Deeply influenced by my belief that neutrality in both art and design is a "burgeosie myth", my practice over the past academic year at the Piet Zwart Institute revolved around representational issues within the space of the digital multitude, the economics of immaterial labor and participatory culture as well as the extreme difficulties in dealing with distributed power when social, political and cultural differences are so easily obscured.
The function of myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence.
Barthes, Roland, 1957, Mythologies
Production of creative work of any kind comes often associated with research, both within the technical and the theoretical domains. This is no different from the approach I choose to take when I embark on a new project. Deeply influenced by my belief that neutrality in both art and design is a "burgeosie myth", as put by Roland Barthes, I often attempt to engage critically with the political, economical and cultural surroundings of the media landscape. The all-encompassing concept of ideology, particularly, is a difficult one to escape - otherwise known as "common sense", such designation testifies in favor of its successful representation as universal and of general interest. There's no possibility to talk about new economics within participatory culture without mentioning immaterial labor, and there's no way around class struggles when discussing labor and means of production. The space of the minorities within this so-called participatory culture is once again pervaded by ideological beliefs and stigmas. The friction between digital utopias and embodied realities is evocative of the power social construction represents when considering the subject, whose representation and perception of self are heavily defined by what, in Marxist theory, is called the superstructure. It is these tensions that I aim to further explore through my practice, in a delicate exercise to find balance between romanticist revolutionary naivety and downright disbelief in free will.
On the second chapter of "Bastard Culture" - "Claiming Participation", Mirkos Tobias Schäfer differentiates between cultural participation and participatory culture. Whilst the former is characterized by an intelectual elite deconstruction of cultural artifacts, the latter is imbued with concepts of DIY, prosumerism and action, construction and modification of cultural artifacts, there where software development becomes the "means of production of the digital age".
This participation can be, however, explicit and/or implicit. Explicit participation is driven by motivation, varying according to different users' skils. This motivation is not always altruistic or politically charged and users' context varies greatly, such as paid labor, leisure or unpaid voluntary work. Design implemented participation, otherwise known as implicit participation, allows for our leisure time to be commodified in big chunks of data extracted from our interactions and habits online.
My first attempt to encompass general concerns regarding ideology and participatory culture came to be in the form of the Slash News project. Slash News is a browser-based application that generates slash fiction from daily BBC RSS feeds and Harry Potter slash fiction, bringing into play ideas of promiscuity as deeply connected to power structures. As part of my interest towards our participation in culture and how that participation, even when explicit, is monetized implicitly, I tried to reflect on how can that explicit participation remain within the user’s domain. By mimicking the design of the BBC news website in a situationist prank fashion, I both try to make the source more visible and underline the fact that the “new meaning” these generated fictions produce was there all along, just not so transparent.
The paradigm shift of control society to disciplinary society allowed for the birth of the multitude, which does away with the collective identity of the laborer and mutes the political voice of the industrial era masses. Because implicit participation doesn't necessarily require collaboration and communication between users, there's no need for interaction, shared values or common goals. The ideological focus on the individual rather than on the collective presents difficulties to the formation of a political conscience. Not only that, but the political, social and cultural assymetries to be found within the digital multitude midst are an obstacle nearly impossible to transpose.
Social media, particularly, benefits from user generated content contributing to information management systems, which can be exploited for improving information retrieval or gathering user information for market research. According to Maurizio Lazzarato, the production of subjects and social relations coincides, then, with economical power.
The Immaterial Labor Union was exhibited as the headquarters for a social movement. On a big table there are pamphlets, flyers, stickers and a Metro newspaper with news about the union, as well as a computer where one can visit the movement website. There is also an agenda, a cup with pens and a coffee-maker. On the wall, posters, post-it notes and photos of campaigns can be seen. Once again, there was an interest on my part to continue exploring the possibilities of the situationist détournement.
