Empty Models, Flattened Language

Here’s the edited transcript of a small new talk I gave this week at the delightful WordHack, a three-year running event at BabyCastles in New York. The first formal presentation was Taeyoon Choi, co-founder of SFPC (School for Poetic Computation), an inspiring artist and thinker I look up to, and Andrew of HAWRAF, the design firm that designed the gorgeous Poetic Computation: Reader.

Empty Models/Flattened Language

(Thanks to Todd, BabyCastles, and WordHack for inviting and hosting me).

So I was a research resident at Eyebeam last year, working on a (nearing its close!) series about chatbots, and narrative design and engineering, which led me down a ton of rabbit holes around interface design, how the design of comment threads and interfaces reflects ideology, and how these interfaces flatten us.

So my background is as a fiction writer, and my start in critical writing was in games and game design, so those two not-seemingly similar things have often played off of one another. The limits of games and character design and the limits of poetry are frequently concurrent and run parallel. I like to look for moments that software and interface design produce something like poetic computation (Taeyoon!), where limits produce generativity, or beauty, or newness.

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Poverty map by race of Miami, Florida

This presentation came out of a conversation I had at DLD, which is a massive gathering of ex- and present- SV folks, tech- entrepreneurs from throughout Europe and the world. I got into a conversation with someone from the Netherlands, who had spent a year living in San Francisco and found the whole experience appalling. She wasn’t familiar with homelessness or poverty or addiction, or the degree to which it is on display there. I told her about an experience I had going to speak at a festival, full of lovely art and tech- people, all very earnest, and passing block after block of homeless encampments, and feeling that very shameful twitch of, I should be doing something, and something is wrong here, going to talk about the future while passing the abyss of the present. Something is definitely wrong.

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Poverty map by race of Boston, Massachusetts

And she asked me for my opinion of the city and homelessness and poverty and addiction in America, small topics, and how was it that the startups didn’t see what was next door, and we got into this conversation about neoliberalism and the history of Silicon Valley. She asked, how would you get someone rich in a city S.F. to understand the lost context of, say, city zoning and history in American cities – so that they’d understand opportunity and success are not a pure matter of willpower? An augmented reality map that noted, depending on which neighborhood you went to, the history of zoning, of business investment, of divestment of public education funds, chronicled? So the facts are visualized?

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And she said, we have those maps, but people still choose to model the world as they want. What she was saying, to me, is that modeling, or the assumed baseline model, affects language, and affects, shapes, generates, how we speak about people around us. The model shapes the story we tell about them. The model, in much game design and social interface design, is this:

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It is the body without history and the body without politics. The 3D model, empty when you cutaway, is without history or politics or backstory. This body exists on an equal plane with all other bodies, all with essentially the same ability, or, if deficient, the ability, through sheer will, to conquer that “lack” to become a “real,” full model.

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I think of this amazing quote from an amazing interview by Fred Turner that links some of the history of this modeling.  He notes the ideology driving engineers is one of the world without politics.

Fred Turner
Fred Turner, “Don’t Be Evil,” Logic Magazine: https://logicmag.io/03-dont-be-evil/

In this world, you can have different –enough looking models, a whole palette of representation,: so visually, yes, different ages, ethnicities, genders, orientations, weights, heights, level of ability that manifest in mechanics that are fluid and slotted into the game’s mechanics. There is no friction. You have no history. You are just a body moving through space.

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A young girl, though, is on the same plane as a grown woman,

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Who is on the same plane as a woman from another ethnicity of more or less privilege, which is hidden, which isn’t factored into the model, the way it is carried in our actual flesh.

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And we all are on the same plane, ready to go, loaded up with willpower and strength and a good attitude to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.

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All character models are free renders from the Walking Dead game

The XYZ plane extends around as far as the eye can see, asking to be filled up with action, movement. No trace is left behind.

I see this idea of the model translating into much of interface design and how we interact with strangers online. I spend a lot of time on social media, and thinking about how all those accumulated hours has affected my writing and speech style in accumulation, and before that game forums.  But the interface demands you speak about yourself, position yourself, and this particular kind of narcissism and self-involvement that makes you wan to disappear or claim yourself. All of these additional layers through which we pass through to come to one another is  comes through in how you speak about yourself.

So how to keep this blank model, in mind, what is lost, as we enter these social spaces? Digital interfaces orchestrate affect and emotion, and careful design can potentially intervene in digital communication along the front of the interface. How complexity leaks out through the design of the interface is something that weighs on me, namely, the complexity of the human being you are speaking to. There is the spectator, passive, cesspool feeling you get in threads that struggle with “the political” – where the  the flattening of people out to identity markers, camps, types of language and language use reveal that, of course, we’re not living in an apolitical world. And the primary political and social violence and eruption we are seeing, often play out in these interfaces, between camps that believe we live in an XYZ plane, and those that insist and know we don’t.

THREADS

Example One: a thread on appropriation of dreadlocks hosted by someone we might all know, who is a meme master and genius. This thread is public, but I’ve blocked out the names, just for reasons. The conversation is between a white woman who claims “we are all just people,” and multiple individuals of color, scholars, academics, activists, with way more grace and patience than anyone should ever be expected to have, parse facts for her, history for her, as a kind of public service. I come back to this thread because I can’t get over her final reply (not seen in this image), sometimes – that those coming at her with history have “hate in their heart,” and how the structure of the thread allows for that escape.

When I look at these threads, I think of how these threads flatten us out, because we have access only to the avatar of this clownish OP (“OP is a clown”), and then I think about how people become avatars, in real life. I go from this interface out into the world, and people become flat. What comes out, is this desperate need to explain one’s history, one’s background, one’s experiences – you know, all the things that make you a person, through narrative – then also become circulated, flattened, and fodder for ridicule. That history becomes “hate in one’s heart” is enough to make you throw your hands up in the air and want to disappear.

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So the resentment I see in this thread, the counter-defense, is a response to the fear of losing control over one’s identity. Could nontoxic antidotes to this fear could be designed? Currently, design decisions for major platforms are driven to maximize efficiency. But how the platform’s interface changes our capacity for nuanced communication amongst diverse social groups is much less explored. Can interfaces be designed to encourage deep- narrative dives into others’ lives?

In a proposal for an upcoming project I wrote with designer Aiwen Yin, we came up with the following questions to explore. I’m not an engineer, or designer, but I’d encourage both to think about the possibility for nuance, digression, lingering, and slowing down in tour questions :

Can we design for better conversation chemistry, flow, and nuance between two radically different people can be found through non-punitive design for more just emotions: love, compassion, empathy?

Could we map interface possibilities in which interlocutors at odds find the space to make an effort to understand each other?

Could we map counter-dialogues that value non-economically beneficial goals, like productive digression, or the valuable lingering which we encourage, even privilege, in offline social interactions, for their power to create social bonds across ideology?

Originally we had created the proposal for a contest around the theme of Resentment, for Triple Canopy, we wrote of how “online political wars bleed out or absent vital historical context like proof of systemic and institutional oppression, such that all resentments appear on the same plane,” and how “the alt- right’s conspiracies of a global racialized war waged through identity politics are tendered in the same space as those fighting for justice for police brutality.” Is the flattened plane the issue? How do you make anyone listen to facts? Are all resentments created equal?

And what design choices would encourage lingering? There’s the possibility of slowed down replies – a ten or twenty minute hold before you can tap into a thread. There’s the possibility of a slowed down scroll, or punishments for violent language. I think of the friction produced by rougher, free communication apps – my use of Signal on Android stalled when I couldn’t bear the sharp edges and orange emergency coloring as it made conversation flow less as smooth as in, say, Instagram DMs. We might think about how radical intolerance, how trolling and aggression are valued and rewarded, by the feed, scrolling in one direction, the spartan brutality of threading.

So Fred Turner then goes on to say that building out our expressive abilities won’t be the solution, nor will making better technologies for expression. Only attacking social infrastructure will do anything ever. He writes:

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From Fred Turner, “Don’t Be Evil,” Logic Magazine: https://logicmag.io/03-dont-be-evil/

I think I disagree, in that how we speak and think about each other online is exactly what bleeds into the social sphere, the one-to-one mapping of identity to politics, of what you look like to what you are capable of, which is based on that empty model among others on the XYZ plane. How we are flattened out through language and models is political, too, and changing technology changes how we think and speak to each other. If  corporate interface design favors the transactional over the non-utilitarian, then we can design alternatives. If the flat conception of identity as a static object leads to flat communication interface design, then we have to render fuller conceptions of identity.

decorative-social-media-business-blog-users-profile-avatar-trendy-hairstyle-design-icons-collection-isolated-flat-vector-illustration_1284-2399That said, I think the way these interfaces and systems flatten is also extremely productive, because even as I tell my story, I am aware of its poetic resonance with a thousand others. In the flattening is a pressure to keep describing yourself compulsively, to tell others about what you have been through to get to where you are. This is a pretty American obsession, as we’re obsessed with origin and making stories. Your. So for me:

I am a daughter of parents from a Third-World nation called Bangladesh which you know as desperately poor and they came here with no money to go to school in the middle of a war and then graduate school and then built their lives and mine piece by piece through unimaginable … ETCETERA UGH, UGH, UGH, I’m sick of myself for even trying to attempt telling their story but why shouldn’t I but why should I when it will be material for curators or employers or schools or culture industry to frame me in words that aren’t my own narrative that isn’t my own (LOOP INDEFINITELY)

 Let’s try again. I am a writer and  I love digital art and fiction and poetry and computers and games and flirting with the intense communities around these interests. I like yoga and trap and a combination of the two. I obviously live in Brooklyn. This also sucks, ugh

 AGAIN. I am a dot of light spinning in a void. I am fifteen thousand years old. I am flotsam on the river of time

I am no one. You don’t really know me. Please leave me alone. Fin

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There’s something like poetic pressure in those limits – a move to be opaque, to evade, to actually push language and self-naming into complexity, and insist on complexity and unknowability. You pressure a poet to define herself and she will give you back something infuriating, something can’t be slotted into the interface very well, or a button clicker. I am no one is not an acceptable interface answer, but to me, in my mind, it is perfectly true. It depends on how I feel from day to day. From minute to minute.

