Category Archives: Visual

Exit: Moon. A Short Story About Staying With The Trouble

I spent two weeks in August at Planetary Futures, a summer school at Concordia University in Montreal organised by Orit Halpern, Marie-Pier Boucher, and Pierre Louis Patoine, and hosted at Milieux, the centre for art, technology, and culture at Concordia. The course made links between planetary scale catastrophe and the Anthropocene, and histories of infrastructure, colonialism, and investigated design and fiction as vehicles of speculation about the future(s). It brought

“together the disciplines of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences to collectively investigate this question of how we shall inhabit the world in the face of the current ecological crisis and to rethink concepts and practices of environment, ecology, difference, and technology to envision, and create, a more just, sustainable, and diverse planet. The course will include field visits to extraction sites, energy infrastructures, earth science installations, and speculative architecture and design projects.”

Our group of twenty-odd PhD students from North America and Europe made some interesting journeys, from an open pit gold mine, the largest in Canada, to the Mohawk reservation in Kahnawage outside Montreal, and to the idea of inhabiting a Moon Village decades in the future. I documented these journeys on Instagram as we went along. Towards the end of the course found myself wanting to construct a narrative with these images inspired by a central theme in one of the best lectures (IMHO) on the course; Sarah Sharma, director of the Marshall McLuhan Center in Toronto, spoke to us about her work on the notion that there are exits (there aren’t; or not for everyone at least), and on critical temporalities (how do we assign value and measurement to whose time, on what, matters?).

I got an opportunity to put these images together into a story thanks to an invitation from Tel Aviv-based interaction designer and artist, Mushon Zer Aviv. Mushon and I spoke at re:publica’s Thessaloniki event this week, and my part of the talk was the story-made-of-Instagram images. Unfortunately, the livestream broke halfway through our talk and the recordings aren’t up yet. However, here are the text and images from my story and I’ll post the video once the recording is ready.

EXIT:MOOON. A SHORT STORY ABOUT STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE.

It always rained now. Neither temperate nor extreme, the weather had been controlled so it stayed at just one ‘setting’. The rising temperature, and simultaneous flooding, hurricanes, and drought, was creating serious disruption in the markets. I think it was the monster tidal wave that destroyed Shanghai and Shenzhen that made them wake up to how bad it was. The re-insurance portfolios couldn’t be re-insured any more. Banks were in a death spiral of virtual lending. They found a way to fix the disaster response system and an ingenious little hack to deal with flooding, but the temperatures still rose. So, there was no more monsoons or droughts, but the price we paid was that it rained all the time. It was the best possible outcome given how bad things were. Everything on earth was in a state of permanent emergency. The apocalypse happened in drips and drabs whittling away at our spirit. No one was Raptured away and the Messiah did not appear. Neither did the robot army, nor aliens.

All this had happened because we simply refused to manage our addictions.

So, many left. Those who could, that is. For the moon.

They had discovered vast repositories of precious minerals deep in the heart of the moon. They found things we had on Earth like malachite, copper, cobalt, uranium, amethyst and gold – and with new elements we had never encountered before. The surface of the moon was barren and harsh but underneath it was a rich tropical forest.

They needed teams to set up extraction facilities that could extract, test, and evaluate how much lay under there, and figure out ways to trade and make money off these minerals. The Chinese had built incredible, vast towers of server farms and data centres, to handle the explosion in Moon minerals trading. We traded these Moon minerals and other Moon products on specialised commodities exchanges on earth.

I worked with teams that isolated and tested the minerals. My role was to build algorithms that could predict values of these minerals based on what was being found, and its quality, and considering the cost of being able to actually extract and use them. It was a computational exercise and I had to work closely with extraction teams, which I liked a lot. I liked going out there with them in the field. Otherwise, my field was just a screen, and a coffee machine. And bad internet. No matter how big and shiny the Chinese server farms were.
Being on the Moon was very freeing for scientists. They were getting to do some exciting work towards exoplanetary exploration. Mars was now that much closer to being accessible. It was a very exciting time for anyone in science and tech. Mars is a place for rugged outdoor types too.

The more Planet Earth crumbled, It seemed like our skill, creativity, and ingenuity as a species grew. We built amazing things. We got very good very fast at building almost-intelligent robots. We had near total Uplink for all humans and non humans to communicate. Still those pesky last mile delivery issues though. Poor people being left behind was still a thing. We just didn’t know how to fix the old hard stuff: culture, bodies, history, politics. So we just ignored it. It was inefficient.

But we ignored it at our own peril. We kept forgetting how to make these things work because we found that we liked applying algorithms to all kinds of complex problems – water shortage, poverty, gender violence. The reality is that algorithms and data work very well in science and engineering – like predicting climate change – but terribly when it comes to things involving humans. But that’s what we did.

