This coming November, GROUND SERIES will be presenting the work of Free the Body at the 2022 Build Up, Inc. conference entitled: Build Peace: Exploring the Unseen in Chemnitz, Germany. Conference presenters have been charged with sharing, through our own “personal experiences, stories and methods of what has and has not worked, and curiosities and questions”, key thematics and central concerns put forth by conference organizers - here, most specifically illuminated through the Free the Body project.
Below is the conference’s theme and mission statement, as it appears in the conference materials and on the conference website:
Exploring the unseen is about dealing with the less-visible sides of the digital and physical societal space, which are often overlooked through the emergence of dominant narratives amidst conflict. This exploration cannot happen without an active questioning of power: Unseen by who? By what structures? By what individuals? Exploring the unseen, similarly, cannot happen without a recognition of where the unseen thrives: Where is transformation happening where others might not be looking? How is movement forming outside of dominant narratives? What relationships are harnessing new and innovative power?
Our online and offline realities cannot be divorced from each other — we can look at them together to understand what unites us, what divides us, and how in between the cracks of those answers, there are existing formations that offer us tools to build both relationships and our capacity to respond to each other peacefully. To do this effectively, we need to understand lies below the surface, together. What are the unseen or previously silenced perspectives, stories, people and places that need attention, and what are the environments impacting their histories of (in)visibility?
The focus of the next three Free the Body blog entries will center around three elements of our work as it applies to conference themes and queries. These notions are: first, the act of space hacking – dismantling, challenging, and/or utilizing constructed “algorithmographies” (Shoorcheh, 2021) in our life-worlds to re-establish self-determination; second, allaying the effects of what author Peter Nelson refers to as the “digital neural amplification” (2021) of paranoid ideation derived from the “digital world”, as we return to a haptic, intentionally somatic phenomenology of experience, freeing ourselves from a seemingly all-encompassing and pervasive culture of social imprisonment designed to attract and program us in order to supplicate our deepest needs to it and imprison ourselves within it; and in Blog 13, how Free the Body directly addresses some of the key issues and mandates put forth by conference organizers writ large, such as subaltern community organizing and formal conflict transformation work.
Space Hacking Geocentricities Within Algorithmography…Huh?
In his short, but pointed, 2021 essay Hacking Spatial Causalities in the Algorithmographies, author Mahmood Shoorcheh highlights what he considers (as do the conference organizers) the inextricably intertwined presence and defacto influence of our digital worlds (virtual spaces) and our physical worlds (terrestrial spaces). He cites, explicitly and understandably, the presence of digital, mobile, surveilling assessment technologies as central in this regard. However, he argues that “spatial digital technologies (have) led us to delegate our spatial capabilities to algorithms, due to the fact that they are more capable than humans in terms of monitoring, saving, and processing huge amounts of data and information.” Assuming this view, Mr. Shoorcheh then asserts that, “human spatial capabilities with respect to terrestrial spaces are being transferred to spatial algorithms in the virtual spaces.” Hence, “spatial causalities of geography will become…spatial causalities of “algorithmography” due to the pervasive data gathering, powerful computation ability and mechanized influence of proposed and/or offered possibilities upon environments and, ultimately, their bodies.
But must these computations and influence-efforts define human capacities and capabilities? Or senses and sensibilities? If so, why? And how? Is not unquestioned obedience to the proverbial equals-sign its own constraint? And does that will to self-constraint of the imagination not get transferred into the public sphere, reifying a concretist worship to a proposed rationalism as its own prison of supposed limitations? And if not, why not? And how is this avoided?
As stated in previous blog entries, human beings have certainly demonstrated, throughout history, the ability – the capacity – the capability - to create what was never there before – sometimes, unpredictably. In this way, humans liberate opportunity, action, health, and survival, as well as, truly, more dystopian goals. Moreover, human beings have preferences which can change. Lastly, a full human being has one’s own psycho-social directives, ranging from fear to conscience to hope, etc. – i.e. human beings, given their own analytics, sensibilities, and variables, have choice. Can any of the above be explored through a proposed algorithm? Of course. Are they all possible subjects to, or instigators of, chance? Absolutely.
