︎What Kind of Eye Is This?︎Nora N. Khan in conversation with Alex Zafiris︎What Kind of Eye Is This?︎Nora N. Khan in conversation with Alex Zafiris
Mapping Grid 1, Yeliz Secerli, 2021.
What Kind of Eye Is This?
Nora N. Khan in conversation with Alex Zafiris
In September 2015, the magazine AFTER US published the essay “Towards a Poetics of Artificial Superintelligence” by Nora N. Khan. In it, the young art critic describes the visionary potential of symbolic language, and how it might be used to understand the inscrutable force of AI. She breaks her argument down into nine metaphors: Hurricane, Architect, Sovereign, Star System, Frontline, Search Party, Agent, Swarm, and Scaffolding. Under these sections, she outlines the power of transforming our cognitive thinking, speaking, and written patterns into a post-speculative style. One that could see—with stronger intuition and understanding—into the future.
With somewhat noir imagery, Khan brings substance to a void. She forms an image of non-narrative sublimity, an exalted blankness from which the human race is sidelined. She reveals her love for fiction: She references the novelists William Gibson, Robert Heinlein, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany. She puts forward the idea that understanding the inner life of an AI consciousness—itself, outside of the realms of good or evil, moral or amoral—would be best imagined by a poet. In turn, this would both accelerate our perception of it, and ourselves.
It is by far one of my favorite essays. Khan is an accomplished writer, scholar, and teacher. Her mind is spectacularly organized, yet unduly visceral. She has a great sense of humor, and a genuine optimism. I first met her at The Shed, where she was presenting her first major curatorial project, Manual Override, an exhibition that focused on technological systems such as surveillance and predictive policing. She invited the artists Morehshin Allahyari, Simon Fujiwara, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Sondra Perry and Martine Syms to examine how revealing and alarming these structures can be. Khan worked with each very closely, and the resulting show was, in many ways, an apex of her own investigations.
Khan is first and foremost a writer. She was the web editor of the video games magazine Kill Screen; has contributed to (among others) Art in America, Flash Art, and Mousse; she published a book, Seeing, Naming, Knowing in the March 2019 issue of Brooklyn Rail; and countless monographs and essays for artists such as Katja Novitskova, Ian Cheng, and Agnieszka Kurant. She is a special projects editor at Rhizome, producing a special tenth anniversary issue of 7x7, and recently edited Casey Reas’ Making Pictures with Generative Adversarial Networks, supported by Google’s Artist and Machine Intelligence group. She has received awards and residencies from La Becque, Eyebeam, Thoma Foundation, and Fogo Island Arts. She is also a professor at RISD, where, she told me, the student’s final work often ends up as a book or magazine: Graphic design is as important as UI, and both inform future-casting.
I wanted to know more about the origins of this deeply astute thinking. I was not surprised to learn that Ursula K. Le Guin had heavily marked her childhood, nor that her father, a theoretical nuclear physicist, spent years at NASA, creating simulations of space radiation; or that her mother, a non-fiction writer, focuses on women’s and human rights in Bangladesh. Khan was very interested in the printed materials that NASA would put out during her childhood—beautiful posters and publications—and as a family they would discuss the metaphors, thoughts and concepts that grounded the images. Her taste for video games early on provided yet another channel. “For me, fiction and games and technology have always been one continuum,” she explained. “There’s been no distinction.”
Mapping Grid 2, Yeliz Secerli, 2021.
Alex Zafiris: It sounds like your parents were both able to articulate ideas really well.
Nora N. Khan: My dad was as interested in Russian literature and philosophy as he was in physics. He had me watch the surrealist movie, Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel, when I was young. He joked about it being not age appropriate, but we ended up watching it. I told him that the eyeball scene made me uncomfortable. He said, “Let’s talk about that. That’s a key part of the film.” I was in fifth grade. It’s one of the first memories I have, of talking through something together.
AZ: What are your earliest memories of stories, reading, and fiction?
