For an Erotics of Data

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

… the erotic is not a question of only what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)

In our contemporary technological societies we are swamped by data, almost our every action and behaviour now measured, collated, processed and inscribed as data somewhere by something for someone. Data leaks from us much as our skin sheds dead cells – a digital dust that accumulates in often unseen piles in corners and parts of the online world where we may not always go, or be allowed to go, ourselves. It becomes mixed with other types and forms of data to become something like a viscous film that then pervades and coats the diverse environments we inhabit and, indeed, even fills the very air we breathe through the waves of its electro-magnetic transmissions. As our lives progress it begins to cloy our options and choices, accreting invisibly to what options we are offered by automated decision-making systems, affecting our lives in ways we struggle to discern, always with the nagging sense that some traces of what we have done previously have become determinants in how our world is being progressively shaped by these external forces.

How can we empower ourselves through a relationship with and to data? Not just to be its subjects, carried along by unfeeling, reductive logics? Being empowered would require us to assume agency, to be directly engaged in the processes of making meaning from data. It would be an opportunity for us to re-define our relationship to data not just on purely functional bases, but in an embodied way, encompassing all that it is to be a sentient, sensual being.

Eroticism is one of humanity’s key modes for experiencing pleasure and satisfaction – not just in terms of sexual gratification – but in terms of the quality of our engagements and experiences with ourselves, each other and the worlds we inhabit. The erotic is a model in which completion and quantity are held in tension with partial revelation, incompleteness and fragments. Rather than a whole panorama of behaviour, the erotic is effected through glimpses, shards of a spectrum. It is a space of creativity and exchange that is playful and transcendent of intention and mere function. It is always a site of negotiation, but not necessarily one of direct transaction between participants – singular or multiple. Humans imbue things with an eroticism through the power of our imaginations. It is fundamentally individual, but can be shared. Participation, though, is only through directly experiencing something as truly erotic, otherwise it is false, a sham.

In seeking new ways to define ourselves as actors – not simply subjects or victims – in an era of climate impacts, pandemics and their consequences, it seems to me that an erotics of data presents us with a powerful means to embrace and become empowered by the revelations that working with data can bring us. Why should we not be stimulated and aroused by data as we are by other forms of recording and communicating things of value? If we can be pleased by the shape and form of things, then why not by the shapes and forms of data? Can they be crafted in ways that allow such potential?

How might we clothe ourselves in data, yet also be able to change and put off data much as we change our clothes according to mood, to sense of occasion or just whimsy? Clothes never truly change the reality of who we are, yet they do help us adopt different behaviours, or alter the way in which we might be seen by others. Whilst clothes can be part of how we construct our personal identity, or identities, and how we project those identities to the world around us they are never part of our essential being. They play a powerful role in our concepts of erotics and our erotic behaviours towards each other – signifiers of many states and fluidities, from the protective and safe to zones of connection. How might we clothe ourselves as nimbly, as flexibly in data? For it to be an active material of identity rather than a filmy detritus that coats us and which we are barely able to clean ourselves of, let alone choose how it enfolds around us? How can we make use of the properties of data about us without it necessarily becoming a piece of property, an asset that accumulates and sticks to us?

What is available to us is a veritable deluge of data, both captured, synthesised and modelled, and there are whole sectors of human society who are in the midst of an orgiastic frenzy of analysis and meta-analyses of not just the data itself, but of all the potential inferences that the systems and deployments of “artificial intelligence” can possibly be attuned to generate. How can we take pleasure in being metaphorically washed over by data, just as we might stand purposefully in a rainstorm, our senses alive to the energy of the elements and the forces of nature?

To be empowered is feel yourself able to make demands of others you may have been afraid or unwilling to before. It is to give yourself permission to ask to be treated with equality and equitably. It is to see yourself as an agent of choice, not just one who is acted upon. It is to define your own measures of value and quality, not simply accept those of others foist upon us by hierarchies, customs and conventions. In this, the erotic is a powerful expression of how we choose to take pleasure, to measure joy and fulfilment in our lives. It is an intensely personal, individual yardstick by which we can measure the honesty of our own claims to personal agency. For something can only feel erotic to us if we truly experience it. We all know when we are faking.

For these reasons, when confronted by the authoritarian potential of mass data surveillance, by how trammelled our lives and choices could easily become as the data collected and processed about us grows ever more detailed and fine-grained, I suggest that developing an erotics of data could be a fantastically subversive, even undermining, approach to something that is being greedily hoovered up by governments and corporations as yet another vector of control. Just as humour punctures and deflates authority, the erotic is outside the pale of polite convention. It is hard to control, hard to police – the more it is repressed, the more pressure builds and it erupts in unexpected places. Even in submission, there can be an erotics which subverts domination.

Rather than as an asset class, or an object of capital and profit, could we re-cast our concept and perception of data as elements of flow, like molecules of water? Something which makes up our world, is an important element of ourselves to which we contribute and from which we can draw, but which is never entirely personal? What does it take for us to step aside from our habitual practices and deferences to demand a different path? As our societies experience a pause in their frenetic everyday momentum can we reflect on what kind of world we want to re-emerge into? What kinds of relationships to each other, to systems and polities, to states and exceptions do we want? What can and should we demand?

Cooperation is the foundation of human societies, it flourishes on diversity and differences – our desires and appetites whetted by the dynamic between the familiar and the novel, what we are capable of ourselves and what we need others to provide. Power is wielded through the consent of the governed. To demand a new social contract that also gives us, the people, a fair say in how data is generated, collected, stored, processed and used – one in which there could be the potential for an erotics of data to emerge – is threshold we can only pass through by active, intentional choice. It is to imagine a very different world to the one we currently inhabit, which has been imagined and crafted to privilege a select few beneficiaries, with the costs distributed across the rest of us. If we choose instead to cooperate with our own desires and imaginations we might engender a radically different outcome altogether.

“Recognising the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)

London, April 2020

Listen to Audre Lorde speaking on “Uses of the Erotic” (YouTube)

Book and Bilum

“I would go as far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1986) 

Ursula Le Guin’s essay has been whispering behind my ear for some time now, as I have striven to make sense of what it really is I have been doing with the villagers of Reite on Papua New Guinea’s Rai Coast in Madang Province. Since 2012 I have been making books (using bookleteer and our Diffusion eBook format) with them about their ‘Traditional Knowledge’ and slowly becoming a part of something quite different from my everyday life in London.

This all began back in Summer 2009 when James Leach first asked me to help document the visit by two villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, to the British Museum’s Ethnographic Store. There they were asked, by Lissant Bolton and Liz Bonshek, to look at and discuss hundreds of objects originating from their part of Papua New Guinea that are in the BM’s ethnographic collection. We made some books of this encounter and of their stay in the UK. Then, in 2012, I got the chance to visit PNG and Reite village myself, when James and I took part in the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Knowledge at the University of Goroka, in Eastern Highlands Province, and followed this with a week’s stay in Reite. Since then I have made three further trips to PNG and to Reite, as well as two trips to Vanuatu – an island nation in Melanesia not far from PNG – all as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project.

