Inserting my body into historical research has been the main concern of my CMP work. The traces left behind by dead human bodies that is the archive; the negative space of those archives for all the traces that weren’t left. Both together – still do not sum up to the embodied understanding of those somas, their way of being in the world.
Lurking, echoing a distant past, hiding in the corners of evolving structures, surviving through the fabric of progress – some epistemes of these bodies persisted. However faint the echo, with which mode of attention must I listen to hear the resonance of this embedded history?
At a recent art-science residency in Djerassi, California, I experimented with methods that could bring me closer to this multi-modal way of listening. I was joined by astrophysicist and musician Sebastián Pérez and by dancer and philosopher Dasha Lavrennikov. Our collective hybrid ways of being were central to the collaboration.
We situated our experiment among the exposed roots of redwood tree stumps. We dressed (literally) in 100-year-old musings on functional analysis, and played with emergent rhythms (visual and sonic) of found objects. All this, to bring me closer to the thought experiments – the hypotheticals that might have passed through these distant bodies. To empathize with the somatic experience of the early 20th century scholars of the Russian Empire experimenting with, embracing – contradictions, polyrhythmy, and flux.
The video below is a micro summary of this endeavor, and another experiment towards defining this method of artscience for historiography. Perhaps the most important finding from this artistic research in Djerassi was that art-science is most useful not actually as a connection between art and science. It is most useful when understood as an artistic invitation for flow between “human sciences” and “hard sciences.” In my particular case it is a body-centered performance, between critical history and mathematical logic.
A delegation of faculty and students representing Harvard’s graduate-level work in the arts recently traveled to Paris for an intensive exchange with colleagues at the arts/research PhD program within Université Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL), a new consortium of nine top-level French academic institutions with ten associate members. Our trip was a follow-up to the October 2017 Art as Research: A Transatlantic Dialogue in which Harvard and SACRe students and program directors presented at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
PSL’s SACRe Doctoral Program (Sciences, Arts, Creation, Research) shares similar goals and scope with Critical Media Practice, Harvard’s secondary field for PhD students. Both programs aim to integrate art-making with scholarly research at the graduate level and require students to produce both a written dissertation and an artistic project.
Our hosts planned a fascinating and packed program that involved events at all five of SACRe’s partner schools, which are spread throughout Paris. Each institution’s administrative leaders welcomed us and led a tour of their beautiful and historic facilities. Several schools also arranged for us to observe classes, exhibitions, rare musical instruments, robotics demonstrations, and hidden art pieces.
For us the heart of the visit was the Harvard and SACRe student presentations. Fourteen students each had about 30 minutes to introduce and show their work followed by questions and responses from faculty and other students.
The students in both programs span a continuum from artists whose work will find its place in the art world to scholars who use artistic practices to conduct or present their research. The most exciting projects truly unite artmaking and research. These were some of the highlights:
The exchange was a fantastic opportunity to interact with a consortium of world-class institutions who have launched a program with goals very similar to those of Harvard’s CMP field. Their faculty and students seem steeped in the same kinds of inquiry as ours and were impressed by our students’ stellar examples of true arts-based research.
I recently had the opportunity to present my robotic sound installation ‘Do You Like Cyber?’ – part of my ongoing research in Critical Media Practice – at Rome’s MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts for the exhibition ‘Low Form. Imaginaries and Visions in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,’ curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi.
‘Do You Like Cyber?’ is composed of three parametric speakers attached to swiveling robotic arms. Playing with the idea of deceitful messages, the speakers broadcast a series of short audio messages that were used by bots on the dating website Ashley Madison, which I retrieved after the site was hacked. These bots were programmed to engage the website’s users in online chats, getting them to subscribe to the website’s services. Despite the fact that the bots were designed to only contact males, they didn’t always function as they should have. This work focuses on a series of insubordinate bots that, in a post-anthropocentric fashion, displayed anarchic and unpredictable behaviors, such as chatting with each other for no apparent reason or contacting female users even if they weren’t programmed to do so.
With ‘Do you like Cyber?’ I wanted to put the autonomy and interaction between artificial entities at the center, while leaving humans only partially aware of their presence. For this reason, I decided to use unpredictable robotic arms and parametric speakers, which radiate sound in single focused directions rather than in all directions like traditional speakers. Additionally, their sound bounces off hard surfaces such as walls, creating virtual sound sources and making it difficult to detect its origin.
As an artist and researcher, I am particularly interested in exhibition formats that encourage theoretical reflection, and I also contributed to the exhibition catalogue, edited by CURA, with a short speculative text entitled “What is it like for a computer bot to be a computer bot?”.
A big thanks goes to GALLLERIAPIÙ for its backing, to FabLab Bologna Makeinbo for its technical supervision, to Kevin Ramsay for the sound editing, to Annalee Newitz for her fundamental insights on Ashley Madison’s data, and, obviously, to Harvard University – Critical Media Practice for its continuous support.
Featured artists in the show: Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman, Carola Bonfili, Ian Cheng, Cécile B. Evans, Pakui Hardware, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Nathaniel Mellors & Erkka Nissinen, Trevor Paglen, Agnieszka Polska, Jon Rafman, Lorenzo Senni, Avery K Singer, Cheyney Thompson, Luca Trevisani, Anna Uddenberg and Emilio Vavarella.
“What you make should be something that hasn’t been made before,” advised artist Xu Bing at a lively lunch with CMP students and FSC fellows last Thursday. Xu was visiting Harvard to show his film “Dragonfly Eyes” at the Harvard Film Archive and deliver a Kim and Judy Davis Dean’s Lecture in the Arts at Radcliffe Institute.
Xu described his desire to push people’s ways of thinking into a corner – to take things to a logical extreme so that they must question their assumptions. This approach definitely shows in “Dragonfly Eyes” and many of his other fascinating projects, including his wordless “Book from the Ground” which tells an entire story with only emoijis, icons, and punctuation. Xu said he was interested in the idea of this “new type of pictograph that is emerging globally – something everyone can read.”
Students sought advice on how to approach their own media projects, thoughts about working with found materials, and Xu’s feelings as one who collects things to be the object of contemporary art world collectors. Xu responded with inspiring words and great humor. Thank you to Radcliffe, Xu Bing, and translator Menglan Chen for making this happen!