I was part of one of the first crews of scientists to leave. Out here things are quite exciting, to be honest. There is a sense of discovery, and of actually being able to start over. It is like Mordor meets the Garden of Eden but without talking snakes, organic apples, or naked and happy people. We had imported some cool solar energy innovations, and architectural and design inventions with radical new sustainable materials we made in labs. We learned from plants. We built things mimicking capillary action in tall trees, and how mushrooms grow. The word for world is forest.

We had all this on earth, all these amazing technologies and ideas but in the end, none of it scaled. We just couldn’t unplug two hundred years of belief and value in rationality and graft on new ways of being. With exponential growth, you need exponential solutions. But we didn’t make it to those exponential solutions. Yet, it is a difficult balance to be here. We have all this cutting edge stuff, very hi-tech, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t sorrowful about the state of things at home. In a way, our guilt at escaping made us feel virtuous – in the best sense of the word; and dedicated to working hard to develop strong solutions. We were the pioneers colonising a new world to support the old one. No one really wants to live on this godforsaken barren little satellite. We want to be back on our messed up, falling-apart little blue planet.

Then, one day, things went wrong. An outdoor survey team that I work with picked up some disturbing electromagnetic signals. A significant planetary disturbance was predicted. Now planets wobble in their orbit all the time, and the bigger the planet, the bigger the wobble and the more dramatic the effects. It was Jupiter. But Jupiter was far away and it would be years before we would feel it, which would give us time to fortify our station. However, Jupiter wobbling was affecting the asteroid belt and sending rocks hurtling out of orbit at very high speeds. The reason we have craters on the moon is because it has been hit by asteroids so many times anyway. So this wasn’t something out of the blue. was always one of the biggest risks with being on the Moon; we knew this could happen. But as usual scientists fought with each other about who had the better data about what was going to really happen. How much should we invest to offset some future disaster that we cannot really know the shape of? “It was unlikely that something seriously negative was going to happen”. Unlikely is a word that policymakers use a lot when they don’t want to commit to doing something.

We are a small and fragile community up here Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, Pakistani, Israeli, Iranian. We have amazing technologies but we still only have each other, eventually. Friendship and taking care of each other. We rely on these things much more, eventually, than we do on data. Data is the new nothing, really. It’s just data. We were faced with hard choices. Hard choices always end up being utilitarian ones. Sacrificing a few for the greater good. This is what the data tells you to do. If you don’t buy this logic, then it is as if you are naive, and don’t know how the real world really works.
Some people had the option of leaving. Those people who don’t have to take care of anyone else, or anything else. Who feel like they can sever their connections and move on to the next thing. Some times this is survival. Some times it is escape, it is exit.

But I am done exiting. There is no exit. It’s time to stay with the trouble.

Thanks to the organisers, Concordia U, and the fellow travelers who made the Planetary Futures Summer School joyful and inspiring.

Past present: Revisiting the past through documentary

When you’re curating a program for yourself at an event or conference you’re often doing so consciously and conscientiously: there are things you need to see or attend for work, or for something new you need to wrap your head around. Then there are those times when it seems like you have no agenda except for entertainment and pleasure, which doesn’t mean, however, that your curated program is serendipitious or magical. This is what this week’s Berlinale is for me. I found myself curating one part of my program with some expected resonances: three films involving female protagonists reconstructing or re-discovering the past, and in doing so visit the unstable ground between, and in the creation of, fiction and non-fiction:

1. Kate plays Christine. Robert Greene. 2016.
In 1974 in Sarasota, Florida, a 29 year old newscaster, Christine Chubbuck, shot herself, fatally, on live TV. In 2015, an actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, prepares to recreate that moment and the film follows her journey.

2. A Magical Substance Flows Into Me. Jumana Manna. 2016
In the 1930s, Robert Lachmann, a German, had a radio show featuring “Oriental” i.e Palestinian music. In 2014, Jumana Manna, a Palestinian artist, travels around Israel and Palestine playing recordings from the old shows and recording contemporary versions. What do these songs sound like now when performed by Moroccan, Kurdish, or Yemenite Jews, by Samaritans, members of the urban and rural Palestinian communities, Bedouins and Coptic Christians?

3. The Watermelon Woman. Cheryl Dunye. 1996
Cheryl is a young black woman working at a video store. She becomes curious about black women playing stereotypical ‘mammys’ in films from the 1930s and 1940s. She sets out to discover one who is known only as the Watermelon Woman, a black lesbian actress who had an affair with a white woman director….

I’m excited to see them all and will be writing about them here..

Seeing/ Not seeing

Socialization is "the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies provide an 
individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within his or her own society. Socialization is
thus ‘the means by which social and cultural continuity are attained." The social internet socialises us, its users. 
It, us, teaches us new ways to be. 