The Immaterial Labor Union is born out of a desire to shunt from the atomization of the individual into the collective, to think about alternatives to the neoliberal grey area of the multitude and its permanent state of insulation. It refuses the technocratic graphing out of social relationships, the abstraction of the community to a network of edges and vertices carefully mined to more profitably design the subject. The union holds that a true knowledge economy is only worthy of such title when not dependent on power assymetries, and so demands transparency and control over the means of production - our own subjectivation.
Making use of deception and other ubiquitous strategies such as the instrumentalization of communities and factorization/machinization of social activity, the neoliberal apparatus has found ways to coopt yet another one of its critiques, labelling our current mode of exploitation under the "social" tag. To put it simply, the immaterial labor union intends to be a space of community reflection around the question: "How not to be seen, yet still be represented?"
Considering the vastness and contextual diversity of the multitude, it is of the uttermost importance to reflect upon the troublesome issues with representation. The grey area of the digital laborer further contributes to his/her cultural detachments, for it often informs social relations somewhere else without affecting their own. The information production cycles impact differently on subjectivity due to the immediate and direct effect on the domain where they are produced. The material relations between privileged and exploited thus affect the space of the minorities within the virtual realm, deeming it impossible to look past embodiement and embark in a digital utopia of consciousness uploading.
THE POSTHUMAN, CYBERFEMINISM, TECHNOFEMINISM
Notions of an utopian future, with the digital revolution shaking the foundations of traditional gender power relations, have shaped cyberfeminist theories - uploading our consciousness to the cyberspace, enacted embodiment as a source of gender identification would be out of the question; the days of biological slavery would be long past. However, as Katherine Hayles argues, it is necessary for us to pose the question as a feedback relation between embodiment and consciousness, for thought is dependent on the body that enacts it. By merging thought (represented body) and enacted body, technology produces the cyborg. Such ideas are mirrored in Judy Wajcman's assumption that technology both shapes and is shaped by social/gender relations.
Trying to bridge both extremes of feminist perspectives on technological change - an utopian view which embraces technology as total freedom as opposed to the dystopia which perceives technology as a sociotechnical product shaped by social relations which produce it - Wajcman, without downplaying the historical male dominance over the field of technology, proposes that the female "engagement with the process of technical change must be part of the renegotiation of gender power relations." Gendering across state, class, sexuality and nationality is also a source of analysis in similarities and differences which impact women's participation on technoculture.
The Gender Turing Test is a browser-base adaptation of the gender Turing test to distinguish between a man and a woman, which itself derives from the original Turing test to distinguish between human and machine. It relies on a database scraped from Linkedin, which contains the skill sets of 649 different users. The user's role is to drag these different skill sets to the column where they think they belong: masculine or feminine, according to how they perceive these skills. However, as Andrew Hodges put it, Turing's experiments are problematic due to their lack of understanding of the impact of sex, society and politics on what people might think, that is, they lack the realization that gender is nothing but a social construction. Turing's theories implied free will and free speech of the individual and often failed to consider the impact of power over the body.
This relationship between body and consciousness I try to make clear when presenting the results page to the user, which never lets them know either they were wrong or right because it can never be pinned down to such binaries. Instead it visually displays the perceptions of different users according to the percentage of masculine or feminine votes for each different set. My goal with this experiment is to further utilize it as a research tool, to feed it back to my readings on Technofeminism and hopefully go one step further in understanding representational issues.
As stated before in the introduction, concerns about ideology, even when not explicitly mentioned, strongly permeate my research-based practice. Whilst it might be easily discarded as too cliché a subject, its ubiquitousness makes it nearly impossible to avoid, and more so when considering the economical and political impacts of representation.
Continuing with the "Immaterial Labor Union", my prospects are to further investigate the intricate power assymetries that constitute the space of the minorities within the digital multitude, exploring how they impact on subjectivation and subsequent political representation.
Barthes, Roland. "Myth Today." Mythologies.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. "Immaterial Labor." Immaterial Labor. Trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emery. Web. February/April/May/June 2014. <http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm>
Schäfer, Mirko Tobias. "Claiming Participation." Bastard Culture!. Print.
Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago, 1999. Print.
Wajcman, Judy. TechnoFeminism. Cambridge: Polity, 2004. Print.