NK: I remember the experience of reading and thinking in the 1980s as hyper-specific. It was right on the cusp of the Internet’s birth. The amount of fiction that was available felt massive; books took up the whole world, and reading was the most exciting—and cool—thing an only child could do. It was the Internet, in some ways. I was reading The Secret Garden and Ursula K. Le Guin and Madeleine L’Engle. I had this old book of Norse mythology. I was very much into mythological texts or science fiction—not exactly what we were reading in school. Somewhat shamefully, I'll admit I was a horse girl, too. I loved Black Beauty, Black Stallion, Black Stallion Returns, The Chincoteague series. We went to Chincoteague Island so I could see the wild horses swim. When I first got near a horse, I burst into tears. I liked things in theory and in fiction a little bit more than in real life. Also: A lot of Nancy Drew books. This young woman investigating big issues in the world was a big deal for middle school girls.
AZ: You already had a very analytical and present mind, with these stories.
NK: I was drawn to A Wrinkle in Time and the Earthsea Trilogy the most, because I remember certain images and feelings of the unknown in those books. In Earthsea, the protagonist Ged has this figure, a shadow double of himself, that starts to follow him across the landscape. That image—of this dark self—staying with Ged, stayed with me, and I returned to it often in my mind. I loved the way Le Guin described it, the way the shadow was tethered in the reader’s mind, even if not directly described. A hole, or gap, was opened up by the image; an atmosphere of emotions was evoked.
AZ: Which made you want to go towards it.
AZ: I think about that a lot. I know when something is for me, when I have that childhood feeling. Sometimes I don’t know why I have it, but I just have to trust it.
NK: Yes. It’s a very pure, early impulse. And it’s an impulse that you might rediscover over and over again, as the world tends to erase it or dampen it. I was solitary, and there was the obvious difficulty of growing up as a first-generation immigrant family in communities where no one is like you. That pull to elsewhere; this was a way to imagine the world outside, beyond the present, to connect to other people, and to feel part of other people’s lives that surely I felt disconnected from, or not part of, yet. Reading was a way to escape troubles.
AZ: What about the act of writing itself?
NK: When I was little, I can remember writing only for myself in that pure way. I often feel I want to get back to that origin state, and I try really hard to. It’s a space outside of professional writing. This was a pre-space, where writing was something that wasn’t for anyone but yourself. One of my early memories of writing is from second grade. I got in trouble, and I was in detention, and it was the day of this huge parade that went through Norfolk. I don’t think I cried, or was upset, but instead I ended up writing a poem, imagining the parade, how the animals looked, and how everyone was happy; how I hoped that in the future, I would be able to be part of it. I was alone in a classroom in an empty school, writing this poem. That poem was one of the first things that I published in the school paper. The principal said, “I can’t believe you made something positive out of this.”
AZ: I love that story. Writing was a way of mapping. It gave you power, agency, and purpose.
NK: Exactly. It was a way to map what others were experiencing, so that I wouldn’t feel left out. It was a way to process the grief of not getting to go to the parade.
AZ: Did you have a journal?
NK: Definitely. A little dark diary, with the lock. Both for practicing handwriting and my own private kind of writing. I was trying to figure out why other people would say or behave the way they did—things that were hard to process. It was a way to frame the quandary, to have a bit of distance. It still works. My thinking gets blocked very easily, and I need to untie the knot, remove the blockage. I started playing video games very early, at seven or eight. Dungeon crawlers and Doom and Quake, in which you were always moving through these labyrinthine mazes. Something would come in your way, and you would need to clear it. Mentally, I’m often doing the same thing.
AZ: When did you start thinking that you could do this for a living?
NK: Like many writers, I did well in writing, but it was always in parallel or support to academic work—to “my studies” as my grandfather, a high school principal, would say in his letters. It was only later that I realized these contests and journals were where I was discovering a freedom. I remember winning an essay contest, in the fourth grade, put on by Virginia’s chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, and reading it aloud in some kind of marble hall. Something about what America’s constitution means to you. I started to publish some weird stuff in the literary journals in middle school and high school. These were release valves. I had small roles in a few plays and was interested in crafting sets and supporting performance. What were we reading? Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner. I remember really enjoying those classes. But fiction felt like a secret place where you could write all the wrong things.
