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Asia Art Tours interview

One of the things I love best about having done Radical Technologies for a publisher with genuine worldwide reach is that it’s found its way into places none of my previous books ever did. And a delightful consequence of that, in turn, is that I’m hearing from more readers with questions they’d like to discuss further, readers whose perspectives are often relatively far from the concerns of the people who have furnished the core of the audience for my books since Everyware days.

I’m always happy to answer their questions, if I can, and still more so when those questions come from disciplinary concerns or perspectives I rarely have occasion to consider myself. This was definitely the case with this next interview, conducted by Matthew Dagher-Margosian of Asia Art Tours. You’ll see pretty quickly what I mean about concerns or perspectives I don’t often get to think about, and I hope you find it as refreshing as I did.

Japan is host to numerous art forms whose masters are literally dying off, with no apprentices under them to carry on the art form. After reading [in Radical Technologies] about the Bushido Project, I’m wondering if you see projects like this as a way to archive and save art forms before the masters (and their knowledge) literally die. As with the Bushido Project, could (and should) we apply this technique to other art forms such as calligraphy, ikebana or ceramics?
It’s not my place to say, not having mastered any of those forms. But my gut tells me that from the senior practitioner’s perspective, the answer will depend very much on how they perceive their chosen domain of endeavor. In martial arts terms, do they think of themselves as practicing a or a ?

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t imagine the practioners of an “art” particularly minding if their methods are abstracted and represented as machinic instructions, especially if in pragmatic terms it means the survival of their art and the continuing relevance of their contributions to it. But I do, very much, anticipate resistance on the part of those who conceive of what they do as a “way,” as a spiritual practice.

The possible exception, I suppose, would be those masters who share the perspective of the Heart Sutra — that is, that there is no “subject” of a spiritual practice, properly understood, and therefore that any possible distinction between human and posthuman sentiences enacting it is invidious.

Everyday I read about tech moguls being obsessed with emotional spaces like Burning Man, LSD usage, “cuddle orgies” or whatever the hell you’d call this trend from the New York Times. Why do tech workers (or perhaps just moguls) build “machines” and systems that tag, categorize and segregate reality but celebrate hedonism and unstructured creativity in their personal lives? Why do they want freedom and lack of structure in their own lives, but abhor this in the systems they build?
I have two answers, one perhaps kinder than the other.

The straightforward, if unkind, way of answering is to observe that a great many of the figures at the heart of our present technosocial revolution grew up fairly nerdy, with everything that then implied about self-esteem and social confidence. They may, indeed, have been drawn to technology because it presented itself to them as a realm governed by reason, logic and order, in sharp contrast to the fickle, unpredictable, unjust world of social interaction. But now that they’ve acquired a little capital, worldly power and recognition, and the self-confidence that goes hand-in-hand with them, they find that they’re better able to manage the pressures of the social world. They want to explore all the possibilities that have opened up for them, and most particularly the access to sensual pleasure they’re newly afforded.

And this can express itself with an almighty vengeance at SxSW, or still more so Burning Man. Everybody goes a little nuts their first time at an event like that, especially if they experience it for the first time as an adult, and nothing in their previous life has prepared them for it. I think what you’re seeing is simply what happens, predictably enough, when you combine temporal power, long banked-up desire and sudden disinhibition. The New Age trappings are just window dressing, scene-setting or priming for what they really want to do, which is Get Down.

A more charitable way of answering, though, is to point out that digital systems are still founded on a binary logic that both requires precision in its inputs and renders it in its productions. That logic renders reality in discrete intervals, which is astonishingly effective as a way of ordering the world so its contents can be instrumentalized or operationalized, but is pretty limiting as a mode of being. The world, by contrast, is continuous, or at least quantized at a level many, many orders of magnitude beneath our ability to perceive it. So looked at through a different, more generous lens, what your tech moguls are doing when they take a few hits of ecstasy and dissolve into a cuddle puddle on the floor of a friend’s loft is redressing an imbalance in their lives that they may or may not be consciously aware of. Seen this way, they’re giving themselves over to a rich, continuously variable reality of sensation and flow, precisely because their everyday experiences deprive them of such opportunities.

