the data issue

 

Recently I wrapped up one of the more exciting projects I've ever worked on. I was the co-guest editor, along with Marvin Jordan, of a special issue of DIS magazine. Known as the Data Issue it took as its starting point the rise of so-called "big data", or more broadly the series of shifts associated with the ubiquitous nature of parallel processing, large data sets, and digital networks. 

The issue was predicated on a simple adjustment to the current discourse in art and theory. While various discussions and art practices are focused on the circulation of images and their potential vis-a-vis "the internet," the issue took for its main subject the totalizing effect of the massive amounts of data with which we are now imbricated as social subjects. These are data that are stored on the backend of ubiquitous platforms, without user interfaces, much less accessible on the consumer web. A central thesis for the Data Issue was that the most interesting things are happening off screen.

The works and texts were attempts to explore the intermingling of bodies in "datafied terrains", (to paraphrase an excellent paper on the topic) that are subject to new architectures and social relationships.

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

What kind of subjectivity is produced when the museum adapts to the metabolism of the database? What role is left for institutional critique?  Hito Steyerl has interrogated the varying types of subjects produced by the past stages of institutional critique. In “The Institution of Critique” (2006) Steyerl offers a framework for the present museological predicament. For Steyerl, each wave of institutional critique was founded on different ideas about the public sphere. The first wave of institutional critique implicated a socio-political public sphere, and it primarily concerned the institution's entanglements with the nation-state. The second wave implicated identity politics and aspired to “integration into representation.” But the most recent wave of institutional critique is trapped by neoliberal models, where the logic emerges from a fully-commodified public sphere. Here the institution’s only recourse is to mount a protectionist defense, as it has already started to operate in the logical arena of the unbridled free market capitalism. A state of deep precarity results as there are decreasingly workable answers to why the enlightenment institutions should still hold weight in a public sphere defined by digital exchange.

source: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/steyerl/en/base_edit

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

Part of Rhizome's  #internetsubjects series, "#uberwar and the "Sharing" Economy" investigated the broader social, economic, and political implications of services like Airbnb and Uber. This was the first of Rhizome's "flash" panels which are conceived in less than a week and hosted at the New Museum.

It was one of the better panel discussions I've been to; clearly the best in recent memory. It included Denise Cheng (MIT Center for Civic Media), Rob Horning (The New Inquiry), writer Kate Losse, and Melissa S. Fisher (Social & Cultural Analysis, NYU).

I put together a quick roundup for Rhizome. Though there was little chance I could do it justice. So many great points were made, and from many different perspectives.

Solidarity after "Sharing:" Notes on Internet Subjects #1

 

I've finally gotten around to cleaning up and posting my remarks from Theorizing the Web 2014 from April. I am trying to do "Platform Studies" for the various vendors of big data analytics and architectures, paying close attention to the often ignored parts of big data commentary, that being the hardware and software and their implications for epistemology and historiography. I've posted the talk here.

 

"When new sources of data suddenly hit a system and there are not enough tools or schemas to deal with them, a common reaction is to deny the agency of the data sources. Then, for a brief period, to suspend interpretation until new tools are built to handle the new variety. My fundamental point is that this occurs both with cultural discourses as well as with information. Big data, then, is likewise an attempt at forming new flexible schemas in order to continue the project of interpretation under radically new conditions."

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

Other points that are generally missing from most breathless internet utopian essays are the fact that:

1. The infrastructure that enables the "internet", and most of its applications, are owned and operated by private corporations

...and, more recently...

2. That the end of "net neutrality" has potentially disastrous implications for all of the emancipatory notions of the net.

If there was anything revelatory about Stereyl's essay it would have perhaps been a nod to the end of "net neutrality" as perfectly indicative of the internet being dead, but this wasn't mentioned in the essay nor even foreseen as a potential consequence of private corporations moving to capitalize on what seems to be posited here as an autonomous social force disconnected from any class interests. I am wary of Medium as much as the next person (the Tech-Bro soap box par excellence), but this is a nice little run down of what the end of "net neutrality" might hold.

Another thing Stereyl perhaps meant, but didn't make it explicit, when she said “build new Internets” along side the dead one was the plan that is being proposed in this Medium article, namely municipal broadband. But one wonders how we treat the “Internet” differently when it comes to us from local government. What would happen to the utopian visions?

