I don’t use Twitter much anymore, but now that I have more flexibility with my time, I was curious to revisit it. The immediacy with which we communicate and respond today is still pretty wild to me (Joyce Carol Oates’ quick response to a Jurassic World photo being the most recent, as well as how unforgiving the social media universe has been about her misread of the image.)

This morning, in the trending bar, I noticed a new hashtag #wrongskin. Curious, I read through some of the tweets. Godfrey Elfwick identifies as black, but is biologically white has started a virtual storm of backlash from visibly black respondents. His tweet about being “transracial” and standing by a white professor passing as black at Spokane is troubling. The written responses pure vitriol. I don’t deny that race is an ingrained way that we define people, and that there are an unbelievable set of bias related not only to looks but behavior that go along with that. It’s unbelievable that a professor would try to “pass” at a University. The fact that it’s a classification standard we still employ in the 21st Century is troubling to me. The worst part about it is that, even if we to abolish it, I see it reinforced daily in how we speak and engage in the world.

What measures do we use to define race? The first would be what a person looks like. It’s hard for me to even write that statement, because it seems so abhorrent to think that way. Look at the history of eugenics or the U.S. policy towards Native Americans enacted in the Dawes Act: an establish criteria for inheritance based on how “Indian” a person looked, with government agents lining people up to make that decision. Race can’t be that simple. Another assumption would be to look at bloodline, or DNA. I won’t go into detail regarding the history of eugenics (see Nazi Germany and the rankings of people based on bloodlines) in order to explain the extreme. But even on a less dire scale, this can be problematic. I remember reading about a Chinese American basketball team at a local YMCA. How do you define who is eligible to play? Immigrants, first generation children of immigrant parents, second- or third- generation Chinese Americans…but what about children who have only one Chinese parent, or grandparent? Chinese children adopted by white couples? Taiwanese? Children who have grown up in the Chinese community, but are not ethnic Chinese? Genetic definitions of race become problematic because when we say “Chinese” or “Black” or “Indian”, we don’t just mean color, we mean culture.

When we talk about culture, we talk about lived experience and we talk about an understanding (or at least a knowledge) of history related to that culture. Cultural traditions and beliefs are important, as they symbolize, explain, and pass on an understanding of cultural experience. This again can be a problematic criteria to agree on. A child born into a clearly defined cultural experience is easily defined this way, but an adopted child, a victim of a diaspora, a second-generation offspring, all may take on a cultural identity not clearly defined by looks or genetics alone. Cultural identity isn’t always accepted fully, we often accept the parts we understand, identify with, embody. To say that all people of a certain culture are all the same in practice, behavior, beliefs would be a horribly simplistic reduction, and deny the diversity within a cultural group.

The term “culture” is something we bandy around constantly, when we talk not only about religious or national identity, but identities that appear to enable more of a choice: gangs, gamers, television series fans, fashion bloggers, etc. Any identity requires a loose set of rules to be respected in order to participate in it. A visual is helpful, but not necessary. A visual you aren’t born with, one that is easy to change out of, allows for what I have observed as an acceptable change in identity. Culture and race are bound together in the U.S. But identity is complicated: you can be Filipino-American, a geek, and a fashionista. The rules overlap, sometimes are at odds, and are often re-negotiated. Such is the nature of identity. Some aspects of this you are born with, some you choose, most you negotiate with yourself and your chosen social group. This diversity and individuality is what we should pride ourselves on, not use as a stratification of groups on a socio-economic ladder.

To get back to #wrongskin: I don’t know the individuals situation (and I fully understand that the brevity of Twitter won’t give me much insight). I would argue that to identify with a marginalized group is complicated: it’s unfair to have an easy way out if the situation gets too “real”  (via the color of your skin) or to choose based on a limited knowledge of what that lived experience is actually like vs. what the media presents it as. I would say, though, that re-iterating difference in order to exclude, drawing distinct lines of difference, only reinforces the idea that race is an important standard to segregate people by. We’ve used race and culture to define what people get, which is the worst part: land, scholarships, jobs, promotions, fair treatment. We love to think of an ideal where there is equality based on an individual’s experience, knowledge, expertise, personality; the reality is that assumptions have created and law has enacted an inequality. If we want to truly get past race as a standard, we need to respect that these differences exist, but not reinforce that they define a social strata, especially through our language.

I don’t know why I love plants so much, but it probably has to do with the fact we have zero green space in/above/outside our apartment. Our interior is overrun with plants that I don’t prune, so overrun with twisted, bent, drooping forms grown wild. Each plant has it’s own dense pattern of leaves that trail, spike and grow in forms that seem animated, and that I love to stare at. I’ve tried my hand at drawing them, but I lack the patience for the number of leaves, I tend to only see the direction and density.