The truth, of course, is that very very few people in technology are close enough to the code for it to order their perceptions in any meaningful way. So my money’s on the former explanation.

Jaron Lanier (a big fan of music and art) among others has long praised VR as a potential for greater human connectivity and creativity…giving people a virtual play space to create and connect. I am wondering if you see this same potential? Is creativity and connection possible if these VR platforms are owned by monopolistic concerns as they are now?
Well, I personally wouldn’t look to Jaron Lanier for coherent thought about much of anything, and I think this is a great example of his shallowness.

The notion that virtual environments might foster a form of creativity is something I don’t actually have that much of a problem with. I mean, there’s plenty of precedent: there are any number of clever ways in which people have used the relatively limited expressive palette offered to them by something like Minecraft to generate something that speaks to them. An even more apposite example might be Second Life — as embarrassing and dated as it now seems to most of us, there are people who have spent literally months if not years of their lives in that environment, crafting objects and spaces that evidently communicate something intensely important to them. It doesn’t speak to me, but it seems foolish to argue that what they’re doing isn’t creative in some way.

But connection is a harder sell, and there I draw the line. Interpersonal relations in a virtual space are always and by definition going to be mediated through a sharply impoverished and heavily stylized subset of the communicative channels embodiment offers us. Anyone who thinks that’s “connection” is selling genuine physioemotional copresence pretty short, and in fact I’m moved to suspect that someone pressing that argument with vigor may never have fully experienced what it is to be emotionally present, vulnerable and available to another.

Most seriously of all, we already have a space in which to create and connect. It costs nothing, is owned by nobody, has no technical specifications, doesn’t require upgrades or ingame purchases or DLC to use effectively, and doesn’t go away when the power is cut off. We call it “reality,” and we undervalue it at our peril.

One of art’s great functions for the wealthy is that it occupies space, and by occupying space it occupies mind. Art hung on a mansion’s barren wall brings meaning that otherwise would make one question the purpose of their wealth and status. I’m wondering if art becomes non-physical (i.e. teamLab’s “digital museum”) or if art is produced by algorithm (non-human actors) how will the wealthy adjust? Will they be willing to support non-human created art that doesn’t occupy physical space (digital)?
That’s an interesting take, and I want to consider it further. My own observation is that the wealthy people I know very rarely spend any time in actual contemplation of the artwork they’ve collected. Once an artwork has served its dual functions of accumulating social capital and, well, capital-capital, it’s wallpaper, something that’s precisely not in mind. Perhaps they have occasion to contemplate a piece for a few seconds every time they get to show it off to new visitors, but for the most part it’s just there…appreciating but not appreciated.

But to your point, yeah, I just don’t see the wealthy broadly underwriting work that doesn’t support what we might call its Veblen functions — not unless it somehow redounds to their benefit socially. And what that implies for expressive media that can’t be tangibly consumed is, as far as I’m concerned, fantastic. It means that people who are there for the wrong reasons, for motivations other than those of sincere curiosity and excitement, just tend to evaporate and to bunk off to scenes where their desire for social affirmation is more straightforwardly rewarded.

The risk for any scene like that then becomes insularity and obscurity and self-referential preciousness, but that’s nothing particularly novel for niche creative communities the world over.

Regarding the Next Rembrandt project, do you anticipate entirely original artwork will soon be created completely by algorithms? And if so, how would its aesthetic merits be evaluated? For creative endeavors will we soon have digital critic algorithms critiquing (and rating and categorizing in recommendation engines) films/pieces of art produced by other algorithms?
I think we can approach an answer, albeit in kind of a crabwise manner, by considering a closely parallel question. I often argue that the true achievement of synthetic intelligence will lie not in defeating the highest-ranked human player of chess or go, but in devising a game as captivating as chess or go in the first place.