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Another productive limit scenario is image captioning. How Google image captions are being lauded as “properly captioning to 94%” what is in an image is fun marketing, but also pretty good humor and material for writing, which I’d like to use in a class down the line. You can take these banal descriptions – the feat of incredible technical research – and then construct further stories.

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A dog is sitting on the beach next to a dog. (They are lost, left behind by their owners, who lost their Vineyard property in the 2008 crash, and could not afford to take them with, so they now wander the beaches looking for food, and have learned to survive together).

Or, I love this script from BladeRunner 2049, which is based on an acting acting exercise called “Dropping In.” Definition: “The process was developed by theater legends Tina Packer from Shakespeare & Co. and Kristen Linklater, though I’m not sure if it has deeper roots. It involves pulling specific words from a piece of acting text and asking a series of questions related to the word to the actor while they repeat that word back to the questioner. The goal is to load up the actor’s internal life for the character as much as possible by creating mental associations for each word, making them inherently more meaningful.”

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The script is unbelievably powerful read aloud, a near-human, a replicant, either masking emotion and feeling or history or memory to seem non-human, an effort that breaks him and cracks him at many parts of the film. And even in the bot-like coda, Cells, or Interlinked, even where it seems superficially to not connect, you start to reformat the meaning of the phrase before. The juxtaposition of context creates new meaning for the statement. The automated generative game creates meaning through forced context.

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I want to close with a video [pause, scramble] from In Sondra Perry’s It’s All in The Game, in a side monitor version of the work, she has the model of her brother, who was used in an NCAA basketball game that was the subject of a famous lawsuit.

So chosen language is linked to the assumed model you start with. You could change the angle of the plane; you can look more closely at what you think is inside the avatar you are speaking to, and what you know of its story, and how much time you’ve actually spent speaking to it. Have we imagined what’s inside this person’s head? What do we think is in their brain? Do we imagine them as having a brain, or an inner life, at all? Have we lingered with this model? Have we tried to fill it in on its own terms, with its own language, or have we told its story before it spoke?

Mapping the Hidden

Mapping Open Eyebeam

Small talk given at New School on March 6, 2017, as part of Acid Architecture: Trans-Thinking in the Age of Cognitive Capitalism led by Ed Keller of the Center for Transformative Media. Speakers Warren Neidech, McKenzie Wark, Keller, and Sanford Kwinter spoke eloquently about neuroplasticity, acid thinking (both literal and metaphoric), the binds of cognitive capitalism. Mr. Wark gave an espeically amazing talk about Barbarella. Fun times and great conversation with thinkers I have admired and respected forever and a day … Stream was recorded and will be up soon!

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I have spent the last five years or so researching and working with software-based artists who speculate on AI and emerging models of cognition. Most of them are interested in the search for true AI and its hard to formalize problems: how do we think and create, for one, and how AI and nonhuman agency make for new modes of seeing and creating. Their vision of AI is often sublime, psychedelic, and can clue us in to entry points in resisting cognitive capitalism, one of the core themes of this session.

Before that, I spent a good number of years working with and around game designers and game studios, which have bigger budgets than successful film studios, and have the sole, unabashed, and highly interesting project of creating an effective world – one that suspends your belief for enough time, or has you believing in it enough to spend extended periods – fifty hours, eighty hours, within its rules.

And though artists and poets clue us in to the possibility of collective dreaming, the creation of an acid architecture, it is games design that clues one into the complexity of machine intelligences today. Algorithms in a game system express many types of power, and reveal, in action, that no system or platform is neutral, that values are stitched into each choice of code. Those values are created through taste, training, education, histories both personal and communal, gender, race, and of course, class.

If you spend enough time in the art world, or the intersection of art and technology, you’ll find yourself in a lot of agonized discussions over platforms, and surveillance, and data oversight, and whether to get off the platform, or stay on. How to try to force change from within the platform, or app-, or phone. Getting on or off a platform seems to be entirely the wrong question when the construction of platforms is not just the work of Silicon Valley; it is the project of academia, of government, and the intimate relationships these sectors have with one another.

In my current research at Eyebeam, I am studying how cognitive capitalism buries and hides its extractive intent through double speak and duplicitous language, through several fronts: narrative engineering designed to develop trust and belief, through simulations that cast empathy through conversation as their goal, and through tech- incubator spaces in which creative labor and continual self-pitching are a mode of survival, and one’s myth of a personal journey must be moving and authentic.

Throughout, I hope to show how the gap between what a company says it does and actually does is most visible in its development of artificial intelligence. And one of the most accessible spaces for us to understand how cognitive capitalism works is done is the design of basic AI, namely, virtual assistants, bots with conversational interfaces. Narrative engineering routinely draws on scholars from cognitive linguistics, researchers who can differentiate and map syntax down to the closest phoneme as it shapes your sense of comfort and trust in a conversation.

I am working closely with narrative engineers developing virtual assistants which are planned for seeding in nearly every industry platform. They’re delightfully open about the work they do to create an ideal AI conversationalist – not too human, but humanoid, sweet, soft, compliant, molding itself to the rhythms of our conversations and desires. They talk a great deal about trust, and belief, and how both are constructed through tiny inflections in conversation, word choices that make their bots seems trustworthy and friendly, or not.

Perhaps logging off and out at distinct intervals is a strategy, but a sustained counter-effort has to tackle the unique character of cognitive capitalism, how its face looks, how its forms seed in our most intimate spaces. In order to create the right kind  “resistance,” as we’re past simply smashing a computer in a field, it is crucial to understand how our thinking and speech is mobilized and reworked.

We feel the work of cognitive capitalism as we do it – the tunnel vision, the exhaustion and data fatigue, the fractured attention spans. The experience of palipnosia [written about on this blog here], in which the ghostly afterimage of the screen imprints on the world after you look up from it, is a small metaphor for this. In ten to fifteen years, the average Internet user has had their attention span mangled. It manifests as depression and panic and anxiety, as inhuman amounts of stress we place on ourselves to keep up with new twenty-four seven rhythms. Isolation and fear, paired with a distinct sense that our brains cannot keep up with the level of processing, the information deluge. And underneath, the knowledge that the flood is designed, and the fatigue is designed for.

Brands and products seek and use creative work and labor to create a tone, a bounded relational exchange in which we feel close to them. It isn’t enough to have your brand loyalty, but also to capture your own double speak, your switches in tone, your evasion in a conversation with a bot or virtual assistant to understand why you move away from a service. The feedback loop this creates is incredibly powerful, and most importantly, unseen; you barely feel or realize it happening, as it takes place in every casual, offhand interaction with a chatbot, your visual field bending under the pressure of looking at screens, hour after hour, month to month, year upon year.

As cognitariat, we work in a system that is fundamentally hostile to us, and even more importantly, that hostility is coded as care, as beneficial, as erasing all difficulty on the path of progress. Creative labor is coded as necessary for survival in the work world. The interest of AI companies in the creative mind, their understanding of it as a “site of freedom,” is telling, with groups within companies encouraging artists to embed themselves in residence, or mind-brain-and-behavior groups studying painters and novelists and poets.

So in these short minutes, I would like to first offer a portrait in lieu of diagnosis, and then a set of possible solutions or counteractions.

Narrative Engineering

Calmness, Smoothness

Designing for Trust

At the frontline of intentionally stupid or dumb AI is where cognitive capitalism is continually designed in a way we can grasp. Even as we speculate on the steps along the very long road to true AI, any systems blazing with intelligence can be used as a clue to its maker’s intent. Its design is managed both by consultants and in laboratories, filled with mind and brain researchers poached from academia who study linguistics, vision, affect, psychology and the workings of the brain.

John Seely Brown, who directed Xerox PARC, and served on the boards of many companies from Amazon to Polycom, was ruthlessly clear on  how technology could be designed to fade into the backgrounds of our lives. Folding in cognitive labor is an explicit part of that, especially as the architecture of the internet has moved from open to closed in twenty years time.

AI researchers hone in on a very difficult field, psycholinguistics, the recreation of how humans produce language, learn and understand it, in order to develop finer computational models. Further, these researchers use reams of real-world data, open playgrounds in which subjects speak freely. Deploying machine learning, these interfaces can understand contrasts in tone, construction of affect, and the linguistic process at the level of the phoneme, or sound. This is the technical apparatus of a contemporary dumb AI.

As for the language itself, we see the employment of more creative writers in AI. This is a fascinating shift. Microsoft’s infamous TAY bot was written largely by comedians; Cortana’s writing team is filled with script writers and novelists; there are poets and novelists working at Google on building the language of the future. The Virtual Assistant Summit in San Francisco had speakers from Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks.