Responsibly, Mr. Shoorcheh duly cites “Actor-Network Theory” (ANT) as a particular tool of algorithmography’s critics. While Free the Body shares some tools of digital algorithmography, it more closely aligns itself, by its nature, with ANT. Notably, this theory examines the influence that actors of all kinds (human, animal, environmental) have upon a situation, in network, with regard to one another in the pervasive social context. Bruno Latour writes, “Actor-Network Theory is the claim that the only way to achieve (the) reinjection of (the facts manufactured by natural and social sciences and the artefacts designed by engineers) into our understanding of the social fabrics is through a network-like ontology and social theory.” (Latour, 1997) Importantly, Mr. Latour offers a surrogate unification of algorithmography and “Actor-Network Theory” by pointing out that Deleuze’s “rhizomes” (roots, as of a tree, expanding outward from a point of instigation) are both present throughout their systems (which are always in flux), as well as within each nodal point. One might recall notions of the intrapsychic and Carol Gilligan’s theory of interrelationality from previous blog entries when considering the open-source examinations of ANT.
Here, ANT edges out algorithmography as a system of critical investigation, causality, and predictor, as it does not limit itself to either virtual spaces or algorithms. In fact, as Mr. Shoorcheh points out in his essay, “…one of the most important properties of algorithmography is the irrelevance of people to the physical places and spaces as opposed to the relevance of people in virtual places and spaces.” As such, it would seem that algorithmography is more of a localized tool focused on assessing events within and through its own language and sphere of direct occurrences, rather than a hybrid model – irregardless of its multi-level data collection of hybrid identities (Haraway) and their hybrid habitus, both on a spectrum - while then influencing events outside of its own sphere of ownership to, in fact, broaden that sphere. Sounds a lot like Robert Moses’ invasive urban planning and gentrification efforts to me.
Still, in the spirit of abolitionism, we shouldn’t reduce assessment to an unuseful binary. Rather, let’s maintain the view of complimentary differences, so the imaginary of “one or the other” ideations may give way to “one and the other” and may inspire a “best of each” scenario. But does algorithmography allow such cooperation? Mr. Shoorcheh often circles back to Bio-Tech and Info-Tech as key players in his presentation and formulation as illustrative, though they are but two key analogues and players for the digital-physical life topography of algorithmic application which we inhabit and into which we are moving more deeply. Mr. Shoorcheh warns of the technocratic unilateralism that algorithmography alludes. He writes, “Bio-Tech and Info-Tech pose (a) far greater challenge than the challenges that steam engines, railways, and electricity posed…with unprecedented data processing (that) will lead to the formation of big-data algorithms which can most likely take away authority from humans and transfer it to algorithms.” He even goes so far as to posit, “this could be the primitive stage of a transformation in which there is a transfer of the terrestrial spatial causalities to the virtual spatial causalities” and that we will soon need to “understand virtual causalities in spatial algorithms.” Certainly, given the hyper-digitization of our sensory life-world and life-interface, that time is now.
So, is the human becoming invisibilized by social media algorithms? Or by our cultural worship of those algorithms in the service of a connection to an ordered, god-like stature? By insurance company algorithms? Or by our own cultural worship of those algorithms in the service of a feeling of individualized immortality Power as “awarded” by capitalism? By surveillance capitalism? Or by our cultural worship of those algorithms in the service of supplication to a hunger for abundance within capitalism’s scarcity ethic – or to an all-protective overlord? Or blind, capricious submission to the fatalism of mortality, itself, under a watchful, threatening eye?
Free the Body addresses, affirms, and challenges the presence of algorithmography as one documentation and assessment practice (if not a conclusive one), as well as the associated causations and causalities Mr. Shoorcheh addresses. While Free the Body centers its work in the terrestrial causal sphere, such as the human body, social interaction, haptic orientation, performance space, auditory impulses, sculpture, movement, etc., these all arrive from and with their own “algorithmic” originaries and causal relationships from and into the world. Further, the project incorporates digital, spatial algorithmographies to actualize key components of work – most notably collaboration (access to technology, exposure, communication technologies, etc.), music production (the digital studio, file sharing, public dissemination), storytelling (voice memo submissions, portability of digital field recording, archival abilities), etc. – with the limitations inherent in all of these mediums.
