Missing the Militant City

•December 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

SIGH! I had hoped to be writing a blog post on how I found Isaac Marrero-Guillamón’s presentation on The Militant City at Furtherfield’s new digs in Finsbury Park amazingly illuminating. Alas the postuser internet is a demanding beast and I spent most of the day debugging AI with a pidgin dialect of Python.

Rachel Baker alerted me to this event and I was pretty taken by it. Isaac Marrero-Guillamón is researching the militant city in collaboration with Birkbeck University of London and the Spanish Ministry of Education. Militant City is concerned with how art can antagonistically articulate itself against the abstract machine that is the Olympics.

Ah yes that Delezuean chestnut. Maybe it’s a sign of how much that doctrine has permeated my thinking but I really had very little difficulty comprehending how one could frame the Olympics as an entity unto itself, operating without any single presiding human agency. The transformations it effects on physical space and the amazing interlocking cogs of bureaucracy contained within it are apparent to most. Marrero-Guillamón research develops an understanding of this greater-than-human agency further.

The Olympic mega-event regulates what is visible and invisible, sayable and unsayable, thinkable and unthinkable; it distributes individuals and groups in positions of ruler or ruled. We are interested in eruptions of dissensus against this consensual space: works that challenge that cartography of the sensible and the thinkable; practices that shake up the ordering of what can be seen, said, or thought.

I’m guessing the activist angle on the Militant Cities outlook reflects that it is ultimately concerned with the human experience: whether it’s those that are swept along by the force which an Olympics can exert on an urban locale and feel ‘regeneration’ in a more ‘keeping the wolf from the door’ manner than most of us can appreciate,  or those who wish to resist it or observe it and only realise after the fact the extent of what has transpired. Not that I am suggesting these are the only ways to experience an Olympics. Moreso that I wish to express that this element wasn’t what I found most interesting about Militant City (at least in terms of what Rachel explained to me about it).

What’s really interesting about the Olympics is the transformation in the local legal topology it brings about. The specificities of the case studies which Marrero-Guillamón has observed are unavailable to me (because, did I mention, I couldn’t attend today) but I was aware that mega – events of a smaller (Copenhagen Climate Summit) or comparable scale (World Cup South Africa) have instigated sharp additions to the legal framework of the city/country they inhabit (pre crime like policing powers in the former and fast tracked punitive measures against minor transgressions [most frequently laid against the local populace] in the latter). This edifice of legality, often laws and measures alien to the context in which the organic law and order operates, left behind by mega events fascinated me. This is because I’ve been interested in the parallels between law as an abstraction that exerts material effect and code, which does something similar (something brought into stark relief by Robot Futures, which raised the fascinating notion of who is liable in a world which we share with Robot companions? Who is liable for robotic car crashes (or more salaciously, who can US spouses sue if their partner’s infatuation with a sex(companion)bot is sufficient enough to spoil their union). Lawrence Lessig is the first author I’m aware of to have articulated the comparison in an in-depth manner, but the parallel is one that is easily scalable. His manifesto (The Code is Law) was also concerned with the social control inherent to writing both forms of code (and any text that draws out the socially constructed and constructing elements of code/software wins is gold in my opinion) I have a fascination how both abstracted languages impact on, or touch, many more realities than those they are strictly intended to govern

The 2012 Olympics should provide an interesting exploration in that regard, especially given this states appalling love affair with liability and also its weird (when viewed objectively) common law, which is very autochthonous and, dare I say, emergent when positioned in contrast to the alien legal framework carried in by Olympic bureaucracy (like a grey squirrel or similar). The dubious developments surrounding the legal husk of the Olympics has been twitching at my peripheral vision for some time now (see how the concerns of stopping subversion have sponsors and local government singing from the same prayer sheet )

To my (limited, thus far) knowledge, some of the most interesting regulation is occurring in those realms at the bleeding edge of bureaucracy and social control: advertising. There are enough overlapping zones of branding within the Olympics for the farsical situation of mobile phone reception to be forcefully occupied (in the good old fashioned sense of the word ‘occupy’). See Moving Forest, domination of the signals is old hat to those really in the know.


Modes of Reception

•December 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

As I noted recently I have been seeking fiction injections to offset a habitual desire to consume factual and academically inclined pieces of writing.

In addition to movies I have been listening to audio books and reading fiction again, with Messrs William Gibson (Pattern Recognition) and Bruce Sterling (Holy Fire) providing the respective audio and textual fiction drips. Having such wonderful sci-fi dumped in my brain in parallel has made me note something, perhaps not unique but something which I curious as to whether other people experience.

When I listen to the audio book I experience that genuine, seeing the pictures in my minds eye. When I read a book, not so much (and this is not any reflection on Sterling, when I reflect back on most fiction I recall that it’s not a phenomena I get when reading fiction). I love reading but I’m starting to wonder if my love for words and text is overriding my ability to let evocation wash over my frontal lobes and let my neurons summon up pictures for my enjoyment.

Does anyone else experience this?