Although not a master at sketching them, I’ve found it’s pretty easy to accumulate them, especially when the less perfect plants sell for a few bucks at Lowes, and the the Co-op peddles tiny starter plants for terrariums (although my experience is they’ve gotten very big, very fast.) A recent drive-by included a plant I’d never seen before, a Norwegian spruce that looks like it’s weeping.Image

This example, not from the nursery I visited, looks like the needled covering of a very doleful person. I couldn’t help but think of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, especially after seeing them at Jack Shainman’s new digs in Kinderhook. Cave’s early iterations of these pieces were a based on an idea of an armor worn to protect during the everyday. The first was created in response to the LAPD beating of Rodney King: twigs here reference the nightsticks used on King during the incident. “After building a sculpture from fallen twigs, I realized it could be worn, and upon moving in the sculpture, I heard the most mesmerizing and magical sound that came from the rustling of the twigs on my body. The sound behaved as both a white noise of protection, as well as a siren of warning.”

Image

Image courtesy of Harper’s Bazaar

Cave has since stated that he wants to move away from these pieces. Although I’m sure the joie de vivre some of the later works elicit from audiences is welcome, some of the other sculptures of found objects and appropriated images speak more to the otherness and historical notions of race, as the earlier suits seemed to. I often find it perplexing that the expectation of an artwork is to deliver one clear note. The objects can help direct to a response that is often as complex or contradictory as the people making and viewing them. 

 

 

Wow it’s been a long time since I’ve written. Or it’s been a long time since I’ve had the space in my mind to write. This may be a bit rambling because of it.

Now that school is finished for the semester, I can again focus on some of my own research and work. I’ve spent an intensive two weeks reading what I like to call “all the philosophy I never had time for in grad school” in preparation for a number of projects that require a little more than my intuitions on being in the world. One focus has been the slippery concept of the Sublime, and what it means in our contemporary existence. I just read a blurb on how Google has a cultural institute in Paris. Of course in France, where culture is venerated and vetted with what I imagine is a great fervor (I’ve always been fascinated on how the government regulates the language with what I like to imagine is a Jacobin robed tribunal arguing the merits of “lol”.) Anyway, Google’s Cultural Institute has just launched an online database of street art: ” While it plans to use images from Street View, it will not cull from that database but rather provide organizations the opportunity to use the technology to record street art legally.” Images from organizations that can provide documentation of ownership of the work will be able to represent it in this archive. The Cultural Institute offers a partnership that allows organizations to archive their works online, making them available to a wider public. I think this is a great service, for works to be available for anyone with an internet connection. But these works weren’t meant to be seen in the context of a web search (some weren’t meant for a museum, or daylight, for that matter.) Out of any scholar or authority’s context-making, what happens to meaning or understanding of these works? We have a sea of images, with captions, viewed on screens in any location imaginable. In the particular case of street art, we also have the institutionalization of ephemeral works, works intended for a location, to be happened upon in an unexpected way, by a somewhat anonymous maker. These are historically markings meant to define territory, to reclaim space, and to alter our view of a location in an intentionally jarring way. “As a private database of public art, it also poses questions about how to legally preserve what in some cases might be considered vandalism.”

How does this relate to the Sublime? I come back again and again to our curious digital archiving, or rather, hoarding. Our portable technology rules the most mundane aspects of our lives, ideally to give us the freedom for greater pursuits. Not only do these applications assist, they archive this data to look at patterns. If I monitor an aspect of my health, like my heart rate while I run, an app can give me a summation of a month, a year, of my heart activity. It can also alert me to unusual patterns in my heart rate, and have this data available and ready for my doctor. Or anyone else that may have access to it. I use a journaling app that provides an assessment of my mood while writing, based on the instances of certain words. I may not think I was 70% concerned with death while writing, but that’s what the data shows.

All of this data is meant to give us a better picture of ourselves through how much of it is now archived and how much this minutiae of the mundane can tell us. I wonder, really, if this is our Sublime, the overwhelming feeling that occurs when we’re faced with the mountain of data telling us the supposed meaning of something as utterly mundane as our heart rate or my daily brain dump. My curiosity is in how we no longer trust our own executive function to make these determinations. I know what I was writing about, and although it related to knowing our own consciousness, death was not the primary subject. We obsessively look to Big Data as a means of knowing, yet our existence in the world goes beyond an aggregation of qualitative instances. Our experiences are informed by all of our senses, and by something in our brain that can vet this information faster than the tool of language can order it. Even if all of the legal street art in the world were archived in a searchable database, how does this taxonomy create the same uncanny sense that we associate with encountering it during a walk around the block? How are we sure that one thing is the catalyst for an event, a sea change in our normal lives?