I have been trying to find my own ways to arrive at an understanding of, and to acknowledge, the particular relationships to ‘knowledge’ that Reite people have, and what making books of their knowledge actually might mean to them, and to me. It has been abundantly clear to us that they have made no attempt to either create a systematic Western-style encyclopaedia of everything they ‘know’ about where and how they live, what they grow and care for in the forest and in their gardens. Nor do they seem to use the books in anyway similar to how people in our own culture might – as canonical references or teaching aids to pass knowledge on in a linear way from one generation to the next. Nor do they use them to share practices and techniques with neighbouring communities or trading partners, although the practice of making the books is now definitely woven in at some level in how they conduct their relations with other villages and communities.

Something entirely else is going on – but what is it that they are doing, and why? How is it so different from the purposes of making that people in my own culture and community engage in? Over the years James and I have burnt much midnight oil (and quaffed some considerable quantities of wine, including some from his own vines) in discussing these knotty issues. James’ long and deep connection with the people of Reite gives him an extraordinary anthropological insight into their ways, evolving over more than 25 years engagement with them. Such attunement to their difference from our ‘home’ culture means it is possible for him to see past the usual tropes of our own cultural assumptions and values. Added to this I bring my own experience as an artist and my own experiences of working closely with a variety of communities at different levels of society on co-creative and participatory projects. Often these have involved direct making, inscribing and transmission of things (public authoring) which are outside of mainstream economic valuation, but which are intrinsic to identity and community (public goods).

“It is the story that makes the difference.” (UKLG)

Something is conveyed by these processes of making and sharing, it is carried across from person to person, from generation to generation, across time and distance, but always of place and within a continuity of culture. The forms may be different and unique to particular communities, but there are echoes and hints of valence that enable a connection, the possibility of an understanding. I often think of Le Guin’s writings when I am in the village or in similar places elsewhere in Melanesia – the feeling that I am in the midst of somewhere and something that is unmistakably human and familiar, yet so palpably alien at the same time. Just as science fiction can be used as a lens to interrogate our present, so the dislocation of journeying to a culture and society that is structured in such a radically different way to everything I had ever known is itself an opportunity to evaluate and scrutinise myself and everything I believe and trust in.

“Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story.” (UKLG)

What is it that I have learnt? What have I understood about them and about myself?
That the discontinuity of being upon which individuality is predicated, upon which our belief that we can isolate and alienate things from context and interdependence to understand them, is just one way of being. It reveals some of what we might consider to be truth, yet it masks so much else in its exclusive gaze, avoiding the tendrils of subtle forces – the relationships – that bind every thing to something else.

It is in how these relationships are constantly practiced, demonstrated, made and re-made through the vital life of the community that I have found a thread that helps me make sense of what we have been doing together. And in another process of making that somehow seems to me to reflect something of the interwoven relationship between people, what they ‘know’ and how it is relational rather than fixed. What we might think of as a piece of ‘knowledge’ or a fact is or, rather, holds a relational connection that flows as long as those within its net continue to foster and nourish the relationship. It can change shape, expand or contract, be added to or refined as those in the relationship determine. Just as Le Guin conceives of a novel as being like a bag or a sack that holds things in relation to one another, so I have begun to consider that the books that we have been making with Reite people share some of the significance of the bilums – traditional string bags – they use to hold and carry things.

What is a Bilum?

Bilums are the ubiquitous hand-woven bags that almost everyone, women and men, in Papua New Guinea use to carry things in: from store and market cargo, to the daily harvest of vegetables and fruits grown in their gardens, to everyday items and treasures: buai (betel nuts), pepper and lime powder, lighter, pen, torch, pieces of newspaper, twists of tobacco leaf, money, mobile phone – and babies.

A bilum is both a functional thing, but it also conveys meaning – the decorative weave as well as the materials with which it is woven themselves convey information. This is not the same as branding or logos on bags in the industrialised world, but it does form a part of a complex visual language of signification that runs deep in the fabric of life in PNG. Bilums across PNG vary according to the materials they are made of, with wool being typical of bilums made in the Highlands, and string made from natural fibres being common on the coast. Other types of bilum include those made from woven grasses and reeds as well as man-made plastic strings and reconditioned plastic sacking.

Traditional bilums are intricately woven or netted, taking considerable time to make – which also depends on the size. The knowledge of how to make them is an important craft skill – and they are respected as both objects in themselves and for their significance as part of traditional dress in kastom and rituals like singsings. They are important items when given as part of bride gifts, or in other kinds of ceremony. The meaning conveyed by the design may have an additional significance to the gift of a bilum, beyond that of the skill, time and effort that had gone into making it. Using a bilum you have been given is always taken well, sealing a bond – a reciprocity between giver and recipient.

Book as Bilum: a metaphor

Le Guin refers to Elizabeth Fisher’s “Carrier Bag Theory” of human evolution (in Woman’s Creation, MacGraw-Hill 1979) and weaves an entire essay around the concept that,

“The first cultural device was probably a recipient… Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier”
Elizabeth Fisher as quoted by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin contrasts this with the scene in Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey where an ape first uses a bone as an instrument, a weapon, to murder another ape – implicitly crossing some sort of cognitive threshold. This bone then becomes a figure for man‘s future conquest of space:

“…that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie, a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all” (UKLG)

She is, of course, making a powerful argument in the essay for re-thinking and re-positioning what we recognise as being of value in our culture – bringing back into view those things which patriarchal societies tend to ignore or de-value. The kind of consistent, persistent, necessary everyday activities of caring, cleaning, cooking, rearing so often unsung, or referred to, belittlingly, as “women’s work”. I also think that she is deliberately making an equivalence between language itself and with receptacles such as bags and nets. Language as a mode in which the thoughts, feelings and experiences of a conscious entity are carried across – held by words – to others. It is a literary demonstration of metaphor in itself. Language is a carrier, a matrix too – in which ideas, thoughts, observations and feelings are given shape and brought into the world.

In this regard, I am reminded not only of the physical performance required to make a Diffusion eBook (see below), but also of the collaborative and collective nature of gathering the ‘knowledge’ that it is used to fill – the stories, drawings, photos, recipes, instructions and guides. These elements are all harvested from social engagements between or for the different generations of the community. They are purposeful in that they are often intended to reflect or mark out specific relationships between people – for instance between a parent and a child or grandchild; or as a way of creating or facilitating a connection between specific a person and others who have come into the cosmos of the village’s inter-connected relationships, but who are not directly associated with kin groups. People such as James and, latterly, to a small degree, myself.