Here is a somewhat new practice on social media, which has been written about: encouraging fellow 
social media users to not see something violent/violating because the act of sourcing and 
seeing is acknowledged as perpetuating that violence. After James Foley's and Steven Sotloff's murders,
internet users were saying of the videos circulating online: 'don't see it, don't look at it'; and, 
there were pictures of the journalists with their families, shared, possibly, to counter these videos. Their families, 
understandably, wanted their loved one to be remembered in a certain way, not as a headless body or as the victim of a
gruesome crime. Even as fact is being ruthlessly documented, there is a reactive counter-pressure to erase the facts. 

The same thing played out as personal photos of the actor Jennifer Lawrence were stolen and revealed. Social media saw some specific kinds 
of struggles over seeing and not seeing:
"this is the internet and this is how it works, so just deal with it… and take a look at how hot she is"; 
"seeing those pictures is abusive so be part of the solution, not the problem"; and another version of this:
"if she sent them to you, then you were meant to see those pictures, not otherwise"

How does this relate to the work of images in politics? It is a little like the visual equivalent of the right to be forgotten, 
or the peekaboo games that delight babies: if you can't see it, the violence isn't there any more, the violations 
don't hurt, it has been neutralised.

Just another post about the Abused Goddesses Campaign

The Abused Goddesses Campaign is creating waves ,  raising hackles (best exemplified by recent posts from Nisha Susan, Brinda Bose and Sayantani Dasgupta). Created by an advertising agency, Taproot, the campaign uses the images of (models dressed as) popular and much-loved Indian goddesses bearing the most telling signs of mortality – pain and hurt – and urges the viewer to consider that the only kind of woman free from the threat of violence is the divine kind and possibly not even them.

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The conversation this campaign has generated is polarised; on the one hand you have Buzzfeed breathlessly declaring it ‘powerful’ and many agree; the viral sharing of the images on Twitter and Facebook are one indication of this. On the other, smaller, side, you have  people raising questions like:

– Why Hindu Goddesses? Not everyone in India relates to these images. We shouldn’t be using these images in a diverse and multicultural country

– Why must we be likened to goddesses in order to earn our rights as humans?

– Why these goddesses, we already have the image of the terrifying and terrible Kali who is violent and invincible.

– Hinduism has been interpreted to have practices and rituals that discriminate against women (this of course greatly upsets the Hindu Right and a champion, an academic, comes to the defense of Hinduism and the Right)

As you know, I’m the questioning kind, so you know where I sit. I’m writing this post in order to raise something that hasn’t so far in all the deconstruction: the visual itself. The Delhi Gang Rape has revealed some things about middle class, social media-enabled Indian: we’re data-illiterate, and don’t understand how government works and laws get made. I’m going to add another one: we are visually illiterate and don’t know how to read the visual. In particular, in this context, I don’t think the critics of this campaign have approached it as a visual campaign. This is the subject of this post.

Tactical Tech, where I work (there’s the disclaimer/plug) is going to officially launch our newest publication, Visualising Information for Advocacy which is all about how the visual works in advocacy, on October 1st, 2013.  The Abused Goddesses Campaign is a good example of what we would refer to as a ‘Get the Idea’ sort of campaign – one that uses strong and provocative imagery to inspire extreme emotions such as shock, suprise and anger or humour and laughter. These sorts of campaigns typically feature captivating and arresting images, very little data or nuance. As we say:

“If badly conceived or executed, it can alienate or insult an audience. But when it works, the effect of such a campaign can be significant: it can spread quickly across media, be talked about and rapidly bring attention to an issue. These kinds of images pass on tiny packets of information about the issue, referring only obliquely to what people commonly think of as evidence, rather than presenting it directly. As provocations, such images mostly work as routes leading into a wider campaign where further information about the issue can be found. They are often designed to appeal to people who have not yet been exposed to the issue or who don’t have a clear position.”

In this respect, I think the Abused Goddesses campaign works very well. I think it has got a lot of people’s attention because the creators of the campaign have very smartly chosen a provocative set of symbols to work with. In the print at the bottom of the poster (really have to zoom in online to see it) the designers say they intend to send out a strong message and I think they have. Whether I agree with the use of particular symbols is another matter, and I’m not the person tasked with creating an arresting campaign. This isn’t to challenge what people like Nisha and Brinda are saying – I think their deconstructions and critiques are much-needed and we only need to continue to challenge our readings and use of the visual. I think their analyses focus on the politics of representation rather than the deployment of the visual in advertising. There is a difference. Personally, I think that in a plural society we only need more kinds of visuals – annoying, bad ones and really great ones – and more conversations about why they work or don’t.