James Bridle is an artist, writer, and publisher based in London. His writing on literature, culture, and networks has appeared in magazines and newspapers including Wired, Domus, Cabinet, the Atlantic, the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Observer, and many others. His artworks have been commissioned and exhibited worldwide and on the Internet. His formulation of the New Aesthetic research project has spurred debate and creative work across multiple disciplines. In 2014, Bridle received the Graphic Design of the Year award from the Design Museum, London, and was in residence at the White Building in London and Eyebeam in New York.
From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. All sessions of the convening were transcribed live by a stenographer; below is an edited transcript of the keynote by UK-based artist, publisher, and writer James Bridle.
To view videos of all Superscript panels and keynotes, or to read commissioned essays and live blogging by participants in the Superscript Blog Mentorship program (a partnership with Hyperallergic), visit the Superscript Reader. To report errors in this document, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, May 30, 2015
Paul Schmelzer: In introducing today’s keynote speaker, I’d like to begin with a quote. “The cloud renders geography irrelevant. Until you realize that everything that matters, everything that means you don’t die is based, not only on which passport you possess, but also on a complex web of definitions of what constitutes that passport. In the new battles over citizenship, those definitions are constantly under attack.”
That’s James Bridle, London-based artist, writing in his Walker Artist Op-Ed last July on how the response to terrorism by some governments means the redefinition of the terms surrounding citizenship, including in the UK and elsewhere, full deprivation of citizenship for individuals with suspected links to terrorism. In the ten months since he wrote that, Bridle has continued his examinations of the evolving nature of citizenship, and just yesterday he launched a new project that continues exploring the relationship between citizenship and the cloud. Co-commissioned by The Space and created for Southbank Centre’s Web We Want Festival, Citizen Ex, available at citizen-ex.com, is software that allows you to see your “algorithmic citizenship.” That is, it shows you all the places your browsing data passes through whenever you use the Internet. That is, countries governed by laws, including some that might involve your data—and you don’t know that you’re passing through those locales.
As the project website states, Citizen Ex calculates your algorithm citizenship based on where you go online. “Every site you visit counts as evidence of your affiliation with a particular place and added to your constantly revised algorithmic citizenship. Because the Internet is everywhere, you can go anywhere, but because the Internet is real, this also has consequences.” Citizen Ex is a timely example of the ways Bridle’s work, which encompasses art-making, criticism, and writing for outlets including the Guardian, Wired, Domus and his own site, booktwo.org, engages with the contemporary. I use that term deliberately.
At dinner last night with James, the term “political art” came up in relationship to his work, and it’s not a term that he prefers to use, but you can see why people do. He has addressed through his projects things like surveillance and technology all the way to the US Covert Drone Program. One of his projects you may have heard of Dronestagram. It basically simulates a drone’s-eye view, pairing Google Earth images of locations of verified drone strikes with news accounts on those kills. To my mind it’s something of a disruptive technology, because it’s this place where the rest of us are putting photos of our dinner, or kids, or our cats, or our parties, and here he’s reminding us of what our governments might be doing in these covert drone wars. He simply says he’s responding to the world around him and the one we live in through creative means—rather than dealing with political art. It’s just the world we live in, it’s his sensibility that he uses in approaching this world.
And that’s what our next panel is about. “Artists as Cultural First Responders” is about how artists are using the Internet and technology to respond to this moment through art, through writing, through platforms of other publications and institutions. I’m not sure that’s all he’s going to talk about in his keynote because he’s doing double duty: he’ll be on the following panel, and he’s also giving the keynote right now. I welcome him to our stage. Thank you.
James Bridle: Hi. Thank you very much for having me, thank you very much for that invitation, thank you very much to the Walker for bringing me all the way here, it’s my first time at the Walker in Minneapolis in Minnesota, and it’s wonderful. And thank you all very much indeed for being here. I’m not really gonna talk about any of that. Which is weird because it’s exactly what I came here to talk about, but the last six months, year, I’ve been really focusing on my own work, I’m just making stuff and putting it out there which I’m very lucky enough to be able to do at this moment in time and I haven’t actually been writing too much about it or actually engaging like with criticism outside my own work, but I’m both like a bit bored at giving like artist talks, even though I will do a bit of that, and also kind of really wanted to respond to a lot of the stuff that’s been discussed over the last 36 hours which means I’ve basically been writing this on the fly. So it may be all over the place.
It’s definitely going to be discursive at times I’ve felt like I’ve been live blogging the other speakers who have been really excellent. I just don’t want to repeat it. That’s just enough apologies now so I’m going to get on with it. I’m heard as you heard a writer and a journalist and an artist and a number of other things. I feel like I’m mostly speaking as an artist because it gives you that permission to speak about other things or to speak in a slightly different register but I want to talk to my colleagues in criticism and journalism as well because I think we’re all in this together to use a to use a horribly tory phrase. No, I’m just going to shut up and talk.