I re-read an essay James co-wrote with Lee Wilson in 2010 on creativity and innovation in the art, humanities and social sciences in universities. It reported on their findings from three workshops (in one of which I took part as a presenter) at CRASSH in Cambridge. It is full of brilliant insights into the nature of creativity and innovation, and the role of universities in fostering spaces and places that support it, as a responsive, civic process that is integral to the “project of citizenship”. One section on evaluation has the following sentences which, it seems to me, could easily refer to the creation and purpose of the books in Reite:

“The value of the knowledge created is not in objects, but is realised over and again in relationships, in processes of investigation, argumentation and understanding. Value is then elicited in actual relations. Change occurs in and through relationships. The facilitation of these relations is vital.”
James Leach & Lee Wilson, “Enabling innovation: creative investments in arts and humanities research“, report for AHRC/Nesta 2010

Just as the bilums used in everyday life are intricately woven from locally-available materials and and their designs convey information that can locate them to kin-groups or places, so I think something similar is happening with the books they are making. The bilums are practical devices for carrying tangible stuff, but are still made with an attention to detail that marks them out as more-than neutral receptacles. The books carry something less tangible but which also convey relationships to people and place. That they are hand-made items is, I think, a key factor in why they have come to be used. They are as much tangible demonstrations of relationships as they are receptacles for whatever maybe written or drawn within them. It is not so much that the books contain knowledge of any particular sort, but they are a manifestation of those relations. The knowledge that they are a part of, is not just what is written or drawn within them, but is carried across in the processes of making them. A book is like a trace or a vestige – Ariadne’s thread – weaving a path between those for whom it has been made and those by whom it was made. It ceases to be media in the sense that we use it in the West, as a neutral carrier for the ‘true content’ – the knowledge’ or information it ‘contains’ – and instead it expresses the relationship itself, or an aspect of it. Like so much of life in Reite, it is direct and unmediated – it becomes and is the thing it describes.

These images below are of a book by Pinbin Sisau which describe a series of designs for drums and plates – men’s work in Reite – which give a flavour of the extraordinary visual and stylistic range of just a single lineage in a single village. Like the bilums pictured above there is great artistry in the designs, and clearly far more meaning to them than he has indicated in the book. What are we to make of this compendium of designs that we do not have a key to interpret the meaning of? Why did he make it and for whom? What relations is this book carrying within its matrix of paper sheets woven together in a bound form? Do we need to know such detail, or perhaps simply be appreciative that such a richness in their culture has been signalled to others in this way?

 

Tim Ingold‘s analogy of the pencil stub as a material artefact is also pertinent here. How would an archaeologist of the future interpret such a find, never having previously seen a new pencil?

“I would not myself throw away a newly bought pencil in mint condition. As I use it, however, it has periodically to be re-sharpened, and with every sharpening some of the pencil is shaved and its length is reduced, until eventually it is too short to hold. Only then do I throw it away. An archaeologist of the future who, having analysed the contents of early twenty-first century waste bins, came to the conclusion that things conventionally called ‘pencils’ could not actually have been made for drawing because they were too short (and perhaps had some ritual or symbolic function instead), would be committing what Davidson and Noble call the finished artefact fallacy.”
Tim Ingold, Making (2013)

What I love about his insight here is that the focus is not on what we think we know about something we might encounter outside of its original context (such as a pencil stub), but on the uncertainty that we have to accommodate into any assertion of knowledge that we might make. That the relational aspect of any device to its use must be contingent on how we imagine it – and that our imaginations are themselves bounded by our own experience, not those of the people whose artefacts we are trying to understand or interpret the use of. The very ordinary, humble and utilitarian pencil – an object which has been critical in writing and drawing, in the creation and flow of ideas, images and the expression of what it is to be human – could so easily be overlooked in its final, worn-down state. Its stub seems devoid of the power of creativity that its use enabled. A lowly thing, it seems as artless as a string bag might appear to a treasure seeker, as a hand-made book by a subsistence gardener living in a tropical rainforest might seem, especially if, like so many others of its kind, it told a similar story of taro, yam, sago, vines or the small freshwater shrimp from the local streams. By focusing on the object as the thing of value, we can be blissfully unaware of the relationships that it implies, and where the value may lie for its creator.

When we – westerners from the industrial world – encounter a thing like a Reite book, is it like coming across a mint condition pencil or is it more like unearthing a pencil stub? How are we to know whether or not we are merely projecting our own preconceptions of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ or value onto artefacts produced by a different culture? How are we so sure that we have the capabilities to ascertain what value might mean to someone who does not share our outlook, our experiences, our upbringing and acculturation?

And this brings me to consider the relational aspect of what might constitute knowledge in a place and community like Reite. Knowledge seems to be something that must always be sustained through intergenerational engagement and activity, rather than reified into a commodity that can be transacted, hoarded and controlled. It is the ongoing observation of and participation in the life and rituals of the community – attending to belonging – that lead to the acquisition of knowledge. Ritual payments to significant kin and elders of things which must be grown and harvested or collected and made from the local environment. Things which take time, effort and negotiation – that are in themselves, demonstrations of relationships. Constantly woven and re-woven. Being human, nested within an intricate matrix of connections.

I wonder if the “finished artefact fallacy” might be at the root of why the foundations of wealthy, cultured Westerners are so obsessed with “saving” things – like traditional knowledges – which they consider to be endangered. Significant sums of money are spent on documenting them and putting them into books, archives and museums, but not into sustaining the complex webs of relationships between people, places and things that are the actual fabric of what the ‘knowledge’ conveys. If the ways of life of peoples who live differently to us and the specific ecologies in which this is lived are not sustained, protected and supported, then what is the point of conserving their ‘knowledge’? What purpose will it have if these peoples, their environments and ecologies disappear into the voracious maw of extractive capitalism and its hunger for natural resources at any cost? What, then, is this urge to preserve, other than the collection of objects, artefacts of curiosity to be archived or put on display in such a way as to convey the impression of the deep culture and humanity of its owner or benefactor?

A few years ago at an informal dinner in Oxford, a distinguished scientist and master of a college there asked me to tell him the “three most important” pieces of Reite traditional knowledge that our project had “saved” for posterity. It was hard to counter the blithe assumption that their knowledge could be so easily alienated from the context of where and how they live. As someone who deals in scientific facts, in the certainties of binary logic, he struggled to make sense of my attempt to explain that our friends in Reite seemed to have no interest in cataloguing and transmitting what they know in such a way. Perhaps he disbelieved me, or thought that our work had failed in some empirical sense. In describing it, I suggested that what people in Reite appear to be interested in is the making of the books, and that many of these books appear– as we might see it – to repeat or share the same or very similar information. However, the articulation of the content in the books, as well as who was involved in making them, suggests whole other layers of meaning and signification which may be unintelligible, and perhaps of no value in any case, to anyone outside of the village and its tapestry of relationships.