That, to me, is the test. By this standard, I don’t believe we can truly consider algorithmic systems capable of creativity until they’re generating expressive works that correspond somehow to their unique experience of the world. Not simply generating bizarre forms or sounds or images, that is, à la DeepDream, but producing forms and sounds and images that reflect aesthetic choice, that are structured specifically to express something, however ineffable. And I don’t think we’re there just yet, we may not get there for some time yet to come, and may indeed never quite get there at all.

There is always the possibility, of course, that we will simply not recognize this achievement if and when it does happen — that creative machinic systems will make their aesthetic choices in a medium, at a spatial scale or subject to a temporality which is beneath or beyond the threshold of human perception. What if the highest form of machinic creativity is manipulating material, social or geological dynamics to produce patterns in space and time that are somehow pleasing to the systems involved, that we don’t even recognize as the product of volition? There may well be genres of art that we’re not even capable of perceiving, let alone participating in.

As to whether other machinic systems will, in turn, evaluate those works of art, that would seem to suggest a coherent set of criteria for doing so, articulated by an agent that shares at least some subjectivity with the creator. And again, I just don’t think we know enough about the nature of emergent machinic intelligence to say whether or not such evaluations would arise unprompted. It’s hard for me, at least, to imagine why posthuman systems, acting purely amongst themselves, would feel the need to produce a structured set of discursive acts that fill the same role art criticism serves in human societies, but maybe that says more about the limits of my imagination than it does anything else.

Lastly, of all the subjects addressed in Radical Technologies, which do you see as potentially of the most use or of the most utility to future artists?
I mean, they’re almost all of them expressive media, they almost all support an aesthetics and a poetics…but I have to confess I’m personally really excited to see where precision digital fabrication goes. I think we’ll see some pretty subtle, potent objects arise out of that, whether formally devised via algorithm or by the human hand and heart.

What I’m consuming of late, roughly 1H18

It’s always healthy, I think, to have a considered look at what it is I’m taking in. This is what I’ve been reading, watching, listening to and thinking about lately.

First and last

I’ve spent a truly inordinate amount of time reading the MetaFilter megathreads documenting the ongoing Trump travesty in real time. In all honesty, these threads have been far and away my primary intake of content by volume since the time of the Brexit referendum just about two years ago now (!), and my inability to tear myself away from this transatlantic (shitshow, trainwreck, dumpster fire, act of civilizational suicide — choose your metaphor, they all amount to the same thing) over this entire period has put a major dent in my ability to think, write or get any meaningful work done.

Books

Nonfiction
– James Bridle: New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
– Owen Coggins: Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal
– Peter Godfrey-Smith: Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
– Graham Harman: Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything
– N. Katherine Hayles: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious (Among the best of its type.)
– Humphrey Jennings: Pandæmonium (Simply wonderful.)
– Mateo Kries, Mathias Müller et al., eds.: Together! The New Architecture of the Collective
– Caroline Maniaque-Benton with Meredith Gaglio: Whole Earth Field Guide
– Mauvaise Troupe Collective, tr. Kristin Ross: The ZAD and NoTAV: Territorial Struggles and the Making of a New Political Intelligence
– Elaine Mokhtefi: Algiers, Third World Capital: Black Panthers, Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries
– Norman Ohler: Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (Wildly entertaining.)
– Moshe Safdie: Beyond Habitat
– Elizabeth Sandifer: Neoreaction A Basilisk (Essential to understanding the shape of our moment.)
– Lynne Segal: Radical Happiness
– Richard Vinen: The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies
– Matthew W. Wilson: New Lines: Critical GIS and the Trouble of the Map
– and finally, got over my aversion to TED-style popthink and picked up
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Fiction
– Anna Kavan: Ice
– Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer
– Kim Stanley Robinson: New York 2140 (Contains an incidental, paragraph-length ode to the place of “Heroin” in the consciousness of true New Yorkers that no lie brought me to tears, though I was admittedly at 38,000 feet at the time.)

