After Automation? Apophenia! and the Technology of Fiction

I wrote a short responsive piece to accompany the online screening of Fiona Marron’s film After Automation. You can stream the film from the aemi website until October 6th 2020.

After Automation? Critical Apophenia!

After Automation is a thirty-four minute escape into a process of critical apophenia[1]. The film places its audience in the office of Leo Melamed, former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the world’s largest financial derivatives exchange. Here, we are compelled to listen to two autobiographical narratives.The first is Melamed’s story of how he changed the world of financial futures trading from a more embodied tradition of ‘open outcry’ to one of electronic signalling. The second narrative is the story of how Leo Melamed came to write his science-fiction novel The Tenth Planet, which indirectly catalysed the possibility of the first.

Releasing us momentarily from our patient listening in the office, artist Fiona Marron’s montage creates cuts between the  worlds of imagination and engineering: we see what seems to be an alien entity probing and scanning the pages of Melamed’s sci-fi novel; we take up an over-the-shoulder point of view of a man’s hands repairing the filaments of an undersea cable, the very veins of the internet (and current life-blood of a global lockdown). All the while, Melamed’s personal narrative reverberates through these cuts. As detours to other worlds, imagined or actual, they are not explained. These by-worlds indicate Marron’s questioning of the relationship between fiction and technology, and how this relationship can both create and destroy a universe (in this case, the embodied and tactile traditions of financial futures markets). As sub-narratives to Melamed’s, they declare Marron’s commitment to manifest the material politics of communications infrastructures through her work.

What comes to my mind while watching After Automation is an apophenia of ideas: The idea that people inhabit their fears; The idea that people are always living through the aftermath of some technological process; The idea that fiction and technology can both constitute and ruin worlds; The idea that understanding and justly applying the technology of fiction is imperative in a telecommunications dependent world…Strangely, these ideas emerged looped through moments of questioning and/or anxiety recalled from my childhood self, triggered by Melamed’s use of the phrase ‘bad aliens’- I remember soundscapes from bad alien movies. Too afraid of their reality to watch them, I’d sit chatting nervously to ambivalent adults in the kitchen, or the clock on the wall, or the cat in the corner, or anything at all, just to ignore the stomach lurching crunches and drones and blood-chilling screams rippling out from the sitting room. Aliens. How my family loved bad aliens. How they terrified me and yet how I believedin them. And wished for a way to communicate with them, in case I was ever met by one late one night, perhaps while turning off the gas cylinder in the shed, or while going to collect turf at the far end of the garden; all those uncanny places so close to home and yet so far out of earshot they might as well have been the outskirts of Jupiter.

As a girl I made sci-fi movie-games on a borrowed VHS camera with my sister and our Star Trek-obsessed childhood friend. In these games I volunteered to inhabit the role of bad alien, finding it less scary to be a bad alien than actually be confronted by one. To inhabit means to follow the strange charge of the unknown, of possibility. It is a part of a human need for fiction as ways to process our experiences and perceptions of the world and to engage with the mystery of change. Inhabiting unknowns and engaging with fiction means to listen both inwardly and outwardly; to become sensitive in the art of recognition. Here is a skill that can have powerful implications for the way we live with the world, the way we engage with the world, the way we make and respond to changes in the world.

These loops of memory prompted by After Automation have urgently reminded me to question personal and political tendencies to inhabit fears and live by them, to appreciate our mundane struggles for more meaningful communication, and to attend to the purpose in my own practice. As I return to my work post-maternity leave and mid-pandemic, I aim now to get to grips with the technology of fiction for the purpose of making critical pedagogy and poetry. This idea came to mind while reflecting on the systematic power of changing one’s mind and acting upon that change (what Leo Melamed refers to as “that change in my head”). After Automation throws light on the prevalent yet cloaked workings of the technology of fiction between the fields of finance, engineering and art and, through a critical apophenic montage, urges us to take heed. I found myself freshly encouraged to reclaim fiction and technology from zero-sum logics and deterministic narratives of winners and losers, the kinds evidenced by Leo Melamed when he outlines his general perception of technology: “I intuitively knew what the world recognises, that you can’t fight technology. It’s gonna win. No matter what you do, technology keeps moving on. You innovate, you adapt to the innovation, or you die.” Watching Marron’s film underscores how the making and appreciation of art, particularly now and in online contexts such as aemi provides, is a crucial means by which we can learn to get out of our own way through the technology of fiction.

  • [1]  While apophenia refers to a tendency to perceive connections and make meaning between unrelated things, I propose critical apophenia as a form of pattern recognition and meaning-making that retains the possibility of perceptual error.

