Interview with Molly Hankwitz

Molly Hankwitz Discusses the New Aesthetic

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David Cox: How much is the NA really about the impact of sensor technology on cities and people? Is it not the look and feel of these technologies on a largely unprepared population?

Molly Hankwitz: James Bridle is talking about emerging, increasingly ubiquitous zones between human and machine. Sensor technology is controversial and misunderstood. Cameras, processors and sensors are built in everywhere these days so they are getting response and he talks about machines actively melding with the city, which is ‘sentience’ an idea which starts to frame urban space in a wireless and augmented world at the point of the interface where the body ends and machine begins. Ubiquitous sensing “makes contact” thus with human subjects. I like his idea of exploring “machine vision” and “machine intelligence” as an urban experience.

In his talk, “Waving at the Machines”, Bridle reflects upon facades, parks, streets. He talks about Street View in particular and the elimination of restricted areas from view; how Paul McCartney blocks Google Street View’s access to his house. American citizens may start wanting “privacy settings” for Street View. The idea of making Google’s map an interrogated, non-map is so appealing. Google is deterministic and totalizing. This is to be avoided. I think Bridle is talking about the reverse panopticon when he acknowledges control, and also denies its importance. Americans, certainly, hate the idea of losing their privacy, but not all cultures are so concerned. Theoretically, the map/non-map would be loaded with cultures. Look at Germany. You can shut off Street View there.

National/military/industrial “nets” for surveillance seem acceptable when sugar-coated with Google Earth’s “freedom” to “see” but they need to be resisted, and they aren’t just American militarization. SIVE covers the Straits of Gibraltar, northern Africa, and Mediterranean countries.

William J. Mitchell wrote, after Foucault, surveillance “teaches us to behave as if we are being watched” and this starts to have its affect on social reality. Americans are gregarious people, so some of us get out and play with the surveillance cameras, others parade on Facebook or YouTube. Facebook, especially, supports a ‘me, me’ mentality. One is almost required to bare-all-to-be-real. These spaces are starting to exert substantial authority in real life though, as for example, more and more American lawyers now utilize Facebook information in divorce cases. Filmmaker Dominic Gagnon has commented in an interview I did on his films, about more and more people worldwide caught up in monocultural thinking. He’s French Canadian. The films I was interested in use personal webcam testimonial-type ranting from YouTube as their found footage and talk about subjectivity. (You can find that interview, which I wrote for Craig Baldwin, in Otherzine 22, here.)

Bridle positions himself as a universal subject and there really is no such thing, even though Google Earth would like “everyone” to think there is. There is nothing “universal” about the way the Internet is working today, nor how it was ever set up.

You can get out and flirt with the cameras as the Surveillance Camera Players have done, or get out and play with Art Against Algorithms in San Francisco to protest the pattern-detecting cameras coming in to our transportation system. As far as Web 2.0 is concerned, it’s the second wave, but, routinely our identities are scanned for ideas and information. Bridle sort of warns against thinking of surveillance as “creepy” and maybe he is right.Throughout the ages, inventors have made machines and inflicted them on humans. Industries have bought in and adopted machines and formed themselves through them. Dada artists dealt with their experience of industrialization through art and that’s what is occurring now.

David Cox: Is this not the “shock of the new” in audiovisual form?

Molly Hankwitz: Artists will respond to ubiquity of networks and devices and to the militarization of urban experience on a variety of levels and in different cultural contexts. London-based Proboscis’ designs a mobile software platform for public authoring of urban history. This work recognizes the ubiquity of devices as a positive condition and utilizes ubiquity to distribute public comment. Creative make-up is developed as British art to confuse facial recognition software as shown in Bridle’s talk. Hugo Ball might have done that. From another perspective, the New Aesthetic should connect to hacker culture more. Hackers often want a way out of the “seamless.” This subject of “machine vision” could become even more interesting that way.

Another idea I liked in “Waving at the Machines” was the technological “after image” left by machines sensing their electronic presence in some of the maps Bridle made while walking around London. It’s an “afterimage” like in photography that’s purely electronic; purely a function of the sensor tracing its own sensing. If Bridle gets further into locative media, he will leave his desktop for good. Given our surveillance society, I enjoy thinking about machines tracking each other and the possibility that they might eventually consume each other this way, instead of us. I find it comforting.

Long ago, digital architect Greg Lynn, observed that 3D modeling space was composed of computer-generated pieces called NURBs, which looked blobby. They were curvilinear form over quantities of Cartesian space. He then theorized that NURBs, a basic computer-generated building block of 3D space, could become a building block for a future architecture and used them to construct amorphous designs. This was the vision to use 3D computing softwares for architecture, beyond Auto Cad. This insight on the part of Lynn revolutionized architecture in ways which we have only just started to understand and now we are grappling with energy efficiency and climate change, where sensor technologies can play a major role. Many design aesthetics today recognize the crisis of a dwindling sustainability of planet Earth. Sensors help to locate structural and environmental data and to restore balance.