Poetry
– Bejan Matur: If This Is A Lament

Film

– (hush) Black Panther
Funeral Parade of Roses
Homo Sapiens
– (cheating a little bit, actually saw it toward the end of last year) Gulistan, Land of Roses
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
– The usual, compulsive rewatches of, like, , Bande à part, Day of the Jackal, The Italian Job, etc.
– I’m sure there are other films I’ve gone to see in the cinema, but they’re slipping my mind. I’ll make another cup of coffee (see below) and see if I can’t remember.

TV

Oh, OK…I watch Westworld, I Love Dick, The Handmaid’s Tale and Love. Don’t @ me. (The casting for Westworld, in particular, is dialed in. Gorgeous Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Giancarlo Esposito, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Peter Fucken Mullan? Sold American. I even like those dudes what play the bickering nerdling technicians. And the costuming, set design, etc., is [smacks fingers].)

Music

Listening to a lot of Bong, Eluvium, Dopelord, Windhand, Electric Wizard, and so on, in addition to the usualcrew in permanent heavy rotation (Nancy & Lee, Staple Singers, Magazine, Minutemen, Velvets, James Cleveland, etc.); the best live acts I’ve caught in the past six months were Nadja and Taman Shud. Suuuuper looking forward to Zeal & Ardor in just a few weeks. [UPDATE: Zeal & Ardor was exceptionally good, with the new material off Stranger Fruit just tearing jagged little holes in me. Also, I finally got around to the new Sleep, The Sciences, and it is in every last way a stone motherfucker.]

Exhibits, etc.

Haven’t been getting out as much as I should. I did see the comprehensive Forensic Architecture show now on at the ICA — huge congrats to Eyal and crew on your Turner Prize nom — as well as “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” and “Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins,” both at the Barbican and both great. (The 1:1-scale recreation of Moriyama House at the former was one of the most wisely considered and squeeful things I’ve ever experienced in a gallery space.)

Drug of choice

…remains caffeine, delivered in the form of high-test black coffee, brewed in a Chemex. (Yeah. All it took was a single cup of pourover brewed for me at the Reserve counter in the Starbucks above Gangnam Station — instant conversion experience. I went down to longtime favorite D&Department in Itaewon and picked up a three-cup version and some filters to take home with me. When I got back to London, of course, I had to futz around with acquiring the various pieces of twee hipster kit you need to rock pourover in the Chemex — the precision grinder, the Hario scale, the gooseneck kettle and so on, all in matte black, as well as a little shibari-inspired black leather thong to customize the Chemex itself, ’cause it was like two quid and I’m a total dork. Thank god Nurri already had the digital kitchen thermometer. You can see why Buy Nothing 2018 was dead before it left the table.)

Unshakable lust object

I keep slinking back to Velorution to gaze slackly upon this exquisite Moulton AM GT Mk III, and thereupon to dream and plot — first how to afford such a recockulous expenditure on a bike, then how to justify it. (NB: I understand full well that even should I sell a kidney to gin up the necessary dosh/consign myself to penury for some extended term thereafter, it is almost certainly beyond any conceivable justification. Nevertheless, there are worse midlife crises.)

“Real artists ship”

It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:

– As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.

As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)

We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.

So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.

Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.

We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.

– This week also saw the release of Do 1102, Nurri’s Safety Maps, a project which would have been unimaginable without the expert guidance and hard work of Tom Carden and Mike Migurski.

Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)

It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.

These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.

Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.

From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.

I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.

Flowers for cyberpunk

A few years ago, when I was speaking at my first gig in France, a friend introduced me as “a genuine cyberpunk.” I don’t mind telling you I was a little taken aback: (a), Chairman Bruce deserves the tag more than I ever will, or could, and (b) I’ve always thought of that word as a descriptor of literary genre, not of people. Maybe it’s different in Europe.

