“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.

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.

My Life as a Man

Spread from Carmen Winant, My Life as a Man (2015).

Spread from Carmen Winant, My Life as a Man (2015).

In January 2015, I published a prose poem called “Sgt. Star” in My Life as a Man (Horses Think Press), an artist book by Carmen Winant. The book also includes contributions by Matthew Brannon, Moyra Davey, Courtney Fiske, Jim Fletcher, Kenneth Goldsmith, Jonathan Griffin, Geoffrey Hilsabeck, Michael Ned Holte, Sarah McMenimen, Anna Livia, Ross Simonini, and John Yau. “Sgt. Star” employs language sourced from the corpus of the eponymous chatbot, the virtual guide to the United States Army recruitment website.

“Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet, and Contemporary Art”

Theaster Gates, On Black Foundations, 2012, wood, glass, plastic, paper and makeup, dimensions variable; at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Theaster Gates, On Black Foundations, 2012, wood, glass, plastic, paper and makeup, dimensions variable; at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

In the May 2015 issue of Art in America, I published a review of “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet, and Contemporary Art,” an exhibition that was on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem from November 2014 to March 2015. The review begins:

In January, Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company, the force behind the magazines Ebony and Jet, announced that it would offer for sale its photo archive, which spans 70 years and includes five million images of African-American life, from pictures of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral to glamour shots of Billie Holiday. The company hopes to garner $40 million, which would help make up for declining revenues and facilitate the transition from print to digital. In the right hands, Johnson’s CEO recently said, the archive could be the “black Getty.”

Sommerakademie 2014: HR

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In August 2014, I was a fellow at Zentrum Paul Klee’s Sommerakademie in Bern, Switzerland. The fellowship is awarded each year to twelve artists, curators, and critics under the age of thirty-five, and involves a series of workshops, discussions, expeditions, and presentations. This edition of Sommerakademie was curated by Raimundas Malašauskas, who developed the theme of HR, a reference both to Bern denizen Hermann Rorschach and human resources. As part of the program, I presented a preliminary version of the performance Reality Formatting.

Pattern Masters

Preparatory sketch for Jen Liu, The Red Detachment of Women.

Preparatory sketch for Jen Liu, The Red Detachment of Women.

On July 12, 2015, Triple Canopy presented Pattern Masters, a series of performances at the Whitney Museum of American by Lucy Raven, Jen Liu, and David Horvitz with Susie Ibarra. The event marked the debut of an issue of Triple Canopy devoted to standards and standardization, which relates to research I’ve been conducting as part of my 2013–15 fellowship at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

“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.”