Conversation with Nishant Shah (NS), Jonathan Reus (JR) and Sissel Marie Tonn (ST).
Illustration by Sissel Marie Tonn
The Reading Room is an event series dedicated to creating a community-oriented, public platform for encounters with contemporary ideas on art and society. At its core, the Reading Room series revolves around the reading of texts provided by invited guests – cultural theorists, philosophers and curators – who join our diverse community in an open discussion while providing insight, context and perspective on the topics at hand.
The series stems from a belief that keeping a close connection to historical and emerging theories on art and culture is invaluable to artists. Especially in the 21st century, where theory, practice and social engagement in the arts seem to merge ever more seamlessly. The Reading Room is made possible with the support from STROOM Den Haag and the Dutch Creative Industries Fund.
As discussions in The Reading Room are so ephemeral, and yet are such a rich source of ideas and understandings, we have looked for potential formats to capture traces of what happens in the thick of things. This interview is part of that process, one of a series of interviews in 2017 that we call ‘Relay Conversations’. These interviews, conducted as a reflective round-table discussion between the curators and guests, is not only an effort to archive the highlights of the event, but also an opportunity to shed light on the texts discussed for those who were unable to attend the session in person.
The Reading Room #19 and #20, Technologies of Survival – Postcolonial Perspectives on Computation, took place on the 3rd and 14th of September with guest reader Nishant Shah.
In past decades there have been numerous attempts to design technological policies for “the developing world”. Such social and political initiatives have, more often than not, presented the computer as an emancipation device, a provider of solutions to endemic socio-cultural problems. Others within the postcolonial discourse perceive computation as an infrastructure of control, one that asserts existing hegemonies. There is also a third perspective, one that identifies a need for integration between the culture of technology and social conditions, as if the two were separated and in need of integration.
These three, oft critiqued, tropes of the digital are deviously persistent, even in postcolonial arguments that attempt to deconstruct them. And while there is a strategic need for these tropes, they are also marked in promoting an ‘extinction impulse’ that perpetuates colonial and patriarchal structures. With the theme ‘Technologies of Survival’, this cluster of The Reading Room seeks to build a toolbox of postcolonial perspectives on computation, and to think through these ideas to better understand the computer, computation and the lives of those who are computed.
Session #19 was occupied with identifying touchstones for thinking about Postcolonial scholarship on computing and technology. The departure point for this discussion were the texts Postcolonial Computing: A Lens on Design and Development by Lilly Irani et. al. and Of Heathens, Perverts and Stalkers: The Imagined Learner in MOOCS by our guest Nishant Shah.
Session #20 focused on issues of digital rights as human rights, and considerations of digital piracy and copyright inflecting life and conditions of living. The departure points for this session were the texts What is a technological author? The pirate function and intellectual property by Kavita Philip, and Piracy, Creativity and Infrastructure: Rethinking Access to Culture by Lawrence Liang. Additionally, The Reading Room screened the film The Supermen of Malegaon, written & directed by Faiza Ahmad Khan, as a reference point for the cluster’s discussions.
JR: Everyone present really enjoyed the text by Lawrence Liang, on piracy and creativity, so a lot of questions emerged from there. One of them was from Flora. She was interested in this notion of creativity that Liang talks about, and she was hoping that you could talk about it and how it fits in with a more postcolonial perspective on digital art. And particularly she was interested in the notion of infrastructure that was in Liang’s text.
NS: So I don’t want to paraphrase what Lawrence has to say, but rather talk about what I learned from his text. Because it’s a very poetic text, as a lot of Lawrence’s ideas are. The main things that I take from that particular text is the notion of creativity. So within the artistic framework, despite all material evidences, creativity has always been thought of in conditions of plenty. Because art is the benefactor of patronage, because art kind of contributes to surplus economies. Beginning from Plato, artists have always been thought of as parasitical to the construction of the ideal republic. Lawrence suggests that that kind of notion of a creative class produces a class-based society of a certain kind – that there are people who are creative, who are artists, and there are people who are not creative, they are compilers or assemblers or
workers. In technology we see this in the famous Apple story: your products are designed in California and assembled in China – as if the maker in China is not creative. As if he’s merely a mechanical drone, who can work for 15h a day and kill himself.
JR: or often herself… as the workforce at these factories are majority female, and relating back to what you said in the previous session about feminine knowledge escaping the dominant value system. Craft, and traditionally feminine arts like weaving, also historically carries this kind of second-class status of creativity.