What I will not deny, though, is that the genre which appropriately does bear that name was probably the major formative influence of my adolescence, and my discovery of it while it yet hovered more or less on the margins of popular culture one of only two junctures in my life that I truly felt myself to be close to the epicenter of a Moment. Finding stories like “New Rose Hotel” in my sister’s copies of Omni — devouring them with by flashlight, under my bed, as if they were some species of pornography — then stumbling onto that first Ace Special Edition of Neuromancer at sixteen: these were inflections I experienced physically.

I mean it. Reading these stories consistently and reliably generated in me a precise somatic sensation. It felt like this: like someone had clamped strong hands on my shoulders, forcefully pivoted me forty-five degrees to the left, then planted a solid kick in my ass. My heart would start to hammer. I’d have to get up, go out and do something, anything, just to burn off energy and ease my way down from maximum jouissance. Every new, outré detail — the assassin with a monomolecular whip secreted in a false thumbtip, the smackhead dolphin abandoned by the government that had recruited him, the death-by-pheromoned-cloud-of-smothering-butterflies — set off a fresh detonation of glee.

There were more intellectual pleasures, too. One of the things cyberpunk was relatively good at was suggesting the political economy of the future, the institutional structure that would characterize the way we lived there. Genre authors delighted in attending to details like “Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority” and the “Mare Tranquillitatis People’s Circumlunar Zaibatsu,” and I as a reader delighted in their cleverness and perspicacity. My imagination could churn all day on everything so densely implied by a line like: “His right bicep was tattooed with a geodesic balloon above crossed lightning bolts and bore the legend SUNSPARK 15, UTAH.”

It worked (and I’m only something like the eighteen millionth person to have pointed this out) because it was still recognizably an exaggeration for effect, the Reagan/Thatcher/Nakasone Eighties in a funhouse mirror. No wonder contemporary sf, by contrast, tends to leave me so cold: it’s hard to top the details of a world that’s seen all of this come to pass.

I thought of this the other day when I passed an artifact that seemed to sum up most of cyberpunk’s formal concerns. It was nothing more than a graffiti’d shipping container piled in a maintenance yard, but it:

– represented the fruit of a deeply digitized military-logistic material culture;
– still bore the marks of its native China;
– and, layered atop them, bore the blazons of street identity.

It struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

As for the earlier work, I can’t for the life of me imagine what a contemporary reader confronting it for the first time would make of it. Any possibility of getting a frisson or lift off of that material would seem to be undermined by the fact that so much of it was first rendered into genre cliché, in the hands of much less capable writers, and then had the bad manners to come true. (Believe me, there was not a single hip thing about the Giger-themed bar in Shirokanedai, even before it went out of business.)

More broadly, I’m having trouble even coming up with any cultural artifact capable of generating that kind of shock’n’awe rewrite of the world. For me, for anyone. And that’s too bad.

Learning by Doing, redux

Sasha Huber with Do 0901, "Tokyo Blues"

I know I posted a brief piece about it when we first launched, but I’ve been meaning to get back to a fuller account of my work with Nurri on Do projects — what it is, what we want to achieve with it, where we want to take it, and what’s in it for you.

We first conceived of Do as a publishing platform, an attempt to reckon with what passionate-amateur production of visual and textual materials looks like in an age when such amateurs have access to professional-grade tools and distribution networks. Our desire to get our hands dirty grows out two parallel sets of frustrations: Nurri’s with the art world, and my own with publishing.

Hers is rooted in a fundamental problem with the notion of art object (and aesthetic experience) as commodity, and her longstanding desire to do something about the practical and social barriers that keep art an elite activity. There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth.

Mine has to do with my utter (and perhaps somewhat naïve) shock at how little my former publishers New Riders cared about my book as an object, from typography and graphic design to paper stock, and how little effort they were prepared to dedicate to marketing the book once published.

I’ve told this story before, of course. But even that piece doesn’t express fully how galling it was for me to give up control of the thing I’d created to an organization less competent, in the final analysis, than I was my untrained self. That Nurri and I, in our own clumsy and untutored way, could come up with something more appealing than the design I was essentially paying my publisher to execute on my behalf was a real wake-up call.