 


 

 

"I would like to make clear...that Mr. Wright...was not interested in the plan proposed by our curator—a plan which involved a lucid chronological exposition of Wright's development, particularly as regards his handling of space. For six months, the Department of Architecture had been planning and working upon a catalog which would have comprised a great deal of factual and critical material, including essays by a half-dozen of the foremost architects and architectural historians in this country. Mr. Wright refused to permit the publication of the catalog as planned although it had been intended as a tribute to him. It was then too late to prepare a new publication. At the beginning of one of our conversations here at the Museum, Mr. Wright announced, 'I am a very difficult man.' We agree, but we still believe him to be the greatest living architect."

 

Alfred Barr's letter to the editor, Parnassus 13, no. 1 (January 1941): 3, as quoted by Richard Meyer in What Was Contemporary Art? (MIT, 2013)

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AuthorMike Pepi

For the Brooklyn Rail:

 Jason Dodge,  What we keep doing to ourselves.   Photo: Jean Vong, Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York 

Jason Dodge, What we keep doing to ourselves. Photo: Jean Vong, Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York 

"Somewhere above pastiche and below innovative commentary, Dodge is reaching backward but leaning forward. He makes the world feel small by condensing international phenomena into concise, understated objects whose circuitry is modestly laid before us. Dodge the conceptualist collapses the whole world into a stylish gallery space; Dodge the artist seems less interested in philosophy than in making it all look good; and Dodge the poet maintains a practice of making the viewer pull together what his dealer remarks are 'phenomena that I cannot experience but that I know exist.'"

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

I would like to thank Antoinette Rouvroy (@arouvroy) for her comments in response to an essay I wrote recently about the connected discourses surrounding postmodernism and the nascent discussions of "Big Data." While in no way was the essay perfect in an academic sense, it was my hope that it would at least start to lend a hand in a larger assessment of a phenomenon that has great implications for culture, epistemology, and historiography. Rouvroy's criticisms are right on point, I think, because they scrutinize Big Data in the same manner. Though ultimately she seems to reach a different conclusion, a conclusion which I welcome and hope to consider as a way to sharpen my own position. 

While the comments were in twitter form, I think I grasp their point. However, I think they merit more than 140 characters in response, and I would like to continue the dialogue below.

 

Point one:

Despite what I think is a valid reading of the essay, I don't know that I necessarily equate analytics with a quest for certainty as much as I want/meant to point to the method of data collection and integration that analytics engages in, and what that says about the value given to empiricism. Big Data is a hyper-empiricism because, now that we can finally use so many more data, we potentially reanimate the critiques leveled at narrative during the end of Modernity. This began to seem, to me, to be very similar the loosening of historical agency that either lead to or was an outcome of postmodernism's imperative to take into account new types of cultural production and/or anti-teleological developments.

At its heart this essay was about historiography, and for me the shifts from modernist accounts to postmodern accounts carried the same ideological changes. A quote from Charles Harrison, historian and member of the conceptual art group Art & Language, brings this into light. For Harrison Modernism prized, or in fact required, “a critical difference and development with respect to other recent and approved ‘major’ work in the same medium—which tended to be sculpture or painting.” This again reminded me of issues of data integrity that come with traditional relational databases, something many Big Data frameworks attempt to circumvent through innovations in storage and organization. 

 

Point Two:

The above is a good point, and an example of how Big Data is at this point a catch-all term for both a research method (medicine, sociology, etc..) and a storage infrastructure (e-commerce, computing etc..) among other things. While this difference is obvious on its face, the difference also extends to the ideological questions I tried to raise, and so I think it makes some sense to separate them. In its manifestations in e-commerce, advertising, or risk models, etc.. I think Big Data does implicitly promise a sort of decisioning power that is assessed at the individual level. I don't deny that it contributes "to [a] multiplicity of impersonal behavioral patterns," though this aspect of its application has looser ties to the shift from relational databases to schema-less databases that is the heart of the discourse I am investigating.

One comment in response to this piece (written elsewhere) said "big data is just statistics with lots of data." While in part this is true, when you begin to ask about what kind of data are being used, then the structures required to process and store these data start to mimic the developments that accompanied the end of modernist teleology and narrative. Also, it would be a mistake to assume that the "just statistics" doesn't carry its own assumptions about knowledge. 