Screenwriters and other creative writers form a strong labor force helping people to buy into fictions built into technology through characters designed to delight. They help the user want to embrace and provide clarity – of thoughts, positions.

In a number of the more heavily designed virtual assistants, great extractive power is presented as softness, compliance. Their calmness and smoothness are continually refined, engineered, programmed. They are designed to fade and blend in, seamlessly folded into the fabric of daily life and consciousness. Here, though, the affect is shaped with an end in mind – belief, trust – a level of comfort the user feels with a new if harmless friend. In the replication of a type of language partner, cognitive neuroscience is mixed in with the insights of social psychology, of comedy, of screenwriting, to create a believable character, an effective one.

The masquerades of companies, the abyss between what organizations say and do, is hidden in language. The language of interfaces, platforms, apps-, buries intent through language, edited down to seem innocuous.

And you, the user, the cognitive laborer, your creativity, your potential for invention, is the main blood offering you give. But it isn’t enough to get your attention – but also to retain it for as long as possible. Your trust, your capacity for belief, these are the entry points through which to hold you. This is why billions of dollars are poured into the design of a brand’s affect and personality.

I think, here, of Cayce’s sensitivity to brands in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition – her deep understanding (and Gibson’s, as well) that the brand personality, our affinities with brands, say a great deal about us. Cayce’s intimacy with brand psychology is actually the entry point to a reality we understand very well, in which “I’m building my brand” is both an ironic, self-aware joke and completely a recognizable experience.

Moving on from extraction, we how might our linguistic structures change, in response to continually engaging with consumer chatbots? How has our language already become more functional, ruthless, efficient, shaped by time spent writing in comment threads, on Twitter, Facebook, forums, for ten years, twenty years? How does this change in language and visual culture affect writers, poets, artists, makers?

If there were ever to be a movement towards a radical AI or leftist AI, or simply, an AI not bound by and produced by extractive modes, we need a close assessment of the liquid interfaces that are being coded to shape language, and vision, and further, how its dominant mode is plasticity. The more machine learning is built in, the more an interface molds to your form, your speech patterns, and your needs, so the interface seems less and less adversarial, and more your companion. Your trusted friend, your ally, your yes man, stealing from your back pocket as you shake its hand.

Boutang wrote in Cognitive Capitalism of the living, thinking labor that is knowledge-work, how this knowledge worker’s labor is resistant to consumption, in response to which Ken Wark has pointed out that knowledge work can certainly be lifeless or dull. Information systems can reify dead or dulled thinking; they can replicate crude analysis, crude innovation.

The logic of artificial language replicates labor that is unseen, as sex workers on phonechat lines are studied for their linguistic rhythms and patterns of speech by bot writers. Cognitive labor maps over previously hidden labor. Facebook click farmers work in warehouses in Bangladesh that stored clothing sweatshops for decades.

I will also briefly point out the entire apparatus of machine vision, as it appropriates image-making, often working unseen, processing and naming images by logics we no longer have access to. The machine’s vision, its pattern recognition, when trained on people, is a sure violence,  an ethical violence. As Hannah Black and Simone Brown remind us, such surveillance is not new at all.

Harder to track is how we will change, interpersonally, relationally, as a result of active, artificial seeing through these neural networks that can recall a million faces with precision, a kind of seeing that shapes policing, surveillance, and the definition of criminality. Machinic vision now touches all of us, but still unevenly. It might “see” certain people more clearly, more violently defining them, than others. And that ‘clear seeing’ is one of the most important works of cognitive capitalism. It’s not coding that is worrisome but who is writing the algorithm, whose biases are built into the code.

How to break up this endless mental mallscape? What is liberation for the cognitive laborer? Closely linked to this, what are the dreams of the cognitariat? Is it still the dream of the artist or that of radical movements, the hope for collective, passionate restoration of  one’s work, and making, at last, to oneself?

Unsurprisingly, we find models in science fiction, in poetry, in literature, and film, where scenarios of the brain used and abused to create ideal consumers are written so well. The brain is the frontier along which materialism wages its various wars. Creating “spaces of freedom” is not any easier now; it is harder and harder given how powerful machine intelligence is.

Rather than stupefying or demoralizing, I like to think of this overwhelming cybernetic stronghold as honestly, galvanizing, and that might be given my games background. I believe the logic of systems as we’re designing them can be countered through research, strategy, and play. Further, cognitive capitalism burns out along with AI research, which is hitting an incredibly difficult plateau. Fei Fei, the former lead of Stanford’s AI Lab, calls this period of AI as akin to having a two-year old, before the “terrible twos” hits; we are so far behind on the path to true AI that there will be many spaces for intervention.

I want to offer just a few possibilities for building such spaces.

Reveals: Tracking and Unstitching Design

Practicing Machine Vision

Mimicking Plasticity

Risk and Chaos Through Simulation

In understanding the digital design of emotion, of sense and affect by companies, perhaps there is a clue to how these same categories can be designed or modeled for other ends, for communities, actively countering destructive political and social modes. One clue might be the past dreams of cybernetic socialism, analyzed beautifully by Armin Medosch in his book New Tendencies. Tracking the design and un-stitching it, mapping how cognitive labor and expression is used is step one to refusing to be captured and stored, to be calcified.

To understand machine vision, we can also practice it. A great number of contemporary artists practice a kind of brutal and ecstatic merging with machinic vision, a practiced intimacy with simulations. They actively practice the kind cognitive flexibility to teach us how to see like machines. The artificial eye might move on indefinitely, with or without us, but we can learn to look along with it. They intuitively zoom, crop and select for meaning in a practice of seeing. They seek out the monstrous and strange, breaking systems apart for new end states. They model how we might navigate collective machine seeing, the distribution of intelligence across forms. 

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Watching this Ian Cheng piece, for instance, I’m jolted out of the standard god-view of a simulation. I have to try and understand this being at its level, within its context. I’m trying to peer past the surface to guess at the rules organizing, beneath. Even as I feel the compulsion to interpret and name, I am refused. As a result, my relationality with the object and further, how it affects me, is paramount. This isn’t animation, but a simulation, in which Ian has designed and coded rulesets for characters and objects. A handful of basic algorithms drive the movements, and are let free to interact and behave as they will. Ian’s chosen premise, whether an environment, a character, an animal, an object plays out, runs indefinitely, with no end state, no final form.

This composition with soft things, like, software, or behavior, or cognition, as these soft and felt elements drive and direct the flesh, spending time with these fantastic objects trains one to see anew in a few ways. We can better understand the interplay between the emergent, the algorithmic, and the story or narrative, and see how we intuitively, watching, develop an emotionally cohesive and coherent way to relate to the uncanny.

What this teaches me is how to tolerate inevitable contingency. A live simulation allows us to relate to the chaos of our own lives. It is a space in which humans can examine and re-calibrate their relationship to radical change. We can potentially learn to be comfortable with no end state, with ambiguity. In examining this exchange between simulation and viewer, between computer eye and human eye, one might see how the artificial eye moves indefinitely, without us. We’re in thrall to its eye, forced to imagine what that computational seeing means, but we also see our own agency in this process of interpretation, narrating, and naming.

Poetics: Intentional Opacity, or Double (and Triple, and) Speak

The Right to Obscurity

This feels like a good moment to consider what the cultural creative, the poet, the writer, the musician, can offer in terms of acid architecture, or surrealism, of alternate visual images, alternate systems of distributed intelligence, of experimental conversation. Surrealism allows for love, imagination, and freedom to explore potentiality, subverting deadened structures, whether dead language or dead vision.

I think of Bartleby, in Melville’s story, who replied, to everything, “I’d prefer not to.” I would prefer not to participate in this farce, of transparency, of knowability, of sure positions, of ideas being clear. But if you’re under siege, if your body is too seen, your words too tracked, if, in sum, participation is demanded, there is always opacity. Poets practice this, the right to opacity, the right to obscurity, as a powerful ways to establish spaces of freedom, of safety.

The poet and writer Édouard Glissant, spoke most beautifully about this in the film One World in Relation. And I’ll close with his words:

I even openly claim the right to obscurity, which is not enclosure, apartheid, or separation. The obscure is simply renouncing the false truths of transparencies. We have suffered greatly from the transparent models of high humanity, of degrees of civilization that must be ceaselessly worked through, of blinding Knowledge … The transparency of the Enlightenment is finally misleading. We must reclaim the right to opacity. It is not necessary to understand someone–in the verb ‘to understand’ [French: comprendre] there is the verb ‘to take’ [French: prendre]–in order to wish to live with them. When two people stop loving, they usually say to each other, ‘I no longer understand you.’ As though to love, it were necessary to understand, that is, to reduce the other to transparency. 

Position

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Robert Irwin, 1° 2° 3° 4°. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

It’s the beginning of the year; pages open up in computers everywhere. Time for constructing a good-enough narrative, or at least one we can live with. Selecting the best events and worst, sliding them along the board into position, mapping out a mostly arbitrary story. The psychic demand to name monuments in the desert behind us, marking evidence of progress, our getting better every day. Progress, a clear narrative of our body inching so surely through the world, with more learning and skill and [insert here]. In our wake, neatly shed skins of less ethical and capable selves on the journey to a radically, fully realized self.

Such fantastic stories we might write for ourselves, whether for comfort or some deep psychological need to be sure we aren’t treading water, can be limiting. Much like the curated profile of one’s mediated online self, the success story of a mostly triumphant year with manageable setbacks can absolve prickly and uncomfortable thoughts.