David Cox: Archimedia (collaboration between David Cox and Molly Hankwitz focusing on the overlap and interplay between Media, Technology, Urban Planning and Architecture) came up with an idea we called “archifracturing”. What is “archifracturing” and how does it relate to the NA?

Molly Hankwitz: You might have guessed that its meaning is still emerging. (smile) ‘artefact’–material decline in a digital image, ‘fracture’–breaking, splitting.. architecture- form, permanence. We were listening to “Waving at the Machines” and looking at Bridle’s samples of “glitches” and “pixellated” images and we connected them to popular CGI where material architecture is disintegrating, being destroyed, pulsating and dissolving into particles. Other times it’s about bodies having many parts, as if the networked self has become flesh. Inception, Tower Heist, 2012. In these films, lots of huge flat planes of glass granulate into dust and whole floors of office furniture slide and hurtle through space, or architecture represents psychological space as infinite simultaneously eroding structures in someone’s memory.

The graphic design that Bridle has picked upon is more like an accidental tearing or disruption in the images thorough artefacting, pixellation disturbing what would otherwise be perfect. I’ve never been a fan of illustrating such things as ‘tearing’ and ‘renting’. Famous models wearing expensive rags, but in this case, it’s kind of cool fakery, rustic. As if we are tired of ‘slick’ and going backwards. Lego bricks. 3D Lego ideas. Bridle references the influence of Minecraft.

Archifracture points to the metaphor of dissolution and disturbance in visual form. It could be interpreted as societal and economic breakdown, disintegration of surface, collapse, decay, erosion; degeneration, or a stand in for ubiquity, when the pieces are thousands. Not in a scary way, but as a digital metaphor. The architecture is digital, so its “permanence” as an idea, at least in terms of images and computer-generation, is immaterial and its archifracturing is part of it. Because what is material can so easily appear to be fluid, in the process of dissolution, malleability; sometimes shattering. It’s industrial modernity, again, this time as the effect of digital.

Bridle gives an example in the Telehouse West building, a seven story, data center in London which bears a facade of tiles, in shades of grey which appear to break down the surface of this building, itself an expression of networked space. The architects called it a “disturbance” when asked. In modern art there was asymmetry, a disturbance of symmetry. As far as “disturbance” designed into an architecture facade’s tile pattern? Brilliant. The solid is melting into air.

David Cox: Why does James Bridle insist upon the existence of render ghosts?

Molly Hankwitz: Render ghosts may be those caught in the networked culture who “lived” virtually within it. I don’t know. Are they cast off avatars, molted selves in the ether? My sense is that they might be an “imagined population” along the lines of Benedict Anderson, or the speculative citizens for a city like Dubai, who never moved in!
(smiles)

David Cox: Why do we need to invent specters in this high-tech of all possible worlds?

Molly Hankwitz: I can only suggest that invented specters are not necessarily conscious and may just represent a vulnerability or insecurity about identity that permeates culture because of theft, precarity, celebrity, mobility. Nowadays, Web 2.0 is underwritten by code-driven algorithmic ‘bots’ scanning our data and we can’t be sure who’s doing it. At the same time, as Geert Lovink pointed out in Eurozine recently, there’s a growing interest in netizens increasingly telling more personal details about themselves online, as if it makes us more “human” to do this. An abundance of human faces in Skype, Linked in, Facebook and profiles pages populate Web 2.0., significant difference from the 90s when people were disinclined to show themselves and made up false identities. Now its common. The Internet of People is a very recent international project which will bring social steering through design to the Internet of Things.

David Cox: The ‘cloud’ seems to have spawned new types of special ‘shed’ type buildings that house server farms and are largely uninhabited but for the engineers that tend the servers – what is the significance of this new combination – the myth of the ‘cloud’ on the one hand, and the large ‘sheds’ on the other, as James Bridle discusses in his talk “Waving at the Machines”?

Molly Hankwitz: Data centers are the physical equipment of ‘the cloud’ manifesting in cities and suburbs as hulking sheds with several floors of mainframe-type server space, air conditioned and rented to telecommunications companies. The Telehouse West building, we talked about earlier. One Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles is another, a completely uninhabitable building originally designed as multi-story office space by Skidmore Owens and Merrill now turned server space. It’s exterior (with a regular grid of windows) is nothing more than a sheath for the equipment. The scale of global networks is emerging out of cities themselves as built form. The real instantiating in the virtual. A lot could be done with this kind of physical transparency, in design. But, the ‘cloud’ is also inside everyone’s handheld device and connects us to our data.

There is some advantage to software stored in ‘the cloud’ because there is no need for manual installation of new software. It can be updated through the screen when cloud management sends update alerts. This saves cost for small companies, but users have less control over the storage of our data. It’s remote. The development of electrical grids in the late 19th century, is analogous to the current transformation to the cloud. Distributed electrical networks made multiple small-scale improvements possible. Clean light in homes and on streets and night-time illumination, for example, but, there were also large scale profits made by the centralization and consolidation of power companies and from citizens now having to pay for the service. ‘The cloud’ returns us to a more centralized organization for data management.

