[iDC] IPF09 Conference thoughts

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Fri Dec 4 04:41:20 UTC 2009

Thanks, Mark, for the excellent wrap-up. Reading it makes me feel like 
it's all just yesterday again.

I too was struck by that 'Changing Sites of Value' panel, and 
particularly by Orit Halpern's talk on the Hungarian emigre painter and 
designer Gyorgy Kepes. Her presentation showed the incredible 
inventiveness of a Central European artist confronted with the 
technological possibilities of the postwar USA - an artist dealing with 
the transformed vision of the city from a swift-flying plane, then later 
with the staggering speed and volume of computerized information flow. 
Kepes seemed to be claiming an ability to shape and model the dynamics 
of technoscientific change. However, the very fascination I felt during 
the talk reminded me of what I think is one of the biggest challenges 
for artists and thinkers in the core countries today, and particularly 
in America, which is how to analyze the cutting edge of technological 
development without becoming strangely weightless, ecstatic with the 
complexity, caught up in the flow, lacking all resistance to the 
present. Note that this is not a critique of Orit or anyone else, but an 
attempt to state a much more general problem, which was also present in 
the talk through a reference to Picasso's Guernica.

In fact this is an old problem of the 20th century, and Kepes himself 
hails from the milieu where it was first expressed with utter clarity. 
After the conference I went to see the Bauhaus show at MoMA. The 
trajectory there is fairly explicit: once they escape from the Gothic 
limbo of expressionism, incarnated by the shamanic figure of Johannes 
Itten, the central aesthetic form and operational diagram becomes the 
grid, which Gropius makes into the basis of Bauhaus pedagogy. The whole 
adventure can be seen as one of developing the potentials of the grid, 
as a sensible and yet also mathematizable mediator between the 
free-floating imagination and the constraints of the industrial process. 
The aim is to achieve not just a new relation to materials for the 
industrial age, but above all a thorough-going abstraction of human 
identity, promising an escape from the horrors that arose out of the 
combination of modern industry and German nationalism in WWI. The theme 
of postnational humanity, of World Man, so prominent in the US after 
WWII, actually has its origins here in interwar Germany. You can see it 
in the shocking photo of a woman reclining in a modernist chair, her 
limbs relaxed, her body fully present in the space - and her face erased 
by an uncannily smooth, reflective metal mask that depersonalizes her 
entirely, making her into a foreign being, an alien creature of the grid.

Even artists as "spiritually" oriented as Kandinsky and Klee adopted the 
grid in their own work. From this basis of abstraction and egalitarian 
homogeneity, they tried to create an expansive range of subjective 
potentials. Klee's work with affective tonalities of color charts in 
particularly impressive: the grid-structure vibrates, resonates, in one 
painting it warps into a mobile mesh, as though blowing in the wind. 
Equally impressive are the very subtle colorist works that both Klee and 
Kandinsky made using a technique of aerosol sprays, which to my eye have 
all the lightness and openness of consciousness itself. But there is 
also the mathematical music of the textile pieces made on a Jacquard 
loom, or the extraordinary "Project for an abstract color film"  painted 
by Kurt Kranz in 1930. After going back into the show a second time, 
looking for something, the idea suddenly came to me: In a period of 
overt political crisis, the overarching ambition of the school was that 
of finding both a technics and a regulatory aesthetics for a 
cosmopolitan industrial democracy. Or to put it another way (and this 
was the phrase I walked out with): They sought to establish and inhabit 
the machine process as the vector of a trans-identity. In their view, 
this alone could provide a psychosocial regulation, or a civilizing 
discipline if you will, for the destructive powers unleashed by mass 
production. The violence of mechanized passions was to be dissolved into 
an infinite subjective mutability. The aesthetic of Moholy-Nagy - who 
was Kepes' teacher and friend, and who brought him to the New Bauhaus in 
Chicago - carries this ambition to its peak, particularly with the 
endlessly dynamic variations of the Light-Space-Modulator.

Of course the Bauhaus was a failure in Germany. The problem, if I may 
interpret it in a shorthand way, was that this incredibly gifted 
bourgeois vanguard had no social basis of support. Near the end, when 
the Weimar Republic was seriously vacillating, you can see them 
scrambling in Dessau under the short-lived directorship of the communist 
Hannes Meyer, trying to create some social fundament of industrial use 
value for the mass of the people. The audacious formal experiments fade 
away in favor of a more immediate, utilitarian approach. Meyer enlists 
everyone to build a school for the German Trade Union Federation. It 
didn't work. He was forced to step down by the government of the state 
of Anhalt, for being a communist. Under Mies, who was the last director, 
the searching cultural and subjective side of the project disappears and 
a technocratic, proto-corporate look begins to predominate. The 
International Style is on the horizon.