Fiction as Orienteering

On the 3rd May 2019, I hosted a panel on ‘Fiction as Orienteering’ as part of the 5th International Irish Narrative Inquiry Conference at Trinity College Dublin. The theme of the conference was on “exploring creativity in narrative inquiry“. I took the conference as an opportunity to outline a pattern that’s been developing in my research around fiction in relation to ‘smart’ technologies, specifically the idea that fiction can work as a mode of orientation. I invited three researchers together to speak about how they work with narrative and story in relation to their individual research in the fields of geography, digital humanities and literature: Dr. James L. Smith, Prof. Rob Kitchin, and Joanna Walsh.

The conversation that followed the presentations was rich and gratifying (for me at least). We were lucky to have an engaged audience to support our discussion. There is definitely more to be explored around dashboards, deep mapping and digital storytelling in an age of ‘smart’ technologies. It was also wonderful to have Trinity’s Dean of Research, Prof. Linda Doyle, in the room, along with the conference’s Key Note speaker Prof. Patti Lather who commented informally afterwards that our collective work was ‘the future of research‘ (the kind of encouragement every transdisciplinary researcher needs!) Below is the script of my introductory remarks to the audience and panelists, contextualising my pattern making. The slides of the presentations are available at the end of the post. Read on!

FICTION AS ORIENTEERING

“The map is known to somebody else,” my father tells me. We are chatting on the phone, late one rainy night. The map, he says, “is a way of exploring territory unknown to you but not unknown to somebody else… its not unknown to the person who drew the map.” I’m asking him what he remembers about Orienteering. This is me opening up a process of research-creation through conversation – I’m tapping into family experiences and memories to help me make sense of ‘smart’ technologies and their underlying infrastructures and narratives. More specifically, I’m trying to orientate myself in relation to these things. I’m looking for a metaphor, a model, that I can work with as a context, a thing to put things in, that will help to generate insights on the technologies and technological thinking surrounding, motivating and informing the development of smart cities and communications networks.

In my art-based research, I explore how, by attending to the presence and function of fiction in relation to technologies shaping smart cities, it might become possible to tease out and narrate, in more plural ways, the actually existing conditions of living through what media theorist and anthropologist Shannon Mattern calls the “urban ‘enlightenment’”. That is what she calls the development and deployment of networked technologies as services, resources or tools, from “open-data initiatives and urban-informatics projects to aid in way finding, traffic flow, service discovery, even the location of hazardous cracks in the sidewalk(Mattern 2015: x).

I’m interested in exploring whether engaging with the processes and poetics of fiction can support and enlarge the kinds of embodied awareness, criticality and situated knowledges necessary for individual and social agency, at a time when, as Mattern argues, there is a “pervasive sense of our loss of control over the proliferation and often uncritical application of technologies” (Mattern 2015: xii). But this sense of a loss of control could just as easily manifest a pervasive sense of submission to the proliferation and uncritical application of technologies in everyday materials and situations – the kind of suspension of disbelief that is earned by detailed models of reality, whether they be rendered through equations, maps or fictions. I’m interested in finding ways to perceive and negotiate what architect Charles Eames refers to as a ‘fiction of reality’ (Schrader 1970: 12), and very often I find myself drawn to existing models that seem to yield enough ambiguity to allow for critical adaptions and applications. Which is why I am making late night phone calls to my father, asking about his experience of orienteering. It’s a model I want to adapt.

I am looking for ways of making and telling what novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, in her essay on The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, calls ‘the life story‘. In contrast to “the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic,” what Le Guin calls ‘the killer story’, the life story involves narratives that “redefine technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination” (Le Guin 1996: 153). The life story, Le Guin writes, is more akin in mode to “a sack, or a bag.” The life story employs forms that carry, that hold: “A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us” (p.153). Le Guin asserts that “It is the story that makes the difference. It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero” (p. 152).

What is at stake in Le Guin’s essay remains relevant: the power and politics of narrative and storytelling in relation to applications of science and technology. “Science Fiction,” she writes, “properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack…” (p. 154). So, if it is the story that makes the difference, as Le Guin argues, then it becomes important to pay attention to the ways in which, as literary scholar Robert Eaglestone argues, “We are made… complicit with something that we don’t yet understand” (Eaglestone 2013: 92), whether it be technology or science or narrative or politics.