Let’s start with these. Has everybody seen these? Has anyone seen these? If you spend a lot of time on Google Maps like I do, you may have encountered these things. They are—you will see them as images. They’re planes in flight. But they’re specifically captured in a particular way. I call them the “rainbow planes,” and I found them as I was kind of hunting around Google Maps for various reasons and then I kept finding more of them and then I started actively looking for them because I think they are extraordinary, they are beautiful and strange and emblematic of I’m not entirely sure what, or I wasn’t but they spoke to me in a certain kind of way so I figured you should just obsessively collect them and keep talking to them and try and work out what on earth is going on here and it took a while and it ended up getting to by various round about works work I was doing in satellite imaging in other contexts and stuff but ended up getting there and what the rainbow plane is it’s an artifact of satellite mapping. It’s a glitch. But like all true glitches, it’s not just a mistake it’s kind of an opportunity to look through into the underlying systems that produce this image, because it is a glimpse into—it’s not a mistake, it is a fundamental result of the way in which this image is created and constructed.
The rainbow plane is—what happens is satellites don’t have cameras on them, right? We’re getting increasingly used to satellite imagery, it’s kind of extraordinary, it’s kind of amazing, you can take out your phone and scan through satellites and scan the entire earth ‘s surface it’s kind of like having a superpower but we’re not looking at photographs. What you’re looking at here is an image that’s constructed out of data. Satellites have a sense about them that records radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum and it extends beyond human version, as well. They’re recording the infrared and the ultraviolet. They’re seeing in wider spectra than we are and they record red, green and blue separately when they make these data images and when they reconstruct those images for humans to be able to view them, they overlay the red green and blue and so occasionally you find in these satellite images these artifacts which are produced by fast moving objects because the red, green, and blue have been kind of stuttered by the fact that this plane is flying very, very fast indeed. And so when this image is constructed, it leaves this extraordinary kind of rainbow. But in that, you can see how the satellites see, right? It’s a reconstruction of the world through the eyes of the machines. It’s a moment at which we can see how technology has a way of seeing the world.
But it’s also to me emblematic of something that we’re trying to learn from it. Something that the network is kind of trying to teach us, which is a new way of saying alongside or through or within those technologies. This is like John Berger again, right? We were there yesterday and I want to pick up from where from what Ben Davis was saying about, because I think it’s really important we figure out what’s changed since these kind of statements were made.
Berger made these statements 40-odd years ago and even this, which is right there at the beginning of Ways of Seeing. In Dziga Vertov’s film called The Man with a Movie Camera was made 40 years before that and he’s already talking about this kind of machine vision. He’s already trying to understand what’s changed in this kind of human vision of the world and what it means for us and so if we’ve got anything new to talk about here at a conference which is entitles Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, then the key to that has to be in the second half of the sentence, right?
It has to be changed what’s changed in those 40 years. And Berger was talking about the eye a lot. But I want to talk about networks and the difference in images that is produced not just in distribution and assemblage but out of the way of construction and the way that construction is kind of shared now amongst many of us. Ben asked the question yesterday about how many people have seen Ways of Seeing. How many have read it? How many have seen the film? Thank you, and Berger’s thing of constantly looking deeply into paintings and seeing the details and stuff. So how many of you when you go to the galleries, really peer at the surface paint? Thank you. How many of you have viewed source on a web page? That’s a good number and how many people write code? Still, that’s a good number. That’s really good. I’ll be honest that was better than I was hoping for. It’s unfair that last question I’m biased towards it because I trained as a computer scientist it’s and kind of my default position and there’s’ a lot of noise at the moment to teaching everyone to code and as if it will magically save the world.
Computer science in that sense breeds a certain myopia, I believe. It can be a useful myopia, it teaches you to break the world down into structures and processes, into small discrete steps to make them understandable. That kind of analysis is kind of useful to address other large and complex systems that we may find ourselves embedded in, but I’m not sure that teaching everyone to code is the best solution. You shouldn’t have to be a plumber in order to take a shit, right? You shouldn’t have to fully understand everything. But plumbers do have a general knowledge of management of water resources which is knowledge that may perhaps be seen certainly useful to us as well and we should possibly pay attention to those fields of knowledge.
I want to go into a little Bergeresque wonder. I want to introduce you to some friends of mine. I call them the “render ghosts.” You know them, right? They live in the unbuilt buildings all over town, you’ve seen them. I’ve been really fascinated by these images, these renders, these constructions for some time for the roles that they play in the world for the way they’re constructed and consumed. For me they’ve almost attained, particularly living in London was overrun with this stuff, they’ve basically become public art.