And that got us thinking about the space between. We’d seen what commercial publication all too often resulted in. At the other end of the spectrum, we knew people like Meejin Yoon and Craig Mod: genuinely talented, possessed of the right kind of eye, confident with materials and capable of producing gorgeous printed objects. We were acutely aware that we lacked these qualities, but we also had a certain faith that even our own limited talents could result in worthwhile results — and never once doubted that the content we were thinking of deserved aesthetically pleasant physical instantiation. Was there room for maneuver in between these two poles?

Do is how we intend to find out. As we explained it when we launched in December, some of our ambitions are to:

– develop words and images that make the people who encounter them re-see themselves and the world around them;
– find the most appropriate containers for our ideas;
– craft the kind of books that please their readers in the details of their conception, design and construction as much as in the things they say;
– and figure out what “do-it-yourself” might mean in an age when new production technologies, informational and logistical networks give the independent amateur producer unprecedented power to reach out and make things happen.

With Tokyo Blues, our very first release, we feel like we’ve already travelled some way toward answering those questions; true to our beliefs (and as will be the case with every Do project), in addition to offering the physical book for sale, we’ve made a full PDF version available for free download. As I’ve said before, you buy the book if you want the object; the ideas are free.

And that book itself? It’s as good as we currently know how to make it, the best quality we could practically achieve while still offering it at a reasonable, accessible price. The unexpected gift is that we’ve been able to use the momentum built up in seeing Tokyo Blues through from concept to shipped product to drive other efforts. As I’ve frequently had cause to say these last few months, there’s a reason they call it “fulfillment.”

We’re also beginning to feel our way toward using Do as a platform for other things, a vehicle for collective efforts beyond publishing. Some of these things will be events, like the Systems/Layers “walkshops” we kicked off in Wellington, and had such a blast doing; others may involve the creation of objects or spaces.

Whatever we wind up creating, though, will be inherently networked, in a deep sense of that word. Organizationally and practically, we’ve tried to imagine Do as a weave tight enough to enable effective execution, yet open enough to capture unexpected influences and energies beyond those we generate ourselves. There’s a block of copy we’ve been using in the datasheet we include with every release that speaks to this: “For the realization of this project, Do consisted of…”. Another way of saying this is that beyond the core of Nurri and I, the organization itself grows and shrinks with every new project, trying to find the size and shape most appropriate to the challenge presented by each particular undertaking.

And that means that as we imagine it, anyone reading this is a potential Do member/co-conspirator. We have a roster of things already planned for the balance of 2010 — a project called Emergency Maps, my own long-delayed book — but beyond that we want to hear from our friends as to what kinds of things they’d like to see us doing, including your own project proposals. At the heart of our conception of Do is the idea that the “company” exists to facilitate extension, inspiration and execution, and gets more capable as it makes new connections. Think of it as something to plug into, and let’s see what we can do together.

On Immaterials

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Immaterials: The ghost in the field – the magnificent new film from Timo Arnall and BERG’s Jack Schulze, in which they make visible the ordinarily imperceptible fields around RFID devices. (If you haven’t, click this link immediately; I’ll wait for you to get back.)

Anyway, Timo and Jack are putting together a Newspaper Club publication around the film, and asked me to contribute a “brief” essay. As usual, I’m afraid I’ve gone on a bit long, but I hope they’ll be able to use this anyway. And for whatever it’s worth, you get to read it…right now.

Since its 2006 publication, I’ve given perhaps a hundred talks in various places around the world expanding on the themes of my book Everyware, talks dedicated to exploring the quality of everyday life in a world of ubiquitous computing. As I see it, the essence of what we can expect from this set of circumstances is a way of interacting with the technology around us I describe as “information processing dissolving in behavior.”