Eaglestone argues that today “technological thinking” is the ‘killer story’, a mode of thought that imagines all aspects of the world, whether animal, mineral, vegetable, spiritual or elemental, as “a potential resource for use… a tool for doing something” (p. 82). (The proliferation of quantitative smart phone apps and data-hungry internet-of-things devices in the space of consumer electronics testifies to the normality of this way of thinking.) Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag theory’ orientates us towards narrations of ‘the life story,’ offering us a way to creatively resist and challenge the kinds of technological thinking that serve to hide our humanity from ourselves.

The impetus behind this panel is a desire to bring different forms of narrative inquiry and storytelling into relation. None of the speakers today have positioned ourselves formally in relation to the field of narrative inquiry, and I take full responsibility for any abuse of the field or term we may unwittingly be perpetrating here! I have translated the term ‘narrative inquiry’ rather bluntly to mean that we are each in one way or another engaging in processes of inquiry that are more or less involved with narrative practices that are inflected by digital technologies. I’ve invited three quite different researchers from across the spatial humanities (Dr. James L. Smith), cultural geography (Prof. Rob Kitchin) and literature (Joanna Walsh), to share an aspect of their work that might help us to open up a conversation on forms of narrative inquiry and creativity that are in some way inflected by fiction, technology and/or a critical sense of orienteering or orientation.

So, at this point, I’d like to offer a few provisional remarks on what I’m thinking when I use the words fiction and orienteering; or at least what I imagine these words might hold or afford. And I’m hoping that by the end of our conversations today, these words will be holding and meaning a lot more!

Fiction

In her paper on ‘Narrative as Inquiry’, Petra Munro Hendry says that “the word narrative means ‘to account’, and dervies from the word gno, meaning to know” (Munro Hendry 2010: 72). She says that from the beginning of human culture, narrative has “embodied multiple ways of knowing”, multiple ways of giving an “account” of experience (p. 72). I consider fiction to be a part of this process of relaying multiple ways of knowing. I understand fiction as a process of invention, fashioning, shaping, forming, and devising in embodied intra-action with the world and its inhabitants. It is a kind of poetics; a process that produces artifacts, and those processes and artifacts both produce effects and affects in the world.

In their introduction to their edited book Fiction as Method, Jon K. Shaw and Theo Reeves-Evison argue that “there is a great deal at stake in finding ways to turn toward these unexplored, under-explored, and often denigrated territories of thinking and awareness. These stakes concern the role of fiction in moving us beyond the impasses of the present, in opening to the radically new, embracing or reinvigorating the incoming future, and of turning toward the abstract, even numinous, outside” (Shaw and Reeves-Evison, Eds. 2017: 8).

When I employ the term fiction, it is in a processual, compositional and improvisational sense that is strongly related to what narrative theorist Christine Bold describes as a set of devices employed in order to make meaning (Bold 2012). And this process of making meaning is in turn strongly related to how we, as individuals, communities and society, are physically and imaginatively orientated in our attentions, in our customs; and subsequently in our politics and our ethics.

Orienteering/Orientation

Feminist scholar Sarah Ahmed argues that “to be orientated is… to be turned toward certain objects, those that help us to find our way. These are objects we recognize, so that when we face them we know which way we are facing. They might be landmarks or other familiar signs that give us our anchoring points. They gather on the ground, and they create a ground upon which we gather” (Ahmed 2006” 1). Ahmed turns our attention towards ‘orientation devices’ such as the table and chair of the philosopher or writer, but we can include here maps, narratives and stories, and also of the computational and data-based media platforms through which these are frequently made, transmitted and received. As Ahmed elaborates, “orientations shape not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention toward” (p. 3).

To be orientated is to be consciously embodied in time and place. The tools or devices we use to accomplish such a sense of orientation may vary from physical features in a landscape to a proximity with known others. Narratives, stories, objects and maps of various kinds can function as a ‘handrail’ that offers orientation, like a thread through a maze. This metaphor of the ‘handrail’ emerged during my recent late-night phone conversation with my father, about the adventure sport of Orienteering. “The hand rail concept,” my father says “is quite useful.” It involves “finding a feature that is predictable and reasonably straight in your map that you can keep sight of.” Such features act like ‘handrails’, “something to keep you safe, orientated right.”

Even at the scale of a seemingly innocuous game of Orienteering, the power of inscribing features as ‘handrails’ on a map is palpable, in this instance reflecting a particular ethics of care – the handrail is highlighted as “something to keep you safe”. But is this the case with all maps, with all orientation devices? The question of who maps the features and identifies the handrails remains charged. And when Sara Ahmed writes that “Even in a strange or unfamiliar environment we might find our way, given our familiarity with social form, with how the social is arranged,” (p. 7) it becomes relevant to ask under what conditions is it possible to become disorientated by ‘handrails’? How might we make our own ways under such conditions? Adapting the improvisational and interpretative skills of orienteering to navigate contemporary digital conditions might offer some support, metaphorically at least. As my conversation with my father trails off, he tells me that when orienteering“you have a map in your hand and you’ve the map in your head… and the better a map reader you are the more they are close to one another”.