So perhaps what James and I have been doing by making these books with our friends in Reite is to learn how to weave a different kind of bilum that holds and make tangible its own kind of relationships – and that conveys yet other meanings within it. Books which are not documents of knowledge or media containing information, but artefacts describing the relationships that make knowledge possible in particular places, between specific people. I used to wonder if our project was somehow contributing to a revivification of a local culture that was in danger of being lost to the swell of consumerism and rampant exploitation of natural resources that are the contemporary forms of colonialism. Now I am more of the opinion that it is being incorporated into a kind of local cultural dynamism that remakes itself as it works with the materials at hand, that articulates new relationships by evolving different kinds of ritual and exchange. What might readily appear as loss to us, so fond of our cultural heritage, provenance and history, might instead be resilience and adaptation without sentimentality.

“Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.”
U.K. Le Guin

London, March 2020

Some recent bookleteering

I’ve recently re-worked some of my posts from here into publications made with bookleteer:

Hiding in Plain SightRead Online or Download PDF

A Calculation is Not a JudgementRead Online or Download PDF

The Data Sublime & A Poetics of DataRead Online or Download PDF

Daemons of the Shadow WorldRead Online or Download PDF

View other publications i’ve made on bookleteer here.

Republic of Learning at Camden Think & Do

What is it that we think we know about climate change, what don’t we think we know and, what aren’t we aware that we don’t know?

After 40 or more years of climate science communication on the issue, many people still feel uncertain about what, where and when (indeed, even if) anthropogenic climate change is or will be happening. Over the decades that mainstream popular messages about climate change have tended to focus on single issues at a time (rainforest destruction, the ozone layer, CFC ‘greenhouse’ gases, global warming, melting glaciers, fossil fuels, carbon dioxide levels, melting ice caps, ocean acidification, species extinction etc) without necessarily contextualising them within the larger ‘Earth system’. Its possible that some degree of confusion has been fostered by these well-intentioned attempts to focus people’s minds on tangible and localised issues of immediate or timely relevance. What if, from an earlier point in the 1970s say, the campaign for popular awareness had rather attempted to explain them as visible effects of change within a complexly interconnected global climate system? Such as by revealing how are they connected and why? Revealing the patterns of causes and effects, ripples and echoes, counter-effects and concatenations that all human activity contributes to.

Given that the past year has seen a sudden raising of popular consciousness of the scale of the potential changes, how can people develop their own awareness about the relationships between actions we can take at home and climate change as a global phenomenon? How do our efforts – such as not having CFC-powered fridges, recycling more of our waste, buying less plastic, reducing our carbon footprint etc – relate to environmental and climate changes which are often geographically remote from where we live and, clearly, part of much bigger elemental forces that we cannot affect directly? How might we disentangle some of these complexities in ways that indicate hope and positive ways forward, rather than despair at the enormity of it all?

Over the past year, in parallel with the emergence of the Manifest Data Lab and the Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change project, artist Rachel Jacobs and I have been discussing the idea of creating a “climate change awareness toolkit”. Inspired by our prior independent work, we feel that such a toolkit could help people and communities de-mystify the complexities of climate change and reveal potential pathways for action. It could help focus critical thinking and civic thinking about what and how people can respond to what has recently been named as the “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”.

Sharing an ethos of open discussion and cooperative learning being developed through our series of Republic of Learning meetings at the Make@StoryGarden space, we were invited by Camden Council to facilitate an activity at their Camden Think & Do space in Kentish Town. This pop up shop has been set up as a response to the borough’s Citizen Assembly on climate crisis and is hosting many events over a six week period in Autumn 2019 for local citizens to come together and respond by sharing ideas, hopes, actions and knowledge.

The activity we facilitated at Camden Think & Do on Thursday 28th November aimed to explore the gaps and missing connections in how people understand the complexities of climate change and climate science. We did this in a hands-on way, by inviting the participants to discuss climate change together and to create simple visualisations – emblems of climate change. Around a dozen or so people took part over a couple of hours, using felt and other materials to represent what they thought and how they felt about climate change. Rachel had devised a framework for exploring these ideas that was both open and cooperative, following a series of creative tasks and suggestions:

(slide courtesy of Rachel Jacobs)

The act of making visual representations is a deliberate and convivial method for generating a reflective and cooperative space for conversations to emerge from activity and to flow – rather than asking people to debate fixed opinions or to present pre-conceived ideas. The task of making a representation of thoughts or feelings about climate change means translating from ephemeral words into physical materials, in this case, pieces of felt, thread and wooden craft items. This is made even more cooperative by the process of each person describing what they had made and how it referred to the issue, then passing it over to the next person and receiving someone else’s in turn. By doing this each time, the participants got to respond to and build on each others ideas in a dynamic and creative way. Each time adding new elements that challenged or extended the previous person’s contribution and built up into a rich and complex series of representations of our conversations and ideas.

(slide courtesy of Rachel Jacobs)

The final task was to try to identify which (if at all) of the ‘myths’ of climate change each of the representations most resembled and to add an element indicating this. These were identified and described by climate scientist Mike Hulme (in his book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, 2001) and in the slide above are combined with the environmental campaigner George Marshall’s framework, in his book Carbon Detox (2010). They represent what he suggests are the four most common archetypes or ‘myths’ of how climate science is talked about in popular culture, and also provide a framework for categorising (in a broad, generalisable way) how individuals respond to the ‘problem’ of climate change. It is a useful – albeit simplistic – matrix that can help frame starting points for conversations and establish different perspectives to think from.

The images below show the completed climate emblems collaboratively and cooperatively created by the participants during the workshop. Seven of them were worked on consecutively by at least four or five different people, each responding to and embellishing what previous contributors had added, then sharing their description of what they had added and why. The range of thoughts, belief and feelings expressed during the workshop was extremely wide – encompassing hope, anger, love, despondency, commitment, resignation, frustration, optimism, grief, compassion, abundance, scarcity, spirituality and determination, among others.

Witnessing how these different responses flowed and changed throughout the activities, how the participants explored different perspectives from their original starting points was a great indicator that our idea for a toolkit is valid. Perhaps, not so much to initiate awareness of the issues as to expand awareness of the richness of relationships within the web of life that provide hope for humanity’s ability to adapt and change itself, as well as to embrace resilience in the face of massive change. Further explorations of this approach thus beckon us forward.

