For artist James Bridle, technology is the means of examining the invisible in social and political domains, such as the locations of drone strikes and the technical systems that mine our data. In his most recent project he reflects on citizenship—its relative fixity as well as its instability.
Sam Wisneski: In the past, you’ve written that the New Aesthetic seeks to make the invisible—insidious systems and assumptions we take for granted—visible. Would you say this guides most of your work?
James Bridle: Yes, but it’s also the part of my work that I have the biggest problem with, actually. In hindsight, it’s been the kind of a defining principle of it. I come from a technological background, and one of the things that learning tech does is teaches you to read the structures of things, to break them down and figure out how things are made. (It’s engineering, basically.) If you start to widen that a bit, you start to see it in everything, not just inside of technology, but inside of politics, too. And so, it seems necessary if you’re going to be representing stuff, to represent those things that lie behind it in some way. That turns out to be really useful, because once you apply that skill to one domain, you can start to apply it all over. Invisibility seems like such a built-in principle of our politics and technologies today—they’re kind of designed to disappear from sight. The critical job is to make them visible so that they can be articulated, discussed, and contextualized. The flip side is that I’m not sure it’s working; that’s what I’m trying to figure out at the moment.
SW: How did you decide what to talk about today?
JB: This conference has gone in various interesting directions. After yesterday morning, I was like, “What am I doing here? This seems quite focused on the business of criticism.” There was a bit more critical discussion in the keynote yesterday afternoon that sort of opened it up to the questions of “Why do we have art criticism?” and “What are we doing here?”
I thought some of the talks this morning addressed really serious issues, so I’m going to desperately try to pull a few of those things together. I don’t know if I’ll be at all successful at doing this—at trying to bridge a gap between them. “How do we do criticism today?” — that was essentially the question that was raised by the keynote. “What is it that we’re looking at and how do we articulate it?” Figuring that out seems like part of what critics do and get paid for, which was the question yesterday. Equally, we need to address the sorts of issues that were raised by the speakers this morning. All of those seem part and parcel to the same debate and discussion. Ultimately, I didn’t want to talk about my work because I talk about my work all the time, and I don’t want to just talk about my personal journey. But at the same time, my work is how I think through these things.
SW: Speaking of your work, do you want to talk about your new project Citizen-Ex?
JB: I’ve become really interested in citizenship. The thing about this visibility/invisibility thing is that it assumes these things are fixed categories, that there is something here that will magically make it visible and magically make it okay. But that denies the underlying precarity of these situations. “Citizen-Ex” is based on quite a materialist analysis of the Internet. It talks about the physical installations of these things and that whole discourse, because that’s a useful way of bringing it to bear on other things that feel fixed—like serious laws and human rights issues and stuff like this.
By taking this and then building an algorithmic citizenship concept out of it, the project points, hopefully, to the instability and gets across the fact that these things are unstable but also kind of controllable—at the moment they’re being controlled and dictated by corporate power, political power, state power… If we were to understand them on different terms, we might actually have some parallel understanding of that instability.
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