***

The panelists speaking here today are involved in navigating and narrating the various gaps between the maps in our hands and the maps in our heads. Their work, whether explicitly or implicitly, employs techniques of fiction as a way of critically and creatively orienteering the temporal and spatial realities of water, cities and digital subjectivity.

In my conversations with James, Joanna and Rob over the past number of months, we have spoken about the challenge to create poly-vocal, plural, feminist and decolonising approaches to the ways we collect and compose, display, distribute and narrate the larger and intimate realities unfolding in a period perforated and persuaded by ‘smart’ technologies and their attendant databases. We share a growing awareness that, as Donna Haraway and others emphasize, it matters what ideas we think other ideas with, that it matters what stories tell stories. As Le Guin says, it is the story that makes the difference.

You can read about Dr. James L. Smith‘s presentation at his Digital Derg project website here. Follow the links to learn more about Prof. Rob Kitchin‘s work with the Building City Dashboards project and with fiction writing. And you can read and explore Joanna Walsh‘s work at Seed-Story.

Bird Song on the Panel

If you want to learn more about this ongoing research or have any questions, please contact me at Jessica.Foley@mu.ie or @JessicaDFoley. Thanks for reading.

DATA STORIES: EXPLORING THE FUNCTION OF FICTION IN PARSING THE WORLDS OF NETWORKED DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY

A GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH PROJECT, FUNDED BY THE IRISH RESEARCH COUNCIL (2018-21)

Sonnet, written by a contributor to the second Engineering Fictions session with the Building City Dashboards team at MUSSI, February 2019.

This project explores how engaging with processes of fiction can help to parse imaginaries, lived realities and power relations of networked digital worlds. The primary method of inquiry here is a research-creation writing workshop called Engineering Fictions.

The research is based at Maynooth University and engages with the Building City Dashboards (BCD) team under the guidance of Prof. Rob Kitchin. Other research participants and collaborators include members of the Orthogonal Methods Group (OMG) at CONNECT, and other interested individuals from the public.

The project has so far hosted a series of four research-creation workshops called Orienteering Fictions (June 2019) in collaboration with the Russel Library at Maynooth University, the BCD team and OMG CONNECT.

From Sept-Nov 2020, I’ll be running another four part series of Engineering Fictions workshops in collaboration with the team from Policing Digital Futures in Scotland. This engagement will involve two writing workshops and two public reading groups exploring themes of online state surveillance and policing against the backdrop of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

While this research began with an intention to engage in participant observation with the Building City Dashboards project, the reality of the process of research has led me to a higher-level focus: to understand and translate the research-creation methodology of Engineering Fictions. So, what began as a long list has now narrowed to just a few interrelated questions:

What can Engineering Fictions actually do?

Can this methodology help to generate nuanced insights and urgent questions on the actually existing and lived realities, imaginaries and power relations of networked digital technologies in peoples lives?

Can this methodology produce compelling artefacts to foster democratic conversations and political inquiry?

If so, How? Is this a methodology that can be shared and replicated? (And is it actually a methodology… or is it a creative practice that has research value?)

And if not, why not?

I remember leaving…

I remember leaving the pencil behind it slipped through my fingers all slippery and slippy and salty and wet like my back like my thighs all dripping and wet and the train wouldn’t come for me it wouldn’t come for me I waited and waited and it wouldn’t come for me my fingers let go the pencil dropped like a pin to the floor and I let it roll to the edge across the cool dust-dry tiles into the litter box of the tracks where piss and shit mixed with plastics and paper in the heat against the metal spines of the tracks that would not bring my train that would not come get me that would leave me to count time on my toes in the heat of a July summer by the station in the wastelands where all the rust mountains were building up and the left over bits and pieces of the world came to lose themselves together. I remember leaving then out into the blind heat and over the cracking asphalt down along the gutter for comfort my soles tacky against the tar and the sandal straps cutting into the old stinging cuts of yesterday and the day before and the day before that. I remember leaving my bags. I remember leaving my mind. I remember letting it all go and following the gutter into the world I did not know down past the place where the wire fences broke where the power lines had been clipped where the dead trains sat heavy on their bones pointing to the end of the future. I remember leaving the smell of rot behind me and breathing stiff into the summer air believing then a new time was opening up between my fingers. I remember leaving. I remember leaving. I licked them clean like a thirsty bird pecking her way into the car park there’d been no one for days and days. I remember leaving my people at the station they were sleeping with my bags. I remember thinking they’ll find my pencil. I remember thinking they’ll tell me.

