Tag Archives: climate change

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 is 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 all over the online world – often in places we are barely aware of. Such places are often private repositories, networks and systems the scope of which we have little perception, let alone access to. This leakage then becomes mixed with other types and forms of data to become something like a viscous film that subsequently 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 whatever options we are offered by automated decision-making systems. It affects our lives in ways we struggle to discern, always with the nagging sense that some traces of what we have done previously have somehow become determinants in how our personal 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? To be empowered would require us to assume agency, to directly engage in the processes of making meaning from data, not simply accept the outputs of machine determined processes and systems. 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.

We are entering an era of climate impacts, pandemics and their consequences, and there is a sense of urgency that we should seek new ways to define ourselves as actors – not simply as subjects or victims. 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? Can we embed something irreducibly human at the very heart of how we interact with our systems of computation and analysis? Something that must be felt not just thought about?

How might we clothe ourselves in data, yet also be able to change and put it off 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. Clothes can be, and have been more formally in earlier historical times, part of how we construct our personal identity, or identities, and how we project those identities to the world around. Yet in our contemporary world, they are not considered to be part of our essential being. Clothes 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 dress ourselves as nimbly, as flexibly in data? For it to be an active material of identity that we choose to enfold us, rather than a filmy detritus that coats us unbidden and which we are barely able to scrub off? How can we make use of the properties of personal data without it necessarily becoming a piece of property, an asset that accumulates and sticks to us, weighs us down and limits our abilities or opportunities?

What certainly exists in the present moment 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. It is becoming both a mainstay of our industrial, globalised transactional economy, and part of the infrastructure of how we exist and our identities are constructed and validated.

Could it be possible for us to take pleasure in being metaphorically washed over by this deluge of data, just as we might stand purposefully in a rainstorm, our senses alive to the energy of the elements and the forces of nature? How so? What kind of different relations might need to come into play for such a thing to be possible?

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 and channelled by the choices of others. It is to define your own measures of value and quality, not simply to 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, strategy for empowerment and autonomy. Against the backdrop of vast quantities of data being greedily hoovered up by governments and corporations as yet another vector of social control, it offers a glimmer of hope for some freedom. 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 up and it eventually erupts in unexpected ways and 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 for or to complement us. Power is, ultimately, only wielded through the consent of the governed – however quiet or seemingly unconscious it may be. History is full of eruptions when that consent is withdrawn or simply evaporates.

To demand a new social contract for our data is a threshold we can only pass through by active, intentional choice. A contract that also gives us, the people, a fair say in how our data is generated, collected, stored, processed and used – one in which there could be the potential for an erotics of data to emerge. 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 and the heaviest burden placed squarely on the living planet and its future. If we choose instead to cooperate with our own desires and imaginations we might engender a radically different future 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)

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 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.

Sensing Climate Change through Empathic Encounters

This is a slightly tweaked version of a presentation I gave recently for a Fellowship application. My proposal was to use the Fellowship to advance the work I have started this year in adapting the processes of data manifestation developed in the Lifestreams project in creating tangible artefacts that communicate the complexly interconnected phenomena of climate research. And to also weave into this narrative approaches inspired by other cultures (especially non-Western “indigenous” peoples) who have developed other ways of recording and sharing knowledge of change over long timespans.

I see art as a way of life, a way of being, rather than the things I make. My practice is founded on bringing the sensibility of being an artist into direct contact with the world through the collaborations I undertake in different contexts and places and with the different communities which I engage with.

As an artist my goal is not to put artworks into galleries, but to weave art into everyday life – not as an exception or decoration, but as a vital and transformative process.

The way I do this is to create the conditions for stories to emerge from the material and interactions of these collaborations, and to help communicate the values expressed by the participants to others: storymaking instead of storytelling.

My interests are transdisciplinary – exploring the intersections of Art, Design and Science and two key strands in my work are Data Manifestation and Public Authoring. These two strands delve into the heart of how artistic practice can assist us in making sense of and defining values about our complex selves and environments: through sensory engagement and knowledge creation, documentation and dissemination.

My proposal focuses on climate change – and specifically on exploring alternative ways to allow people to appreciate and make sense of the complex interdependent interactions between different climate phenomena that are more often isolated and presented independently of one another. Mainstream debates over the past 30 years have tended to treat ‘climate change’ as a series of individual issues – such as the ozone layer, carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, sea ice reduction and glacial melt. In parallel the measures to ‘deal’ with them are often presented as separate strategies too. Whilst we know, in the abstract, that we live within a single global ecosystem, it is passingly rare to see these issues presented in ways that help us understand and relate to their interdependencies.

I propose to use data manifestation and public authoring as experimental means to generate opportunities for people to experience empathic encounters that go beyond the instrumentality of two dimensional graphs and visualisations. In particular I hope to explore more spatial and architectural expressions which can trigger a range of human senses in making meaning from data about climate change.

These are what I call “reciprocal entanglements” where people encountering the work perceive themselves in a direct relationship with it and with meaning making, thus transforming their understanding of issues that are at the heart of humanity’s future.

Over the past few years I have been working with indigenous people in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu on adapting, for their situation and purposes, some of the public authoring tools and techniques I’ve developed.

This has been a mutual exchange of cultural practices intended to reinvigorate intergenerational sharing of traditional knowledge. They hope to preserve their traditional and dynamic way of life from being overwhelmed by the changes wrought by money and industrialised resource extraction. In our terms, they seek to retain their culture’s resilience and sustainable relationship to their specific environment and not be subsumed into our Western worldview. This relationship has given me new perspectives on how environmental change is experienced, understood and shared – where knowledge of such things is inherently local. It is deeply and necessarily intertwined with the daily practices that are required for subsistence, as well as with the community memories stretching back many generations.

My aim is to investigate different ways of making the complex data about climate change tangible for people in post-industrialised societies who do not have the kind of direct and proximate connection to land, sea and the natural world that their ancestors had or that those communities have who still live in rural, often pre-industrialised settings.

Recently I have been inspired by reports on comparative studies of Aboriginal stories and traditions in Australia with scientific evidence of environmental change. These studies have exposed remarkable accuracy in the stories (to within one generation of accuracy) over very long timespans when describing phenomena such as sea level changes. I believe these stories and traditions persist in such cultures because they are neither remote nor alienated from context. They remain proximate and directly relational to the people who have lived with and through them.

How then, might it be possible to devise ways to express environmental change across time for urbanised people in the post-industrialised world – like ourselves – who do not experience such proximity on an everyday basis? And whose life choices will increasingly be made within the context of momentous changes in how we live our lives?

I see my engagements with climate scientists, social and cultural geographers and others doing research and other activities as a form of reciprocal entanglement too. Using tools I’ve developed for public authoring, such as the bookleteer formats, I propose to conduct an auto-ethnography of this process. By sharing my practice and experience of artistic fieldwork in an open and collaborative manner, I hope to stimulate discussion and debate, as well as to invite others to participate. I hope to weave together some of my experiences of working with indigenous people and their insights, with the observations and data of climate science to help us understand the effects and impacts of our actions, to to help us think about what our future choices might be.