Then at Harvard, I was a History and Literature major. I studied French well into the junior year of college, and we read Stendhal and Émile Zola. I was going to write a thesis about Zola, in French. I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it. In that major, we were reading a lot of the giants of post-colonial theory: Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I was swimming in Roland Barthes, W.G. Sebald, Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, alongside some of the stranger, wilder fiction writers and poets like Jeanette Winterson, Jean Rhys, Flannery O’Connor, and Anne Carson. I felt pulled in many directions. There is this creative writing workshop that everyone applies to; in my junior year, I applied and got in. It was the first time that I was bringing my private “release valve” stories into a workshop setting. I was 17 or 18, too confident. It was led by Jamaica Kincaid. And I’m really grateful for this class because—being who I was at the time—I offered up my story as the first one, on the first day, and we spent the entire two hours on the first sentence. Kincaid wrote it up on the board. We talked, as a group of twelve, about everything wrong with this one sentence. Even that wasn’t enough to make me drop out of this class. I thought, “Oh! I clearly have the world to learn.” I cringe and smile at that memory.
I went back to her and asked if I could work with her over a summer. Kincaid went on to become my thesis advisor, and I ended up switching concentrations to English Literature so that I could write a novel for my final thesis.
The biggest thing I learned—something that I still take with me—is unlearning what you’ve learned in the classroom to be able to write. We would talk through how my voice sounded like I read a lot of books, which I had, and then tried to construct some point of view from them. You have to shed all of that, and just go deep, deep, into your mind to try and find the voice that sounds authentic. Writing was about trying to find the motivation, or the strange place, that would keep you doing this for life, no matter if anyone was looking. What is that feeling? Where is that place?
After a year working in New York, I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. This was a huge and necessary culture shock. I found great mentors: Jonathan Ames, Elizabeth McCracken, and Marilynne Robinson. I appreciated the support, the time, and all my peers there. I think I ended up in art writing and art criticism in part because I was never sure if the fictional forms and models on hand were going to fit all of my interests, or rephrased: I didn’t yet know how to make them all fit yet. My short stories were extreme conceits: A woman would fall in love with a lion; a boy becomes obsessed with a bird; a painter goes in search of pure black. It was usually very visually driven. I also wanted my language to stretch around an unknown sensation, feeling, or sight. Only occasionally did fiction—as we were immersed in it in that environment at that moment—seem capacious enough to carry poetry, criticism, sets, speculative fiction, and fabulist anecdotes about the weird of technology. That was my own lack of experience. I just didn’t know what style that could be. Of course, there are many writers who bridge genres and styles and make their own form. I was interested in writing about sidelined forums, like games; maligned practices and spaces that didn’t get credit for being as important as they are, saying something new about the now.
There are styles of writing and subjects that are implicitly valued. What we get to and should write about—and how that choice will be critiqued—are all implied through the teaching and responses of our mentors. Through that writing MFA, I learned as much about craft more as I did about how people respond to certain subjects, styles, and forms. You start to dig into why people value one form over another, which is illuminating, frustrating, and important. This understanding can really inform one’s decision as a writer. For example, I explicitly did not want to write about myself. I now have the theoretical and critical rationale for why I didn’t. Back then, one professor’s feedback to my poor graphic novel about falcons was: “This is not mature fiction. Can you write more about yourself?” I was 22. I think I smiled and said, “Hmm,” but what I meant was: “I’m not going to write about myself because you want me to, in part because I don’t want to be pigeonholed by someone like you.” Even more, I didn’t think their request came out of genuine interest ‘about me.’ This was a fiction MFA. I did not want to fictionalize my life. Moreover, I didn’t feel I had the maturity, or wherewithal, to write about myself and an extremely complex story that is not yet mine to tell.
AZ: That’s unusual to hear.