2016 showed us how reactivity now bounds our relations. Groups splinter, harden, formed in reaction to one another; our language is evolving to be more brutal and leveling. Sitting with one’s doubt, with being unsure of whether one is actually getting better, or instead is just becoming better at playing tricks, being skilled at sleights of hand, seems important. Maybe movement forward or on to the next isn’t always as useful as practicing stillness of perception, to be able to even see what is actually in front of us.

The metaphor of journeying in one direction seems less interesting to me than the serpent twisting out to the edges of the known universe and then back in to itself, out back again. Abandoning the track to visit the edges of knowing, risking no answer, often coming up short, feels more honest. And cycling out to the uncanny and back in a continual ritual process feels more optimistic and hopeful than the striving journeyman. There will inherently be too many factors that interrupt the journey – from breaking relationships to sickness to sidetracking and productive digressions – that linearity can’t account for.

Maybe year-end stories and year-to-come lists might be resisted in favor of assessing one’s position in a field. To instead chart out spaces, conditions, and presence. Robert Irwin, chronicled in the famous Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler, had lots of moments of abandoning position: the position of being sure, the position of certainty, the position of having come to the knowledge, experience, skills that one needs.

Irwin abandoned his work frequently; first, at 29, after his Felix Landau show in which he felt, saw, how terrible (to him) his work was. Then again, famously, returning to California after his MoMA show to find his works “didn’t make sense anymore. Something was wrong.” The question he was asking didn’t find any good answers in the materials and experience he had up to that point. As always, Irwin was not looking for answers but to ask the right questions. And the techniques he had, the expertise he had then, meant he would “essentially continue to do the same thing,” and the answer was to “get rid of all those habits and practices altogether.” He says:

I cut the knot. I got rid of the studio, sold all the things I owned, all the equipment, all my stuff; and without knowing what I was going to do with myself or how I was going to spend my time, I simply stopped being an artist in those senses. I just quit.

Irwin threw his supplies and returned his many presents from artists back to their makers, and then “went out on the Venice boardwalk, and for a long time, he just sat there.” He described the biggest loss not of the artist identity he had, but “the loss of a way of thinking.” For two decades, he had “thought in terms of making objects,” and now had to abandon his position, train himself to think in a different way.

He chose to drive: through the Mojave Desert, sometimes towards Mexico, long drives on which he found, after a few hours, the landscape “just suddenly stands up and hums … the presence is so strong.” His full-on, life-long interest in the very quality of presence (in light, in space) started here, on these desert drives, with no particular end, simply observing himself observing.

And what of it, if there is no movement? What if what one most needs is no movement in any particular direction? In uncanny convergence with Weschler’s account of Irwin leaving for the Mojave, I found this in Nocilla Dream, by  Agustín Fernández Mallo: a man named Falconetti sits on a blanket in the middle of Route 50, just to have the feeling of a “250-mile table” stretching around him, remaining “seated, basking in the sun, in the center of the rhombus traced by the East and the West at their respective vanishing points.”

It was slightly wild to me that in the span of two days this winter, I opened two books to images of men in the middle of the desert, reorienting their perception by reorienting their positions. Seeing as Weschler also wrote a book just about the phenomenon of convergence (Everything That Rises), this particular convergence of images – two men in the desert, one fictional, one real, sensing their relationship to space – felt too much like an omen. Perhaps the two equally dreamy texts were presenting a course of action: to try and be still.

Falconetti takes out a book, in which “he read that you don’t need to circumnavigate the earth to find out that it is round, just pick a spot and stay there and you’ll see how it’s the others that do the circumnavigating.” He doesn’t pick up his backpack to walk again until four surfer girls driving a campervan nearly run him over. They hit a pothole and go flying. He gets up and reorients to the East and walks away.

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Robert Irwin, 1° 2° 3° 4°. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

I started writing this in September, after hearing the word position repeated dozens of times in an evening, as the theme of a fall artist’s talk at the Kitchen. This was the opening of their L.A.B. series , meaning, Language, Art, Bodies. The talks are meant to focus on a word, turn it around and around in space, and in this case, discuss “position” in contemporary art vocabulary, in institutions, in artworks and audiences. Writer Andrew Durbin and art-world star Thomas Lax spoke very well, with energy. D D Dorvillier, the dancer and choreographer, was more spastic, struggling to get her ideas across, but she managed, with pen and paper, and videos, to invite us into her practice.

Katherine Hubbard, the artist whose work was hung up all around the audience, mostly sat very still as the other three panelists jerked about and gesticulated. The three would speak, and in the silence, the audience moved all of its bodies around on the Kitchen’s wooden box seats to turn to Hubbard, whose voice was barely discernible, nearly a whisper. (Her artist’s statement opens, “I am haunted by the hegemony of language as the primary mode of meaning making.”) She seemed resistant to having to speak at all, to put her thoughts into language; she seemed to want to refuse any position language forces us to take.

The choice of pairing two willing participants with two resistant, distant ones seemed a play on ‘position’, too; the audience struggled to orient itself to hear the two women. Because Hubbard was so still, people kept turning to look at her, possibly expecting a big speech or big moment, especially having seen her visceral, outrageous performances.

She said that the excitement and potential of a space lies in part in who might be on their way to it, who might just find you inside it. She said, you inhabit a room and space in a kind of latent waiting, about to be discovered. Your position in the room is defined by who is outside of it. Your position in the space is one of potential, a sweet latency, tied up with the potential that you might be found there by someone.

As she described, I felt it there, in the Kitchen; I was hoping someone might show up, although I had no reason to think they would. I hoped that they hoped to find me, a kind of triply removed, dynamic erotic tension produced entirely by the positioning of our bodies. That a person would cross the space to be near me, that they would reposition themselves to be near, felt more delicious than any imagined relationship. The object of desire would be turned away and the desiring, waiting outside the object’s space.

What other positioning and situating do we do routinely? I read horoscopes idly, relishing the magical thinking in them, the systems of meaning or possible meaning they create. Minorly heartbreaking, these billions of mappings, one’s relationship to others, to one’s destiny, to the unknown. Will my Scorpio work with Leo? Will it work when positioned side by side with Cancer? What happens when Scorpio is pitted against Gemini? What alignment do I have as a Libra-Scorpio cusp? What precise intersection of fates will produce an ideal fate for me?

There is much power in reorientation, in changing posture: reorienting one’s body and mind away from what compromises towards what feeds. Rather than active discovery or claiming ownership of territory that doesn’t even belong to me, re-positioning myself feels much more within reach. It is slower, but more of a stay against despair, especially if you are lacking energy or resources (I am); you can turn, you can move a slight degree or two to experience a completely new affect.

Mentally we are predisposed to mapping, plotting, charting, orienting, then narrating the mapping as fate, as planned. Sometimes critical theory becomes part of that phenomenological charting; it can supplement life, understanding of love, nostalgia, perception, and solitude. It almost becomes second nature, a way of speaking and being in the world that I forget to question. Irwin went out into the desert because he felt trapped by his own thinking process, and wanted to undo his mental engineering.

Thinking of future positions is helpful. I have lots of weird self-soothing rituals that I don’t even realize I’ve made habit. I go through people’s vacation pictures, pictures of mountains in the sea and rocky hills near the sea with strange creatures with too-many legs, and feel a profound sense of calm and peace. Dreamy, heavily-cropped images of oceans at night with lights at the base of a hill, a town in this time and no time. Waves of people and families and communities passed through here in the drama of existing which minimizes and bounds my own.

There must be other positions which are more bearable, in which the body and past will feel lighter and more insubstantial, less dramatic. There must be another position in which I am waiting to enter the room, and someone hopes I will find them and see them. From being seen to seer and back again. Partial vistas from lives of people I barely know, transmuted through the dreamspace online, generate a sense of possibility. A sense of what could be possible. Simple: that is a place I could go.

I spent some time this month helping with translation of speculative scenarios that I had written two years ago, about AI that doesn’t yet exist, into German. I receive a letter from an artist pulling for me to write in a remote, alien landscape through a residency on an island.

This all means abandoning untenable positions, the most unbearable: that the adoration of someone great will make up for one’s own sense of unworthiness, inadequacy. If someone that everyone sees and adores turns their eye on you, you won’t feel unseen again. I think here of Jenny Zhang on trying fruitlessly to escape the politics of who one desires, how desire is structured by supremacy. How banal, for one’s ideas of intimacy to not have evolved, for the narrative to be the same. To find one’s ideas of love are untenable, because not modeled in anyone around; I have no models for the love I think of, so my love-thinking is without position, without reference.

So the position must be developed, it must be made. In the absence of good physical models, we have to simulate them; in an abstract space I have to imagine how people like me and people like those desired might come together, on what imagined plane, through what process. I try to bound and create rules for how the model might evolve over time, a live simulation in which our simulated bodies bop and weave towards one another.

If you want to go out to the desert, you can; if you want to abandon almost everything, you can. There is time to transition. You are bound to nothing but to position yourself in relation to the ineffable. I cannot live without imagining myself in a space beyond the present. I have to form a future, by reaching for the next handhold, the next grip, pulling my psychic weight along a vertical rock face. I do not get to be a significantly better human being. I only get to change position.