And I’ve been kind of studying them and trying to learn their techniques and in particular I’ve become fascinated with the people in them, as well. You watch them long enough and you see these same people going about their day and becoming familiar and they’re deeply weird, these images, right? They’re supposed to be the future, this place we’re going to inhabit, but they’re full of this very odd juxtapositions and strangeness, like the potentially toxic plants which are going to fill up these privatized public spaces. They’ve always got children playing in them because it’s supposed to be about a the future, even though it’s a future that we’re never going to inhabit. And in fact they’re never going to inhabit it, either. They have to move out as soon as the buildings get built. They live in relationship to the future in just as precarious of a way as we do. And sometimes you can kind of catch them looking back out at you. Sometimes kind of hopefully, sometimes slightly more fearfully, you can even watch them despite everything, falling in love.
They spend a lot of time on balconies.
They really love their balconies and they like to party up there. And it seems to be very important to them.
But a lot of the time these images are also as I had said deeply revealing about the world. This is one of my favorite ones. This is just around the corner from my house in London where they’re happily building a new chain of designer outlet stores in one of the less lubricous parts of London and this render is overlaid on top of a real street and this gentleman on the mobile phone in the pin striped shirt is added to the real image as are the German luxury cars and the 4 wheel drive in the background and just in the background you can see an actual local slowly kind of being blurred out of existence by the overlaying of this stuff.
They can also be quite strange and interestingly beautiful. This is an image by a visualization studio called Picture Plane which have become friends of mine who have taken an incredibly detailed approached to this, even in fact using for example the sky is from 18th Century landscape painting as the background to their renders of these new housing developments in south London. The care and attention they seem to put into these things, I wanted to work with them and I warranted to look at ways in which this particular approach to image making could be possibly turned to other uses. I worked with them to construct a series of spaces, and very specifically I wanted to look at spaces which weren’t made visible in other ways. The Dronestagram project which you heard before was very much a project taking an event, an occurrence, a thing that was going on in the covert drone war for which images were not available and finding those images in another context and making them available, to kind of fill in gaps in imaging when images are not provided in these circumstances, that lacuna is often you know, very revealing about the nature of the event. But of course we have the technology to address that now, we can intervene in that kind of image-making process.
I obtained planning documents from a number of sites that related to immigrant detention, judgment and deportation in the UK. This is an airport outside London where people are deported in the middle of the night. It’s actually a private jet terminal, so in the middle of the day you have celebrities and business people flying out and in the middle of the night they use it for deportation but it’s an entirely private place and there’s no way to take photos there but plans are available at your local department office. This is the courtroom in central London where special immigration appeals are heard. No photographs of this space are available, but it’s possible to sketch in there which is what we did. And what’s interesting to me is not just that it’s possible to recreate this image but it’s actually possible to portray this architecture.
What’s interesting about particular court is it’s used for the provision of secret evidence. Secret evidence is a provision under UK law where evidence can be provided to the court without the defendant being allowed to know what evidence is being presented. A court-appointed mediator is allowed to see the evidence, but the defendant nor the defense team are allowed access to it and this form of secrecy takes a form in the courtroom itself. It solidifies as architecture because you have this curtained-off witness box on one side, actually a partition here which allows security personnel to watch the court without being visible from the public on the other side. So you have the infrastructure and the architecture of the place, but that is also rendered invisible and made visible to us by the technologies. Likewise you can represent various realities which we don’t necessarily have access to. And this representation is regularly denied by power. And this is that particular airport at night. This is the detention center near HeathrowAirport where people are kept.
The thing that’s also odd here I think that I’m not representing the individual stories of detainees and migrants themselves as important as though stories are, because what I’m trying to address is the kind of unaccountability and kind of ungraspable vastness of the system which produces this which through me I have to talk about through architecture and infrastructure, because again, to me as a scientist I see complex agglomerations of architecture and infrastructure and I see the laws and social processes that produce them.
But through this kind of process of journalistic investigation, academic research, artistic impression and the deployment of the new technologies, some possible way of seeing the world anew is made possible.
Back to those figures, the render ghosts.
Who are they, where do they come from? Do they know they’ve been kind of rendered into the network in this way and digitized, distributed and spread around the world. I don’t think they have, and so I wanted to tell them. And find out. So through talking to architects a lot, I found these banks of images. These are a sample sheet for one of these collections of imagery, in fact one of the very first ones, because what I discovered was that for a long time there were only a couple sets of these available. There was a particular set of a few hundred figures that had been shared around because of all the Internet almost all practicing architects architecture studios and if you looked carefully you saw the same people, like this suit guy recur endlessly and endlessly again around the streets and I’d see them also all over the world.