NK: I still have written very few personal essays. That moment defined a lot for me. I wanted to write about many things beyond the self, because I hopefully know about far more many things than myself. I am barely known to myself; I only know I am not captured in a clean fictional representation of the diaspora experience. A whole host of phenomenal writers have covered the dimensions of this painful experience with nuance, depth, experimentation, and great intelligence. I am grateful to have begun with questioning the impulse behind art school criticism: To tell someone starting out what they ‘should’ be writing, making, or doing. Within fiction, this becomes a really strange double bind—you write about yourself, to be known and to know yourself, and then become known for your self, now made legible ... (laughs)
AZ: I agree. What you were saying about the strange space is connected. These ideals of form and style that are taught. They come in and out of fashion. There’s simply no fixed state. And yet people seem to live or die by them, at any given time.
NK: That’s perfectly said. It’s finding the thing for yourself that lasts beneath the trend wave. Finding the thing beneath someone’s feelings about what you should write about. And: Finding that other thing, that you only you can, and want, to do. Yes. It’s very hard to hold onto it, though.
What I took from Iowa was that I am interested, and I’m visually driven, to ekphrasis, loving descriptions of works that deploy set pieces, artifice, and layers of structure; I wanted to think of other hybrid forms, and what other stories could I tell. My main task was to find the form.
Then I moved to New Haven. I lived on Orange Street and was living in a house with a few serious vegans. We cooked together. It turns out a lot of Yale graduate students play video games. My dear friend, the artist Ryan Kuo, was in medical school at Yale. Jamin Warren was living in New Haven. He was working at The Wall Street Journal. The two of them started Kill Screen, a video game magazine. I became their first web editor. It was an interesting space, coming right out of this fiction program, and suddenly being around people who wanted serious writing about games and game culture. They were real writers, and Ryan was my first real editor. And the conceit of the first issue was: We need to find writers who don’t write about games. We need fiction writers, we need poets—good writers who are just interested.
AZ: That’s brilliant.
NK: It was so much fun. I wanted to bring on as many women writers as I could. This was pre-Gamergate. I found, through Kill Screen, brilliant writers and game designers like Jenn Frank, Cara Ellison, and Mitu Khandaker, who is a professor at NYU now, and I learned ran a one-woman game studio. I learned so much about them. They’d been writing about games, systems design, and tech culture since they were 16, 17 years old. Around that time, Frank published a beautiful essay, Allow Natural Death, which I assign to students all the time, about her mother’s illness and Wii and grief. They wrote about games obliquely, in incredible ways. They weren’t reviews, but stories of the unusual feelings and unusual connections games engendered; stories of systems as they reflected us in them, stories of a kind of self-reflection and loneliness that was becoming endemic. Many were writers who wrote novels and criticism, but in writing about games, were able to do something different with their prose. It was an incredible incubator period.
AZ: Did this writing align with any cognitive processes or blocks that were germinating in you?
NK: I was surprised, reading and editing a lot of writing about games, that one could apply precisely the critical or theoretical frameworks meant for a literary fictional world to a game’s—the same structures for how one analyzes affect, the believability of a character, the choice of details making one want to stay in an unreal world. Affect studies were starting to really pop up; Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings had just come out. People were starting to think about game worlds as simulations of how we think about others, how we model, systematize, and organize people. Games form a test ground for how we produce social relations outside them. I thought: What if you apply the same serious critical thinking to a game that you would to a novel, and why not?
One of my first essays for Kill Screen was on disgust, and how disgust is modeled in a game through its bosses. What form does disgust take? Why does it look the way it does? What are the fictional narratives that concentrate disgust in a ludic context? What are the precise mechanics that make someone feel terrified? I was also interested in the unseen aspects of experience designers were tackling. So: What’s the sound of silence in the game Dead Space? The developers studied how silence could sound, and then would simulate how a player could feel it. It was fascinating work. Digging into how studios were constructing these worlds became integral to my love of the process of building a system. Game studios consist of 50 to hundreds of people thinking very hard about constructing this experience; some are on a bigger scale than film productions. They’re thinking on refining artificial sounds, artificial colors, tones, and atmospheres.