 

Point Three:

You noted the problems with the word "truth" above, and here I think it relates to your third point. In the end the word "truth" is scary and loaded even if you are talking about the denial of it existing as a knowable entity. So I suppose its use here was muddling my point: really I am concerned with the means and not the ends of Big Data. And perhaps here we could start to see a funny shape emerging here. When people talk about Big Data the marketing speak focuses on the ends, where most all of the other stuff is about the methods and tools, literally the breakthroughs in data science. So the layman's descriptions traffic in a language of "pinpointing", "discovery", "enhancement", that uses certainty as a form of currency, even it somehow knows it won't deliver it. It explains its worth by favorable comparison to legacy systems that could not "handle" everything "out there." What is "out there" is a another question about the promises its end users make for themselves. Postmodern accounts were, like Big Data, an answer to the modernist account that simply had a logic embedded in it that did not allow it to "scale up".

 

Final Point:

This last point is a strong conclusion built off of the initial statements about multiplicity and neutrality. We agree that Big Data carries with it a critique of existing assumptions and, in turn, knowledge structures, what with the way it holds out the promise to "reveal" and/or counter accepted notions about our world, a business, or a group of actors on a historical stage. 

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AuthorMike Pepi

There is a new breed of digitally inclined flâneur who go to museums incessantly and post a stream of images that I think can be equated with "exhibition porn." You know it when you see it. This simply broadcasts their selections and re-anoints the objects already selected to be displayed. [NAME REDACTED] does this famously along with a few other people who i've just unfollowed. I guess I might be anti-populist, but I just don't think it helps anyone to do this inane transmission of museum trips as if we are waiting with bated breath.  We already know you're spending less than 20 seconds in front of each piece, and snapping an amateur photo of the work is not somehow enhancing that already trivial engagement.  Or perhaps it is not anti-populism as much as anger at a misdirected populism. This behavior not only telegraphs the supposedly populist sharing, one shot through with the identity performance of the self, but also misaligns the site of the physical museum as an object of rapid digital reproduction, a situation which makes its supposed educational power all the more tenuous. 

 

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AuthorMike Pepi

I anticipated a number of responses to an essay I published with The New Inquiry recently regarding the epistemologies of postmodernism and the rise of Big Data as a cultural phenomena. There were several risks here, not least the ridiculously small audience that would overlap across tech and philosophy fields. People were bound to have a problem with my formulation of postmodernism, "Big Data", or the very fact that these discourses are even related. In fact that was part of the impetus. At first glance, their similarities lay in their historical contingencies and myths. They both have a sort of ideology that accompanies them. The fundamental point of the essay was that there are epistemological parallels in the shift from modernity to postmodernity and the shift from relational SQL databases to Big Data analytics and schema-less noSQL databases along with some its larger "goals." To borrow a phrase from the tech world, Modernity wasn't built to scale.

A few central points that pull that into sharper focus are below.

"Postmodern relativism was a cultural crisis instigated by too much data, as the volume, variety, velocity, and veracity of cultural inputs expanded. The arguments about contingency that animated poststructuralism, literary theory, feminist theory, and the postcolonial were each in their own way a declaration that the way we received, stored, and analyzed data was ignorant of and insufficient for entire sections of cultural production."

"Big Data might come to be understood as Big Postmodernism: the period in which the influx of unstructured, non-teleological, non-narrative inputs ceased to destabilize the existing order but was instead finally mastered, processed by sufficiently complex, distributed, and pluralized algorithmic regime."

You can read the full piece here.

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

"Most affecting about the British twelve (including Lea Andrews, Keith Coventry, Liam Gillick, and Gary Hume) is the alacrity with which they pile into a game that shows abundant signs of being lost. The game is contemporary art as, at least a seriously pleasing organ of cultured sensation, intellect, and feeling, susceptible to excitements and disquiets significant beyond itself. Fewer and fewer now are the game’s professionally unaffiliated spectators. Smaller and smaller grow the stakes. Be it recorded, nonetheless, that the Britons blew through New York with a pizzazz that will merit them and their native scene the ongoing attention of whoever keeps score around here."

