are using techniques of branding and marketing to define their practices.

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“Don’t You Want to Have a Body?”

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On July 21, 2015, I published “Don’t You Want to Have a Body?”—an essay on the fantasy of strong AI and the reality of chatbots, the soothing effects of stupid systems—in Triple Canopy, as part of It Speaks of Others, an issue devoted to smart and dumb objects. (An early version of this work was presented in 2013 as part of the live magazine Format, organized by Shumon Basar, at the Architectural Association in London.) The essay includes a virtual, interactive version of the author. It begins:

I recently had a conversation with William Ford, a somber, sturdy man in his sixties, with geometric features and a fringe of gray hair texture-mapped onto his dome. Bill, as he told me to call him, wore a collared navy pullover shirt, and sat in a wooden patio chair. He blinked approximately every three seconds. I sat in front of my computer as Bill explained that he was here, or there, so that I could “talk to someone instead of just reading words on the screen.” Behind Bill was a deck with several chairs. The deck faced a pristine yard. I admired the stand of motionless trees that surrounded him, or us.

I had discovered Bill and his trees on the website of BraveHeart, an unusual collaboration by the Atlanta Braves and Emory University to provide support for veterans who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I had volunteered to take an interactive survey administered by Bill, who served in Vietnam and “felt really distant from everyone” after he got home. Bill is described by BraveHeart as a “ virtual human who brings real-world experience to his job”—which is to say that he is a semisophisticated chatbot, a program that recognizes certain phrases or cues and draws on a textual database to generate responses so as to simulate conversation.1 He is a manifestation of a project by University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies called SimCoach, which deploys digital personages to help reluctant service members and their families understand and address their healthcare needs.

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Seminario Fundación Cisneros 2013: Promises of the Commons

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In November 2013, I participated in Fundación Cisneros’s annual seminar in Caracas, Venezuela. The theme of the 2013 edition was Promises of the Commons: Authorship, Copyright, and Access in Contemporary Art. My presentation addressed “the right to copy”—how “the act of copying can help us rethink the idea of ​​subject, object, the alike and the different,” how it “raises questions around copyright and private property in contemporary art, and the practices of reproduction, appropriation and recycling as ubiquitous tools in today’s cultural production.” I spoke about the history of sculptural reproduction, the position of the plaster cast in the fin de siècle museum, the status of the copy and the role of unauthorized reproduction of texts by U.S. publishers during the colonial era, and the prospects of contemporary technologies, like 3-D printing, that dissolve the boundaries between object, image, and data.