︎What if you apply the same
serious critical thinking to a game that you would to a novel, and why
Take the writer David Gaider, a fantasy and sci-fi writer who lead the writing on much of the scripts of Dragon Age. It’s a 60-hour game: A hundred thousand pages of dialogue, written by a team, for every possible branched interaction. This team thinks through every potential plot twist, gesture, and expression, and how that needs to be believable in language. This is how any fiction is constructed. How do you immerse someone into a world, and make them feel that they are inside it? How do we believe and trust the artificial characters that we interact with, so that they start to feel real—at least in our minds?
AZ: Did your fiction writing expand when you began considering technology and art?
NK: Yes. I would say so. After I began games criticism, I quickly started to move into writing about experimental music and art. I saw a lot of transpositions and ways to connect. Many artists and musicians were using game engines or software to model parts of their work. I twisted and pushed language more commonly used around tech and games in order to describe software-based art and music. The artists I was reviewing usually shared the same kind of love of systems and process; they were thinking about artificial sound, or how to simulate a color. They were using algorithmically-generated systems to cross many different timeframes within one piece of work.
I started to write for Rhizome in 2014. I focused on generative software and algorithmic media, how these shape writing and artistic production. I then became a contributing editor. In commissioning and writing alike, I would ask, how can different styles of writing, beyond the review, start to help frame the importance of artists thinking about, investigating, and working with technology? I think this went back to those questions in graduate school: What other forms are necessary for the new experiences of our time? Artists are often a little bit ahead of their time; language has to meet them. How could fiction inform criticism? What did writing about technology stand to gain? For me, art made space for writing to be experimental again. To breathe, morph, take form.
︎Artists are often a little
bit ahead of their time; language has to meet them.
I was beginning to explore collaboration, too, with writers like DeForrest Brown, Jr., who was my first serious writing collaborator, and artists, like Lars TCF Holdhus, Katja Novitskova, Jeremy Shaw, Bill Kouligas, and Yuri Pattison. I wrote speculative fiction around the themes of exhibitions; an opera libretto; collective critique; and essays. I tried to work with artists who were exploring complex themes about the ethical and philosophical impacts of emerging technologies, algorithmic governance, AI-driven mediation of information, and surveillance. Cultural criticism and academia would catch up with them four or five years later. All of this expanded the terms of what fiction could hold. The philosophers and theorists these artists were reading—from Mark Fisher to Amy Ireland—have all used fiction in their books of philosophy. They used the language necessary to frame the idea.
I deeply value my relationships with artists because their work defies easy categorization. How to apply the same principles to writing? Many of the intense little essays I was writing or commissioning for Rhizome required me to dig into the history of media art, the legacy of Fluxus, early conceptual art, or the ideas of Lillian Schwartz and Harold Cohen. I return to the writing of Alison Knowles all the time. Her and James Tenney’s piece, A House of Dust, is one of my favorite artworks. I also return to interviews with Gretchen Bender and the writings of Tony Conrad, an experimental musician and artist who was writing actively about power and technology from the late 70s on. How they wrote about—and the edge at which their work stood—is hugely important for teaching artists’ writing.
At the time, I was connecting to these artists because of my essay, “Towards a Poetics of Artificial Superintelligence,” which was edited by Manuel Sepulveda, the publisher of AFTER US. (Sepulveda is also known as Optigram, a famous graphic designer responsible for seminal album covers for Hyperdub and Warp). His whole aesthetic weaves science fiction in with theories of hauntology and lost futures; he wanted writers to have space. I considered that piece a work of fiction, criticism, and creative non-fiction; in that essay, I found that each form or style must morph with the subject. Fiction shifts to critique, metaphor to anecdote, in an attempt to capture the subject. AI defies language. That essay is still the most distributed of my work and has been translated many times; getting to discuss what an AI might be with a German or Chinese translator is the kind of moment I live for.
Mapping Grid 3, Yeliz Secerli, 2021.
AZ: Could you talk about why new languages are important?