 

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

In what is still very much experimental participation, I published my first story on medium last night. The concept is novel and combines the all the mechanics of how we share and consume into a solid publishing machine for the "digital age." Algorithms of taste abound. At best (or worst), if this model catches on it will, in pure "siren server" fashion, end the need for the entire prestige-based community that currently revolves around contemporary writing, editing, and publishing. In their ideal scenario, I would never again have to endure the arduous (well, not so arduous at all) process of pitching an essay, getting approval, and then taking several rounds of edits before publishing. Their "collections" feature also essentially lets you appoint yourself editor of a magazine. It's the free market at work in the guarded realm of publishing. I made my first post a critique of the practice of estimating the read times for online articles. As you can imagine, this is something that is sort of symptomatic of the very raison d'etre of such sites, so I try to bring some context to this transformation.

It is a 4 minute read.

 

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

This requires full quote. Here is critic Daniel Mendelsohn on deadlines:

Q: Judging from previous interviews, you are a great perfectionist as a writer. What role does time play in your criticism? When do you feel you’re ready to write a piece?

A: I am a great believer in deadlines. I come from a scholarly background, having done a graduate degree in Classics before I ever dreamed of being a writer; and in that world, the rule is that you can’t write anything until you’ve read everything. So for a person like me, with that training but making a living as a writer for the past 20-something years, it’s useful to impose limits, as I could spend years researching a piece. Obviously you want some things to be timely—there are certain things that are momentous in the culture that you want to be discussed at the right time. For instance, I published a big piece about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the New York Review of Books when it came out in 2009, and I remember trying to get it moved to a slightly later issue, mostly because I was so caught up in figuring it out, doing more research on the mid 20th-century French thinkers who inspired Littell, and Bob Silvers was emphatic that he wanted it to coincide with the publication, so I spent a rather madcap weekend working it up…which, in the end, was the right thing, as Bob knew well. Sometimes it’s good to have a push to get it done.

 

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AuthorMike Pepi

1/n...

There is bad writing. Many press releases are written poorly. But I think Rule and Levine contribute to the conflation of IAE with bad writing. Worse is to cite IAE as part of your general opposition to theory. Even worse is that they "other" IAE as unfamiliar and deviant from the British National Corpus. I have always been wary of the article’s supporters who quickly draw the connection to the larger role of theory. The practical issue with IAE, and the reason for its ridiculousness, is that it is often performed by untrained writers trying to compensate for an exhibition that often is not all that original or good. Just think of all of our lovely far-flung biennials! Have you ever wanted to "reassess" things in a corrupt, oil-rich emirate? 

For every bastardized concoction of words ending in "-tion" we encounter in a press release, there is an artwork out there somewhere(else) that at some point may have actually merited such a claim. Press releases are reluctant, forced art writing (in the slightest way they broadly qualify as art writing). They are tantamount to being assigned to write a review of new work each month that must not only be positive but also must make the work seem unique. Often press releases need to use these acrobatics to fit into the limited space. No wonder they can sound so strange. But IAE article doesn't really address the issue of word counts or length--common constraints of the press release author. 

 

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AuthorMike Pepi

3/n...

Chat Room's generally post-internet worldview awoke again when members tested O'Neill's definition of the now popularized verb "to curate," as now practiced by nearly anyone with a social media account. O'Neill's defense was to site this battle upon the "praxis" of the curator who, he said, must work with art or artists. This tautology struck the class as sort of hidebound to the decadent postcolonial biennial circuit of the 1990s and 2000s, or the late Manifestas, Documentas, and Performas. Boris Groys touches on this in his new book Going Public, "Today, there is no longer any 'ontological' difference between making art and displaying art. In the context of contemporary art, to make art is to show things as art. So the question arises: is it possible, and, if so, how is it possible to differentiate between the role of the artist and that of the curator when there is no difference between art's production and exhibition." O'Neill's book helpfully included Andrea Fraser's definition of the institution of art as a condition of its existence as such: "art is art when it exists for discourses and practices that recognize it as art..."

 

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

A lot of hand-wringing occurs when an auction record is broken. There is a distortion, though, in the outrage and response to Christie's and Sotheby's respective showings this week. There is nothing "bad" about these sales. By no means would I cheer on the market--which has on the whole deleterious effects on the sphere of the visual arts--but the fact that such vast values are ascribed to the subjects of our study and production should not be too quickly decried. Of course, it's a bit sickening when this value is expressed in dollars. There could be a middle road where we let the super-rich spend what they wish, and be at least a little redemptive of the fact that they compete over mid-century masters instead of struggling banks, distressed loans, or mining ventures. (though they still do...) What well-organized left ever made it a priority to spend time, energy, and anxiety on the frivolous exploits of the super-rich? Socialist progress occurs quite independent of the outlandish spending habits of oligarchs and new money. Let them buy their last Warhol and meanwhile workers will achieve healthcare and equality. (Frankly, I'm convinced their money is better spent on a Léger than a lobbyist). But the reaction is all too often simply soak the rich, near-Palinesque populism. What is more pressing are the issues that lead to the accumulation of wealth, as pointed out by Art Fag City today.