[The results of a 10 minute automatic writing exercise prompted by the phrase ‘I remember leaving…’. Written during The Stinging Fly Poetry Summer School led by Martina Evans, who is nothing short of brilliant. July 3rd 2018.]

Structuring negative feeling in technological research: Contemporary rituals of the Department of Ultimology

The 9th New Materialisms conference, Urban Matters, took place in Utrecht from the 20-22 June 2018. On the first day of the conference, as part of the Methodologies panel, I made a short performative lecture on the Department of Ultimology, a project by artist/researcher Fiona Hallinan and curator Kate Strain, which explores that which is dead or dying in a series or process from the academic context of the University (Trinity College Dublin).

The night before the presentation I worried (unnecessarily) that I had not included enough of a new materialist theoretical perspective, and hastily added in a slide with a quote from a paper by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, which focuses upon framing a New Materialist methodology:

…research needs to be understood as speculative eventing, and how within the speculative middle, methods need to be (in)tension so that methods become attuned to ethicopolitical matters and concerns.

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This was a little forced, as the purpose in this instance was not to theorise and explain the Department of Ultimology, but to show the ways that thinking with and alongside the Department of Ultimology generates new relations amongst art practitioners and engineering researchers in the context of academic technological research (CONNECT, Trinity College Dublin). It was the idea of the ‘speculative middle’ that really resonated with my experience of the Department of Ultimology, so I’m using this concept as a way to top and tail my presentation, as an exposition rather than explanation.

I wanted to make a presentation that would be subtly, respectfully and playfully challenging and questioning of the frames and codes of academic discourse and in relation to New Materialisms scholarship and methods. The Department of Ultimology were a foil for this desire, but it was also a way to reflect upon the critical desires of meta-communication that constitute institutional critique (through art). I also wanted to practice a process of inquiry in the making of the presentation and to try to show or suggest how I inquire and learn through conversation and by reading texts and ideas and practices through each other in an improvisational, inter-textual (Hayles) or diffractive (Barad) way.

So, I tried to structure the presentation in the following way. I would use a kind of audio-visual montage to activate listening and thinking amongst the audience. I wanted to generate an atmosphere in the room that might be conducive to people bringing their own knowledge and experience of New Materialisms and Material Studies to bear upon what I was offering.

Here’s the gist of the presentation:

Before I get into the details of this material, I would like to offer a kind of ‘primer’ quote to situate the art practice I’m speaking about as one that gets into the thick of inquiry through a process of ‘speculative eventing’. This is a concept that I think resonates with the creative research practice of the Department of Ultimology.

(Next, I went straight into reading the statement on Ultimology taken from the DoU’s press pack:)

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So, that’s the description of the work of the Department of Ultimology from their official Press Pack. I’ve been working with and alongside the DoU for the past couple of years as a member of the Orthogonal Methods Group and as an artist and post-doctoral researcher in CONNECT. Working in this context of academic-industry technological research with art practitioners, critical theorists and engineers for the past 8 years or so, I’ve noticed in my own research practice that the quality of relations of the research culture seems to linger somewhere between lyric and parody. More recently, particularly in the situated work of the Department of Ultimology, I’ve experienced another dimension of this relationality that seems to linger somewhere between theatre and ritual. It was a particular event by the Department of Ultimology called the Research Purge which helped me to think this pattern, and so I want to generate some insight on both the DoU and the Research Purge event today, and to think this pattern with you all.

The title for this presentation is Structuring negative feeling in technological research: Contemporary rituals of the Department of Ultimology. But this title has always been more of a question than an assertion – writing the abstract for this conference was a way for me to open up a process of research-creation with the Department of Ultimology that would allow me to begin to think about the continuum between theatre and ritual, lyric and parody. Eventually I want to get to a position where I can think and speak more clearly about the reciprocal politics of art practice in the University and particularly in relation to technological research. So, by generating a speculative title for this presentation I opened up an opportunity whereby I could engage with the Department of Ultimology in a different way, opening up a critical and exploratory conversation, through the concept of ritual, that was very much in sympathy with the methodology of both Fiona Hallinan and Kate Strain, the departments lead faculty.  What follows then is an edited Skype conversation between myself and Fiona Hallinan (featuring the sounds of seagulls and Fiona’s baby, Luan), that begins with a consideration of the relationship between theatre and ritual:

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The Purge took place on a weekday at lunch time, in the seminar room at CONNECT. Many of CONNECT’s researchers and staff gathered to listen and witness, as well as colleagues from the wider University and from across many fields of contemporary art and design.