In my talks, to illustrate this rather arcane idea, I very often tell the story of something I saw in Hong Kong almost ten years ago now: young women moving briskly through the turnstiles of the MTR subway system, swinging their handbags in the air with an all-but-balletic grace as they did so.

What were they doing? They were using Hong Kong’s RFID-equipped Octopus farecards brilliantly and intuitively, but in a way that system’s architects had never foreseen.

The designers of the Octopus system most likely imagined that people would use their cards in the conventional manner – by tapping the card neatly against a turnstile-mounted reader. At some point soon after the system’s introduction, however, one or another canny passenger obviously figured out that they didn’t have to do this: because the reader was powerful enough to acquire and read an antenna tens of centimeters away, even through layers of fabric, they could leave the card wherever it was most convenient for them, and never have to fish it out at all.

The result wasn’t merely the elegant gesture I’d seen enacted time and again. Because the elaborate interaction between card and turnstile, turnstile and database, database and barrier had been compressed into the third of a second it might take someone to swing their handbag through a reader field, each one of the women I’d seen was able to move through the process of fare collection and into the subway without breaking her normal walking pace. And this, in turn, markedly improved the number of passengers the station could accommodate in a given period of time, what traffic-analysis engineers call “throughput.”

Things got even more interesting when I gave this talk in Tokyo a year or so later. During the Q&A, someone in the audience pointed out that one of that city’s major public transit systems, JR East, also offered its customers an RFID-based smartcard, called Suica…and yet he’d never seen women in Tokyo making the handbag gesture I’d described. And he asked the obvious question: Why not?

I had to confess that I didn’t know. As it turned out, though, someone in the audience that day did. As she explained it, the designers of the Suica system, acting out of concern over the long-term health implications of radio-frequency fields for human users, had deliberately lowered the power of their readers, and therefore abbreviated their system’s range. No range, no handbag ballet, no enhanced station throughput.

And here we get to the crux of the issue: in both Hong Kong and Tokyo, the consequences of decisions made by engineers about the properties of a technical system cascaded upward not merely to the level at which they could afford or constrain individual behavior, but that at which they affected the macro-level performance of the entire subway system…and maybe even the community’s long-term well-being.

The primary trouble with this, from my point of view, is that in both cases, the tradeoffs involved remained opaque to by far the vast majority of the people implicated by them. Perhaps Hong Kong’s subway riders would have had similarly pressing concerns about health and safety; perhaps Tokyo’s would have been willing to accept some level of risk in exchange for more efficient commutes.

The point is, we’ll never know. Unless you understand a little bit about what RFID is and how it works, you have no way of assessing how a system built on the technology is designed, and whether you wish to accept or reject the propositions embedded in it. And this is just as true for all of the other imperceptible technologies we are increasingly exposed to.

This is why I believe the work that Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze and their colleagues are doing is so very important. By depicting the ghostly traces of invisible radio fields so elegantly, they help engineers, designers and system architects to understand the particularity of their materials, even as they help us ordinary users grasp just what’s going on in these magical-seeming transactions.

Among other things, what this means is that design is finally able to take these devices seriously, phenomenologically. Rather than asserting “an RFID” as some eternal given, something that will produce the same linear, determinate effect each and every time it is deployed, Immaterials reminds us that the choice of material, shape, size, direction, orientation and power rating of the components involved have distinct consequences for the uses to which those components can be put. And as we’ve seen, these choices can produce effects on levels seemingly entirely removed from the interaction itself.

In a recent piece for Wired UK, I argued that the pre-eminent need in the networked city would be for translators: “people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them.” Timo and Jack are among the very first to take up this challenge, and that they’ve done so so artfully and with such sensitivity sets a very high standard for all those who would follow.

New nurri.com/Feeder opening on October 8th

Briefest of notes to put out the word that Nurri’s updated her website to feature recent work, including a very partial selection of pieces from her mammoth Feeder project. This is also the perfect excuse to mention her solo show of Feeder at Helsinki’s Hippolyte gallery, running October 9th through November 1st.

