VAINS Notes for Tuesday (so I dont lose)
If I may introduce myself, my name is Eleanor Dare, I am a final year Doctoral student in the department of Computing, Goldsmiths, doing a PhD in Arts and Computational Technology. My PhD interrogates the meaning of interactivity and new constructions of agency within Human-Computer Interactions.
My final practice is represented by South: A Psychometric Text Adventure, this is an artist’s book and a set of software programs. The South project re-conceptualises the artists’ book, fostering a creative sensitivity to the temporally and socially entangled agencies that are always at play, but often subsumed, in complex systems of human-computer communication. The project presents a multi-linear and relational form of intra-activity as an alternative to more linear forms of interaction. The formation of temporally specific, contextualised, relationships between readers and texts has been one of the central goals of my practice; as such a large amount of research has focused upon ideas relating to subjectivity and by extension to issues of epistemology and agency. As a result the South project is built around a series of software agents that perform analytical and interpretive tasks in order to support situated responses. These agents are framed as both structural tools and unorthodox protagonists within this work, supporting environmentally and sensorily situated programming that responds, for example, to both individual subjects and to wider elements, such as the height of the river Thames and CCTV images of London’s roads.
I bring this methodology to my collaboration with Lee on VAINS, the Visual Art Interrogation and Navigation System, which we began to work on a few months ago.
The software and structures we are developing represent a practice-based hypothesis that subjectively and environmentally situated intra-active software can enliven digital arts curation while significantly developing previous notions of ‘the interactive’. The software also presents the case for bespoke works while acknowledging and nurturing collective meanings and shared experiences. Such works challenge linear, humanist, conceptions of agency that might characterise the ‘bespoke’ as a solipsistic and individualist construction. To clear up my earlier reference to the intra-active, intra-activity posits a situated and dynamic form of inter (or intra) action that unfolds between or rather within the moment of connection between a range of actors, or agents, both human and non-human. This, I hope will become clearer as we present our work today.
Now I’d like to address these three main questions:
What are we trying to do?
Why are we doing it?
And so what?
There are also many important sub-questions that Lee and I are constantly asking ourselves, such as:
1) Does the VAINS environment and its navigation systems compete unhealthily with the content?
2) Is it a fake freedom - to offer a collaborative filter and new means of navigation?
3) What does a non-verbal interface offer that a verbal one doesn’t?
4) Does revealing the underlying computational structures of VAINS represent a significant and valid departure from orthodox online curation?
Before we can answer these questions or explore them more deeply I’ll outline some of the initial ideas for what the VAINS project signifies and how it will be realised.
My priority is to generate a complex and nuanced understanding of human-computer relationships, one that does not presuppose a discontinuity in the conceptual foundations of programming and computers from other cultural and philosophical artefacts. In this context computational constructions are framed within a historical continuum, in which both the subject and the subject’s generation of knowledge are linked to enlightenment and positivist philosophical positions, and therefore to wider cultural and historical movements. At the same time I have sought to confront or re-frame the separation between computers and humans, or indeed the ready made separations that we project between subjects and objects (including visitors and online galleries). An important aspect of my work has been to identify significant features of computational knowledge generation, while acknowledging that computers are not clearly separable from ourselves, but, like all human artefacts, are of us. This methodological position is supported by writers such as Donna Haraway (1991), Henri Bergson (1896, 1907), Rosi Braidotti (2006) Karen Barad (2007) and Lucy Suchman (1987, 2005, 2006). These writers shore up the proposition that human beings are entangled with their technologies and with complex, relational and temporally bound systems of agency.
In the hybrid zone between arts and computational technology there are meaningful differences between arts based and scientific research. Recognising and accommodating these differences, as well as the significant points of convergence is one of the central challenges for a research project such as VAINS. As Graeme Sullivan states (2005), there is a need for artist researchers to generate ‘different paradigms of theorizing’ (Sullivan, 2005: xix).
The writer Donna Haraway identifies the seemingly contradictory requirements of a so-called successor science, a science defined by Sandra Harding (1993) as a project that will address the systemic short comings identified in particular by feminist epistemologists and scientists, failings which Haraway defines as the ‘hierarchical positivist orderings of what can count as knowledge’. (Haraway, 1991: 188). Haraway frames this successor science as owning a ‘radical multiplicity of local knowledges’ (187). Such a multiplicity enables a new form of objectivity that can accommodate post-modern insights into knowledge production, particularly post-modernism’s emphasis upon power relations, and its attack upon the implicitly universalising, overarching and grand narratives of humanism.
A successor science proposes a new form of objectivity that Haraway describes as turning ‘out to be about particular and specific embodiment, and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility’ (190).
