Re-Engineering: Art and Tech in the Bay Area Part One

Op-ed

Re-Engineering

Re-Engineering: Art and Tech in the Bay Area Part One

November 5, 2013

The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.

Re-Engineering is a series of op-ed articles and real-time conversations co-produced by Art Practical and the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts that invites constructive dialogue between the region's art and technology sectors. By bringing together seemingly disparate voices from both communities, these conversations underscore the creative impulses, capacity to take risks, and desire for positive social impact that these groups have in common.


Periodically, we will publish a series of Op-Eds that address art, gentrification and the new tech economy. This is the first installment.

I've been attempting to create dialogue to combat pessimism in the arts in San Francisco for some time, both within and outside of my capacity as director of programs for Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA), and it seemed most constructive to have this Op-Ed be another chapter in that conversation. To that end, I invited my friend, artist Brian Rogers, to have a discussion over Google Docs, organized around six parameters for how to improve the dialogue around art, tech, and gentrification—a dialogue that has certainly fueled its share of pessimism. Outrage is important, but so is sober criticism rooted in the complexities of how things actually are on the ground as opposed to easily dismissible stereotypes. This week we discuss points one through three. The next installment will include points four through six. Brian and I welcome your feedback, either in the comments below or via Twitter: I'm at @matdryhurst and Brian is at @brian_w_rogers.

—Mat Dryhurst
 

1. Like art, tech is a diverse community. Generalizing and demonizing can only serve to alienate potential allies.

 

Mat Dryhurst: I am responsible for my own fair share of ire towards the hubris and oblivion of aspects of the tech industry, but “tech” is far too large a community to make sweeping generalizations about. It is important to calibrate your stance accurately if you genuinely care about the imbalances in the Bay Area.

There is a whole spectrum of characters and issues in both camps. On the most annoying end of the spectrum, you have gated and insular communities of privileged and entitled, mostly white people, confidently making gross oversimplifications about complex issues and showing little concern for the communities they live in. These people are equally likely to exist in an art school or gallery as they are in a large tech company.

On the positive end of the spectrum you find socially engaged, bright people who are eager to make positive and thoughtful contributions to complex societal and philosophical issues, and from experience I can say that you are just as likely to find one of those people at a hackathon as you are at an art event.

There are so many examples of creative practices in the Bay Area that defy this false dichotomy between art and tech. If I think about The Present Group’s explorations of new ways to support artists, Nate Boyce’s CGI sculptures, Olof Mathé’s globally ascendant Art Hack Day, Noisebridge’s open space for creative work, the music of Holly Herndon and the CCRMA community, Amy Franceschini’s future-oriented design work—there are so many examples of people whose work has benefited from, and seems so much more powerful for, its unique proximity to technology we have in the Bay Area.

1990s rave flier, San Francisco. Courtesy of Flickr user sioenroux.

Brian Rogers: It’s clear that the publicly dominant forms of art and tech—roughly, contemporary art and techno-libertarianism—are unsalvageable, which makes them both attractive and repulsive in equal measure. But technology (which cannot and should not be reduced to the digital, though it often is) constitutes a vast field of practices: all the subdisciplines of the natural sciences, mathematics, and so on. Similarly, aesthetic practices are and always have been far in excess of contemporary art. To simply reject or attempt to escape from either is a squandered opportunity.

The interaction between art and technology needs to be insisted on as a vector for constructing an exit from the untenable failures of imagination (paraded, as philosopher Ray Brassier argues, as “insight into necessity”) that restrict the potentialities of both.

2. There are a number of radical people in tech who are also affected by this bubble.

 

MD: Lumping everyone into the category of “big bad tech” disregards the many people who are involved in low- to no-profit technology here who are also suffering as a result of this bubble and the crazy rent. Not to mention that you could fashion the same equally useless arguments against the most decadent figures in contemporary art.

Once we get past generalizations, we will notice that the best people in art and tech share common goals and sensibilities. Identifying and creating conversations between these kinds of people is one powerful way to subvert the current climate that is pushing mindful people of all backgrounds out of the city. Making clumsy generalizations about “tech” antagonizes the venerable history of radical technology in this city and ultimately threatens to alienate those in tech who could help get everyone out of this mess.

BR: There’s a long local history of forward-thinking tech development on the West Coast. It’s not a mistake that California emerged as an (admittedly unwieldy) epicenter for technologies of the self, a moment that was at least an attempt to mutually grasp technological, conceptual, social, and aesthetic vanguards. But as Adam Curtis astutely argues in his BBC documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), the radical potentiality of West Coast tech practices collapsed due to two major structural problems: 1) The inflation and misunderstanding of ecological and technological metaphors (“Society is an ecosystem that tends towards equilibrium”), and 2) The Randian ideological engine that continues to drive tech discourses of decentralization, individualism, and free markets.