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Robert Irwin, 1° 2° 3° 4°. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Westward

 

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This year has felt particularly overloaded, with both projects piling on to split my attention between the manuscript (and so, this header photo of the California coast, where I’ll be in a week, and was just a month ago, baking in a Los Angeles heat wave, alone at Griffith Observatory to get very tan and toasted before a writing session at House of Pies) and what has been three to four non-fiction projects at any time.

I’m happy with all these projects: there are new bylines (Art in America, The Village VoicePOSTmatter, aCCeSsions), interesting work for gallery shows, writing in an artist’s book (which I am dying to share but can’t yet until release, argh), and what I might be most excited about, a piece on acoustic hailing for the sound issue of a magazine based right in my dream state (more on that obsession in later posts). I’ve had the chance to review and work with some of my favorite artists (Harm van den Dorpel, Yuri Pattison), and attempt to fulfill the hazy outlines of old dream essays (one on rave nostalgia) and new (scaling in simulations as they encourage empathy).

I am also an artist-in-residence at Industry Lab in Cambridge, and I am organizing my first show, California Imaginary, for their gallery in September. Only a month away, and the artists are gathered, and we just need to figure out how to get all their work to this god-forsaken little corner of New England. Love you, Boston, but your old infrastructure and out of the way charm is cramping styles.

But each day, this whole while, I’ve had this niggling feeling. I’ve been torn, because I just wanted to come home, mentally, to the cold, high place, the coast, the water crashing and cliffs high, to focus on the chapters and churn them out steadily. And finish a story from 2009 (good grief). Instead, I have felt, for the most part, stretched thin, my brain feeling like cheesecloth pulled across the rocks to dry. The depth you need, the deep thinking (young people these days just aren’t deep thinkers, as a particularly terrifying boss once said), that comes with reflection and meditation just on one subject, one space, is so hard to find. It is the other, separate space, the kind of wooded, dark, hidden hollow where I can meditate on stories, plots, and characters.

To try and get there more quickly, I have been toying with changing this site into more of a daily blog or a place with a TinyLetter-like vibe. A space where writing is nourishing and quiet, and just for myself, and there isn’t too much pressure on it. It would be nice if anyone else out there stumbled on it and read my thoughts, but I have really just missed having a space to just talk about the daily trials and tribulations of writing, which is how this site started. I have noticed a lot of writers don’t even keep a web presence apart from tidy, severe sites with links to all their pieces in lists. I miss the days when people had a baroque but intimate presence on their sites, kept up assiduously, ornamented, decorated: a shrine.

I have been visiting one such online shrine, the prolific writer Warren Ellis’s newsletter, Orbital Operations, and his personal blog, Morning, Computer, with the hyper-specific hunger of someone who has starved for a long time and can only take in a specific type and amount of food. Any glut or excess might make me pass out or die. I like reading about his life; his litany of massive deadlines and projects are so overwhelming that I feel a bit less poorly about being paralyzed by mine. He writes hundreds of thousands of words in a few weeks and it sounds like he doesn’t get to go outside much. Sometimes he is quite open about how hard it is to both take good care of himself and do his best work. I can identify with all of that.

What I like most about his daily scrawls out to the world is the tenderness in them, the care, and the feeling of diligence throughout. They’re odes to process, and they are not always long posts; sometimes he’ll write small vignettes, stories about how he got up that day. They are evidence of sitting down to write, day after day. He offers up lots of ephemera in the form of links and notes on books, songs and radio stations, podcasts that keep him inspired. It’s like looking at a detailed print of someone’s inner workings. They aren’t ‘curated’ the way you might find on some sites, or presented with any preciousness or aim to impress; they feel natural, a real outcropping of a magnificent person’s day and mind, where it wanders.

I got this website together in 2011, mostly as an anchor for keeping my few short stories from floating off into the ether. I really started using the blog, then, just lightly, in 2013, after I’d moved places from one end of Boston (the south) to another (the north). The whole effort was to reclaim my voice when I felt I had lost it, filtered it, left it, in the company of people who didn’t care. The new street, this street that’s my home now, was full of sun and it felt clean on the day I moved in. So did this house. I was wearing a khaki jacket. Many things felt possible on that day.

I see now that things like this site became possible with maintenance work, the unglamorous, unsexy work of daily maintenance. It seems important to remember that we aren’t always brilliant bursts of flame cutting words in the sky, that we have to keep plugging away, heads down in the dirt. I think that’s what I’ve learned in Boston each time I’ve lived here: the virtue of chipping away at your goal, bit by bit by bit with a dogged, annoying persistence. People here do that really well. That Puritan ethic.

Looking back through those early posts and my early Twitter, I remember how both felt like necessary outlets at a time of transition. They were personal intimate spaces for expression and experimentation. They made it possible to ground myself through small rituals and thinking exercises, to try to think differently about my living here, while at a series of jobs I was phoning in until I found the perfect right gig, whatever that is. (An endless pursuit for the right vampire to let in, hopefully with some duller teeth?)

During those next three falls and winters and summers, I wrote about Dead Space and Infamous and Grand Theft Auto, some final essays for Kill Screen. Months went by between each piece, in which I was dealing with all sorts of personal issues (and personal people) and just trying to stay healthy, together, and on top of it. But in the few precious hours I had left after work and on weekends, I found that I wanted to write not just about games, but all the questions they brought up, about belief, systems as they shape our real life interactions, and the continual, thrilling dialectic between tech- and man back to tech-, back to woman, and man.

But I didn’t know this right away. And the big project, the manuscript idea only crept on me slowly, just a series of ideas that needed to be probed and fleshed out, in the periphery of days and already occupied mental space.  Who can see what they are doing clearly, ever? All I know is the whole endeavor feels a lot like, you know, dragging a ship across a rainforest mountain with many casualties along the way. “What’s your process?”

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Somehow, in the way that most things happen that are Good, I found people and subjects that I was interested in peripherally, and collaborators in the weird spaces of noise and computer music. Meaning, these clashes and intersections took place without rhyme or reason. Through a slow, hook by hook grapple across the craggy rocks, I found co-writers and intellectual friends interested in reviewing and canvassing the weird and difficult to articulate. Through sheer energy and momentum, somehow maintained in a void without purchase – and like the Void it felt like here, in our deadly winters – they tried to make interesting spaces to linger in.

I feel like a mobile sponge, a lot of the times, clambering across the Internet to find sleek deep parts to hide in to cogitate. I’d be really happy as a sponge, I bet. Really, it was out of boredom that I found exciting subjects and interesting people to write about, intense and manic lights who gave me energy to download and left my head buzzing with new images and ideas and conversation. It was out of boredom – the fear that I will be trapped without food for my brain and then I will atrophy into being a bad thinker with bad taste – that I kept seeking out extreme types and extreme mental playpens so I’d stay on my cognitive toes. When you’re writing about soul-crushing things for a check, you have to be sure you have treats on the side, nourishing bits.

Projects began accumulating, and I was being pulled further and further out of my mollusk shell. This was ultimately good for me. I have to be forced out when I am really good at burrowing down. When too exposed, I start to feel the itch to hide.

I want to be able to shut a mental door and be there, whether that is on the cliffs, looking at the sea, or in the deep-set rooms an opening scene takes place in, like one I am fond of, so far, with the director, a masked wrestler, the lead, and the writer, watching a virtual version of the lead dissolve into pixels. (God, so much work left to do there). I am concerned my day job – thinking about the digital in a critical way – is compromising my impulse for fiction. They are different ways of thinking and demand different kinds of focus and attention.

But I wonder if there are ways to manipulate and shape my experience of the digital in ways that foster and help my fiction writing. I’d like to try and find out here.

What I really enjoy about Ellis’s posts, again, is how much he discusses all the digital work he does, and how much it affects him. It starts first thing, cracking open all the sites and feeds, the e-mail (god, the e-mail!), the news, the monitors, opening up in waves. He has automated posts, and keeps meticulous track of where each goes, sometimes overnight or when “in hiding.” He has lots of lovely reflections on these traces and voices around us. Through these notes, I found out about Networked Mortality which allows us to think about our archives online after we pass. I like this description of a typical morning:

I’m throwing Tweetdeck up on the big screen to see my six Twitter lists, opening Feedbin for my RSS feeds, and I am answering emails and reading more news. Usually also prepping an edition of a private newsletter I run for friends and fellow travelers. Thinking about getting a sidecar clip to put another screen, maybe a tablet, on the right edge of the big external monitor. I put on a Pebble Time Steel watch at this point – it saves phone battery life and lets me see phone-based notifications while typing if I so choose. All my messaging apps are on, at this point. They include WhatsApp, Snapchat, Messenger, Twitter and IG direct messages, Telegram, Skype. Most of them get turned off if I’m crazy busy – Skype is usually the first to go.  People with my Skype number can call straight through to my phone (thanks to a Skype redirect product) if it’s important. But, honestly, most of them are pretty quiet – it’s just handy to have them.

And then I start work.

And then work starts – after every messaging app- is on and all the feeds are running. It’s a different model of concentration: downing a few espressos, then mainlining the information, then getting into a meditative writing state. I feel like all these feeds are so wired into our blood flow that it can’t be the fault of the feeds but more the content chosen to be absorbed. If you fill your head with trash, then your thoughts will be trash, after all. A friend came up to me in the co-working space we are both in and told me he felt strange; he’d been too wired in.

There is a lovely feeling about having a small corner that no one might ever read, where knotty things can be worked out. I want to come back more here, and use these pages to clear my head, come up with writing rituals to get more into my head flow, keep using sage to cleanse the bad spirits. I didn’t know I had 2,000 words when I started this post, but I always feel like I can poke and scratch, and vomit up a flood.