David Cox: Please tell me what you think is most positive about the NA and how it can help us formulate workable utopias?

Molly Hankwitz: James Bridle asks us to rethink the possible and he is drawn to everyday tools and signs in doing it. I also like the acceptance of low-res as an emerging trend in his images. It reminds me of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s attraction to the Las Vegas strip vernacular, but, also, British pop art traditions, the Independent Group and Archigram. Archigram’s Portapak project was portable chunks of the city packaged in pink cartons and available at supermarkets. ‘Cloud’-type grocery stores as urban revolution platform. The city as transformable through its own weirdly-new productive mechanisms, like big food chains. Archigram should have gone further with that one.

The New Aesthetic invites us to have fun with urban space; to instantiate bits of virtual vision into it. It might parallel Oldenburg’s oversized pieces of vinyl pie and overscaled ordinary objects appearing in public space. That work was all about the effects of advertising vision, TV, commodities, popular desire. Bridle is a conceptual artist. His artists’ books are very conceptual, like Sol Lewitt, Ed Ruscha. Where his critique begins to challenge the slickened surface of the city seen *only* through the screen, there may be some possible political engagement. Google Earth sabotage or something. (smiles)

David Cox: What is less helpful/worrying?

Molly Hankwitz: There is a lot of emphasis upon Facebook and Google. This does not suggest an autonomy. Drawing from them, even playfully, aesthetically, doesn’t really deal with what commercial spaces are doing in the Web 2.0 framework. Facebook is a privacy sucking market research device where we trade our privacy for public “feel” as it were. We do not have to know much of anything to make Facebook space. The popularity of FB is down by 8% because users are tired of the new Timeline function on their profile pages. I don’t know what this means, except that consumers have a say. The owners are busy making a bundle, while others avoid addiction. We’ve all heard about Facebook Moms obsessed with using social media community to manage their family and friends, spending all their time on line. The New Aesthetic tends to valorize the popularity of Facebook-type interaction. Guy Debord and the SI also played with modern media–television and film– and tried to be inside it and outside it, but they had a political focus not an aesthetic one. “Play” has obsessed new media art for the last decade, but this recuperation of the sixties SI vocabulary hasn’t led to revolution through the arts culture.

My major concern with the New Aesthetic is its universalism. There’s no critique which identifies gender, race, class. Digital cultures suffer terribly from this homogeneity and always have.

David Cox: Can the emphasis on drone technologies and machine vision help us formulate a new type of politics?

Molly Hankwitz: There probably needs to be considerably more mobilization around surveillance because its getting out of hand. Surveillance protects private space for the status quo, while violating it for others. Humans aren’t simply rats in a maze or ants in a hill to be observed and chided in our online lives.

Tim Pool’s hacker drone cams are a detournement. I stick with these hacker journalists for ideas because they are media activists and media activism has always hacked through the spectacle and created ways to see what’s going on. The problem today is accountability so I’m interested in the means by which news information, for example, always highly censored for home audiences, can be augmented by new technologies. PLOTS’ grassroots mapping kits (Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science) are designed for citizens’ to collect data and pictures. They have been around since at least the BP oil spill. This is a grounded, grassroots hacktivism because a) the kits are cheap and open source and b) to take back the aerial viewpoint in the era of Google Earth is a radical gesture.

David Cox: The NA’s ambivalent relationship to Occupy and Anonymous would seem to imply a political dimension, what do you make of this? How might this unfold in practical ways in the coming months/years? Could there be an “New Aesthetics of Politics” a “Processual Politics”?

Molly Hankwitz: Occupy grabbed reality back and called it financial theft. The movement has offered hope for democratic humanism, for revolutionary society, after Egypt and England and Greece and now Spain and Mexico and Syria. The movement is an instantiation of the virtualization of humanity into the real. This might unfold in practical ways by bringing renewed resistance to virtual life back into motion; by expressing it. “From ashes, quivers new life…” writes San Francisco poet, Jim Byron. The recent London riots and Occupy “encampments” already promise a new aesthetics of politics; dispersed, yet, organized.
___

Molly Hankwitz lives in San Francisco, California where she is a mother, a curator, a writer and a techno-artist. She was principal in the design and research collaboration, Archimedia from 1998 to 2007. Before that she was active in experimental film culture, anti-war, womens’ rights and housing. In 2010, she co-curated the locative media arts exhibition, citycentered.org and in 2011 completed a Ph.D.from Queensland University of Technology. She is interested in political dimensions of networks, social technologies and questions of aesthetics and history in electronic media. mollyhankwitz.org

David Cox is a writer, film maker, and instructor who lives in San Francisco. His email is davidalbertcox@gmail.comand his website is http://www.davidalbertcox.com

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