Commentary on the Emblems of Climate Change

  1. This emblem began with lightning, representing the anxiety felt in response to climate change, responding to this was love and care. Added to this was uncertainty represented by hands coming from the Earth that seemed both empty but also offering some solutions. Someone sitting under the tree represented the actions to respond to anxiety. The role of laws and regulation in a framework for change was represented too.
  2. This emblem began with a pessimstic view represented by the blue spots on black, like rain on a dark sky. On top of this was layered a window to represent how we can see out to answers, people’s endless need for proof, the sun spreading light and heating up, the action to just stop and reflect and slow down, in response finding opportunities to create new paradigms that are more spiritual and focused on love and care.
  3. This emblem began with a story of an island that began as desert, where humans slowly planted trees and brought life, clouds and rain back to the island. A first aid sign was added and then the music and abundance of the Earth, the action proposed by one of the participants related to a campaign from the past called ‘Joy in Enough’ representing living with scarcity. This led to a discussion about finding solutions that were as much about reducing consumption, as technological solutions.
  4. This emblem was an interesting combination of words and images. Beginning with the abundance of trees and the wonder of Earth, the word denial represents the lack of understanding of why people are still in denial despite being able to see the effects of climate change (such as forest fires) and our increasing awareness of the science. This led to a discussion of Hulme’s climate change myths and how our beliefs shape the narratives we tell about climate change. The actions in response are represented by an E for education, which led to a discussion of where and how education should be happening and who for, bringing up a question on how activism such as Extinction Rebellion and environmental movements and activities in the UK don’t seem to be able to effectively engage with or reach out to people of colour. This led to a proposal for ‘climate schools’ where people can learn more about climate change and how to respond. Finally the archetype or myth was ‘tradition’, what we can learn from past traditions and what new traditions will be created as climate change occurs. This was also represented by a raft and a ladder, relating to Hulme’s myths of surviving the apocalypse and constructing babel – will we be able to survive and can we build a new world from the rubble?
  5. This emblem began with a void, chasm or the eye of a storm. This was turned into a hole with a ladder coming out showing our attempts to climb out of the hole only to reach the top of a mountain representing the tipping point, raising the question is even 1 degree above the baseline global temperature too much? The action in response to the question was to look at the statistics on planetary health and a proposal that weather reports should start to report on planetary health and the potential tipping points that would cause irreversable damage to our environments so that we would be better informed. The overarching narrative was the ‘cosmos’ and gaining a connection to that which is beyond us, represented by the star on the edge of the original void.
  6. This emblem began with a vision of the two planetary hemispheres, with the South represented by increasingly high temperatures and drought (the sun), and not enough water and the North suffering increasingly from floods and storms and too much water (the flood water). The uncertainty was around not having the knowledge or language to understand how much impact positive solutions around the world are having in comparison to the destruction wrought by climate change, represented by the green and black leaf shapes. The over arching narrative of this emblem was clarity, represented by the glasses and the actions to take is represented by the L for local. This brought about a discussion around scales of action, the importance of local, small scale, imaginative and collective approaches to engaging with and adapting to climate change in comparison to the urgency and scale of change required on national and global levels, in order to make changes at the speed required. Although these types of small scale activities don’t tend to work at scale, they can inform larger scale actions.
  7. This most colourful emblem began with the abundance of the earth, seas and forests, the question was about the numbers and how helpful they are, the action was to encourage imaginative responses and the opportunities for people coming together as we were to do this.
  8. This largely grey emblem began with an expression of the importance of timeliness and role of humans in this, including the challenge of trying to understand each other across languages barriers, as well as understandings of climate change – how things are all folded together. [This emblem wasn’t completed beyond the first stage.]

This activity supports people to try out different perspectives beyond their normal narratives about climate change, to deepen and extend understanding of the changes and work through possible solutions and opportunities collaboratively. We watched as people’s perspectives actively changed moving between pessimistic, hopeful, despondent and inspired throughout the session. We hope to continue to develop the activity as part of the Republic of Learning project to see how this activity can impact on our ability to feel agency, as these changes continue to play out locally and globally, personally and politically.

We would like to thank all the participants who took part.

Rachel Jacobs & Giles Lane
London, December 2019

A Poetics of Data

Lifestreams (2012): description of the data expressed in a 3D printed ‘lifecharm’

Personal data is not only the traces of our actions in the world – contributed, sensed, detected and recorded online, but a yoke that is coming to define each one of us in ways that may often be beyond our ability to directly perceive. In the hands of governments and corporations it has become the means by which individuals, groups and even whole populations can be trammelled, their choices shaped or ‘nudged’ into convenient channels and pathways for ‘better’ governance and exploitation. Our world is increasingly managed by systems that collect, collate and analyse such data, to calculate statistical probabilities based on our past actions and behaviours and to infer what opportunities and permissions will or will not be made available to us.

Such systems both reinforce and are the products of the standardisation of difference and diversity into a manageable homogeneity. The logic of their engineering is to drive forwards an ever deeper vision of ‘efficiency’ into the fabric of our everyday lives – straining out that which doesn’t fit, shaving off the awkward edges. Too often it excises difference and diversity by simply refusing to acknowledge that an individual’s specific context and situation are valid parameters that require nuanced judgement in decision-making. In this way the vulnerable and excluded experience further depredations; injustices and inequality are compounded and amplified. Complexities are crudely simplified and the richness, the colourful tapestry of life is elided into a seamless standard grey weave. For some, such order may be comforting, perhaps even ideal. Yet for many, probably most of us, this is a poor bargain. A zero sum game in which we have much, if not everything, to lose.

To what part of our humanity may we look for an escape from such rigidity and reductive standardisation? For me, the answer is to make a poetics of data that can trigger a phase shift in how we might interact with it. A shift away from the familiar and ordered modes through which we are used to experiencing it on screens, via spreadsheets, tables, graphs, counters, dials or the linear waveforms of measuring devices. Poetry and poetics are time-honoured ways in which people have communicated things that are beyond just measurement – emotions, feelings, beliefs. Things which are at the very limit of description. Things which defy rationality and even reason.

I have been exploring this idea of a data poetics through digital materialisation and manifestation in projects such as Lifestreams (2012) and more recently in the Manifest Data Lab. I’ve written before in detail about the ‘tactile poetry‘ created by expressing data about our bodies into talismans that we can develop a tangible relationship with. Talismans that can act as mnemonics or reflective objects that remind us of aspects of our habits and behaviours which affect our health and wellbeing over and through time – not just in the series of fractured, fragmented moments in which we glance at the digital display on a ‘smart’ phone or watch. Like Proust’s madeleine, or the chink of a teaspoon on a saucer, they help us connect out of the mundane discontinuity of daily life into a place of reverie with ourselves.

I have also likened this approach to working with data as a form of ‘Digital Alchemy‘: treating data as a material with which to encounter the numinous and transform the self. A process that does not seek to break apart into individual bits and atoms the delicately intertwined and mutually influential patterns of matter that constitute Life; but that comes to an appreciation of the essence of the subtle forces that bind matter together. To appreciate the powerful bonds of relationships between elements that, through connection itself, provide sense and meaning to being and becoming.

Poetry – whether in the form of words, music, visual arts, performance, dance – is a portal into spaces that are beyond the sum of their parts. It is always more than the words on the page, the notes in a score, the brush strokes of a painting, the material of a sculpture, the light projected by a film, the movements of dancers. It allows us to communicate and experience feelings – innate things which are inexpressible, incalculable in themselves, yet somehow connect us and give us access to the experiences and feelings of others. A kind of dark energy perhaps, not something we can directly measure, but which is nevertheless real and pervasive. A kind of knowing that remains tacit rather than explicit. Often it resorts to ‘apophasis’ – describing what is not to indicate that which is ineffable or indescribable. Revealing presence through absence… the shape of something monstrously huge through the sublime. An incompleteness that allows us to invest its gaps and lacunae with something of ourself; an invitation to become enmeshed within a whole that is never finished, that expands as others share how they engage with it too.