NK: There’s so much that is hidden in our use of technology. The design has come out of a long period of thinking about the user as someone who shouldn’t be bothered with the inner workings of it. It needs to look unobtrusive, and bleed into your life. I’ve always seen it as a game. But the language that we’re taught to use about technology or technological systems—these relationships we have that are social, psychological, and have deep impact—defines our relationship to them, and our ability to respond. Tired binaries of human and non-human; online connections and experiences being less real than offline ones; how we’re mediated through the digital. Culturally, there’s a lot of disagreement and healthy debate about what all this means. For example, in our relationship with the Internet, there are all sorts of emotional experiences that we struggle to articulate. It could be Zoom fatigue, or how you start to feel about other people as a collective, or how your sense of individuals is flattened through an interface, and the psychological occlusions that come with that flattening. We need a language to mark that the experience is real, that it’s actually happening, and then mark how it is affecting our psychological orientation—our ability to process, discern, and make sense. All of these encounters that we have daily online need a consistent, framing language to navigate them.
Very early, I felt it was clear that language is the way to bridge or pierce designed obfuscation. Also, language is the bridge to solving ongoing ethical issues within tech: To actually name the issue, to be able to articulate what is happening. So many of these experiences are abstracted, out of reach, unseen. This was really the concept of Manual Override at The Shed. Because an algorithm’s decision-making is out of reach, it becomes harder to name, and then harder to see how your life is being shaped or impacted by it. Just on the level of the writing process, thinking of a language for experiences that don’t seem to exist is very thrilling to try and find the words for. I started to find similar demands as I moved between many different sectors. Writing created my route. In order to understand how technological worlds are constructed, how engineers or coders might think, and to know the underlying ideology of policy-shaping, technology needs a hyper-criticism, a hybrid language in which one can draw easily from many fields. Sometimes you need critique. Other times, personal monologue, or fictional narrative. Rhetoric is achieved along different paths.
I wouldn’t have been able to write about technology with any efficacy if I didn’t talk to artists who worked with it, if I didn’t meet programmers and activists within the field who have a deep passion for it—who question techno-positivism. They have a faith in technology designed to better ends than what we have. I respect great critics such as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun who can deconstruct, at scale, how technologies form a worldview that we adopt. She understands the interface as an ideological tool, as political. And I pay attention to how these writers work. One can develop frameworks as a literary critic, and transition over into being an incisive media critic. All media can be viewed as symbolic spaces through which power is expressed as it’s always been—through propaganda, writing, and art. As these concepts transpose to the digital, the same imperatives of power and ideology become harder to see. Language helps cut through, and reveal.
AZ: You mentioned Tony Conrad as a forbearer.
NK: I love Conrad’s criticism. He critiqued the ways of seeing that were being suggested through television. He helped people deconstruct, in accessible language, how they felt about the strategic mediation of three or four huge corporate entities. He had a public access cable channel in Buffalo called Studio of the Streets, in which he would stand outside Buffalo City Hall as people were coming out and ask them to speak their minds. They spoke about the Gulf War, about relatives being shipped away, about poverty and the American Dream. He actively turned the microphone back to people who we watch be stunned and delighted at being able to be on television.
AZ: It is very powerful. It’s very moving, actually.
NK: It is. I think about that work a lot right now. Gretchen Bender, too. She was an artist from the post-Pictures Generation. She was sneaking into university supercomputer labs to shoot footage of their graphics and later create these immersive theaters. She and Conrad were paying close critical attention to what they felt others were missing: How computer graphics are being used, AT&T commercials, and how the military’s imperatives come through, say, a soup advertisement. They close-read everyday media with great intensity to examine how ideological forces come through what looks banal, the narrative of the everyday. Conrad and Bender surveyed the present, and I think we can learn so much from artists who were thinking about our relationships to machines and computers for decades before us. Many of the questions they asked still apply.
Maybe they seemed paranoiac, but their work was clearly way, way, way before its time. They’re speaking to our present. I wonder who our Conrad and Benders are.