Curiously, it is in New Deal America that these artists find a chance to 
realize their utopia. The whole theme of postnational man is adopted 
after the war by an American intellectual elite that includes a great 
number of emigre German artists, thinkers and scientists. I find it 
ironic that the USA, the most liberal of all countries (where liberal 
signifies the classic bourgeois preoccupation for free trade, 
convertible money, commercial infinity) should be the place where an 
institutionalized solidarity, Roosevelt's welfare state, would finally 
provide the social basis - or what thinkers of the time would have 
called the "metastability" - required for pursuit of the vanguard 
aspiration to trans-identity. I was extremely intrigued by the Kepes 
images because you could see that aspiration being realized, stroke by 
stroke, particularly with the aesthetics of information flow and the 
vanguard ethics that consisted in exposing oneself to a sublime overload 
of information, so as to learn how to navigate this transhuman environment.

 From all of this I withdraw two main ideas. The first, which to my 
dismay I can only express in cybernetic terms, is that the 
constructivist epistemology taken up with such subversive brilliance by 
Heinz Von Foerster in the 1970s represents a fulfillment of the 
modernist dream that begins with the Bauhaus artists' intimation of 
subjective potentials latent in the abstract grid. I dunno about you 
all, but I can't help but see some family resemblance between Von 
Foerster's second-order cybernetics and Bauhaus trans-identity. And 
whether you accept that or not (or even crack the code - sorry for the 
obscurity), probably no one would deny that Von Foerster's classic 
statements - such as “The environment as we perceive it is our 
invention,” from the 1973 essay “On Constructing a Reality” - have had 
enormous consequences on the character of our civilization today, with 
its simultaneous move into infinite cyberspace and imminent ecological 

The second idea is that in our age, marked by the seemingly arbitrary 
nature of autonomous information systems and by the weightlessly 
self-creative capacities of global individuals, what threatens us, 
perhaps with all the violence that marked the mid-twentieth century, is 
once again the loss of any sense and social practice of solidarity - a 
solidarity that I would extend, like Sean Cubitt in his talk, beyond 
people to things, and particularly to those "things" we used to call 
nature. I really do think it is the lack of any effective practice of 
solidarity that has now brought our liberal societies to a triple 
crisis, economic, ecological and geopolitical (i.e. military). We no 
longer need the mediating figure of Klee's angel and Benjamin's text, 
today we can feel the gathering storm and see the debris piling up in 
front of us.

All of which loops the loop and brings us back to the initial question: 
How to analyze what the world is now becoming through the application of 
technoscience, without losing all resistance to the present and 
participating in the very dynamics that seem to be rushing us toward our 
own undoing? How to find a language that allows one to come to grips 
with all this as an intellectual, and yet not lose contact with the 
living beings who are most immediately affected by the violence?

For me it's a challenge, I don't know how to do it. I guess that's one 
of the basic problems that Armin Medosch and I are trying to resolve in 
our technopolitics project.

