[iDC] IPF09 Conference thoughts

Kevin Hamilton kham at uiuc.edu
Fri Dec 4 17:07:05 UTC 2009

Brian and all, thanks so much for your responses here to the  
conference. For those of us who couldn't make it to NYC, this and many  
other outlets have served as valuable inlets.

A couple of additions to your meditation and history here, Brian.

My sense is that in some cases, the Bauhaus grid met with some  
resistant forces in America - largely, that of industry expectations  
of art and design education. I can't cite the source at the moment,  
but I remember reading about how Moholy-Nagy in particular faced  
pressures in this regard, where Chicago business had grown dependent  
on the Illinois Institute of Technology for the provision of ready  
workers in the design and application of visual identity. They  
apparently began to complain that students under these new European  
instructors weren't adequately prepared for working in industry;  
Moholy-Nagy and others had to bend to bring their universalized,  
abstract ideals down to the level of economic pressures. The larger  
story of how this translation took place for him and others needs to  
be told (I haven't seen it yet, anyway) - what was dropped, what kept,  
what transformed and how? It's a story bound up with the shaping of  
art school as we know it in America.

To my knowledge (and Orit likely knows more here), Kepes benefited  
essentially from a patron in the form of MIT's president Wiesner at  
the time, whose utopian vision kept CAVS alive. My understanding is  
that when Wiesner left, CAVS tanked.

This happened more or less at the same time as Von Foerster's lab  
ended here at Illinois - his patron, the Office of Naval Research, was  
forced to drop him when the Mansfield amendment restricted military  
funding of "blue sky" projects.

So Radical Constructivism, and the universal grid of subjectivity,  
looked to make the whole world, but it couldn't make a world stand up  
without the help of no-strings-attached funding, funding that couldn't  
last for long. The question that remains is this - What can we learn  
from the consequent influence of the Bauhaus grid on Chicago's image  
industry, or of cybernetics on economics and management theory? Are  
these examples of the familiar story of long-term capital-driven  
projects borrowing from the avant-garde without sustaining it? How  
else might we tell these stories?

In this account, European utopias drop their spiritual/expressive bent  
when they come to the states, leaving only an abstract universalizing  
language, which then gets picked clean by economically stronger  
interests who need only a certain kind of abstraction. That could  
describe moments from earlier in America's history as well. (I wonder  
what postcolonial theory offers this account.)

Kevin Hamilton

On Dec 3, 2009, at 10:41 PM, Brian Holmes wrote:

> 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
> disaster.
> 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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