This is that same image set called “business people.” See the bloke in the white suit at the bottom. Here he is visiting the Whitney. This was actually on the boards outside the museum and he looks like he’s about to throw himself off but he’s waiting for it. I said, I wanted to know about these people and ask them questions and understand what was going on. And so I set out to find them.
And there’s a thing that—so I went to do some research about the origin of these images. This is rendersearch.com which was not successful, I discovered that they were based in Albuquerque in New Mexico, so I started running targeted Facebook ads against people who lived in this area, trying to locate them this way. I was also trying to understand this company that produced them, because they weren’t answering my calls which I thought was rude. They did once actually and then they hung up on me. And so I went to Albuquerque, and there was no one at home, but I was there, so I was running like more local newspaper ads, putting up signs, all this kind of thing. I really have no idea what I’m doing at this point, right? This is where the obsession with the network takes you is you dive really deep into it and what happens then was that I actually met a guy at a bar as you do, who turned out to be a local investigative journalist as you do, who had a load of state tax records on his phone as he did, apparently and what he told me was that in fact this company had only formed in the state subsequent to the release of the images and that they were not in fact from here at all and that—as in fact, everyone in New Mexico had been telling me since I arrived, these people are not from here, they don’t look like New Mexicans there’s something wrong in every way.
So I was in Albuquerque where I’d never been before for this purpose and I’d never seen that telly show so I had no other kind of frame of reference to be here there. I was figuring out what to do so I decided to take a couple of my favorite render ghosts on a road trip. We went out into the desert, and I took them to Los Alamos which seemed like a sensible place to go if you’re trying to understand the Internet. Which is kind of essentially what I was trying to do, right? This is what a huge amount of this kind of work has been about for me is that I’m trying to build some kind of sensible and useful model of the Internet that can I use, right? We had that mention of the cloud earlier. The cloud being like this incredibly dangerous metaphor that kind of hides the operation of huge systems behind a kind of veil of like you don’t need to worry about this, it’s completely fine, even though you are engaged with it all the time and it’s not some magical distant far away place but something that surrounds us totally at all times and we’re constantly accessing and affects every moment of our lives apart from sleep but they’re trying to get in there, too.
So this is what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to understand the Internet so I can operationalize that understanding and use it. And Los Alamos seemed to be a useful place to be. It’s one of the historical birthing places of this kind of thing. It’s not entirely true that the Opernet was developed in response to the development of the bomb, but the connection between military technologies, the Cold War, and previous to that kind of aiming systems that developed the computer, the Cold War development of these distributed networks, laterally things like you know kind of XBox Connect and these visional based systems that came out of warfare, they all kind of originate in this big bang at Los Alamos for me so it seemed like a useful place to go and you have realizations going out in the desert like that and you figure out things and what I figured out there was what I was looking for was not a better description of the Internet like going to a place that is kind of completely pointless because the history isn’t there, the history happened and the history is all around us and the history is something that is now becoming completely widely distributed over all of these things.
The history of the bomb and just like the kind of history of the Internet but I understood that I was understanding that as a metaphor through the Internet, that my understand of the Internet actually allowed me to understand that. And thinking about how to use the Internet to understand everything else, that actually I realize I’d been trading myself as a computer scientist as a person on the Internet to actually use that understanding and apply it to lots of other things.
So like—I was going to spend the rest of this talking a bit about criticism and the Internet. Which I could go that way, as well. Ten years ago, in my capacity, another previous capacity as a literary editor and a publisher I was attending a lot of publishing conferences we’ve all been there and we were all involved in a lot of the same kind of conversations that it feels like we’ve been having here. About the changes that have been wrought by these technologies and particularly by networks and it strikes me then and it strikes me again now, that this perceived crisis is not like some horrible visitation from the outside, right? It hasn’t been forced upon us by devious programmers or even in fact by large corporations that have definitely seized the ground now. But what it brings to us it a kind of a moment of clarity when we first perceived the ongoing catastrophe take my favorite things, books, and how they exist in the network.
All of these publishing companies, there’s less of this now thank goodness but one of the big fears of the early predatory Internet was piracy, right? Was this horrible fear that something was being stolen from us, because it was really about that, right? Underneath all this talk about lost revenue to publishers and this kind of thing, the fear of piracy is a fear of the loss of control of the text and the meaning that kind of comes from that and the authority which stems from having control of that meaning. And it’s like kind of fear of kind of an other control of the text in many ways.
And this is my favorite example of that happening, right? These are two copies of a novel collected in Peru by my friend Andrea Franckie who runs a thing called the Piracy Project, which kind of collects this sort of thing. Because Peru is at such a great distance from the central Spanish literary production, which is unsurprising still in Spain, there’s a lot of piracy in that part of the world. These are both pirated editions of a best-selling novel published in Spain, and it takes a long time for it to reach the end of the supply chain, and so it gets incredibly pirated because it’s popular.
