July 12, 2010

On Algorithms and Apparatuses

I recently sat down with Niko Vicario to talk about The Betweeners. Below is the conversation we had about the work and its relation to notions of friendship, the importance of algorithms and Agamben's notion of the "apparatus."

NV: So tell me a little about the project.

IW: So this project is the second incarnation of a work that I did a few years back for a group show in New York at the Flux Factory. Let me find you a link to the image so you can look while I type...

NV: Great.

IW: So, that show was organized as a massive collaborative scale model of New York in homage to the Panorama at the Queens Museum of Art, built in 1964. The show, NYNYNY, involved over 90 artists each of whom built a scale model of their favourite place in New York (real or imaginary). The final work was assembled over a few days. So my proposal involved wanting to highlight a person instead of architecture. I thought it would be interesting to write a piece of software to find the most influential, unknown New Yorker and create a portrait of them for the show.

NV: How did you find them?

IW: I wrote some software to scan all New Yorkers on Facebook, looking for people who had very few friends, but the friends that they did have would have many friends. So I imagined a type of person for whom there really wasn't a word. Instead of a word, I created an algorithm. (An algorithm is a logical machine for manipulating information in a particular way.)

NV: But is this concept of “betweenness” some of the ways towards a terminology?

IW: ”Betweenness" is something that I came across later when I started the second version of this project while here at MIT. I was given a chance to exhibit a solo show in Montreal, and I decided that it would be a lot of fun to restage that New York project, but this time make it a photographic project, well-finished. With more gloss. After talking to some Media Labbers, I got turned onto this notion of "Betweenness Centrality," which is an algorithm used by researchers who are interested in studying networks. (And networks, these days, and "network science" is used to study things as diverse as economics, disease growth and neurology.)

NV: Because the first iteration (in New York) was claymation, a pretty low tech translation of the "logical machine" of an algorithm — so why gloss now?

IW: Gloss? Well if you look at the work that I did for the NYNYNY show it was pretty rough. It doesn't look finished. I feel like I needed to make more art that has a high degree of finish. Maybe "gloss" is the wrong word.

NV: The Media Lab sets the bar high for sheen.

IW: I can get sloppy once I've been making well finished work for a while.

NV: But I do think it's interesting that your project takes the algorithm and turns it into an opportunity for what seems like a potentially intimate encounter, face to face with someone on a social networking site who then becomes the subject not for a "profile pic" but for a staged photograph with a fancy, heavy old camera to be displayed in a gallery.

IW: Yeah, that's true. Although I wasn't really thinking about the intimacy of it at first. I like to think of the project as an intersection between an algorithm and a city.

NV: And I know you're working on mapping the network positions, in a form that could be compared to a map of urban space for instance.

NV: Any stories of the people you met whose social networking positions best embodied this betweenness algorithm? Did they have good social skills, as their betweenness status would suggest? Or was that just their avatar's trait?

IW: They varied in their social skills, and it did seem to vary with their betweenness, yes. But I'm hesitant to draw too many conclusions.

NV: Data!

IW: As an enthographic study, this project was very cursory — not very rigorous. I think the project, should it continue, would probably want to start developing more as a social science work along with the finesse of the photographic work.

NV: That's OK. So why the switch from Facebook to Myspace?

IW: The switch to MySpace was motivated by Facebook's deletion of their city networks. It has become considerably harder to navigate Facebook by geographic region. MySpace, on the other hand, is very open and has geographic data that's easy to parse.

NV: I was having a conversation the other night wondering if people of our generation will still have our Facebook pages when we're elderly even if the youth of that time have moved on, will we always hold onto this format as a means of self-definition and social interaction, do we remember a life without it? Of course plenty of people live their life without it.

IW: I've heard of these people, but I've never met any. Do they really exist? I wish there were more diversity in how people interact with technology. It always seems like there is just one path forward and we all participate in it to various degrees.

NV: Not to mention people without internet access, not to mention those without even electricity, tough to imagine I agree in our Media Lab existence. I wanted to mention that philosopher Agamben who is bringing up Foucault's concept of the apparatus but extending it to cell phones, pencils, basically everything that isn't biologically human and then the "subject" (the individual) is constituted/comes into existence solely through his or her exposure to apparatuses. Before apparatuses, he or she is biologically human but not yet a subject. Is this interesting in regard to your project? It may be fairly negative, fairly apocalyptic. But of course there is no escaping pencils, not to mention iphones.

IW: I love the ball point pen. In particular the bic pen.

NV: What was the process like of using the camera — from the 50s right — after so much algorithming?

IW: I love this camera [1954 Graflex Speed Graphic] because of how it forces me to slow down. There's no computer inside to automatically adjust things. I have to be methodical about focusing, opening and closing the shutter, setting the aperture and shutter speed, loading the film, etc. And the fact that I don't get to see the result for a week or so. It's a kind of denial or deprivation of pleasure that's eventually very satisfying.

NV: This question of speed is interesting. Do we follow the rhythm (or algorithm for that matter) of these up to date apparatuses or inhabit an alternate temporality. Or, in your project, maybe there is a switching back and forth, a translating between these temporalities.

IW: Well yes, digital cameras enable us to reminisce about the last five minutes of our life. It's a very different cognitive experience and much more immediately social. No one would dream of saying, ”Hey Ian, pass that massive camera over so I can take a photo of you.” It just doesn't happen.

NV: There is also that question, made more apparent by social networking technology: What is a friend?