The building of multiple and multi-linear systems of individual and situated interactions within my own practice is corroborated in the idea of a successor science. The core insights of Donna Haraway (1991), Sandra Harding (1986; 1991), Lorrraine Code (1993, Lucy Suchman (1987; 2007) Karen Barad (2007) and Elizabeth Grosz (1994) are in many ways congruent with my own practical interest in creating transparent and openly partial structures. Donna Haraway writes:
The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision, this is an objective vision that invites rather than closes off, the problem of responsibility for the generativity of all visual practices (198)
Using visual practices as an example Haraway emphasises the corporeality of this sensory system, it is undeniably embodied and not as she puts it ‘a gaze from nowhere’ (188). Despite this, vision has been used within Western scientism to somehow signify a transcendental and neutral observer, it has been allowed in other words to ‘represent while escaping representation’ (188). But Haraway is keen to point out that her notion of embodiment and particularity also serves as a metaphor for non-human forms of vision, including vision in its varied technological forms:
I would like to suggest how our insisting metaphorically on the particularity and embodiment of all vision (though not necessarily organic embodiment and including technological mediation) are not giving in to the tempting myths of vision as a route to disembodiment and second-birthing, allows us to construct a usable, but not an innocent, doctrine of objectivity (189)
Within the VAINS software we are attempting to embed mechanisms for representing our own and our visitors’ partial perspectives. Locating oneself and the particularity of one’s own vision represents an ethics of knowledge production, but also a more complex bringing together of subjects and objects, which, may open up new possibilities for interactive processes within our work.
In this context an outline of the goals for this work could read as follows:
The VAINS site will respond to the expected changes in content consumption as part of the movement towards a more complex web 3.0 generation, offering a customizable and personalized art viewing experience.
VAINS aims in places to be a text free environment where visual experiences are interpreted through their contextual categorization and through the use of other sensual means, such as icons and sound. The VAINS environment will also deploy the embodied and situated nature of human users as core resources in its underlying computational structures.
The project is committed to a form of process orientation and an emphasis upon mind-body, and society-individual integration that is also supported by, for example, Csíkszentmihályi [Chick-sent-me-High] (1990, 1996), Pope (2005) and Maturana and Varela (1992). These authors propose epistemologies not of knowing an absolute world of facts, but rather an active process which itself creates the world of human experiences.
This may loosely answer the ‘what’ part of the first three questions I outlined earlier.
Why – has been partly indicated by my methodological commitment to exploring the meaning of interactivity, particularly in regard to the notion of participation and by Lee’s commitment to investigating the relevance of analogue curatorial practices to digital curation. The VAINS project aims to challenge the presumed neutrality and trans-historical nature of code, seeking instead to throw light on the co-constitution of humans and computers as well as the asymmetries present in their relationships and aesthetic strategies.
My research takes a critical approach to the linear characterisation of many ‘interactive’ systems or linear models of cause and effect, hence my interest in researching alternatives such as intra-active, multi-linear systems of meaning-making. Having stated that, however, our rationale in constructing the VAINS system has been based on identifying causal factors in the failings of previous sites and in predicting the value of creating alternative, intra-active and situated systems.
The current Computer Fine Arts Collection website looks like this:
Power Point SLIDE
Lee has identified the core assumptions and underpinnings of conventional art curation and asks how relevant those ethical tenants are to online dissemination. Certainly we can argue that the current form of many art sites is at odds with those tenants, without even needing to mention how dull such an ‘interface’ is.
In identifying the blankest possible means of curating digital art online we have also brainstormed alternatives, including forms of visceral navigation that may deploy
• Reaction times/Reflexive responses
Hand to eye co-ordination
Abjection/containment - which may also be characterised as abjection for provocation.
Such forms of navigation and filtering are very much part of my interest in alternative computational epistemologies, these epistemologies challenge the propositional logic at the heart of what is called Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence – a narrow conception of human intelligence that denies the body and certainly denies the political and cultural significance of its own logic. A prototype system I have developed collects reaction times and links them to user preferences so that it may make aesthetic or navigational predictions based on embodied reactions, such as the reflexes of visitors.
IMAGE [my reflexive software]
To answer the SO WHAT part of our questions:
As you will see, Lee and I are collecting a range of data that we hope will facilitate novel and significant new forms of art navigation, as well as deploying systems that are familiar from more commercial sites such as Amazon.com, this is done in the service of investigating the limits of what we may do as an alternative to a site such as the current Computer Fine Arts Collection. At the same time we are wary of uncritically adopting the rhetoric or ideology of user choice.
VAINS data gathering and analysis for interpretation and navigation.
We will gather an online test data-set in order to create a user-based collaborative filtering system, using the languages php and mysql.
Collaborative filtering may also be called Opinion mining, or sentiment analysis.
The algorithms work by searching a large group of users or items and finding a smaller list from it with tastes that match either users or art-works. We will establish multi-dimensional similarity metrics for VAINS visitors based on the data-set and probable interests of new visitors. These will be dynamic and offer a constantly evolving picture of the content and how users react to and engage with it.
The algorithms we are constructing will find closest matches, for mood, weather, gender, age, location etc. They will find what the closest co-users in the system liked as well as negative correlations - such as what they might not like.
We could also think about using genetic algorithms - providing a good balance between determinism and a completely random system for suggesting an ideal path through the VAINS content...