“Surround Audience”

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Aural Contract Audio Archive, 2010–ongoing. Sound measurement. Courtesy the artist.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Aural Contract Audio Archive, 2010–ongoing. Sound measurement. Courtesy the artist.

In February 2015, I published “Reality Formatting” in the catalogue for the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, “Surround Audience,” curated by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin. The essay focuses on the role of standardization and technologies of mediation in the work of José León Cerrillo, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and Daniel Steegmann Mangrané.

A version of this essay appears in English and Spanish in the catalogue for “Registro 04,” which opens at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, México, in September 2015.

Here is an excerpt of the essay:

Without delving too deeply into a genesis of the quantitative worldview, we can recognize that our age is particularly concerned with putatively objective knowledge, with the administration of nature, with statistical categories as the fundaments of (and means of articulating) identity. We can glimpse these concerns in the goods and communication technologies that crowd our lives, in the ways in which we manage them and they manage us, in the images of the world they create and induce us to create. Harboring anxiety about the standardization of all things, about the jarring shift from a world seemingly made for humans to a world seemingly made for machines, is nothing new: Charles Dickens, writing at the dawn of “public time,” described the reconfiguration of life so as to facilitate industry as feeling “as if the sun itself had given in.” But as the railway table has given way to the invisible, inscrutable protocols and infrastructures that both govern and constitute the internet, we may sense the dream of ordering the world through measurement dissipating. In its place: the steady hum of however many billions working, in service of technicians and engineers, to maintain the stability of our immaculate operating systems.

“To understand the circumstances under which quantitative objectivity has come into demand, we need to look not only at the intellectual formation of experts, but even more importantly at the social basis of authority,” writes Theodore Porter in Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. He describes the emergence, in nineteenth-century Britain, of actuaries who embodied and spread moral virtues associated with logic, precision, and discipline. The rigor associated with accounting—with assessing and assigning values to lives—came to be considered an indication of not only competence but integrity. Porter asserts that “the language of quantity,” derived from the natural sciences, was eventually adopted by businesses, governments, and social researchers, which enabled communication across continents and minimized the need for those communicating to know or trust each other.

This change coincides with widespread political reforms that handed over many functions of government to corporations and so-called private authorities. Importantly, the rhetorical sheen of objectivity invests these organizations— which tend not to be chosen by any citizenry or accredited by any technical body—with legitimacy they would not otherwise possess. Which is to say that the vogue for measures of performance and profitability is as much about control as transparency and efficiency. “Numbers alone never provide enough information to make detailed decisions about the operation of a company,” Porter writes. “Their highest purpose is to instill an ethic.” Our methods of managing people and economic processes—neatly conveyed in the phrase government at a distance—are ultimately bound to the ways in which we understand and express ourselves. Quantification finds its way into the images and sounds we incessantly create and circulate, the words we process, the behaviors we assume. “As with the methods of natural science,” Porter observes, “the quantitative technologies used to investigate social and economic life work best if the world they aim to describe can be remade in their image.”