It is often said that great works are the ones which we can return to, and in each encounter, find something new. Perhaps that newness is actually always already within ourselves – it is we who expand and increase in relation to the work, not the other way round. Perhaps this is why perfection is said to be abhorrent and why craftspeople through the ages have often introduced intentional flaws and irregularities into their work. A deliberate incompletion, preserving a space for the ineffable and unknowable.

But, I hear the objection raised, all this is mere metaphor. I beg to differ: it is as intrinsic a feature of conscious deliberation and action in the world, as the data manifestations we created for Lifestreams (and will be creating in our work at the Manifest Data Lab) are expressions of data – not representations of it. These are not metaphors of data, but reifications – they are the data, simply expressed in physical forms that we can experience through additional senses to those we generally use with screen-based representations. It is up to us to devise the grammars of sensory engagement that enable us to ‘read’ and make sense of our encounters with them. Some grammars could be shared, others kept private. Perhaps by learning to appreciate the data we generate through our machines in such a way, we could learn additional techniques to appreciate the way that nature encodes ‘data’ in all its organic and inorganic forms – as a living experience of perception, not only through an analytics of extraction and separation.

To create any form of poetry or art is not easy: it is not the direct or unambiguous product of straightforward rules. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the energy to create “lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed” (One Way Street). That is not to say that great craft does not require constant practice and experiment – that programmatic exercises (think of practising musical scales), rituals and habitual activities are not a fundamental part of the making. Many of these are often used to surrender oneself into a fugue state, from which the actual work may emerge. Too often, such states are elusive, fleeting and all that one is left with is the dross of making. But this dross might also become the material of a re-forged piece, worked over again and again, made and re-made until its creator judges that it has reached a state that is sufficient to share.

What do we gain from a poetics of data in addition to it’s more common articulations? A weaving together of harmony and dissonance, rhythm and inconsistency – a way of encompassing adaptation and irregularity within a transcendent whole. A way to enhance our cognitive abilities by challenging us to flex other senses in meaning-making, to enhance our capacities by widening the frames in which we encounter and engage with data.
A poetics of data is about engaging with its qualities, not just its quantities.

London, October 2019

Daemons of the Shadow World

*** a newer & expanded version is available on bookleteer ***

It is my firm belief that my role as an artist is to imagine the unthinkable – to perceive beyond the horizon of the probable and to stretch one’s imagination beyond the limits of the normative everyday. By opening up such vistas it becomes possible to anticipate impacts and consequences of actions and decisions – acquiring uncommon insights into potential futures we may come to inhabit.

Daemons of the Shadow World is a proposal for an artwork that recasts privacy and the role of individual or personal data; that rethinks how data subjects are commodified; that explores what it could be like to unbalance how power is expressed and exercised through data analysis and use.

Almost every aspect of modern life is now measured, sensed, datafied, transmitted, analysed and transacted. Those transactions bloom like flower banks to encompass not just each individual’s data profile and traces, but everything and everyone they are connected to. This quantification and measurement of each interaction – the inferences that are drawn, the biases that result and the effects which ensue – is propelling us towards an ever more normative society. A social and cultural entropy. Each individual is becoming ever more tightly defined, less fluid. We are being reduced to a singular concept of identity, one that assumes repetition is truth, and that predictability is a desirable quality.

But, of course, the history of humanity is also that of diversity, divergence and struggle: especially for those upon whom power is exercised by those who wield it. There are many ways of enforcing conformity through such means as religions and ideologies, conventions and traditions. These have the habit of making people behave in a predictable and controllable manner – consumerism and the digital society is merely another manifestation of this. The inducements offered in our consumer society to accept socially normative concepts of identity are like a feedback mechanism that reinforces itself and entrenches asymmetries of power. In the same way, it discriminates against those for whom fluidity of identity is a necessity – people who are often the most vulnerable in society : anyone who diverges from the norm, whether by virtue of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or status – for instance, refugees.

Data profiling clearly is having normative effects, reinforcing and entrenching privileges for those who are already best served by society and status quo. What about those for whom no singular identity is possible or desirable? Those whose identities are fluid, in construction or even in deconstruction. Those who are economically disadvantaged and whose choices are forever circumscribed by poverty and denied access to credit. These are the people most at risk of being excluded, segregated and even criminalised by the impacts of data profiling. The subtleties, quirks and nuances that allow us to defy definition are all too easily captured, measured and sorted into data points which can then be exploited against our own benefit.

Any transparency in data traffic goes only one way. we do not see how the data we share with the big systems (such as search engines, social media platforms or online shopping portals) is used by those who acquire it. Neither how the ‘nudge’ systems – increasingly adopted by governments and public agencies – use our data to influence our choices and life options. Nor do we have any real understanding of how the scope and scale of the total digital surveillance by the Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies is used, despite the hints and indications revealed by whistleblowers scubas Edward Snowden.

Indeed, different societies and cultures across the world have markedly different attitudes to ‘privacy’ – as evinced by China’s state-sponsored social credit system (itself perhaps less different from Western commercial data capture, monetisations and behavioural nudges than we might suppose). To assume that either privacy or identity are stable concepts in all contexts and situations me be part of the problem, a reflection of our own hegemonistic cultural values in the West.

Privacy, as commonly defined in Western industrial societies, is itself a relatively modern concept – most likely emerging in Europe in the context of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation period. Its roots are bound together with the rise of mercantilism and the equally modern concept of the individual. It found early articulation in the shifts in domestic architecture from the 1500s on – the creation of private spaces (such as bedrooms) in shared households, especially where there was a need to worship in secret as religious conformity began to fracture between Protestantism and Catholicism. It also found articulation in the commonplace books where a newly literate populace began to record their internal, private thoughts, interests and reflections. This individual subjectivity reaches a critical mass in Descartes’ formulation of the self as a discrete entity separate from all else.

It should, however, be no surprise that now, in an age of near total surveillance, privacy is on the verge of a complete reconfiguration. It is, coincidentally, happening alongside the realisation that western industrial capitalism is also facing its own zero-sum game in which not just humanity, but all life teeters on an edge. Unbridled consumption of finite resources, leading to rampant ecocide and mass extinction, presents a distinct trajectory that humans, our cultures, societies and civilisations, cannot sidestep.

To safeguard individuals and their personal data, privacy has for sometime been proposed as a human right that should be inalienable. But what if an alternative, perhaps even complementary strategy could be to turn the tools of data analysis against those who seek to define us and measure us as singular commodities by synthesising a plurality, a multiplicity of identities – camouflage of a kind? What if privacy is re-thought as a condition not a commodity – a dynamic sequence of states that we flow through rather than a static position to cling on to? How do, and have, other cultures navigated the duality of individuals within communities and shared spaces? What might we learn from cultures which do not privilege the sense of individuality as ours does?