There’ll be an opening at Hippolyte on October 8th, 2009, from 17.00-19.00, featuring the usual cheap chablis in plastic cups and little cubes of cheddar cheese on toothpicks. I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world, and I sure hope to see you there. (One or two lucky attendees might even get selected to be the next recipients of the Feeder lunch boxes!)

Elastic Mind: Here’s A Bunch Of Really Cool Stuff

Last week was without question the week of Design and the Elastic Mind in my personal universe. With not merely multiple friends but multiple sets of friends and co-conspirators represented in it, a constellation of related events dominated my social life every bit as much as the content of the show occupied my thoughts.

It’s that content that I want to say a few words about, now that I’ve had a few days to digest it. I will certainly need to go back and see the show at some quieter time, or times, in order to render a fairer and more lasting judgment, but I did want to get these thoughts out before that initial impression fades.

Here’s the thing: curatorially, “Design” is a mess. Overly ambitious, overreaching, it tries to shoehorn too many entirely unrelated phenomena into one proposition, while at the same time failing to draw at least some of the really interesting connections that should have been made. (This is me all over the place, so YMM certainly V, but I was particularly disappointed that the show didn’t connect the dots between Aranda/Lasch’s awesome generative-algorithm piece Rules of Six and Tomás Gabzdil Libertiny’s equally beautiful, made-entirely-by-bees Honeycomb Vase.)

Many of the more conceptual pieces – and here I’m thinking particularly of Noam Toran’s and Dunne & Raby’s – need a good deal more explication, at least if visitors outside the particular social/intellectual fold in which these artifacts were produced are not to take them at face value, which is something I overheard happening. The show’s Web site is all but useless, and the attempt at information-design graphics bizarre and ineffectual. (What was up with all those weird little illegible “scale” icons?) Honestly, I would have had much, much more respect for Paola Antonelli and MoMA had they merely called their show “Here’s A Bunch Of Really Cool Stuff,” and left it at that.

However. All that said, it’s a great show. It’s great because these are exactly the ideas and materials and practices and strategies that I’d want an authoritative institution like MoMA presenting to its audience at this point in history. It’s great because it doesn’t need to be coherent to be important. It’s great because you can never say “selective laser sintering” too many times. Never least, it’s great because of the sheer and considerable beauty of so many of the artifacts on view.

I mean, of course I’m biased, but Stamen’s Cabspotting in the new, bespoke colorway produced for the show? Stunning – but not more stunning than Joris Laarman’s Bone Chair, Rules of Six, or Brad Paley’s TextArc.

So, if you can unpack the actual projects on display from the relatively unconvincing rhetoric surrounding them – and fortunately, this is not difficult – you will have a wonderful time at “Design and the Elastic Mind.” You will definitely see minds being blown and fun being had, simultaneously, which is a neat trick for any cultural institution to pull off, and especially one so set in its tracks as MoMA. There is of course always abundant reason to be depressed about the state of the world, but in some of the specific strategies, philosophies and processes on view here there’s also just enough support for reasoned hope. Experienced in the presence of others’ (occasionally perplexed, but genuine) delight, if the prospect of that hope doesn’t get you out to MoMA to check this show out, then nothing will.

Elastic in February

Do yourself a favor and get on over to MoMA for their new show, “Design and the Elastic Mind,” featuring our friends Anab Jain and Stamen. It sounds and looks like a damn good time, though having missed our first window to see it before the crowds descend, we won’t be able to verify in field for another day yet.

At any rate, Ouroussoff raves like he’s possessed by the shade of Herbert M. So clearly there’s something going on over there. See you on 53rd.

Reminder: Newcity, New Museum, Friday

Please do come join us for Nextcity: The Art of the Possible, the evening of discussion and exploration I’m putting together at the New Museum this Friday.

We’re kicking off at nineteen-hundred, and it’ll be history by 21.00 – short sharp and sweet. Drinks after at a location TBD. See you soon!