IW: Sure, that's a whole other question. I used to be very picky about who I let in as a "friend" online. But I've stopped worrying about it now and I just accept all friendship requests that come my way.

NV: You mentioned that these individuals with highest betweenness centrality might have been so positioned as the result of the individual being "friends" with particular bands so perhaps they were just fans at the right place at the right time never expecting an artist to pounce.

IW: So let me get back to the MySpace stuff: yes the big difference between it and Facebook is that it's primarily still popular in the music scene. There are tons of indie musicians who use MySpace, and many of their fans too. So it made sense when I met Geneviève Lapointe, the subject with the highest betweenness centrality, and I discovered that she was a huge music fan. In fact, she told me how she doesn't have a cellphone, and hardly uses the internet for anything but checking for concerts on MySpace.

NV: That's funny that she doesn't have a cellphone and that her centrality algorithmically isn't really about an emotional concept of friendship but more fandom.

IW: It was inspiring to meet someone with a very different approach to technology, an approach that was clearly working for her well. She chose her apparatus carefully. I think that online social networks are much less about friendship than they are about celebrity and microcelebrity; if you're not going to post witty entertaining tweets, I simply won't follow you. On Facebook everyone's a celebrity for fifteen minutes, per day. And then there's of course the somewhat creepy sensation of stalking and being stalked while on social networks, something that everyone agrees on, but that only makes it slightly less weird.

NV: You had mentioned to me there was also this link between online social networks and the mapping of social interaction, was it in Iraq?

IW: Well setting aside the knowledge that Facebook was funded very early on by holding companies owned by the CIA, yes: there's a technology that was developed a few years back called the Human Terrain System. It was a kind of military Facebook for Iraq. U.S. soldiers could build profiles of the people around them to help navigate social systems at play; I think the project got cancelled, but I'm sure that the concept lives on in other projects. This one was produced by a military contractor.

NV: So people didn't create their own profiles, they were profiles set up by soldiers representing people. Were people tracked or observed in life and then those observations were fed into an online network illustrating it?

IW: Sorry, mistake: it looks like it was designed by the military and it's still in use: http://humanterrainsystem.army.mil/ A unidirectional military Facebook, a way to perform "social science research" in a warzone. So for the military, people with high "betweenness centrality" in their system would be very important in understanding how information flows, in getting information out to the city as a whole, or for tracking down wanted persons.

NV: Have you seen Avatar?

IW: Yes, I thought it was called Pocahontas the first time around. What part of Avatar are you thinking about?

NV: Well, it's not a perfect match but I am thinking the military in Iraq with this Human Terrain project are making avatars of people in Iraq. People don't make their own avatars, they are made by people attempting to understand them but who may not really understand them.

IW: Perhaps. I think the analogy would be the role of Sigourney Weaver's character.

NV: In Avatar the Westerners use their technology to construct avatars of themselves (disguised as Others) to understand those Others but, of course, the well-meaning Leftist social scientists and scientists are funded by the military who are only interested in the planet for its natural resources to be converted into capital. This isn't so different from the historical link between anthropology and colonialism nor from the ways that certain technologies (like the internet, right?) are developed for the military but then proliferate in modified form in normal civilian life.

IW: Have you seen the final photo from my project?

NV: I like the theatricality of it.

IW: Yes. That has a lot to do with the fact that two of the subjects are performance artists. In fact, they're all artists. One writer, one jewelry designer, one graphic designer, one fashion designer. My aim was to recreate a photo from each person's MySpace catalog. With each subject we chose one of their online photos and restaged it.

NV: I like that they share a space but, in the montage of their reenactments, they don't connect to one another, they remain isolated and aloof even in a tableau.

IW: True. I like to think that this motley bunch could be a new kind of elite.

NV: The composite photo does look a little like one of those "best and brightest" or "ones to watch" magazine layouts.

IW: Oh yeah. Vanity Fair.

NV: Do you know the documentary series "7Up”? It could be interesting to follow these people and see what they do, like the filmmaker does in that series, the 7 year old boy who wants to become Prime Minister who then becomes a janitor, or what have you or the prim and proper girl who becomes a drug addict 14 years later.

IW: I've also been thinking about how I would change this project if I were to do it again in another city. I like the idea of people being information machines and how people in various places in the social graph can have an affect on the system as a whole. Check your email for a few network diagrams. These files show how Geneviève is connected and who she is connected to in 2, 3, 4, 5 degrees distance. I think if I were to recreate this project in a new city, I would work with this effect more than simply betweenness centrality.

NV: Yes, the diagrams are great and you had talked about animating them which sounds great.

IW: Thanks. I'm also interested in my own involvement in these graphs. I could write some software that could introduce me to just the right people in all the right cities. Instead of schmoozing like Andy Warhol, I just follow my software and it keeps me in touch with the world through just the right people.

Niko Vicario is a writer, a curator, and a PhD student in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art at MIT. Most recently, he has held curatorial residencies at Program Initiative for Art and Architecture Collaborations (Berlin) and Iaspis (Stockholm); earlier this year he co-edited (with Ute Meta Bauer) Engaged: 20 Years of the MIT Visual Arts Program, a collection of moving image works and documentation of other works interrogating the public sphere; he also participated in the research project and exhibition Living Modern (with Heidrun Holzfeind and Damon Rich), curated by Laura Barlow, at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, where he was Curatorial Fellow in 2008-2009 and a graduate student in 2006-2008.

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