I had lots of plans to blog daily (ha! ha!) or at least weekly. Usually these were pretty ill-fated attempts, in part because I wanted to write and say too much each time I sat down, and burnt out. I would like to keep trying. Writing is surely 99% trying, yes?

I like thinking about the weird night in 2012 when I was on my typewriter and my Galaxy, talking to a friend in Chicago, telling her about this idea I had for a novel. I want to use the next posts for these two months before moving – August and September – to work out scenes, ideas, and side scrawling (or main scrawling?). Let’s see how it goes.

Decession

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Picture courtesy of Manuel Sepulveda

This is the text I wrote for a performance by Bill Kouligas, who heads the PAN record label, and the artist Spiros Hadjidjanos, for Hören: DECESSION, a night of performances at the Volksbühne theater in Berlin. The installation was multi-layered. Spiros built the beautiful curtained backdrop of optical fibers – connected to active wireless routers. Bill performed his original composition. Two opera singers – Pan Daijing and Annie Gårlid – spoke and sang sections of the text.

Lisa Blanning did a very thorough review of the evening. The Volksbühne has a couple hundred year-long history of countercultural performances, so this evening, which also featured collaborative works by Claire Tolan, Lars Holdhus, Amnesia Scanner with writing by Jaakko Pallasvuo, and M.E.S.H., seems like it fit right in.

Bill and Spiros share a complex and vast vision for this performance. Back in January, they gave me about a dozen starting points and references, from the really divine work of Robert Ashley and Bernd Zimmermann to the first performance of Gounod’s Faust to use fiber optics, in Paris in 1833.

My main research for writing this was Jeff Hecht’s comprehensive City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics and other works on the history of light and laser optics, and optical communication networks. Like any writing, I do not think of this as a final version.


Space Between

ONE

1
This is how I learned to see
What wasn’t there.
I moved from this room
To the bottom of the Pacific.
I fly over the lip of deep sea trenches.
One, two, and three thousand miles,
To your mind; to the innermost room
in the mind of my friend.

2
I remember the songs of past labor.
I still exist in pre-optic time;
I cared, I raised, I built;
I was in thrall to everyone but myself
I was the bard of the court
I was allowed to roam the delay
Why do I need holographs when
this loneliness is a kingdom?

1
Fused silica and flame hydrologies:
The most beautiful phrases in the language
My feeling travels instantly along glass thinner
Than a strand of your hair.
I peddle the gospel of the space between.
Precision, concentration, guiding and coursing
I draw a thin blue line from my mind to yours
B to A, back to B again.
What can be moved from A to B?
What can be carried in light?

2
Everything can be, is, converted to light
My voice, your voice, my ideas, yours:
You are three thousand miles away
And I speak to you across space and time.
The mind has space to experience
What cannot be named.
Our speech, exchanged,
Becomes an object
We can examine together.
Our lives become
A formal experiment.

1
I dreamt we met in Bell Labs in 1972.
You told me how you had no
Idea of what you were watching.
You told me how not knowing
Made you start to see differently.
You told me how being overwhelmed
With light and with sound
Made you feel your mind
Turning in its socket.
Infrared light running
One, two, three thousand miles
Makes for a disturbing poetic flow
A comfortable alienation
No matter how many times your image is distilled
I believe I see you, I see you, I see you.

2
Even if you could visualize all events
Across a trillion screens
What of it?
Even if you could contain all contingency
What of it?
In knowing all that happens,
Will you feel less pain?

1
I can tell you that you can self-purify
Just as material can be purified
In successive iterations;
Glass purified by competing labs
To just ten impurities per billion parts.
Each line of thought is a new limb
Emerging from my side.

2
I can’t hear you. Hello?
He said your face is a tesseract.

I have to get going.

1
Goodbye–

2
Take care.

TWO

1
Why have you dragged me
Out here into the street?

2
Before the first war
My family built match boxes at home.
We sold boxes of light on the street for money.
The Masonic temples were lit by candles year-round
Imagine the streets completely dark,
Imagine Paris without any light
We saw the first electric lights in the gardens
The lit city gave us more hours to work.

1
Light guided along the fountains by showmen,
Your image coursed along the water even then

2
Guild workers spinning glass
My father worked for British Telecom
He laid down the first cable in the Isle of Wight.
Progress! Vanity!
Daguerrotype, binocular vision.
The world focused in stereo image with delays
A train tumbled out from the theater screen

1
When we were small we watched the Gulf War on television
The Gulf War was a flash of red and orange lights
In the four minutes before dinner.
I designed my own circuits and coils
While other kids put on Shakespeare in the backyard
I went to doom metal shows at the edge of town
I built crystal radios and shortwave radios.
1.7 billion bits per second.

2
On Roman sarcophagi
Painters isolated the body in the field
They wanted you to believe you were alone,
Your body isolated against a blank.
Don’t forget the original joy.
Move to enchant future simulations.

1
My memory of you
Distilled into an image
Thrown down through time,
And receding in space.
Now ten billion bits per second.
The network is just a medium,
Built on the faith that if I reach into it
Someone or something will reach back.

THREE

1
I have also walked through empty streets
The main street of the city I grew up in
Which coal left, which steel left
Is shuttered. In this degradation,
We had one outlet
In every crummy bedroom
A portal to be reached
No matter the personal horror,
The purity of the abstract
Could be found.

2
My grandfather passing
Came over the phone in 1994.
I knew from my mom’s voice
That she heard the news.
She told me the voice sounded so far away
That she could pretend it had not happened.
You go on like this
Life passes like this
A call comes in the middle of the night
Nothing ever comes to pass
In the way you think it should.

1
TAT-8 was buried safe from sharks.
The bottom of the Atlantic hosts our future.
Split along a thousand selves,
I cast myself forward and back along time
At a trillion bits per second.

2
Which one of you am I speaking with now?
The future I see is accumulation, extortion.
Panic, violation, intrusion
Violence and certain domination.
Machinic vision without empathy.

1
But there is a tenth of a second
In which you see how things could be
A brief vision of the uncanny
In such clarity it keeps you chasing.
Guard this original impulse
In aural hypertext.

2
What of the blank?
What in the heart of your mind’s eye?
I can hear doors opening in rooms I can’t yet see.

1
Manifest that sound between us
Press up against the screen to find your meaning
Immerse yourself in what you cannot explain
Day after day and year after year.
Endless computational time.

2
Synchronicity, a fluid movement
Between dream and body
At least when you imagine
My body spinning through space
You might think about
What has happened to me before.
You might think about
What happens to me after.

FOUR

2
I learned to think alone
I learned to see alone
I learned to build alone
How will we live in non-time?

1
I can slow down the image of a face
As it changes in time
To pinpoint its transition to indifference
These virtual images will outlast us
And the culture we’re in
Data transferred across space is a search for the unseen
I watch my words move across space and time
There is a reason we have come together like this, now
In intimate and emergent meanings

2
I can revisit every version of you

1
We are more than the space between us
I had to fight to cross the space between us
All processes between us will expand
All processes between us will multiply
I am the taxonomy of all my possible selves.

2
Between us is a third figure
A small god with one eye
Imagining new ways to live

1
I will put your name in lights in the sky.
Paradise is embedded in a neural network.
A small god with one eye
Imagining new ways to live.

END

 

Intimate Pressure

Ex Machina.jpg

Back at it again, and so many months later! I made well-intentioned efforts of documenting the last ten months, but draft after draft describing quarterly updates have piled up. In an upcoming post, I’ll tell you about work to be performed (!) or published, and about pieces I had the pleasure of editing or referring. I also want to tied up loose ends on the future-is-in-the-name projects that got underway last fall, Futures and the Futures Market, with reflections on the critical response to the latter and the future of the former.

For now, I’d at least like to break the dirty blogging ice with some thoughts adapted from a brief post written last winter, in an attempt to articulate what has been unifying different strands of work in my corner. This felt like a good time to resurrect it, given some gnarly knots in the tech- world (see: recent fiasco with Microsoft’s trollish chatbot), and interesting entries in film world (from the very dissectable Ex Machina and Under the Skin to the nauseating casting news about the remake of Ghost in the Shell).

I wanted to talk about, around, two fields, or stretches of motion, that feel very important at this moment. The first: the cyclic journeys that humans make back and forth between the real and uncanny, and how these journeys to the Other Valley change how we think, feel and relate to others in our day to day lives.

The developments that come out of this journey include: creating a form of clinical poetics that can better articulate the beauty of code and systems; powerful and novel conceptions of what the human brain is capable of; and (last, not least), a more subtle understanding of our unfamiliarity to ourselves, gained through looking at the strange head on.

The second field: love of, and relationships with, things and creatures other than people, particularly different forms of artificial intelligence. There are big questions to answer: how do we empathize with artificial objects? Should we actively seek out this relationship? How does this act of imaginative empathy with the non-human deepen (or not) our patterns of thinking and expand (or constrict) our feeling? What do we learn about ourselves in learning about what is both of us and increasingly, not of us?

Both of these fields place a specific kind of pressure, at times immense, on the poor and lovely little human form. The journey to the uncanny valleys and the many plateaus and landfills of things might put the most pressure on us. No imaginative act taxes me more than trying to articulate what it means to be an animal, a piece of hardware, a cyborg, a thing.