These are both pirated versions and they’re also different translation, the texts differ, characters have different names in various places, like the thing has become unstable, and this is what happens, that piracy and that instability is what happens at the periphery, but the periphery is everywhere now. Like they’re still senses of gravity and that stuff but the network has shifted that relationship to some extent. But also this is what happens to all texts and what has always happened to all texts. All of them disintegrate and disperse, are written and rewritten and overwritten and become the property of those who discover them and are appropriated and re-appropriated and misappropriated, nobody has control of this process and nobody has ever had control of this process.
The difference that has been wrought by digital technology in this example is not that it’s destabilized the text but that it has revealed the text as always being utterly and fundamentally unstable and digital technology has given us a place to see that truly and properly for the first time. You see the same effect in online forms of knowledge production, as well, take Wikipedia, take the fact that Wikipedia articles are assembled of these agglomerations of professional and amateur writers, they can contain all kinds of inaccuracies. They never conform to this mutual point of view. But like, so what, right? What the hell ever has? I don’t believe that that was ever the case. This is a printout I made many years ago of a single Wikipedia article, right?
The changes, I printed out the change log of that article. One of the brilliant things about Wikipedia is you can see every edit that’s ever been made to an article, and so actually the difference in Wikipedia and when you do that, you get a 12-volume set of books which is the size of an old school encyclopedia. And this is visibly distributed system unlike these previous encyclopedias, with Wikipedia, can you pull it apart, you can see it’s previous versions, you can trace some of the IP addresses of the contributors, you can see when it’s changed by someone who works for a corporation or who’s you know, an IP address within the House of Representatives around election time.
You can see when that article was hastily compiled in response to a news event or something, you can see when it’s been built up carefully over time over many kind of sources, all of that kind of stuff and all that is visible to us. It’s a creation of something that is if not totally visually and appreciably more democratized and accessible not only in terms of its writers, but in terms of its readers, as well and that’s made, again, startlingly visible to us and the construction of the web is also the construction the discussions that we have on it and even the fact that it’s co-constructed by those technologies is visible to us as well.
This is a list of the top 30 editors of the English Wikipedia. All the ones highlighted in yellow are bots, right? They’re software systems. 20 of the top 30 Wikipedia editors, the ones that make the most edits are software systems, they’re automated little programs that go around Wikipedia editing things, adding dates, correcting punctuation, all this kind of stuff. I’m not asserting that they’re making changes to the factual history of the world by doing this. But they are assisting us and they’re kind of working alongside us, and they are co-creating with us this representation of the world. But again, because of the way in which this is done, that is kind of visible to us.
The other big thing that people are upset about in the publishing world in the last decade has been like this idea of attention, right? The fact that people are you know, suddenly all turned to kind of jelly brains who aren’t paying attention anymore. This one really annoys me as if before the Internet people were all perfect students who all sat there quietly and read the book from cover to cover, and again, this is bullshit, right? And we know it is from our own experience. But yet we kind of persist in kind of complaining about this, as though it’s something that’s been produced by the technologies rather than something that’s always been with us that’s been rendered incredibly clear to us. The Internet didn’t cause it, it revealed and potentially accelerated it, as well, but that’s something that’s emerging from your latent desires, it feels like to me. And it should be said really clearly this is not true just for attention, but for opinions, as well.
And I think this leads very follows very much from what Ayesha Siddiqi said earlier on that the Internet didn’t create legions of misogynists and racists and homophobes and it just turned over the rock and gave them a massively horrifically amplified voice. It’s like a Naked Lunch. You get say everything at the end of the fork. And as depressing and distressing as that is, it also makes those attitudes visible and undeniable and potentially actionable in ways that they simply weren’t before.
I like this term used by the architectural theorist, Keller Easterling, which is disposition. She says that technology has a disposition, that it is encoded with certain kind of beliefs. And propensities to act in the world. But she also uses that disposition, uses a very careful analysis that uses that very kind of politics of technology to emphasize that it is something we can construct and hedge around that it is merely one kind of particular vector in the world and that if we persist in believing that we are kind of hostage to the dispositions of those technologies, then we’re just like, you know, we’re simply going to be acted upon by them rather than kind of engaging with them.
And a lot of the analysis that Easterling does is this kind of analysis, which Brian referenced earlier, I think, quite well and referenced the work of Trevor Paglen which is quite close to the work that I do in his materialist Marxist analysis of the Internet which traces these kind of paths.