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[Italics indicate the speech of Fiona Hallinan, transcribed from the second half of the Skype conversation.]

A Purge is described as an action that establishes innocence, that clears the suspicion of guilt, that cleanses, gets rid of, purifies, empties out, works as a kind of laxative, responding to poisons or politically undesireable persons… the working title for the Research Purge was Take a Dump.

Fiona tells me how the event came about:

I think a huge part of the whole event preparation was to do with Linda’s specific interest in encouraging people to let go of ideas.

Linda is Prof. Linda Doyle, former Director of CONNECT, principal investigator of the Orthogonal Methods Group and Dean of Research at Trinity College Dublin.

I think we spoke a little bit before about this idea that there can be a tendency to feel (as an academic researcher) that you’re the person who works on that particular subject, and you should stick to it for your whole career. Linda was saying that she felt like there was a tendency for people to hold on to ideas for longer than they should, and that it would be helpful to encourage an event that performed the discarding of those ideas. So, I think this is a way of modelling Ultimology as a service… 

‘Ultimology as a Service’ is a phrase adopted from the world of information technology – it’s a kind of business model. CONNECT’s public engagement manager, Andrew O’Connell, first suggested this label as useful to describing Ultimology. But Ultimology wears its lables lightly, with sincere good humour and a rich appreciation of the affordances of ambivalence. In a published interview with the Department of Ultimology, Fiona had explained how they “had started to collect a set of qualifying features to become a department”. They discovered that they needed to have a student, a budget, an office… “and as we collected these things , we realised we were actually becoming a department through calling ourselves a department.” Now the Department of Ultimology has affiliate artists, one of whom is Andreas von Knobloch. They wanted to work with Andreas specifically to create an Ultimological Time Piece. Fiona continues:

There was something going on at the same time that we wanted to allign with {the Purge} which was an ongoing collaboration with Andreas von Knobloch. We had this ongoing project with him to create a version of a water clock.

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Andreas and I had been talking about the notion of time as a theme of Ultimology and we had looked at many forms of timekeeping and came across the water clock, which was the first method humans used to keep time that didn’t rely on celestial objects, a kind of autonomous earthly device for keeping time. And so, Andreas was working on this project himself and in communication with us, and in the meantime he had started to think about the water clock as a kind of personal object and a kind of meditation object that one might keep by their bedside. And we were talking to him about CONNECT and the research done there, of telecommunications and the striving for things to always be faster and more connected, talking about things like the Internet-of-Things, and comparing that to the idea of a mediative water clock that you’d have on your bedside table, that could work as well as it would have thousands of years ago.

And so, Andreas came up with this idea of the water clocks becoming a device for purging yourself of your smart phone, the device for connectivity. And so, he designed it to be activated by its user pushing their smart phone or tablet into a certain cavity which would release water, and it would take a certain amount of time to be released. So your smart phone became, instead of a device for connecting you to loads of possibilities, it became like a brick basically, just to release water for a certain amount of time. And the idea was that you would use that then to disconnect yourself from your phone.

We ended up, at the same time, reading a number of articles that were published by researchers and engineers who worked for companies like Facebook, who were coming out and saying that they didn’t know that what they had invented was so poisonous and they now wouldn’t allow their children to have access to social media or to smart phone devices in the same way they had, because they felt like there was something really dangerous and addictive about them. And so, we thought that this was a really interesting form of public purging as well, this idea of engineers coming out and saying ‘this is my idea but now I reject it as toxic and socially damaging!’ So all of these ideas were kind of convening.  

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And we thought then to stage this event [the Research Purge] which at its simplest was going to be an invitation to researchers to purge ideas, and that we would also present Andreas’ water clocks, and we would actually use them to time the talks as well, so it was a way of making the event more cohesive and artistic. It kind of presented a format that I think we’d love to continue. A real action that was useful to researchers, but also presenting an artwork by an artist that involved their own research.

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On the day of the Research Purge, the Department of Ultimology offered the audience an overview of the motivations, materials and stories informing the event. Links between the water clocks, addictive technologies and public purging were declared. Engineers declared aspects of their research or research field purged, or they declared the idea of a purge a nonsense in a time of technological change:

Elma declared that age of Spectrum Ownership was over.

