The Visual Culture 2019 Keynote Lecture
Katherine Behar: “Digitally Divided: On Data and Divisiveness”
Data's Entry (2016)
In the durational performance Data's Entry, a dancer interacts with an unwieldy capsule-shaped QWERTY interface. In Data's Entry, the unforgiving surface of keyboard keys represents accumulated data and recalls the mind-numbing and dehumanizing repetition that is the basis of data entry. In this awkward performance, the dancer's body is both registered and rejected by the keyboard interface. The performer's struggle shows the obstacle of data's presence in our lives as we force our bodies into it through biometrics and grueling minutia.
FN (E-Waste) (2014)
The works in FN belong to E-Waste, a series of sculptures inspired by commonplace USB devices. The series centers on a science fiction scenario in which modest USB peripherals are doomed to continue working, long after the humans they were designed to serve have gone extinct. The gadgets are transformed into mutant fossils, encased in stone with lights blinking, speakers chirping, and fans spinning, eternally. Combining machine-made, handmade, and organic forms, the works in this series take on an extraterrestrial quality, highlighting the surplus of consumer media artifacts, and drawing attention to its environmental impact.
Street.s/wall.ing/in is a site-specific performance designed for the building at 32 Old Slip in Manhattan's Wall Street district. Dancers occupy orange shapes inspired by Jersey barriers: transient urban architectural forms that evoke construction, warning, and repair. Over the course of two and a half hours, the shapes gradually traverse the building's perimeter, tumbling and flipping against the wind, and clustering around the granite pillars of the building's arcade. Departing from the East River, they eventually arrive at a Jersey barrier cordoning the Northwest corner of the building. The performance concludes with the shapes' amassing in the barrier's furthermost nook.
3G56k is an intergenerational BDSM love affair between a touchscreen and a tower. A twelve-foot iPhone, outfitted in fetish garb and sporting an interactive touchscreen, employs the services of a human "dialer" and to call its love interest: a dialup modem inside a feminized, phallic, ten-foot tall, pink tower computer. 3G56k's touchscreen functions like an iPhone keypad on which the numbers have been erased. People are invited to dial numbers by using their entire bodies to roll, sit, squat, press, and rub on its unmarked, user-unfriendly surface. The touchscreen's microcontroller uses bodily touch input to dial a phone number, accessing a VoIP (Voice over IP) network to place the call, before finally connecting to the tower computer's 56k modem. With each call, an analog thermal fax slowly excretes through a vaginal zippered opening in the tower, accumulating a continuous, undulating image of the rubber hose connecting these mismatched machine protagonists.
A witch floats on a wall, sheathed in a scaly armor of keyboard keys. With her hands and feet bound and her eyes masked by light dimmers, she commands the color of a projection aimed over her body. Using a red divining rod and a projected red laser keyboard balanced on an acrylic pentagon, she types alphanumeric codes repeated by a computerized voice.
The Lace Card (For Ada Lovelace) (2006)
The Lace Card (For Ada Lovelace) is part of an ongoing series of works in which I perform computer bugs. When computer programs where written on punch cards, a card with all of its holes punched was called a "lace card." Lacking structural integrity, a card full of holes could cause bugs in a machine by crumpling inside of the card reader and causing it to jam. Punch cards remained popular throughout IBM's heyday and even into the early 1980s, but they have a much earlier history. In the early 1840s, Ada Lovelace became the world's first computer programmer by writing a program to calculate Bernoulli numbers using Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. In Babbage's design, the Analytical Engine manipulated a mechanical calculator through programs encoded on loops of punch cards, a method of data storage and transfer that Babbage had borrowed from the Jacquard loom. Punch cards permitted ongoing calculations to inform subsequent operations. Recognizing the significance of this logical structure, Lovelace was able to develop several key features of modern programming languages, including looping, branching, conditional logic, and sequential control. "The Lace Card" is a diptych photograph containing my message for Ada Lovelace.
Friday, April 12th
Wayne State University
Community Arts Auditorium
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
Free and open to the public
Katherine Behar is an interdisciplinary artist and critical theorist of new media whose work explores gender and labor in digital culture. In contexts spanning automated labor, mandated obsolescence, big data, and machine learning, Behar sets object-oriented feminism into practice in her art and writing. Her work connects feminist and antiracist post-colonial histories with a wave of new theories that grapple with the nonhuman object world.