NS: Yeah. So I think Lawrence’s basic argument around creativity, within this text, but also throughout his work, is to recognize creativity not as this extraordinary condition that some people have the privilege of having, but that creativity is a prerequisite for survival. Creativity is this imaginative coping mechanism which emerges more from conditions of scarcity than from conditions of plenty, but at the same time not locating it as creativity of necessity. It’s not hardship, victimhood, oppression and scarcity, but scarcity of what you affectively desire from the world, and how you make it happen.
Lawrence also draws from this Hindi word called jugad, which roughly translated would mean “to make things happen”. So you might not have the perfect infrastructure that art demands sometimes, you don’t have the six beamers and high grade mixers and so on, you just have nicks and nacks and lego bricks, pirated software, frayed wires, stolen cable, and local-area networks that are built out of rubbish and all kinds of things. He thinks that’s creative, and that’s where we need to locate creativity – especially within the conditions of modernity.
And from there on, if you look at the relationship between creativity and innovation, innovation is no longer just a tweak on an existing system, and it is not merely catering to a specific class that can afford innovation. Innovation becomes the way by which social order gets established, economic interventions get made, and political progress gets designed. When the first person who started using cute cat pictures to engineer political revolutions – that wasn’t just about content, right? It was equally about infrastructure. It was about realizing that there is a specific technological infrastructure that allows for mobilization and organization. In the case of India of course it’s famous that the two technologies that the British were the most
Creativity not as this extraordinary condition that some people have the privilege of having, but that creativity is a prerequisite for survival.
proud of were the technologies that the Indian National Movement used against them: one was cinema and the other was railways. Those were the two colonial gifts that came to India, and they in fact became the weapons of mass-organization, politicization and imagination of the country. So that’s where Lawrence’s text is inspirational for me, because it moves away from thinking about questions of content, authorship or creativity as defined by a creative class or sector, or a specific community of artists and locates it in everyday practices of negotiation and coping. And again it’s not because of adversity but because of the joy, of perversity, or essentially as he says in another text, because people want to watch a lot of porn. So if creativity comes from there, then let’s locate it there.
ST: What do you think of the difference between this kind of scarcity and that of precariousness? Because I often feel that the notion of precariousness sticks together with creativity as a kind of neoliberal tool to justify the economic situation of artists. How to navigate this?
NS: No completely, and I think Lawrence is very aware of this, which is why he locates creativity as a communally owned, community driven, collective experience, as opposed to an individual experience.
What this essentially means is that the driver of the creative impulse no longer gets left behind in conditions of destitution, but creativity as a new currency, as something that gets respected, and so while you are living in conditions of, let’s say, economic scarcity there will be a whole community which supports you, sustains you and protects you, and allows you to do what you want to do. But in this case it’s no longer patronage. This community is not doing you a favor by giving you food, it’s not donations and gifts, but rather a real recognition of these contributions that this creative energy makes in that space.
And that’s precisely why he insists that we shouldn’t think about creativity as a solution to scarcity. It’s not the answer to being precarious, but it needs to be recognized as a social force of a certain kind. There is this Indian political scientist called Ashis Nandy, who talks about the difference between poverty and destitution. He says that poverty is an economic condition, while destitution is a lived condition. So you can have poor people that are not destitute, because they have social capital, cultural capital, community resources to fall back on, safety nets that do not drive them to suicide or death, whereas destitution is different – where you might be economically rich you might be so completely destitute that you drive yourself to suicide, or complete annihilation.
So maybe that’s a distinction that’s necessary to make here, that poverty is a condition of modernity, and destitution is a condition of lived reality that’s not just economic.
JR: This example you gave with the two technologies that were given as ‘colonial gifts’ to India by the British, and were then used as resistance tools. Do you see any similar ‘gifts’ in computing technologies? Can a line be drawn from rail and cinema to consider a postcolonial resistance through digital media?
NS: There is not an easy parallel to draw, because the technologies of the railway and cinema were state technologies which were then used against the state, and what you have now are technologies which are a result of public-private partnerships. There is a joint effort of the state and the market coming together, and so it becomes more difficult to figure out where to hack it, where exactly the point of resistance comes in. But I still think that at a micro level, as well as a very macro level, these conditions of privacy do provide a new kind of resistance. Take the case of India for example: We’ve had a fairly decent fair-use exception clause to the intellectual property rights law in India: that is used for academic purposes for example. People have the right to pirate material in a certain way.
But this was always limited to print technologies, reproduction through photocopies and so on. This was because there was always the presumption that it’s still going to be a contained piracy, because if there is only one book in the library, and 500 students are pirating it, it’s never really going to go beyond that particular space. With digital technologies things took a completely different turn, because one copy immediately turns into one million copies, and it’s no longer contained by the campus where the copy was made.