Neal declared that the use of generic language in the academy had had its day.

And Luiz declared that there was no need for such purges, since in technological research, nothing changes but the changes (research is changing all the time).

The public and performative declarations and declaimations of the Research Purge were followed up with a related event, a Slab Clay workshop inviting CONNECT’s researchers to engage with the same process undertaken by Andreas von Knobloch to create his Ultimological Water Clocks.

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Between the performative lectures of the Research Purge and the quiet contemplation and participation of the Slab Clay workshop, it’s possible to see Ultimology neither as ritual nor as theatre, but operating ambivalently some where in between these poles, in the tradition of Institutional Critique, and as a contemporary method of bringing people into the speculative middle of a research event.

A Day at the Urban Matters Conference, Utrecht

9am to 10.30am

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A response to Mike Pearson by Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink on site-specific performance. She speaks about the artist Tazu Nishi, I snatch a few words and phrases:

Tazu Nishi

Statues

Metaphor or Feeling

A Mood, a situation

the contradiction conjured up by statues

Impressive but impotent

Alone but facing a crowd

A song can be a statue

A word can be a statue

Sensual

Statues want to be desired.

A broken chest

a finger fallen off…

10.30am – 11.15am

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Meditating and moving on the grass with Oranges with Vicky Hunter and Leslie Satin.

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11.15am to 1.30pm

Tea and snack at a cafe. Collecting thoughts. Sending off an overdue assignment. Suddenly lighter.

1.30pm – 3.00pm

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Presentations on Afropean cultural movements (Marleen de Witte) and diffractive readings of intersectionality and superdiversity literature in relation to New Materialisms (Evelien Geerts).

3.30pm to 5.30pm

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The fields of New Materialisms and Material Religion in a tense exchange. (One of the aims of the Urban Matters conference was to bring these two fields into conversation with each other). One of the speakers, Peter Braunlein, in particular contests and undermines New Materialisms, focusing mainly on the work of Jane Bennett. Braunlein concludes that “ I can’t see new materialist approaches for the study of material-religion, but I see new materialisms itself as a worthwhile field to study.” He seems to see New Materialisms as a kind of religion that is worthy of study, rather than a mode of research and a complex of philosophies. Iris van der Tuin offers a response, acknowledging her own frustration with the tendency towards jargon in the field of New Materialisms, but highlighting the valuable contributions of the field in terms of how agency and relationality are understood and researched. For van der Tuin, New Materialims attend to and participate in the production of differences. At the heart of the methodology of New Materialisms lies an awareness and appreciation of the relationship between the researcher and the research subject/object, how each acts upon the other, and how necessary it is to attend to the political, ethical and material complexity of the research process in producing knowledge. This mornings movement workshop with oranges in many ways demonstrated this methodological awareness of the embodied and complex ways in which we make and share knowledge today.

5.30pm – 8.30pm

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A visit to the Centre for Ecological Unlearning, an initiative of The Outsiders Union, an Urban Farm House and Barn near Utrecht, led by Sam Skinner and Casco Art Institute. We had delicious tea and cake, sat in the big lofty thatched barn, chatted about the process of establishing a neighbourhood commons as art, and how to access funding to support such fundamental initiatives. We encountered chickens, and vegetables, and a big yellow slide, an apparatus for training the growth of hops in the garden for local beer makers, the old cheese fridges and the milk vat and tap where the farm used to sell its produce to the local community.

“Inhabiting and animating Terwijde farmhouse by the Centre for Ecological (Un)learning, a longterm, collective initiative by The Outsiders Union and Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons. Cultivating the natural commons, social commons, cultural and knowledge commons!”

OMG @ IMMA: 1967-2017

 

The Orthogonal Methods Group (OMG) at CONNECT have an exhibition, 1967-2017, at IMMA at the moment. Last week we went to visit the exhibition with visiting New Materialisms scholar and writer Dr. Helen Palmer, who works at the intersections of philosophy, speculative writing and critical theory. Helen is working on a new book Queer Defamiliarisation and New Materialism: Writing Feminist Matter(s), (forthcoming 2018, Edinburgh University Press), so a lot of our conversations were weaving in and out through concepts and thinking she’s developing for that.

Some of the OMG went along with Helen to chat about the contents and materiality of Aspen 5 + 6, in relation to her research and to think about the relationship between some of the artists’ works in relation to Mathematics and Computational processes.