Completing this circle, or attempting to, has been the work of philosophers for some time. But at no moment before now have we been so intimate with things. We are pressed up against intelligence systems that we built, while still riven through with all the weaknesses and failures that we would have already had without this new intimacy.

I have been returning to these two fields repeatedly over the past few years, encountering the same questions whether I am dealing with games, music, film, literature or the field of criticism in general.

Most people are not deeply invested in elite coding or programming. We might only have only a peripheral interest in what Big Data means for society and culture. We are all bound, though, in how we are largely all implicated in and tied to the demands of artificial intelligence.

I believe our relationship to AI and to the uncanny can only, on the whole, make us better people, who are more articulate, more humane and compassionate, and more intelligent.

If the pressure of an Art Bot that does some aspect of my actual job will push me to define and demonstrate myself as creative, expressive and spontaneous, so be it. I crave this pressure, this competition, because I want to be better and I want to express myself more clearly. The work of life and self-improvement is never over. Embrace the challenge!

The new knowledge we gain through technology applies pressure on the known, on our habitual ways of speaking and thinking. We’re forced to change. Language expands. The matrix of social relations around us becomes more complex as we can reach people on other continents at any time of day or night to talk about our shared interests, whether weird niche trade forums or learning to rock climb.

If I loosely know 5,000 people and this is 4,000 people more than I knew a few years ago, my brain has to have changed to accommodate all the knowledge I have about these people. There’s plenty of initial research to describe these changes.

A recent piece by Yoha describes the fascinating phenomenon of palinopsia:

I decided to take a drug holiday from anti-depressants and high blood pressure tablets. It was during this vacation that I began to notice the after-image, or Palinopsia, created by staring intently at my monitor while replying to a never-ending stream of email. Apparently, the photoreceptors in your eyes exhaust their supply of photo-pigment and become numb, resulting in a decrease of signals to the brain and a lingering image in one’s field of vision. Staring motionless at inconsequential information programs the eye to retain an afterimage; regardless of whether the eyes are closed or change focus to look elsewhere, a small square of color remains on the retina. I decided to try this technique in the office. I would sit motionless, staring into the abyss of email with a fixed gaze. For one hour, I tried not to blink; then, as someone entered the room and asked me some meaningless administrative question, I would frame them with the afterimage of the screen, enjoying the aesthetics of my eyes’ dysfunction, and completely ignore them.

The after-image created by looking too intensely at one’s computer monitor is a result of definitive pressure: pressure on the eyes’ capacity to process “inconsequential information programs” for hours and hours on end.

The block of color lingering on the retina produces an aesthetics of momentary dysfunction, a (quite literal) new way of seeing, if only for a moment or two.

Where you spend your time and energy changes you. What you spend time with changes your speech and changes how and where your eyes look when they shift from the screen, for better or for worse.

We wake up in thrall to applications that chart our health to make us better people. We might spend significant portions, if not the majority of, the day in front of our computers and phones.

When I go to sleep, I can feel my brain buzzing with the hundreds of half-read pieces and half-started ideas and conversations I began during the day. Tabs and conversations proliferate like a hydra that the brain strives to cut down and resolve to no avail. I wake up, and try my best to continue the conversations of the day before, and maybe finish a thread or two lost in the days before that. The landfill of unfinished conversations piles up, a new psychic weight.

From Werner Herzog’s underrated Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Moira Weigel covers the film so well in her essay “Cinema of Disillusionment,” in part about the history of using 3-D technology in the film industry.

Another experiential aspect I’ve felt changing as a result of all this pressure is my attention span, which has changed dramatically over the past years. The results, however, are positive. I find myself far more attentive to my surroundings when unplugged. I notice different aspects of people than I did before.

Example: if I’ve spent five hours reading about people who live with dolls, then I’m more primed and ready to sympathize with the odder side of a debate or person or whatever the subject may be, in flesh space. (Note: I vow to do my best not to shamelessly crib Gibson in writing about cyberspace).

When I log off, I am more hyper-attentive to language and meaning in conversations with others. I am also far attuned to how a person might respond to what I say, because I have to practice just the same when talking online to others in far more volatile and reactive forums.

How we are changed, molded and shaped by our relationships to different manifestations of artificial intelligence has always been of enormous interest to me. This began when I was little, an only child, who spent a lot of time in the virtual worlds of Quake and Doom. How healthy this immersion was, and continues to be, is debatable. I am still learning about other ways to be.

I may not have always been able to articulate my comfort in these worlds over “real life” perfectly, particularly when I was young. Then, they were both a source of psychological comfort and complete escape.

But I now have the language and metaphors to describe this relationship and immersion. I also have the distance that adulthood imposes, the space to understand why a pull to experience such strange yet intimate pressure exists. I hope I can thoroughly explore that pull.

Year of the Horse

B_Facundus_135Hello! Some of my favorite writers have been making interesting posts about their years. Because I want nothing more than to fit in, I’m doing the same. I hope you read and enjoy.

2014 was an intense year! Year of the Horse. The umbrella theme was collaboration. In January, I met essayist and critic DeForrest Brown, Jr., on the slushy streets outside of McNally Jackson in New York. We blind-pitched an essay to an editor sitting in the New Museum tea space within an hour or so of meeting. I’m not sure how well that went, but it was exciting. On the sidewalk afterwards, a man walked by with a boombox in a plastic bag on his shoulder.

We’re interested in the same ideas – futurism, aesthetics, systems, machine dominance (I mean, synchronicity!), electronic music, electronic music, electronic … What emerged was an awesome writing partnership that allowed us both to write about what we really love.

But first, in March, I wrote a review of South Park: Stick of Truth for Kill Screen. The game was both insanely fun and a scathing critique of Gamers, who have obviously withered to dehydrated little nubs under the light this year. And rightly so! I’ve been reviewing and writing essays about games for five years now. It felt time to move on, for now.

In June, we wrote this piece on endlessly adaptable, schizophrenic youth culture  for RhizomeWavelength series, which was paired with a list of music around that theme.

In July I had an old story, Gunn, shared on Longform, and so, life breathed into it.

Over the summer, we worked for two months on this essay project, Faulty Inventory Control, for VVVNT, which is both a journal and project spaceThe piece is about cybernetics, glitch aesthetics, digital waste, and the romance of technology. To start.

The piece was included in Karen Archey’s “The Cyborg and the Moon: Notes on Science Fiction,” an online exhibition at the Museum of Post Digital Cultures, thanks to Yuri Pattison. It was also mentioned in The Fader by Alexander Iadorola.

The idea first came from a pitch that we made way back in February to artist and composer Lars Holdhus, TCF, about his entire practice. He then agreed to make sounds and stunning visuals for the essay once it was done. (We’re very thankful to editor-in-chief Sam Hart for patiently dealing with us and for being so smart, and to Mat Dryhurst, the journal’s editor for accepting the pitch).

In September, we got a copy of James Hoff’s heavy, unrelenting record BLASTER. We wrote a short review for Rhizome. Hoff used the Contagion virus to infect music samples and then composed with those warped sounds.

In October, I wrote a longish personal essay, “Error Redacted” — which will be coming out in the next week in print and online, for the New Haven Review. It’s about making a hell of a lot of mistakes, and why bad or wrong choices are important for making art of any kind.

That month I also worked a short space with Yuri Pattison to create a companion piece for DIS Magazine for his incredible exhibit, Free Traveller, at London’s Cell Project Space. It is a series of fictional diary entries from the perspective of a surveillance worker on an island.

In November, Kill Screen reprinted what is easily my most shared games piece, an essay on masculinity and loneliness in Grand Theft Auto V. They changed the title to “The violent, lonely minds of Grand Theft Auto V,” which was lovely, because the previous title made me sound sort of violent as well. I’m not. Trust.

November and December were consumed by work on my fiction as part of the Atwoods Writers’ Group. I met novelist Jeremy Bushnell at his Literary Firsts Reading in Cambridge over the summer. His invited me in. The group’s graciously given me a home to work out my weirdest ideas.

These final two months were also consumed by another massive collaborative writing project that I can talk more about in a week or so, once it is up. Themes: blockchain technology, what it means, and what we can do with it.

2015 is shaping up to be another hyper-productive year, with more projects gathered on the horizon. Writing is a lonely, difficult process but collaboration – on all the hard parts, from pitching to drafting to meticulous editing – makes it a hell of a lot more fun. Finding people whose ideas and vision you value and learn endlessly from, makes it priceless.

I am not sure that advertisement is going to convince many people to become writers, but maybe it will.8293067429_f567c76933_o

New Work

HeaderLong time, no update – but for good reasons, I hope. Later on, I will write a much longer story describing how these pieces came about, but for now, I’ll share this VVVNT essay collaboration** with Lars Holdhus, artist name TCF, and DeForrest, followed by a short Rhizome review of James Hoff that serves as a footnote. I’ve never had so much fun writing before, in large part because I wasn’t alone in this work. More collaboration is needed across artistic genres!

**UPDATE, 10.4.2014: This essay was just included in Karen Archey’s “The Cyborg and the Moon: Notes on Science Fiction,” an online exhibition at the Museum of Post Digital Cultures. Many thanks to artist Yuri Pattison for submitting the essay. Karen Archey is an art critic I really dig, and she is the fourth guest curator of the museum. Great honor! Screenshot of front page at bottom of post.