But what happened in India then was that there was this big case against a photocopying shop in the Delhi University campus. Last year the Supreme Court came up with a fantastic judgement, which begins by saying that “intellectual property is not a sacred right” and from there on the court completely destroys the publishing houses that were pressing charges (Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Francis and Taylor), who were demanding that this particular notion of intellectual property was a fundamental right of the personhood and the company. And so the Supreme Court completely demolishes that claim, and opens up the scope of fair use exception in India more than any other country in the world.
So that was an example of this kind of snowball effect, where an entire country is reshaping itself in relation to intellectual property rights, to establish that intellectual property in the digital sphere has become an inalienable right of the users. That it has become non-sacred to the publisher but sacred to the user. And the same things are happening with free speech and expression, where technologies that were originally built to contain and script specific kinds of user behavior are continuously being turned on their heads, as users find creative ways of subverting and queering the pitch of what the technologies are supposed to be for. That’s why Ethan Zuckerman brought out the hilarious idea that if people use a technology to share pictures of cute cats you will be sure that eventually this technology will become one of mass protest and political organization (he called it the ‘cute cat theory’).
I think there is a new form of resistance which is coming up. But at the same time the ability of the user to have ownership of these technologies is being diminished, largely because intellectual property has been moved from content to software and hardware. We are being tied more and more to licenses and the platforms that we use, and that is an emerging threat.
So there is more a kind of an expanded scope of IP on specific content based distribution phenomena, but we haven’t had so much success on hardware and software movements. There needs to be a turn there, and I think it begins with basic literacy, which inevitably involves digital literacy.
ST: My last question is directed to the both of you. I am interested in the role of these themes in relation to education. Since you are both invested in art, technology and computation studies on a university level (mainly in Germany and The Netherlands) I wonder what your position on the role of education is in this context, and what needs to be put in place in order to overcome the ‘extinction impulses’ that Nishant talks about? I am particularly interested here in the extinction impulse relating to tacit knowledge.
NS: I think for me it’s really very simple. We need to understand the university as a technological product, as opposed to merely being the house of technologies. We need to understand that the construction of universities historically has been informed by methods of distributing, producing, consuming, storing, solving, retrieving, and remembering.
Technologies that were originally built to contain and script specific kinds of user behavior are continuously being turned on their heads, as users find creative ways of subverting and queering the pitch of what the technologies are supposed to be for.
So as technologies have changed they have in fact radically changed the structure of what the roles of universities are, what the responsibilities of a teacher are, what the assessment patterns of a person’s education needs to be, and so on. The first thing that we need to do in removing the ‘extinction impulses’ from the universities is to stop thinking of the university as a romantic pre-technologized structure, which is being forced into conditions of technology.
With this I mean that despite the modern, secular rhetoric of how the university is supposed to free knowledge and democratize learning, let’s remember that MIT was one of the places that were part of persecuting Aaron Swartz for precisely doing that, in trying to free knowledge, and in part being hugely responsible for him taking his own life. So we need to stop presuming innocence on the part of the university. We need to start thinking of the university as in fact being informed by these extinction impulses and hence needing to do more in order to avoid them. Thereby we can start reformulating both its position and its role within contemporary systems.
And I think the second thing, which is something I’ve been struggling with, and which is why I give out my essay to read around MOOCs for example (Massive Open Online Courses, ed.),
is that people now think that the relationship between learning and technology is resolved by MOOCs, that all we need is just an enormous amount of MOOCs to be present. Again, this is why I found The Reading Room to be interesting: because if you wanted to do a kind of technology-oriented new form of of learning environment, your default option would have been to do a MOOC, or build some kind of online learning environment. And it’s important to realize that these re-imaginations of learning environments through technologies are actually new forms of gentrification.
Because when building a MOOC you’re implicitly saying that only those who are tacitly and implicitly part of the domain of technology now have access to these resources, and the others can either train themselves or just be left behind. So, recognizing the university’s complicit nature of these kinds of technological advancements in learning tools, in building MOOCs and digital infrastructure, and at the same time increasing student fees and tuition, decreasing the number of permanent appointments, and the resulting precariousness for the artists and teachers that work within that structure, is hugely problematic. And this is not just an education/administration problem, it’s a technologically-driven problem. This is something that needs to be faced head on.
JR: I think this idea of the ‘extinction impulse’, as we’ve discussed already, is in some way a kind of specific instance of something that is a more general characteristic of dominant technological narratives. That is: computation with its ways of being and thinking, its efficiency dogmas, the reduction of complex situations to tractable problems, even its loneliness, coupled with its incredible success as a driver of economic development, tends to erase other ways of being and thinking if gone unchecked. It’s not that this kind of engineering thinking is something intrinsically negative, it’s part of the human toolbox. So in the classroom I think we have to be wary of giving students the impression that digital technologies are simply tools for domination and control, which is such an easy route to take for a number of reasons. One because, in a department like the one where Nishant and I teach, which is composed mainly of non-practitioners and theoreticians, you have a strong bias towards critical theories. Also, the students themselves tend to come into the classroom mainly believing the dominant technological narratives, and as a teacher you want to shake them up. This is changing, now that the distopian narrative has almost become the mainstream. That gives us another challenge as teachers, and as artists. How do we nurture optimism?