Rachel Donnelly wrote about 1967-2017 for Totally Dublin, and you can read that insightful article here. The OMG’s Unboxing Aspen video, recorded in December with Julie Martin (Director of E.A.T.) and curator Melissa Rachleff Burtt, will be on screen from the end of February. OMG have appropriated and adapted the popular form of the ‘unboxing’ video in order to offer the public a rare and lively reading of Aspen 5+6 through the experience and knowledge of two friends who have engaged directly and indirectly with the artists of the period and curator of Aspen 5 + 6, Brian O’Doherty.

Quantum Words

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Very happy to have been invited to contribute to this project, The Quantum Words Series, instigated by Prof. Vera Buhlmann at TU Wien (ATTP).

I spent a couple of weeks at the ATTP earlier this year, and hosted an Engineering Fictions session inspired by the discourse and ideas in circulation in the research centre.

The idea behind the Quantum Words project resonates in many ways with the ethos and methodology of Engineering Fictions. By choosing one topic, one choreographic object, in this case ‘The Table’, it is possible to draw out an abundance of perspectives, stories, ideas and begin to develop a richer philosophy around basic architectonic objects, firstly through invited writers and secondly through the students at TU Wien. In a sense we, the invited writers, are modelling the exercise that the architecture students will be undertaking in their course at ATTP. A beautiful mode of distributed pedagogy!

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My contribution is published here and is also pasted in raw form below:

TABLE MANNERS

The man was often incensed by the woman’s ‘selflessness’. For example, on a recent cycling trip, the woman offered to carry some of the mans baggage in her bicycle basket, imagining that his backpack was generating an excess of sweat against his skin. At that moment, there was nothing more offensive than this gesture of respite. As if in a counter punch, he had offered her a tissue. The inevitable exposure to the elements when cycling often caused the woman to sniff. She had not in the least been bothered by this excess at such a midpoint in their journey. Now she was troubled by his gesture of succour.

This doubt repealed the woman to her childhood self. She was standing by her mothers upturned bike, watching her father, leaning into its frame on bended knee, wrestling the deflated rubber from it’s encasing. Her mood was one of joy and eagerness to share companionship and assistance, and to learn the mechanics of this wildly democratic mode of transport. The ingenuity of material combinations, the miracle of human dexterity and intention against the laws of physics whispered to her as she watched her beloved Dad repair her Mother’s beloved bicycle. When her father looked across at her, she, like an eager pup ready to retrieve a ball not yet thrown, anticipated his request: ‘pass the chalk,’ perhaps? “Would you ever go and blow your nose,” he said bluntly.

This discouraging memory lingered with her as she cycled. She did not know what to do with the feeling of it. Was it the case that she has always had a noisy body? A body that repulsed and infuriated? The woman felt sharply and needlessly judged, and for a moment her mind wandered with vague sensations and assurances, such as those induced by corners and cupboards, dark holes and heavy blankets. Blinking long and hard, she felt the wind on her face and arms, lingering blindly a moment to the let the sunlight scorch white behind her eyes. She hit a pothole abruptly and a new memory struck her.

She was under the kitchen table in her childhood home. It was very early in the morning and a thin pale light was washing over the dusty brown carpet tiles. On all sides, an arcade of legs framed her view of the domestic space. The smell of wood and oil and dust pressed upon her senses. Every now and then she would prowl its nave, gaining glimpses of the inside outside of her new secret territory. A home within a home. Her body was pure delight and mischief. Nobody knew she was there, she was awake before the others. She would surpise them all with her invisibility.

Soon a stirring down the house informed her that one of her kin had woke. Shortly, the kitchen door swung open and in lumbered her father with the slow, heavy gravity of an underwater mammal. She inhaled a gasp of glee, biting down on her lip. Hands quick to her mouth, her heart fit for bursting. He had not seen her. He did not know she was there.

She was stunned by the power of her sub-architectural position, making labyrinths under the kitchen table. She watched her father, barefooted and pale legged, pad around the edges of the kitchen, assembling ingredients for his breakfast. These things rumbled like thunder over her head; thuds and scrapes of metal and carton and ceramic on veneered wood. “God moving his furniture around,” her father might have said. He settled at the gable end of the table with a slow transfer of weight from foot to foot. Inhaling his soupy bowl of cereal with all the concentration of a dreamer, she listened to him chewing and chomping and choking; sucking and sloshing and swallowing.

The couple were at last turning onto the pier and could see the lighthouse red and raucous against the blue horizon. Dismounting at speed, she laughed loudly from her gut and up into the sunshine. Taking out a fresh tissue from her bag, she cleared her nostrils with great and thorough enjoyment.

Jessica Foley

20th September 2017