I don’t think it’s an entirely redundant analysis for a number of reasons, because it’s not so remote and abstract now. None of this stuff is. It’s not about noting that these cable lines really exist or that they follow pretty much the patterns of colonialism and connecting the nations back to the sites of old Imperial power. The presence of that information on the network makes it far far more addressable, understandable, it’s possible to link it more directly to what’s happening in the world than it was before. I kind of have to believe that, because otherwise we have to just kind of have to junk the last 50 years of technology, right?
Learning about how images and data systems work and networks actually function also for me permit forms of critique. These systems, regardless of who directly bit them, not ignoring that, because it’s important to know a little bit how, but understand that they exist in the world and that they’re here to educate us, not merely to be opposed, we can choose what to learn from these metrics, right, the negative reviews, the response, the audience to those kind of stuff. We can choose what to learn from those results. We can redesign them to better suit our needs. We can also avoid them in ways that were not possible before. Like we need these kind of examples in order to provide our counterexamples and this visibility of systems, not necessarily of people, is incredibly important.
I’m sorry to pick on Hyperallergic here, but after all the discussion of ad networks yesterday I kind of had to check on this and it’s really important to remember that this is the reality of the funding and support models and networks which we’re discussing whenever we talk about how stuff gets paid for on the Internet. They’re predicated on surveillance networks being you can’t have ad revenue on the Internet without these kind of networks and I think there’s a parallel to a kind of James C. Scott analysis of legibility when it comes to previous forms, institutional and state arts funding because we all know we’ve had to conform in certain ways in describing our work in order to receive certain fundings or we’ve had to present in certain accepted forms of art in order to get this and this is just a more insidious form of that kind of conforming.
Conforming as a kind of surveillant body as kind of identifiable and trackable. So on top of these networks we built these other systems that would make that surveillance and those actions visible in turn. Because something critical about these technologies is that they cut both ways. This power is not new but it’s no longer invisible. It has to be written down in order to be enacted by the machines. We’ve been training ourselves a mode of analysis that comes from the network and it’s increasingly impossible to ignore the deep tectonic underpinnings of these structures and that’s precisely why we’re capable of having discussions about things whether it’s zombie formalism or racial and gender representation. It’s why we’re talking about floundering materially short of money, short on self-esteem, because those things have been foregrounded by the actions of these technologies, and they’re impossible to ignore.
As the historian Tony Judt said in a very eloquent warning to non-historians and to those who said that history is over, he said, “by ignoring history you’re like a person walking around an old house, you can pretend the rooms are empty empty but you’ll keep bumping into the furniture.” You can’t pretend ignorance about this stuff anymore. The same is true of the network and the reality it presents to us. The network has kind of flattened out time, it’s substantiated an addressable history and it’s here to teach us this stuff.
But I kind of want to go further than that, as well, into just—I’m actually finishing well ahead of time, that’s good. I want to go further beyond that just kind of building up those kind of layers, because that’s where I’ve got to, right? That’s the kind of analysis I’ve been doing and that’s where I feel good about this kind of stuff that it’s possible to address these things and build on top of them and understand the technologies, and therefore understand the world is the precepts of that, right?
But I want to go further than that into what feels like uncharted territory, because I’m trying to figure it out. Because there are deep and serious problems with that approach, as well, and on which they underlie it and they can be understood possibly through this framing of the network, as well, because it’s not enough just to point at this stuff, right? It’s not enough to point at pictures or images or aesthetics and their deployment and the material frameworks, you kind of have to go deeper, I think into the ontologies of the discussion itself. Which are also being revealed. As I say in my own work I’m kind of thoroughly guilty of this. In making the invisible visible has been the guiding principle of my work.
This series of work, the drone shadows, illuminate a particular use of a technology and they make visible its inherent visibility, as well, and it tries to raise questions about why that particular form of invisibility is so pervasive, not just in politics and the technologies of politics and warfare but in the technologies that we use every day, the social technologies, the noumenal networks of the Internet itself. The danger as Ayesha pointed out earlier is that of mistaking visibility for power. It’s a really good phrase that I’m stealing already as you can note. Visibility without reconfiguring the underlying power structures is kind of just yelling, just showing off after a while, right? The difficulty I’m starting to think is we’ve also fallen into a kind of trap about how we think about those oppositions, one that has a long history but one that has been reinforced and illuminated by the technologies, because this discussion of visibility and invisibilities doesn’t just happen in the margins. It’s happening at the height of international discourse and state conversations that are actually the kind of the central issues of our time.
Take the struggle that’s occurring between state and non-state access and privacy. The central paradox of the debate illustrated by these two delightful logos is this weird thing about how the NSA and WikiLeaks essentially share the same vision of the world, right? Both of them believe that there is some kind of central dark secret at the heart world that if we can only bring it to light it will make everything better. This is the ontology of big data, it’s the bad lesson we’re learning from the technologies. It’s this belief bounded on metrics and databases. That seems to align so closely with enlightenment ideas of just the general increases knowledge that slips through our critical defenses.