Directions for the Apocalypse

•December 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Creating two new categories for the projects I hope to keep going over the next 12 months. Never a better time than Christmas to make these plans.

The first is ‘Moving Forest’ a 12 hour (or perhaps 12 day, 12 hour, 12 minutes) event reenacting the final 12 (that number again) minutes of Kurosawa’s film version of Macbeth, Spider Web Castle:

Moving Forest is a 12 hour 5 act sonic performance which maps an imaginary Castle Central and camouflage forest revolt (transmitter network) onto a given modern day metropolis. This conceptual transformation heralds further everyday magic, with the final 12 minutes rendered into 12 hours of sonic, coded action. Inside the castle, a classic tale of remorse, betrayal and overthrow is rehearsed, transformed by sound artists, silk threaders and time slicers into operatic manoeuvre and escalatory conspiracy scheme; A networked play with both temporal and conceptual bandwidth. Outside the castle, a mobile forest assembles for insurgency measures armed with signals and slogans. Mobilized urbanites divine underground network emissions, stalking camouflage tree antenna, spidering towards the power Central.

The original was staged in Berlin in 2008 and you can find details of that work here. It’s being helmed by Shu Lea Cheang, a wonderful artist of seemingly boundless energy. I’m looking forward to working alongside Rachel Baker due to our shared interest in the ‘Omen’ section of the 5 acts of Moving Forest. Rachel is currently agglomerating prophetic signs at http://prophecyprediction.tumblr.com/. Details of what I wish to work through will be forthcoming, but I’m keen to push my interest in data mining into new areas (such as where DARPA are training their sites on social media) while also exploring new ways of doing my practice.

The second is the as-yet-unconfirmed Code of Contingency 2012 in New York, as curated by my Contemplative Computing partner in crime Lisa Baldini. I’m delighted to participate having been impressed by the quality of artists Lisa assembled for the London based Code of Contingency shows and I’m exhilarated at the thought of working at the same show as Call and Response. The concept for this is looser still than above, and I’m hoping for a process based exploration of some of the early ideas Lisa and I shared while brainstorming what Contemplative Computing eventually became.

Watch this space, and what not

Ruminating on Code 46

•November 17, 2011 • 1 Comment

I have been endeavouring to ingest more fiction lately, in part due to my perceived over reliance on Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles as the font from which all wackiness flows. Make no mistake I still think that text holds major sway over me and that the desired intention of Morrison’s hyper sigil was evinced over me. Nevertheless, thanks to the reservoir of recommendations that is Justin Pickard I have been watching a lot of interesting Sci Fi.

The film which has most impressed me was one recommended some while ago, by both Justin and David Bausola. That film is Code 46. It touches on a lot which interested me then and which continues to interest me now. My favourite part of the movie is the idea of the lead male protagonist inoculating himself with an intuition virus. This is set against a backdrop of a world where data collation, genome sequencing and the proliferation of databases as the dominant ontological technology have combined to create a world where the Sphinx (an assemblage of risk balancing statistical algorithms) has the say over where you go (it is the apex of the Societies of Control – see especially the first paragraph of 3. Program).

I don’t want to spoil the plot as I recommend you watch this excellent bit of cinema for yourself. But the aforementioned intuition virus is utilised to capture a rogue human element in the Sphinx’s network. Leading Tim Robbins to deliver a classic line, when probed regarding how he can be sure he’s caught the perpetrator:

“your not paying me for proof, what you’re paying for is intuition”

I loved the concept of a future where intuition is so highly prized and the whole movie articulates what I’ve recently been trying to work through in exploring the contrast between pattern recognition and intuition: i.e. what happens when the sum total of our psyche (the irrational reptile brain plus our cognitive, computer amenable, fore brain) interacts with an assemblage of algorithms (databases and their inherent atomising classification, statistics with their inherent abstraction) which produce a model of reality from which truth is derived. The idea is not to advocate luddite or tin hat positions regarding the advancement of these machinic assemblages but instead to ponder what happens when an abstract model begins to move us, when our forces and existence are subjected, in invisible ways, to the truth making database machine and this subjection is due in part to our willingness to believe in its prowess.


One last thing that I’d like to dwell on is the use of the virus itself: something of a major anomaly no matter which way you frame it. I first appreciated how useful its anomalous status was when Luciana Parisi explained second wave cybernetics and Maturana & Varela’s theory of autopoiesis to our class. The idea being that a cell reacts to anything which enters it membrane per the structures of organisation that are particular to it: which is to say the cell reacts to outside influence only insofar as it can fit with it’s predetermined ‘perspective’ of reality. Introducing a virus to this scenario punctures the concept: a virus reorders a cell according to its logic, not the cells. And indeed autopoiesis, given it’s concern for legitimising things ‘as living’ through it’s parameters, struggled with the status of a virus; is it alive or dead. The virus inhabits a liminal zone between what we can consider live or dead. I later learned that Luciana was only too happy to have us recognise the flaws in autopoiesis given her advocacy of fresher conceptions of cybernetics.