MyLoki – a daemon for digital dazzle

This project is a thought experiment exploring how it might be possible to devise ‘autonomous agents’ (daemons) that synthesise and propagate additional data – using neural networks and employing techniques such as ‘generative adversarial networks’ – to mask our data traces and transactions across systems. In effect creating a ‘data dissensus’ in the accuracy of our individual ‘shadow profiles’, to undermine their statistical value through massive duplication. Invoking the generation of duplicitous activities that resemble our actions but, in effect, create multiplicities of possible identities. To overwhelm the algorithms of oppression with too many statistically similar variables that confound their ability to ‘predict’ and shape our behaviours.

Instead of referring to “Artificial Intelligence” and anthropomorphising it with qualities it is far from having, let’s call such software a “Model for Partial Statistical Probability”. How could we devise and use such programs to act as software agents – daemons – for each of us, to dazzle the data harvesters with a blizzard of statistically probable profiles, endlessly generated to camouflage the data traces of our actions and behaviours in the digital world? Whereby each  would become a portal to an infinite number of selves, all bifurcating in myriad ways – perhaps by just a hair’s breadth – each one polluting the value of our data trail by injecting just enough uncertainty to render the value of the data as junk for the profilers, marketeers and manipulators. To détourne the techniques of oppression against the oppressors, reverse the flow of digital ‘spam’ from the individual back towards those who seek to manipulate us.

Each daemon would be a personal Trickster, like the Norse god Loki, working on our behalves to frustrate the will of the corporates, the political parties, the special interest groups, agencies and governments that seek to use personal data to commodify us and profit by our, often unwitting, collusion in their narrative.

What could the features of such agents be? What limitations might need to be placed on their use? How might we need to re-think our entire digital economy – not to see data as a commodity, but as condition?

I invoke Loki and the figure of the Trickster, precisely because they are ambiguous – causing mayhem but bringing luck and fortune. Sometimes misfortune. Uncertain. Are they not the type of gods we might want to align ourselves with against the patrician, all seeing, all knowing Olympian Algorithmic gods of our datafied society? Or perhaps like a kind of Orphic mystery wherein the exuberance of multiple data selves being propagated into the shadow digital world allows us a moment of escape from being subjectified and commodified ad nauseam?

To acquire the opportunity, once again, to lose ourselves in the anonymity of the press of numbers. A pinch of freedom from the everyday atomisation we experience through constant personalisation, behaviour tracking and the inferences that drive our ‘choices’, already determined through pre-set automated decision-making algorithms.

A Conceptual Projection

The project described above is patently an absurd idea. What I am proposing is unlikely to built (from a technical standpoint) and could possibly present unknown dangers if released online (from an ethical perspective).

Therefore this thought experiment requires a kind of performative conceptual prototype to demonstrate the paradox at its heart. This might take the form of a set of ‘blueprints’ for the conditions under which a MyLoki daemon might be activated and operate; or a flow chart diagram of the actions and possible consequences for what could happen when individual’s data become pluralities; not just duplicitous but multiplicitous.

Such a set of blueprints or diagrams could then form the focal point of a deliberative forum assembled from people with diverse knowledges and skills across a range of disciplines and sectors. This group would be charged with exploring the ramifications of – and speculating on just what theoretical frameworks could emerge from – such an unreasonable, improbable and irrational set of possibilities?

By proposing something, that is as lateral and excessive a conceit for resolving the conundrum of privacy and personal data as the Judgement of Solomon was for determining the maternity of a disputed child, I hope to explore things which might indeed be truly unthinkable in our current situation. If we can think beyond the bounds of reason and the horizon of the probable, what uncommon insights could emerge that we cannot fathom now?

Giles Lane
London, October 2019

Originally developed with the support of the Open Data Institute‘s Data as Culture research theme, Copy That? December 2018

Paper Revolutions: bookleteer at 10; Diffusion at 19

Bookleteer at the British Library, October 2017

All my life I’ve loved books – collecting and reading them; making and designing them; commissioning and publishing them. My first funded project (which led to founding Proboscis) was to create a publication (COIL journal of the moving image), and my first ‘proper’ job was to create an in-house press for the CRD Research Studio at the Royal College of Art, where I commissioned and published five books in three years.

It was when I was at the RCA in the late 1990s that I first conceived of a ‘downloadable’ book format that people could print off on personal printers at home and make up without needing specialist bookbinding skills or materials: not just print on demand, but publishing on demand. I won a small Arts Council England grant and worked with designer Paul Farrington to devise the Diffusion eBook format, which we launched in September 2000 – 19 years ago. I’ve told that story in more detail previously across several posts, such as its genesis and history here in 2007, and when we celebrated 10 years of Diffusion in 2010.

In late 2002 and 2003 I began to consider how it might be possible to create a web-based app that could generate the complex page imposition required for making the Diffusion eBooks. This had to be done by a professional graphic designer in those days, using expensive proprietary page layout software (QuarkXPress and later Adobe InDesign). I discovered an open source solution, built using python (then a quite new and esoteric programming language), and we created a proof-of-concept working prototype in Summer 2003. Unfunded, it then took a few years to create our first working prototype for what became known as the Diffusion Generator. And then in 2008 I won a small feasibility grant from the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) which led to the development and launch of the bookleteer platform in September 2009.

Hybrid Digital/Physical Publishing

As an artist, I began working with film and filmmaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s – initially making small experimental documentary films of people and places I knew or visited, as well as more formally experimental pieces and then site-specific installations using looped film. During this time I also collaborated on photographic projects with friends studying at the Architectural Association School – including making a glass-leaved book with Marcelyn Gow, and a series of handmade folio publications for Aidan LeRoux.

Playing with form – making tactile, tangible experiences – has been part of my practice ever since. Just as I moved from making ‘single-screen’ projected films to immersive filmic installations, once I began working with digital technologies I wanted to create things that could reach beyond the screen into our physical experiences of the world. The web itself was never a satisfying reading experience for me, so I have set out to explore how digital and physical can be woven together to create hybrids. Many of my projects reflect these concerns – from the way we used physical means to prototype digital interactions for projects like Urban Tapestries, to the feral robots and instrumented Snout carnival costumes of our Social Tapestries citizen science projects, to the tangible souvenirs of digital experiences explored through Sensory Threads. All the way to the data manifestations of biosensor readings of Lifestreams.

Over the past decade bookleteer and the Diffusion formats have been an intrinsic part of my work and life – enabling me to work with people in all kinds of places and to collaborate across a wide range of disciplines. For three years I ran The Periodical – a project sending out curated selections of bookleteer books to subscribers. I’ve run lots of Publishing on Demand workshops in public libraries and elsewhere, showing people how to use bookleteer for their own purposes. I’ve made books with people in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, Holland, and Vanuatu, as well as with people across the UK. And a few of my own…

The zenith has been working with Reite people in Papua New Guinea to make hundreds of books about their traditional Knowledge. Only last night, my close collaborator and friend, James Leach, gave the 2019 William Buller Fagg Annual Lecture at the British Museum – discussing the nature of making and doing documentation in Reite culture and society.