It’s the bad lesson to learn, it’s the wrong lesson. It’s the opposite of the lesson of the confusion around piracy or the destabilization of text and knowledge that is what the networks are actually trying to teach us and it’s weird that we are stuck within that and a lot of that has to come from analysis para, I think, and how it’s captured the ground of this discussion very, very successfully on both sides and the problem occurs, I think, in art discussions and in art criticism, as well, in particular I think the need to kind of place artworks and events into a kind of discernible and authenticated lineage, to see everything in terms of histories and movements and manifestoes which to me is a form of sense making that have been largely discredited by the network.
Even the places that criticism cannot or has no right to go, if it’s honest about its own position and capabilities. Visibility and transparency are the baseline but they’re not the goal. They’re acknowledgement to the situation but they are they’re not what we should always be striving for and to quote Tony Judt again “the job of the historian (or in this case the critic) is to take tidy nonsense and make a mess of it. An accurate mess is far truer to life than elegant untruths.”
Andre Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto, which I came across the other day and struck full force by the statement made 100 years ago that we don’t seem to have learned from at all: “If in a cluster of grapes there are no two are alike, why do you want me to discuss this grape by the other, by all others. Our brains are addled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known. To make it classifiable.” I’m not saying that Surrealism is the answer now, merely noting that this sense is not new and we can reach back more than 100 years to find arguments for it engendered by not dissimilar technologically produced societal change, we just don’t seem to be very good at implementing it. And as a partial apology for quoting two straight up white men. I’ll also quote Cahun, who stated that “realities disguised as symbols, which for me, are new realities which are immeasurably preferable. I make an effort to take them at their word, to grasp, to carry out the diktat of the images to the letter.” Trust the evidence of your senses and your ideas.
Trust the images and the sensations that you gain from the network because you have direct experience with this. Those things that we’re told about the authenticity is dying or the authority is not present in the network anymore or that people don’t pay attention and they’re not thinking so widely and clearly anymore, those aren’t true and we can deny them from our own experience. Stop bumping into the furniture, in short.
The job of art for me is to disrupt and complicate, renew and criticize these networks by representing and building upon them. But the idea that visibility or making visible figuratively or not, is a way of solving the world is troubling. Demanding that things here make sense, fit into recognizable, even newly fashioned categories is a recipe for determinism, fakery, failure, and violence. The reason for the rise in discourse around the representation is that they directly challenge this revolutionary process. The frame cannot contain them and the center cannot hold. This is also the job of criticism. It has to make the same demands from the same position of understanding the material.
I don’t see how criticism can function without making the same level of demands and responding to the same challenges as art itself. In a form of solidarity, but also for its own survival. It needs to acknowledge both its place in the network and like the network, its political position in reproducing and occasionally opposing the situation. It needs to account not for the power but the fundamental uncertainties and instabilities of a world which is not radically new, which has always been with us, but we we can no longer ignore. Thank you very much.
Audience Member: Your example of the airport that’s used as both the celebrity and the detainee, deportation center, just made me think about privacy versus secrecy, and how there’s a tension between those who are allowed privacy and then those for whom secrecy is used sort of as a weapon. Just wondering if you talk about that a little bit.
Bridle: Yeah—so you’re right, those ideas of privacy and secrecy, they’re not fixed things. Can’t be kind of awarded like badges and they can’t be kind of reconstructed. They’re negotiations and they’re positions that are negotiated from positions of power or otherwise. I think one of the most ubiquitous things happening around privacy online now is that it requires this huge buildup of knowledge in order to achieve it for one self and if you don’t have the knowledge or the power to kind of buy it so you’re kind of at an automatic disadvantage. But both of them privacy essentially, is the right to privacy, the right to those things is essentially the right to freedom of action, that you can do the things that you want to do.
And surveillance curtails that in all kinds of ways so privacy is the thing that frees you from that. There’s a reason those things are under attack, right? There are structures that are deliberately attacking them. But those are not necessarily like addressable to single actors, particularly in these kind of very large network systems, because I get really careful when I say we built the Internet but it was largely constructed by white men in Southern California. But there are uses of the Internet to me like speak to all of our desires, that yeah, this is something that we, more generally than that, have built for us that we’re trying—that is trying to teach us something that we’re trying to understand and if the actions that it’s talking are like offensive to us, are like aggressively attacking things like our privacy, then that’s something that we’ve kind of—that aligns with other desires, that means that—I’m expressing this terribly badly, that is a kind of fundamental result of some of the other things that we wanted out of the system in different ways and it comes out not fully understanding that system? Different levels. I don’t know if that made any sense.