It’s interesting to think about the place of tacit knowledge in all this. I often teach classes that involve some element of learning computer programming, mathematics, or some other immersion into the logic and methods of engineering. Within the ecosystem of MOOCs, these are the types of subjects that tend to flourish, that is, for whatever reason, there seem to be more of them. I think this partly could come from a notion that, for example, computer programming, is an activity you do alone – like reading – so it’s suited to the MOOC format. But in reality, engineering is also making, and making with others – the real ecology is more like crafts than it is like literature. So there’s this side to it, perhaps linked to the idea of ‘feminine knowledge production’ that Nishant brought up earlier. This is a kind of tacit knowledge that is developed through doing, learning from others, sharing in the context of making. I think this is something Matt Ratto is trying to get at with his ‘critical making’ project. In the classroom it’s possible to construct scenarios where this tacit knowledge can be developed – collaborative artworks, workshops, hackathons. It’s a place where MOOCs are struggling, but then again, students are resourceful, they create their own shared sites around MOOCs in order to learn together.
JR: Nishant, I have one last question for you. You were talking about the essay from Lawrence Liang about recasting creativity outside of this innovation discourse and placing it more in everyday negotiations. And I am trying to think of examples of this kind of ‘everyday negotiation’ in the West. Could we maybe take ‘Maker’ culture, or open source software initiatives as examples? Maker culture especially comes out of MIT and the fab-lab concept, which looks like a really empowering idea from the top-down, but in practicality also carries traces of the extinction impulse. Whereas fablab-like initiatives, also in poorer nations, only celebrate a certain idea of innovation and creativity.
NS: I think it’s true, and I think that this maybe also ties to what Sissel was pointing to, in terms of precariousness. This narrative of innovation being able to happen with fewer resources at hand often becomes a justification of why it’s ok to just keep on having poorer resources in some places… I think I’m doing disservice to Lawrence when I’m rephrasing it, but I think the argument that Lawrence is making is that when creativity gets restricted to only some people having the privilege of being creative it diminishes both the capacity
and recognition of creativity which is out of bounds, and which often happens in the most perverted spaces – both in the level of content as well as in the level of hardware and infrastructure. So if you ask anyone what the most creative tech developments of the last 5 years are on the internet, the chances are that pornography will not make the top list. Chances are that terrorism will not make the top list. There is a certain kind of gentrification of creativity, which doesn’t look at the libidinal excess, and the perverted affect that people have to technology, and how they actually use this. So it’s not a valorization of it as much as a recognition that the true democratization of the internet was actually the democratization of creative powers. And that’s why infrastructure is so important. Because if this infrastructure does not open up, and it becomes more and more proprietary and closed then that is how the creative possibilities of the internet get reduced.
Nishant Shah is the Dean of Graduate at ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands and a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University, Germany. He was the founder of the Centre for Internet and Society, India, and the knowledge partner for the Hivos programme exploring digital technologies, youth, and building democracies. Nishant‘s work is inspired by gender, sexuality and race theories and activism. His interests dovetail humanities, arts, design, policy and computation and he is committed to building infrastructure for public access to knowledge and research.
Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist living in The Hague. She works with multi-media installation, textiles and writing, and her processual approach is driven by a great deal of curiosity and the possibilities of building relationships across fields. Her work revolves around an interest in structures of attention and perception within ecologies undergoing subtle or profound changes. Within this discourse her work explores these environmental (often humanly induced) changes, extending the public debates towards epistemological issues connecting these events to the body and its sensing of presence. She completed a master in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2015 and will be a resident at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht in 2017.
Jonathan Reus is an American musician, researcher and curator whose work blends machine aesthetics with free improvisation. His broader research is into instruments and instrumentations, and their potential to bring new insight into knowing the world. Jonathan is associate lecturer of Computing and Coded Culture at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media in Leuphana University, Lüneburg, where he has created teaching methods for hybrid coursework blending science, mathematics and cultural studies. He is also a lecturer in performative sound art at the ArtEZ academy of art in Arnhem.
From the curators of the Reading Room: Thank you again to Nishant Shah for your insights both in The Reading Room and in this piece! We hope to welcome you both back in Den Haag. And special thanks to all the participants that joined in this gathering.