In the context of Code 46 the virus takes on iridescent inflections of importance. Again without spoiling the movie the virus can be considered to hold a pseudo-protagonistic role. It is as much a disruptor of the ‘order of things’ as is the rogue human element in the flick. I especially liked this idea of a virus being a basis for intuition, given its transversal nature. In addition to the problems it poses to autopoiesis the virus is also interesting for the way it moves between bodies indiscriminately: any given body is mere substrate for its vitality. When considered from a sufficiently dissociated scale, biological viruses are useful in disrupting the cognitive cohesion of self in a manner similar to bacteria (indeed, arguably more so and one needn’t dive into ideas of zombies for proof). Which provides an interesting juxtaposition to what I feel to be the central conflict of Code 46: a future where our vitality has become sufficiently entwined with the modes and models by which computation can make sense of our reality. These modes and models are, at a first principle level, derived from a different register to how we understand reality, and here again I am tipping my hat to the fact that we apprehend (and act upon) reality first and foremost through the faculties of our cognition which are not logical, rational and left brained. So for me Code 46, on some level, explores the tension that arises when power over us is derived from a system which is fundamentally alien to the primary way by which we enjoy reality. And playing a prime role in this tension is another non-human agent, a virus.

Abandon All Normal Devices, Ye Who Enter Here…

•October 11, 2011 • 1 Comment

OR ‘Reflecting on Data Mining && Divination @ AND Festival

Data Mining && Divination was commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices 2011, which had as its core theme ‘belief’.

Data Mining && Divination fitted quite well with this theme given it’s concern with the faith placed in algorithmically perceived patterns and the sway they hold over us.

I was honoured to be part of AND Festival which was a thoroughly thrilling festival with many an interesting art project. Here I’d like to divulge some of the thought processes behind the project (if you’d an idea of what the experience was like please check out the project page here)

Asking the human to note how many tea leaves remain is completely at odds with how a traditional tea leaf reading would occur. Usually once the last of the tea remains the person scrying the tea leaves will tell the consultant what shapes remain. However before they do that they have to minutely register the number of tea leaves at certain points in the tea cup. The points they scrutinize do relate to tasseomantic logic, as the distance from brim to base is afforded a temporal dimension in tea leaf reading, however the number of tea leaves is irrelevant (the shape it resembles is paramount). This served a dual purpose for me: it was at once a means of capturing additional data to correlate at a later date and it also played into the idea of how can one quantify the associative.

As trials with the interface developed it became clear this served a further purpose: it broke the trance like register which people were prone to enter care of the tea drinking and hypnotic inverted glass gaze from the bottom of the cup. This was interesting for me as I grew to be interested in how tasseomancy may have functioned in a manner akin to hypnotic suggestion (you enter a ritualised space which engages the associative dimension of your mental faculties before a consultant informs you of what a certain symbol will bring to your life, all of which echoes the process by which hypnotherapists will plant hypnotic suggestions. The thing about hypnotic suggestions is how they attain a reality by nudging your behaviour through taking root in your unconscious – or so the theory goes).

All data gathered is held for a later date of future data mining. Several thousand entries would be required for a KDD process to discern patterns meaningful to the parameters by which patterns are significant to algorithms. As a halfway house mediation on machinic versus wetware pattern importance the video footage is stored for later computer vision analysis

Preparing for AND

•September 24, 2011 • 1 Comment

This time next week I will unleash my software soothsayer upon Liverpool for Abandon Normal Devices. You can see my project listed on their website here, though truth be told I am less than enthused about the license they took with the project description. You can read my original blurb below.

How do we make sense of patterns and how do patterns make sense of us?

The power of patterns inspires belief; through the millennia their predictive power has held sway over both political and quotidian decisions. Data Mining Divination explores our belief in patterns and their place in digital existence.
Visitors will be invited to partake in an act of divination with a computer as their guide. In so doing they will contribute to the CASToly Research Project , an initiative which seeks to determine whether databases can learn to infer our futures better than the soothsayers of yore.
Participants who consent to their data being aggregated will receive a unique fortune provided by the computer. In return the user submits their experience to the database
This is an on-going research project where each fortune told gathers data which will be later aggregated and data mined to gain greater computational insight into these introspective practices. The computer will harvest data according to its programmed prerogative but can these pre-established categories encapsulate the transfer that occurs between outer worlds and your introspective processes?

I feel indebted to Sugru, whose wonderful hack resin has made assembling the physical elements of my project really straightforward, and the London Hackspace which has been an excellent place to construct the project!

Radio Silence…

•August 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I have been somewhat off the radar of blogging lately, that is because a lot of my efforts have been variously directed to ironing out the code kinks in ‘Data Mining && Divination’ for AND festival 2011

I have also begun working for Hub Westminster as their community journalist and I’m looking forward to striking up some collaborations with Protein and Alphaville Festival over the coming weeks!

And of course there is the Psychogeophysics Summit 2011 (which I am honoured to be partaking in) to look forward to also!

Be back with ramblings very shortly I hope