In “Digitally Divided: On Data and Divisiveness” Behar presents her artwork with a focus on how, in a culture inundated by the overproduction of big data, algorithms dismantle and rearrange us. The logic/s of algorithms are to allocate complex data-driven systems into manageable portions, but this technical process has a social byproduct: dividing data results in divisiveness at the cultural level, too. Algorithms have been unleashed to mete out standardization and suppress idiosyncrasy across diverse and defiant populations of humans and nonhumans, in ways that are socially, technically, and conceptually reductive. This lecture brings together examples of Behar’s videos, interactive installations, sculptures, and performances, alongside episodes from media history and popular culture to explore this core notion of being “digitally divided.”
Anonymous Autonomous (2018)
Anonymous Autonomous is an interactive installation that transforms empty office chairs into driverless cars. Like autonomous vehicles, the chairs have motors, computer vision systems, lidar sensors, and onboard computers. They robotically navigate a floor drawing of road markings and avoid collisions. Viewers can engage the chairs' algorithms by crossing their paths and by laying strips of paper that serve as lane markings on the floor. The paper lanes reroute the chairs, creating a participatory abstract floor drawing that evolves over the course of the exhibition.
Not from Asia (2017)
Featuring a reCAPTCHA screenshot, Not from Asia is a puzzle toy that prompts humans to prove that they are not robots by typing the affirmation that they are "not from Asia." reCAPTCHA, a Google product promoted with the tagline "Easy on Humans, Hard on Bots," uses an algorithm to randomly pair words and phrases. Converted to images, reCAPTCHAs are challenging for image recognition software to decipher, but simple for literate humans to read. In this case, however, reCAPTCHA seems to imply that being "from Asia" logically precludes being human. When I encountered it online, this reCAPTCHA requested that I cynically affirm my humanity by disavowing my Asian heritage.
Data Cloud (A Heap, A Mass, A Rock, A Hill) (2016)
The word data first appeared in English in the phrase "a heap of data" in 1646. The word cloud dates to ninth-century Old English, when, spelled clúd, it meant a "mass of rock" or "hill." Today we imagine cloud computing and data as immaterial, but Data Cloud (A Heap, A Mass, A Rock, A Hill) renders them physically as a mound of keyboard keys. In this imagined interface, each key represents a singular input point or datum, but en masse they take on an analog dimension, becoming weighty, unwieldy, and grounded.
Cloud Profiles: Weightless Measures (2016)
Inspired by the Pera Museum's Anatolian Weights and Measures Collection, Cloud Profiles: Weightless Measures is a site-specific installation in the collection's permanent display. A powerful technological commodity, data seems poised to standardize the world by digitizing everything, transparently translating and transferring value under a universal standard of ones and zeros. Data is a contemporary manifestation of the same universal standards that began with physical weights and measures, but today's standards seem to have lost their weightiness. This animation cycle, showing a misshapen stone figure cloaked by wavering clouds of data and obscured by her own digital shadow, seeks to restore weight to data's measure. The project alludes to "cloud computing," a colloquial name for loosely networked, web-served applications and data storage that connotes an amorphous, innocuous nonentity. But to imagine the cloud as frictionless, immediate, or beyond critique is a "clouded" misperception that misses the gravity of these technologies.
Building Blocks (2008)
Building Blocks is a site-specific public performance and video project dealing with the architectural history of the Centrum Warenhaus. Located in the center of Dresden, the Centrum Warenhaus was a classic example of International-Style socialist architecture from the DDR. In 2007, the building was demolished to make way for a new shopping mall. In Building Blocks, four local dancers inhabited silver shapes modeled on elements from the missing building's distinctive aluminum "honey-comb" façade. The four traumatized fragments of the building briefly reconvened on their old ground, momentarily attempting to reassemble themselves. First congregating at the Centrum construction site, the shapes eventually dispersed and rolled away along the length of the Prager Strasse to the "Camouflash" exhibition site.
INimaging is a live performance and technology installation that imagines Life inside Photoshop. Three wandering geometric 3D polyhedrons roll slowly around a room, each inhabited by a lumpy yogi whose fleshy contortions move the shape. Based on Bit, a character from the 1982 Disney movie Tron, the shapes represent 'Yes,' 'No,' and a mysterious 'Maybe' that seems to violate binary logic. The polyhedrons are motion-tracked to "operate" a digital imaging process. Two act as Photoshop brushes, "drawing" and "erasing" an architectural image of the performance space, which the third overwrites with chaotic, digital noise. Small windows in the shapes offer an invitation for people to look inside.