At present we are faced with two massively unsatisfying positions: that of web 2.0 techno-utopianism/techno-libertarianism, on the one hand, and knee-jerk, reactionary, Folk-Marxist ambivalent digital localism, which finds its most egregious avatars in figures such as Jonathan Franzen.

But what if this latent drive to technologically investigate and experiment on ourselves were to upgrade its operating system? What if we could better understand functionalist accounts of scale, re-engineering, and concepts?1 What if there were something in the history that is worth recovering?

With the past in mind and the future as a horizon, we have to construct new frameworks for advocating interaction between art and technology.

1990s rave flier, San Francisco. Courtesy of Flickr user sioenroux.

3. Make art about and with tech: understand, engineer, and infiltrate.

 

BR: Currently, tech and art are comfortable in the role of making things public, and in some cases—such as that of Edward Snowden—rightfully so. But an overinvestment in visibility, decentralization, and representation—be it continually streaming footage from Tahrir Square or Facebook posts from Tehran—overinflates and misunderstands the role of social media, as well as misses out on the fact that power operates only partially conspicuously. This fixation on identity politics forfeits the opportunity to build platforms for infrapolitics: strategies for infiltration, cunning, deception, tactical closures, sabotage, and recuperation.

Designer Benedict Singleton’s recent work on technology and metis is inspirational in this regard. In the past few years, we’ve been confronted with the limits of affective protest politics, which thrives on recognition and resistance. But we want to argue that equally as important, if not more important, is what a renewed compact between art and tech could produce in terms of working on the other side of the visible, of a politics tantamount to collusion, complexity, and flexibility.

To paraphrase writer Reza Negarestani: “The enemy of the foundation is not the anarchist, but the engineer.”

MD: "Re-engineer" is the golden word! Singleton’s metis/trickster philosophy from design is so useful. If the Google bus really bothers you, which I think is an incredibly valid concern, then why not engineer a fuss about it?

One of the most interesting things about radical technologists is that many use the things they learn (and earn) from their professional commitments to actively subvert and challenge systems that they have a stake and influence in. In contrast, attacking from the outside is a much less pragmatic strategy, and I feel like there are a great many people globally who understand this. The Dutch design group Metahaven is exemplary in its subversion and investigation of corporate and network power. Brad Troemel, Spencer Longo, and other collaborators at The Jogging and Dis Magazine; Ben Vickers’s informed luddism and inquiry into distribution networks; and the tech/art #stacktivism movement (whose tagline, “We cannot have a conversation about something whilst it remains unseen,” is pertinent)—these are all people who understand that the most pragmatic way to subvert these structures we are concerned about is probably to learn their methods and beat them at their own game through tactful engineering.

Hacker practices often push back against mythologized virtuosity and allow for a clearer analysis of genuine advancements and genuinely new ways of doing things. There is something open and honest about the Github model, which transparently documents the incremental advancement of projects by multiple contributors—and something about this hyper-accreditation allows for us to discern more clearly the creative and deliberate decisions one has made.

And let’s not forget that hacktivism has such a strong history in the Bay Area—from The Zippies launching DDOS attacks on U.K. government websites in 1994 in solidarity with Autechre to Anonymous and Wikileaks, whose only U.S. member, Jacob Appelbaum, is a founder of Noisebridge in the Mission District. Are there any better examples of the artful engineering of outcomes from the inside?

1990s rave flier, San Francisco. Courtesy of Flickr user sioenroux.

BR: The case for the logic of contemporary art (from which the Bay Area is by no means exempt) is most forcefully laid out by theorist and critic Suhail Malik. Supposedly, contemporary art either proposes alternatives to existing norms or it is a means of escape from norms altogether, but, in actuality, contemporary art continually establishes norms, institutions, and power relations.

This is perhaps where the convergence between tech and art has become most visible. In an effort to make claims for their political traction, art and tech have valorized, among other things, the public, the commons, the archive, participation, flow, and spontaneity. There’s also this idea that the person who makes art is the one truly responsible for its power and worth, while the people who create the conditions of possibility for that art to be materially realized are more or less relegated to being “technical support,” as it were. All of this only reinscribes the problem.

But what if instead of using tech to affirm the ability to realize an idea, art took the perspectives and potentialities of tech and science and used those as the grounds from which to begin thinking of an approach? For engineers, the structure of how one knows and how one creates is as important as the normative content of the knowing and making. Tech and science at least attempt to render the how of knowing legible.

For these reasons, in order for contemporary art to be restored to political consequentiality, Malik argues that these logics must be abandoned so that new criteria, judgments, and perspectives can be articulated. This call for recalibration must include not just art itself but also the claims its makes and the culture that supports it. It involves asking (and answering) hard questions about what we value in art, what we want art to do, what art actually can do, and what type of infrastructure could commit to its ongoing development, rigor, and expansion.

Notes

  1. Credit is due to William C.Wimsatt for our allusions to his use of the term "re-engineering" from his book Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings (Harvard University Press, 2007). Electronic musician Steven Warwick AKA Heatsick also uses the term for the title of his upcoming release on the PAN label

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