James Leach presenting at the British Museum, Sept 2019

The Next Decade

Where next with bookleteer and hybrid publishing? I’ve long harboured a desire to make it even more accessible for others – to be able to install and run their own versions on their own servers; and to have some sort of federated system of sharing books across multiple versions and instances that makes search ability and discovery easier. I also hope to find ways to share the incredible journey of learning and making that the TKRN project has opened up, with other communities in other places around the world.

A Republic of Learning

These are uncomfortable times, full of disconcerting facts, chilling implications and uncertain outcomes.
– How do we respond to problems that are on a planetary scale?
– How do we affect systems and processes that scale way beyond the reach of our own hands?
– How do we step aside from feelings of despair that is commonly engendered by incipient knowledge of the enormity of the changes already afoot?

We do so by coming together, talking and making things – sometimes objects, sometimes decisions. We do so by sharing what we have and know, as well as what we do not know. We do so by engaging our imaginations and making real – bit by bit – another world. We do so by defining resilience within ourselves, our communities, our actions and intentions – by attending to the local as well as the global. In this way we achieve a common wealth of ideas, stories, tools and techniques – of fellow feeling and support against impending tragedies. Each time we wrest other small piece of sovereignty away from those who would subject us to further to unfeeling systems of control and we make our own republics of learning, knowledge and community – in which we are all citizens.

A Republic of Learning is a new monthly meeting space for exploring and discussing the role of art-making, data science and climate change and making things in response. It aims to address the local to global, to challenge experts and non-experts to learn together and share questions about how to make sense of the transformational changes ahead of humans, ecosystems and other lifeforms on the planet. To make responses together, outside of the habitual spaces in which we act.

Our first meeting, last Friday 20th September, coincided with the Global Climate Strike in which millions of young people and others around the world took part – demonstrating for action on climate change. We gathered to make our own contribution to action – starting something we hope will grow over time and become a space for people to come together to share and learn together.

To get things started, Rachel Jacobs brought in some objects from various art works and projects and talked about her practice and how it has engaged with places, environments, communities and ecologies over the past decade and more. The objects provided us with tangible things to discuss among ourselves and think about what our own contributions to positive and purposeful transformation could be, especially as some of us had children participating directly in the marches and actions happening at the same time.

The monthly meetings – held on the 3rd Friday of the month (10.30am to 1pm) – will take place in The Story Garden, a new community space in Somers Town behind the British Library and next to the Francis Crick Institute, made by and for the local people and managed by Global Generation. We are generously hosted by Make @ Story Garden, a public engagement project of Central Saint Martins UAL.

The concept of a republic of learning is borrowed from Fred Garnett, who conceives of The Republic of Learning as a “post-Enlightenment” rethinking of self-determined learning spaces and communities outside of the academies and learned societies that have dominated learning and teaching for centuries. His concept harks back to Erasmus who, in the 1500s, declared himself a “citizen of the Republic of Letters”.

Our Republic of Learning is convened by artists, Rachel Jacobs, Erin Dickson and myself as part of the engagement activities of the Manifest Data Lab – a new transdisciplinary group based at Central Saint Martins who are exploring art, data manifestation and climate change. The format for the meetings will be open and fluid – no formal presentations or workshop structures, but instead a place where conversations can emerge and evolve. We hope to grow a community of people who want to address these issues through the lenses of creativity, in partnership with the insights offered by science and the possibilities of technologies, new and old.

People Centric Practices: a field guide

Back in May this year I published a small booklet – A Field Guide for People Centric Practices.

This contains my personal reflections on what a set of principles for working from a people-centric perspective might be. For me, people centric practice implies not just a human centred approach, but one which encompasses the whole context in which we live and work, and impacts on other creatures and lifeforms that are part of such environments – the more-than-human world. It addresses the whole ecologies of which we are part, on upon which we depend for our very existence. People does not have to mean exclusively human – we might consider other species (trees, birds, mammals etc) as peoples, as some indigenous humans have done, since they constitute their own societies and ways of being in the world. All have as much right to life as each other, it is only human hubris which champions our right to own and exploit everything else as paramount.

The booklet brings together, in a simple way, a set of principles and guides for working based on empathy, common sense, trust and agency. It is centred on establishing and following an ethos – through listening and responding, trusting and being trusted; anticipating consequences and reflecting on what you do. It adds into the mix principles for building trust borrowed from Baroness Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith Lectures, as well as the Precautionary Principle, Duty of Care and the Nolan Principles of Public Life. It also includes my own personal values: passion, intensity, intimacy, pleasure, obligation, responsibility, culpability.

The booklet is free to download on bookleteer, or read the online version.

A little more personal archaeology

Recently I’ve re-connected with a couple of former colleagues from my time in the Royal College of Art’s Computer Related Design Research Studio, now 20 years ago. Jonathan Mackenzie and Gavin Baily have joined our Manifest Data Lab team at CSM to help deliver the Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change project. Back then they were part of Richard Brown‘s team working on the Biotica and Mimetic Starfish artificial life art projects. Looking back over the Biotica book I published its held up well, as have the others from that time.

My role then (1998-2001) was the CRD Research Studio’s “Writer, Editor & Curator” – setting up a new publishing imprint, commissioning books and other print materials from my colleagues, editing and publishing them as well as developing external partnerships and relations for exhibitions and installations. In the three years I was a member of the studio I commissioned, edited and published five books, as well as co-curating an exhibition with Claire Catterall celebrating 10 years of the studio’s work. All the books are now out of print (except Tony Dunne’s Hertzian Tales, which the MIT Press re-issued in 2005), but they can occasionally be found second hand.

  • Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design (1999) by Anthony Dunne (re-printed by MIT Press in 2005) – ISBN: 9781874175276
  • Technological Landscapes (1999) by Richard Rogers –  ISBN: 9781874175284
  • Project #26765: FLIRT by Fiona Raby (2000) & Ben Hooker –  ISBN: 9781874175292
  • Biotica : Art, Emergence and Artificial Life (2001) by Richard Brown with Igor Aleksander, Jonathan Mackenzie and Joe Faith – ISBN: 9781874175330
  • The Presence Project (2001) by William Gaver & Ben Hooker –  ISBN: 9781874175322

The Studio was founded in 1990 and led by Gillian Crampton Smith, who had an extraordinary eye for talent and hired a brilliantly diverse team including: Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Bill Gaver, Giles Rollestone, Richard Brown, Shona Kitchen, Ben Hooker, Ian Morris, Heather Martin & Brendan Walker. The teaching staff also included people such as Rory Hamilton, Nina Pope, Nick Durrant & Durrell Bishop. I was assisted by Paul Farrington who designed most of the print materials, except for the FLIRT book by Graphic Thought Facility. It was an amazing place to find myself, and to be given the opportunity to develop my ideas and strategies for “guerrilla” publishing and cross-disciplinary collaboration early on in my career.