Faulty Inventory Control

Data barns loom like sublime cities in the desert, each housing a hundred trillion indexed points. We circle the colossus, dwarfed, drawn in by the mirrored candescence of inexhaustible machines performing calculations at a rate beyond imagination. Within, stacks of data, their lifetimes transient yet precisely accounted, pile furiously, and yet the machines continue to tame them. We suspect their mastery hints at our own latent capacities: for greater comprehension, for control.

Consumed as we are by the sensorial abundance of a world rendered into data, the ritual practice of taking inventory is our means of turning pattern, volume, and complexity into meaning. We recombine, sort, archive, as a means of control. The artist works as ingenious technician, performing in direct conversation with cybernetics. Inventory is the paradigm by which we understand the consumption of handled material – from dock shipments to DNA samples, from street maps to digital audio files.

Contagion! 

In 2003, the Blaster Worm was a formidable security breach. A blended threat, rolling bad code into elements of various viruses and worms, it moved swift and ruthless across four hundred thousand Microsoft computers within two weeks.

For his record Blaster, released last month on the Berlin-based label PAN, artist James Hoff used the Blaster computer virus to warp beats from the 808 drum machine into a fungal aural mass. 

SSMPDC

Chimeras

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Playing a symphony on board the station above the new world, the man leans hard towards the old sounds, places his cheek against the cold speaker. Even as the vessel flings forward through a stream of detritus – bows of dead satellites, many-ton compacted cubes of trash – and the view out is brilliant, his mind stays on the Rachmaninoff, on Van Cliburn.

Number Two, as far back as he can remember, has been punctuated by the soft tick of the breathing machines, the chirp of the signal from the base. Backed by thick static. He can’t remember the last time he heard the whole symphony without the sounds of the machines; the static is part of the symphony and it is its own music.

Technoromanticism: the notion that technology can expand our imagination, deepen our capacity to feel, sharpen our individual genius, offer us a billion more ways to be, towards the general end of Good, or ____.

Our cognitive capacities evolve alongside technology such that the human is what seems most new. Instance: in the course of 48 hours, I will hear the voices of dozens of people scattered throughout the world, in the Netherlands, in Australia, in the cold world and equatorial world. Their conversations cross-pollinate. I accumulate too much knowledge about disparate events and countries and their histories. I read too much, way too quickly. But in incremental steps, I can feel my perception changing. My conversation skills double over; I develop odd tics in speech. These patterns compound and turn in on themselves.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, still one of my favorite essays, Donna Haraway wrote:

“We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.”

Though she was discussing the cyborg as protest conceit, and as a lens through which to discuss issues in feminism (“I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess”), her suggestion of the cyborg as a provocation, as the face of the surreal, is still potent.

We move back and forth nonchalantly between the strange and inhuman and uncanny (the virtual, the digital, the electronic futures), all products of human ingenuity, to the quotidian, banal, ho-hum needy flesh.

What exactly happens in this fluid movement between the inhuman and the human, between technology and tactile, lived reality? It would seem the digital’s promise is pretty singular: to illuminate us to ourselves, to hold a mirror up to us, like the best art.

I’d also want to suggest that the movement brings hope. When I am confronted by the uncanny, I feel renewed and joyful; I can see our potential more clearly. I’m forced to articulate what I’m confronting and how I define myself against it.

Anecdote: If a machine that looked, spoke and processed like me sat down across my desk from me, I would immediately be overcome by a sense of my Self-ness. I’d remember all the people who have made my life, how their words shaped me. I’d remember the hundred thousand struggles and phases I slogged through to get to where I am.

Two: the movement back and forth between the strange and the familiar makes me more appreciative of human warmth. Put in anecdote: I don’t (can’t) see too many people when consumed by research and writing. When I emerge, and they arrive in my field of view, they strike me as magical. The face of an old friend is shocking after I’ve been in tunnel vision for weeks. When I read too many social media updates, even, hearing someone tell a simple story to my face feels nothing short of miraculous.

There are poetic reservoirs in this: the voice of someone you love will always be the subject of poetry. When I hear your voice for the first time, I feel I almost know you. I feel the thrill of a recognizable voice, a loved voice, as visceral, in my spine and gut. (This isn’t to say we can’t write compelling fiction about the melody of voices filtered through phones, speakers and computers…)

The movement between the digital uncanny and the familiar also makes us more aware of time. As we become more integrated with our gadgets and networks, time can feel like it is accelerating, hurtling us along. People go to sleep with their phones, and all time is work. Work begins the moment you get up. Talking to a friend, I feel time passing in the “right” way. I am more appreciative of taking time with others. Lingering, puzzling, dawdling.

Body collapses against the screen, falls asleep in its glow and warm hum. It is not a far leap to the dream of total omniscience and power offered by Lain, by Shodan, by network hive intelligences working in union. To the fusion of flesh and wire. When our power is bankrupted in the physical, it is not a leap at all to see why people seek power where they can.

The collapse of the boat doesn’t mean our bodies won’t be saved. Even when there is nothing left, nothing to share, no cities, no infrastructure — we’ll still be compelled by the same aesthetic, emotional and immaterial needs, the old pull to express, the need to share some part of oneself. So many films about the end of civilization are just about love. Watch people fall in love against the backdrop of world wars, undead risings, supreme alien races taking back their homes. Yes, then, if you were the last person on earth.

Your thoughts on the space between cyborg and goddess?

The Party Is Never Over

“And raving is everywhere you’re not
And everything you’re not”

-From On and On and On, by Ryan Kuo

If you were born at a certain time, you missed the rave years. All that is left is misplaced nostalgia for those of us not lucky enough to be in England at the right time, or in Detroit at the right time. James Leyland Kirby’s recent The Death Of Rave tracks, in which he breaks down rave mega-hits into ambient soundscapes, speaks to this bittersweet nostalgia.The Boomkat reviewer describes today’s young “producers infatuated with that intangible, rose-tinted perspective of rave filtered back thru youtube videos and magpie aesthetes who impose an ersatz spirit onto pallid imitations.” Harsh.

But the aesthetic is pretty real, and it speaks to the capacity of electronic music to collapse our sense of time. I’m nostalgic for warehouse parties I never went to; I listen to Chicago house tracks from 1991 like I wasn’t actually just eight years old and listening to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album on a sickening number of rotations. My friends and I put on acid tracks in the car and we may get caught up in many hour-long conversations about how amazing they are, the windows vibrating tinny and quick. But we never put on sounds from our real roots: trance and progressive and tribal house. Sasha, Sander Kleinenberg, Danny Tenaglia. Renaissance compilations, tapes of John Peel interviews. Maybe we need another ten years to revisit them.

At the core of that rose-tinted backwards glance, there’s a definitive feeling of never having listened to the right sounds at the time they were happening, changing people and helping them become who they are now. I have a disgusting amount of music on three computers compiled over a decade that says nothing about the actual places I’ve been, where I’ve lived, what I’ve known. The music I listen to speaks to the past that I wish I had, the present I wish I had, the future I hope to have. Taken together, it builds a world of limitless potential I can only inhabit in my head.

There’s a lot of compelling discussion right now around being haunted by sounds from a specific time; namely, what is it about rave culture that makes us feel so damn nostalgic? Rightly, many connect it to the affective, the emotional resonance that house music has – tied up with joy, celebration, possibility, love, and of course, PLUR.

Dance

There was supposedly some magic time when you could go to these parties, listen to amazing house music, feel connected to thousands of people purely by virtue of loving the same DJs, and Life was real and whole, somehow, in ways we can only replicate now.

There are clubs you should have been at – Vinyl, Twilo; there are festivals you only can read about; there are people you should have always been listening to – Underground Resistance, Carl Craig, and on and on. In place of those experiences, you can at least master the obscure discographies that formed the soundtrack of those times.

Of course, this perfect time in which perfect ravers raved perfectly never existed for anyone.

And right now, we’re in that time of Life being real and whole. For any number of reasons, we’re divided against the possibility of embracing this. Years from now, we’ll look back at now, at the shows we’re going to now, the musical experiences we’re having, and be able to explain it all better. Maybe our desire to have a lifestyle to be nostalgic about will be significant to us then. But now, it just hurts the heart.

At MIT earlier this summer, artist Ryan Kuo presented his work: game-art installations that offered up gorgeous walls of distorted noise in overwhelming waves, moves to eliminate avatars and try to break the barrier of the screen. The most moving piece, for me, was a video, On and On and On, an edited clip of warehouse footage from a rave in Doncaster in 1992. It is a must-see. Here’s a screenshot:

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Ryan slowed down the original footage, and overlay his own reflections on the video, along with a piano loop that’s possibly cut from  a joy track.

The dancers, wide-eyed and off their gourds, tell the hapless, dreamy Youtube viewer:

“Your problem is
you were too young to be with us
Ten years old,
Living across an ocean,
Buried among the mountains
In a valley scorned by motorways
Where it was quiet.
You never thought about coming here
Where the music is playing on without you…”

 I remember a friend once telling me, in a cab home from a set, “One day, you’ll get over this music,” and I remember telling her, “I really won’t. I never will!” That was nine years ago, and even then, I knew any amount of time could pass, and I never would be over it or any of the experiences I’ve had. Some thoughts have a certain sound.

On a related note, there’s a new page on my site for Music, where I’ll be placing pieces, playlists and reviews coming out over the course of the next months. The first listed is a playlist for Rhizome, which I wrote with DeForrest Brown, Jr., who has become my invaluable writing partner.

Next post: on music and accelerationism.