(title inspired by Grey Goon)

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AuthorMike Pepi

2/n...

How do you effectively judge or comment upon a post-colonial biennial? At most you can stand back as a flat-footed spectator, nod, and engage the sprawling vision with an antiseptic relationship to its "organizational strategies." Is the international hyper-curator engaged in a zero sum game with the waning role of the critic? This is, mind you, the critic-as-critic, or critic/critic/critic; a peculiar species of high modernism. Before they were forced to react to the God head wisdom of the celebrity curator, who probably also started out as a theorist-critic, but succumbed to the careerist pressure to "do", be pro-active, not just "write", which is most often forced into a reactive relationship to the "curated" work.  This occurs even though the critic and the curator are in theory (but not in practice) doing the same work -- arranging, selecting, contextualizing, and presenting works of art and artists. We should decide what we lost when we entered the age of the "slash." Did we insulate curatorial practice by weakening one of the "estates" in the production and reception of art by forcing it to merge with the active role of the curator? Is it conservative to pine for the "pure", singular voice of the critic who merely reacts, write, and accompanies artistic production with purposive text? 

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AuthorMike Pepi

 

A part of Gillick’s “accusation” is that the artist is the perfect “knowledge worker.” This has important implications for a question central to Marxist aesthetics. Some recent discussion about the artist’s class position (see Davis, 9.5 Theses) have focused on their entrepreneurial nature—that their personal fulfillment and their professional fulfillment have significant overlap. Gillick, too, contests partly that the “accusation” is that artists offer little to no alternatives to the neo-liberal model of entrepreneurship. Artists “communicate and behave in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment and exchange of everyday life.” Resulting “moments of stress and collapse” in their practice are a natural outgrowth of the resistance to a possible “realm of permanently unrewarding work.” Gillick seems to advocate not for expression in art but instead for a contextual “breakdown of the barriers between work, life, and art.” He reminds us that the fact that "it is superficially hard to determine observable differences between the daily routines and operations of a new knowledge worker and an artist is precisely because art functions in a close parallel track to the structures that is critiquing.” 

3/n... 

The attempt to fit artistic production into neat categories of commodity relations, since at least the 1970s, has been a complete quagmire that ignores the immaterial, discursive, (perhaps neo-Trotskyite), practice so endemic to “contemporary art.” Gillick explains that “art is a series of scenarios/presentation that create new spaces for thought and critical speculation.” Further “art is” not a functioning relationship of producer and consumer structured by a pre-determined imperative to work, but an “ethical equation where assumptions about function and value in society can be operated upon.” For Gillick, they are at best “capitalizing” upon an immaterial labor or good, a situation afforded to them by the “constant restructuring” of the “models of the recent past.” “The notion that artists are a perfect analogue for the flexible entrepreneurial class is a generational concept that merely masks a lack of differentiation in observation of practice and the devastating fact that art is in a permanent battle with what came just before.” Some have even advanced the proposition that artists should be paid for their work/time when included in exhibitions. But how do we engage them in such a materialist position in light of this? How do we use precise terms to pin down commodity relations when at every turn the practice "defies the logic of capital"?  

2/n…

Gillick writes of the artist's capitalization of the mind – the “accusation” is that they are “in thrall to the processes of capitalization.” He then defines this by investigating scenarios of control the artist apes from capital. These structures include leisure, deadlines, ethics, research and documentary practice, the limitation of the commodity, and the promise of a better life. Capitalization is sometimes predatory. I lean towards its definition as “interest capitalization” because that is the most predatory of the various uses of the term in finance. The principal balance in this case is the loan that culture, Modernism disburses to the art, the license to work in the free zone of play and immaterial scenarios. The artist then moves through a practice in Gillick’s characteristically “discursive” manner, constantly looking to take the advances made and “capitalize” them back upon of the balance of his territory of “continually mutating” exchange. 

 

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AuthorMike Pepi