best, Brian

Mark Edward Cote wrote:
> Hello all,
> here are some concluding thought on the IPF09 conference as requested,
> albeit a little late...
> first off, i want to thank trebor organizing such a brilliant event; it
> was certainly one of the best conferences i have had the privilege to
> attend. as important was all the work done by the student volunteers.
> without your collective labour, the play of the conference simply would
> not have happened. thank you.
> i won't try to comprehensively summarize the conference in part because
> concurrent panels meant i (like everyone) missed so much, including
> numerous panels i would have dearly loved to have attended (especially
> "ideology and the erotics of playlabor", "work, labor and the
> productivity of fun", and "the emancipatory potential of play").
> instead, i will offer a more impressionistic account and suggest ways
> that at least it has prodded me to want to move forward.
> the scope and intensity of mediation was both appropriate and thought
> provoking. the IPF09 tweets in particular was an unexpectedly welcome
> stream of dialogue, inter- and intra-panel and by those materially and
> virtually present. as well, the pre-conference interviews (on video) and
> the live streaming video of the panels set a new baseline to which i
> think future conferences should aspire. thanks again to all the students
> for their labour which made such mediation possible. and a question:
> will the panel videos be archived on the site?
> the diversity of participants (not just artists, activists,
> practitioners, and academics, but the range of scholars) gave the
> conference a real depth and richness. perhaps most amazingly, it
> resulted in many instances of incredibly productive dialogue that i did
> not necessarily expect. for me the most impressive example was the
> saturday morning panel 'governance in the age of vulnerable publics.'
> honestly, i wasn't sure what to expect on a panel with a couple of legal
> scholars and an activist-scholar but the results were breathtaking.
> jonathan zittrain was truly, deeply funny, as well as richly
> substantive. in conjunction with a great presentation by laura denardis,
> it was a reminder that regarding issues of legal governance and
> technical architecture, the devil is in (knowing, and where possible
> subverting) the details. the whole while i was wondering how brian
> holmes might respond but any apprehensions i had were wildly misplaced.
> his outstanding paper on 'predatory networks' made palpable the issues
> of governance in their real (and often deadly) effects on labour.
> collectively it reminded me that critical interdisciplinarity offers
> perhaps the most robust tools for thought and action--something that
> made getting up early on saturday definitely worthwhile.  
> my panel highlight though was the friday evening's 'changing sites of
> value' with patricia clough, orit halpern and melissa gregg. talk about
> three powerhouses! ideas and concepts were flying with such speed and
> intensity that, in the best possible way, i felt like i was flattened by
> a steamroller. thank you all seriously for reminding me why i love being
> an academic in the first place; what a febrile pursuit of ideas.
> patricia's paper raised critical questions around 'measuring the
> immeasurable' especially in terms of affect when considered as
> potentiality. questions of measure are surely among the most important
> challenges identified at the conference, both for capital in seeking to
> extract value, and for those who wish to both understand and mobilize
> for progressive purposes what patricia called the 'ontology of dynamic
> matter.' the pace and intensity of orit's presentation was a challenge
> to, in her words, "choose a pattern in the data field." i was fascinated
> by her radical representation of second-generation cybernetics,
> especially regarding the multi-mediated informational flow which
> proceeded with an assumption of 'absolute storage.' this left me
> ruminating on the relationship between a political economy of absolute
> storage versus it affective, bodily phenomenology. finally, melissa
> gregg recounted the important feminist genealogy of affective labour. it
> was a necessary reminder that the concept of 'affect' is much more than
> esoteric theory; instead, it helps us understand real trends in labour
> which are often markedly gendered. she presented research from her
> forthcoming book 'working from home' which recounts women (often
> mothers) who undertake domestic computer-mediated work. as she asked,
> what kind of labour politics might address such a situation wherein
> computers are sold as a solution to a largely gendered problem? this
> again raises that confounding relation between the material body and its
> virtual instantiations.
> that this panel lasted only 90 minutes was its only shortcoming.
> the last panel i want to touch on briefly was the first one i attended
> ('virtual worlds, civil rights, and slaughter'). it grappled
> impressively with the difficulties in articulating the relationship
> between the body and its virtual manifestations. lisa nakamura presented
> the now iconic 'chinese gold farmers' as a key example of racialized
> digital labour. a key contribution she made here was to insist on overt
> linkages between a digital labour struggle and a civil rights struggle.
> as haunting for me was the video clip of a young 'gold farmer' who,
> after a dawn-to-dusk day of digital labour, continued playing 'world of
> warcraft' into the night, desperately seeking the intensive and
> extensive social connectivity which is expected by players but not
> necessarily forthcoming to those who service the game's mode of
> production. alex galloway picked up seamlessly on nakamura's thread by
> sounding the depths of digital labour wherein 'tastes and proclivities
> are uploaded and data mined,' and where virtual bodies are always tagged
> by corporeal-cultural markers of gender, race, and ethnicity. amidst all
> this is the 'genius' of google page rank, which, in galloway's
> felecitous terms "uses graph theory to valorize heterogeneity." what i
> took away from this terrific insight is that by operating on a
> functional coding of pure difference, distributed digital networks can
> effortlessly flow back to a tyranny of the universal. timothy pachirat
> followed with what initially seemed to be the most incongruous paper on
> the "olifactory putridity" of slaughterhouses. there was, however, a
> visceral impact on his recounting of the "bloody, meaty centre to
> labour" wherein fleeing cattle are at once the physical escaping the
> virtual, and the virtual becoming material. finally, jodi dean expertly
> transposed agamben's politics of 'whatever being' to a teenager's online
> being of whatever...therein she questioned the political possibilities
> in the socially-networked world of youth where ubiquitous communication
> of personal media can result in the severing of expression from content.
> a few other random memories: christian fuch's persistent but jovial
> insistence on the fact that the virtual conditions for a new communism
> are already with us; hendrick speck's purposelfully baffling 'zizek
> walk' near the end of the closing plenary; biella coleman and jonathan
> beller's insistence on a particular 'return of the repressed'--the
> utterly abject material conditions of 2B of the world's population upon
> which digital dreams and aspirations rest; catherine driscoll's dogged
> adamance on 'emotion' over 'affect'; and the unreconstructed optimism of
> michel bauwens.
> this summary is getting far too long so i will bring it to a close with
> one last thought. during the closing plenary, a number of students made
> some really smart and cogent observations. one in particular (from
> cayden?) wondered about the disconnect between the physical and digital
> world, asking "what vestiges of our physical selves are brought into the
> digital world?" as evidenced by my observations above, this for me is
> the most pressing issue to take away from the conference and an area i
> will focus upon in future work. how do we square what sean cubitt called
> the "cartesian geometry" of the material (perhaps borrowed from deleuze
> on cinema?) with what patricia clough called the "quantum non-locality"
> of the virtual. we have robust means for parsing either the material or
> the virtual. what we really need are ways to account for the
> simultaneity (and difference) of both/and. thinking in terms of
> transductive relations may be a start, as might be a thorough rethinking
> of the myriad relations between the human and technology.
> others, thankfully, will have other ideas from which we can collectively
> learn and act. the one thing i bet everyone at the conference agrees
> with is that however we might imagine a virtual future, it must
> facilitate actions which contribute to a more sustainable and equitable
> material world.
> best,
> mark
> Mark Coté, Ph.D
> Cultural Studies Program
> Trent University
> markcote at trentu.ca
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