I learned a new word during a meeting the other day: qualia or “the way things seem to us.” I was struck by how this term relates to a perception of the Sublime in that our experiences are subjective, and not completely “knowable” and how the Sublime is sometimes referred to as that uncanny experience when the mundane is upset. I think we trust social media’s collection of data to explain how things seem to us, to surpass our own means of relating our state. I’m curious to see if that is how it pans out.

 

2012-05-20 15.11.40

“1[90]

Sometimes I think I will never leave Rua dos Douradores. Once written down, that seems to me like an eternity.”

*I’m currently working on a project (well, returning to a project) based on Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. It came up in conversation the other day, so I thought that was a sign. It’s an audio installation, but looking back on the book now, and re-reading a few posts down the feed here, it’s oddly like looking at code.

Tom Sachs’ video manual for codes of conduct for employees also functions as a humorous take on the traditional propaganda of Socialism.

Noam Chomsky

Thoughtful (no surprise) discussion with Amy Goodman on how the Occupy movement has re-invigorated a sense of solidarity and responsibility for other humans in this country. Watch it here.

“All you need to know thus far is that Ruby is basically built from sentences. They aren’t exactly English sentences. They are short collections of words and punctuation [that] encompass a single thought. These sentences can form books. They can form pages. They can form entire novels, when strung together. Novels that can be read by humans, but also by computers.” _why

Over the past few years, as I slowly learn the syntax of code, I constantly come back to its relationship to its what constitutes it: natural language. A series of dictates to do something. And the hurdle for me is I already know how to talk. The difficulty of learning code, for many of us, is divorcing known language use and grammar from speech. Speaking to a machine in one of its native tongues means unlearning systems that speak to humans. I often feel lost in the complexity of the task.

I probably won’t abandon the task. As with anything in a state of becoming, the discussion of what our interactions with media should look like and be like is in a curious spot. In the past year, there are more apparent instances of a sympathetic outreach to non-programmers to learn what is under the hood. Sites like Codeacademy and treatises like Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed  enable the user to and make plain the case for why we should have a basic knowledge of the syntax. I’ve learned to abandon the unscalable wall of hand-coding; the confluence of existing systems is meant to be used and allow for new permutations. It is more important that the task is executed and communicated well than that I re-invented the wheel. I guess what I see is a desire to make this all more human, to bring these engineered technologies back to a physical body and a psychology of speaking to one another.

Language has always been a clunky technology to begin with. We use our oral capabilities with some visual representation to describe a complexity of bodily, mental and emotional responses. To reconfigure this organic, evolving and somewhat haphazard system into the virtual realm for us to move through cannot be an easy task. But it is certainly an exciting prospect.

Annie Lowrey does a far more eloquent job than I in talking about the sympathetic development of code for the layman in her article on a disappeared Ruby hacker over at Slate. Very worth the read.

Terrence Mckenna

“All culture is being sold down the river by the sorts of people who want to turn the entire planet into an international airport arrival concourse. That’s not the victory of somebody’s culture over another culture. That’s the victory of schlockmeisterism and crapola over good taste and good sense.” – Terence McKenna

Brian Lamb writes a compelling article on cultural sustainability  through maker culture and education here.

Audio piracy as compositional perogative

Turris Babel diagram
From the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s exhibit on the polymath Athanasius Kircher: “The last of his books to be published during his lifetime, Turris Babel was Kircher’s attempt to reconstruct the specifics surrounding the famous biblical story, recounted in Genesis 10-11, of Nimrod’s attempt to build a tower that reached the heavens. Apart from his interest in ancient civilizations and biblical historicism, the story was of particular interest to Kircher as an account of the origin of languages, and, by Kircher’s extension, of polytheism. The second half of Turris is devoted to Kircher’s theories on linguistics. The first section, similar to his Arca Noë of four years earlier, contains an imaginative speculative expansion of the Tower of Babel story in light of Kircher’s knowledge of history, geography, and physics. This model illustrates Kircher’s proof that Nimrod’s ambition was intrinsically flawed: in order to reach the nearest heavenly body; the Moon, the tower would have to be 178,672 miles high, comprised of over three million tons of matter. The uneven distribution of the Earth’s mass would tip the balance of the planet and move it from its position at the center of the universe, resulting in a cataclysmic disruption in the order of nature.”

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