Audience Member: Hi, I think that was a great talk. You did not meet any of the render ghosts; is that right?
Bridle: No, still haven’t. I think they’re in Vegas.
Audience Member: Is this continuing?
Bridle: I’m planning to get there the at some point, yeah.
Audience Member: I know you hadn’t really figured out but do you know what you will do with these people when you find them?
Bridle: I want to ask them I’m slightly terrified obviously because it will get weird but it’s that part of that trying to understand. It’s just saying of what is your experience of this having happened to you, because at the moment they are unfairly and slightly sort of aggressively ciphers for me like of all of our experience so I don’t think it’s going to be helpful necessarily to find them and ask them that, but there’s like many of these projects, the things that you find out on the way are somewhat valuable, as well, but when I see them, I will simply ask them like did you know this was happening? Do you know you’ve been to these places and what does that mean?
Audience Member: I think there’s an interesting hookup you got with Eric Crosby here if you get a chance to talk to him. He’s got something interesting, the Walker has something interesting coming in a common direction there. But I want to ask you just simply, could you connect the dots between your training as a computer scientist and how you’ve ended up in the art world?
Bridle: Yeah, sure. I took computer science kind of under duress, because they don’t let you study arts and sciences properly like as a dual thing at least in the UK, you kind of have to pick one of the two worlds which is stupid and retrograde and ridiculous, but I was interested in the Internet because it seemed to be the new exciting shiny thing and it seemed to have some kind of meaningfulness and I mistakenly thought you got to be on the Internet by doing computer science which turns out to be entirely wrong.
I studied artificial intelligence that turned out to be wrong, as well, but by the time I finished that I hated computers so much that I went to work in traditional book publishing, which is why I was at those publishing conferences and it’s why I was yelling at those publishing conferences because it seemed that everyone there was also there because they hated computers and was afraid of the Internet and seemed to see computers as being kind of and the Internet as being inimitable culture and was kind of destroying it and in reaction to that I started to get bag back into technology again and I became like the E-book guy and going to these conferences and yelling at people that maybe they should not be afraid of the Internet because it was quite important but specifically I got interested in what was happening to books in that process.
Like, what does it mean for them to to become digital? What does that do to the book? You know, how does it become kind of ephemeralized, where do our experiences of literature kind of reside when you can’t shut the book and put it on the shelf and there’s so much of that bound up in culture and our own experience of it that the books just need an extraordinary place to study that but then you get what happens to the literature, as well, what happens to the form of that, as well, and you know, these become places in which to study the effects of the network. Sorry, when I say the network, I mean like the Internet and us, like the complete thing.
Like the effect of that on culture and therefore on us. That’s just where I was studying it and because there weren’t things to point at, I would start making things, like those Wikipedia books and that slowly got kind of through various routes ended up in the art world. The other thing being a project called the New Aesthetic, which was a kind of ongoing look at around why didn’t stuff look new anymore? Broadly. That was not particularly an art project, but I was using examples from all over kind of technological processes but it turned out to be a term that seemed to be incredibly useful to people in all sorts of fields, particularly in the art world where was mistakenly called a movement. But if it became something that was useful to people, then brilliant. It same a sort of self-fulfilling thing in itself. There was a lacuna in the conversation that it kind of filled. That’s why I’m here today.
Audience Member: I just wanted to hear the story if you have a minute, mind finding the first rainbow plane. If you can can remember the first time you actually came across it?
Bridle: No. I can’t remember. I spent a lot of time on Google Maps. Like a lot. It’s kind of the default thing to go out and search for. So, yeah, I really can’t. The moment I realized what it was was when I actually came out of the Drone Shadows Project, because I—there’s a weird thing about the drone shadows, which is that they’re these huge physical full-size installations that take a full day to install so that I can photograph them and put a picture on the Internet because that’s where they get seen and I’m completely fine with that so they are precursors to digital images as much as physical installations which is not uncommon these days and I did one in DC a couple of years ago and I got a satellite picture of DC. It cost about $400 to buy satellite imagery and even then it turned out it wasn’t like high res enough to be able to pick up my drone shadow.
But when they deliver satellite imagery it comes in this arcane image, it comes in these different layers, and it turns out those different layers are actually the different, the results from the different sensors, so if you calibrate it right you figure out one of them is the red layer and one of them is the green layer and the blue layer but there’s also a layer that’s entirely clouds because they just use a very narrow frequency that doesn’t penetrate water so there’s a whole set of satellite imagery that’s just pictures of clouds so I had to learn how to process satellite imagery. Not quick all the time but in doing that I was I was like, ohhhh, that’s what this thing is, and that’s always a good thing. So that’s the story.