This is where the “space hacking” of all of Free the Body’s work, against all “algorithmic walls” of predisposition and/or predestination, most obviously emerges. It is also where the Free the Body project and Mr. Shoorcheh’s thought on algorithmography most closely aligns. For while there may be patterns of behavior and patterns of effect, humans create. But that creativity is often hidden – willfully or otherwise. Free the Body intentionally recontextualizes a traditionally visual arts exhibition space into a shifting – terrestrial – topography of the moving physical world – sound, dance, voices, stories, rooms crossfading into and out of one another, juxtapositions of style and tone, size and shape, constraints and liberations - and the witness-participation of audience members, themselves, as they wish and to the degree they wish. Even the entrance to the building is redefined outside of its typical assignment. As attendees are met with art outside the space, the attendees have already entered. Similarly, as one leaves through the “Exit”. How does one liberate one’s body within the context of the presentation? How is one free as one’s own construct within another construct? How are all modes of construct willfully unconceived in the moment? And then reconceived? How is the freedom to be still also the freedom to move? Think of all the implicit rules which we assume govern the causal relationships between the above examples, ourselves, and others. Free the Body incites – almost necessitates - a dismantling of these and other preconceptions, so that true conceptions of living may occur. Moreover, through movement within the performance space and beyond, how does one appear as a terrestrial space – a “geographicity”?
Mr. Shoorcheh, clearly a humanist at heart, aligns his wonder of algorithmography with his ethic of care for the world. Even as Free the Body renders the world smaller (in the performance space), it also renders it more open, and more visible. Similarly, Mr. Shoorcheh writes, “…technology, and relational networks give us opportunities that we have never had before. These capabilities have made the world smaller, more open, and more visible.” He continues to cite the very modality of any performance medium capable of injecting poignant experiences: time-space compression. What could possibly “space hack” more than a mode of expression that compresses our normative experience and habitus of time and space? Creative, engaged humanism. For this is exactly what Free the Body, abolitionism, feminism, women’s rights, abortion rights, human rights, peace education, socially engaged art, participatory art, and conflict transformation (duly noted in the creation and use of complimentary binaries) embody and for which they advocate. Shoorcheh continues: “Time-space compression makes everyone accessible…It also increases the number of minds which can be brought in to work together - not only on the common issues and problems but also on common dreams of humankind.” Access. Collaborative Reality. Understanding. Empathy. Solutions. Action. Safety Living. Home.
Free the Body congregates. It moves and removes (to paraphrase George Clinton) normative notions and grows them to new ideas, digests past harms into future mores, dispels “disability” to fresh pathmaking. “Compromising between the proper balance of the algorithmic and humanistic sides is highly recommended. We have to use information technology and relational networks,” writes Shoorcheh. “Information and communication technologies (ICT), like societal processes of any sort, can only be tools to development, not ends in themselves. They do not operate in a social or ethical vacuum…The correct question to ask was not “are these technologies right?” but “who are they right for, and why?” And we’re back to Power. The Power to create and open spaces and opportunities. And the Power to constrain, to imprison the personal, cultural, social, and political bodies. And the Power to be free of both and self-determine living. Shoorcheh concludes, “In the path of the new initiatives that we can undertake there are ample virtual and physical spaces for creativity, innovation, and learning.”
Latour, B. (1997). “On Actor Network Theory”. Centre for Social Theory and Technology. Keene University, UK.
Shoorcheh, M. (2021). Hacking Spatial Causalities in the Algorithmographies. Academia Letters, Article 2376. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL2376.
Nelson, P. (2021). Digital Neural-Amplification: Paranoia and Digital Media. Academia Letters, Article 3682. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL3682.
Written by Peter DiGennaro, Sound Artist/Human Rights Educator