AZ: I agree. In this issue I wrote a piece about Andy Warhol and his pioneering use of the split screen, which we now take for granted. Norelco had loaned him one of their state-of-the-art cameras to play with.
NK: Yes. And to that point, artists have been so important to corporate technology and corporate history. Many companies brought them in. There’s a great piece by the novelist and critic Elvia Wilk, called “The Artist-in-Consultance: Welcome to the New Management”, in part about Bell Labs, Robert Rauschenberg, and E.A.T. There are all these anecdotes of artists let loose in the halls of technology and industry to bring their wild ideas. The artists get very excited about the collaboration; they are paid and supported, and their collaborations become part of history. How artists and their work was used is now being reconsidered with some more circumspection. What is the function of an artist residency, in conjunction with AT&T, or Bell Labs? Is it too cynical to think it is used to cover for other ethical issues bubbling within a company? How are artists instrumentalized continually within the space of tech? Is there an ethical framework for an artist using military technology, even in an investigative, critical capacity? What is the tech-art field producing? It is producing art. It is producing discourse …
︎How are artists
instrumentalized continually within the space of tech?
AZ: And it’s selling something.
NK: Yes. In oblique ways. Sometimes, what is being sold in technology—the product—is very clear; other times, you need a historical view of how world views are sold through and by design. A conversation I had with Fred Turner for “What’s To Be Done?” in Rhizome’s 7 x 7 10th year anniversary issue which I edited, has been vital for me in the past few years. Turner is a professor at Stanford, and he wrote a really amazing book called From Counterculture to Cyber Culture. It is about the roots of Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, the aftermath of failed communes and the evolution of the counterculture movement of the 70s—The Whole Earth Catalog and Stewart Brand, the entire culture of Central California at the time. And specifically, the book hones in on this concept of starting over, in a commune, as a very American thing: As in the Western movie, the cowboy is always leaving, leaving the mess behind. The cowboy and the Silicon Valley entrepreneur are of the same DNA. Fred really does an amazing job of laying out the fantasy: Of how you get to start over in a new place, create your new society, and use the tools of technology to create your own personal liberation. The personal computer was part of that.
Turner talks about the Puritans looking down from the city on the hill, down at the wild below, thinking about the civilization that they wanted to create in God’s image. He connects that to the concept of the engineer. Buckminster Fuller’s idea of the comprehensive designer was also someone who was looking down at the world from outside and would intervene with their design when they deemed it necessary. So: The values of this person are pretty damn important. With a brief leap, this connects directly to the design of game systems and software. One can think about the engineer looking down at an unpopulated system, a simulation in which people are empty models that can be moved around. How we model space, and how we keep model people in space, come from a very old default of people as blank slates. I wanted to translate this idea: What does this all mean for software, for AI? What does this design ideology mean for how we design relationships within technology? Further, what is this idea of having this apolitical space in which people’s histories don’t matter, in which they are quantified data points? This is where I think metaphorically instead of technically; these are scientific models of typing and organizing people as knowable, clear, predictable.
︎How we model space, and how
we keep model people in space, come from a very old default of people as blank
I try to think about us within these strategic and predictive technological social spaces the way a game designer works within a game engine. Each is a small world. You can start to see how people are moved around, how spaces are designed. You predict how political movements and affiliations split in this complex sociotechnical space; you can predict how conversations and debates will move. We are desperate, trying to be dimensional to communicate meaningfully along a flat interface. That interface forces us to interact with each other as though we’re all the same.
AZ: Looking at language in this way must involve criticism and awareness, subjectivity, opinion, and bias.
NK: Yes, yes. As a critic, I feel strongly that continually reevaluating my own position, biases and my aesthetic preferences, tastes, is important. But also seeing this game that technology plays, of presenting itself through its design as having no subjectivity or as having no-one behind all of these careful aesthetic decisions, is vital. Your beautiful iPhone to the fonts used on Facebook, to how you’re sorting through Amazon—every aesthetic choice is made by a group of people sitting around a table. This has disappeared into the design. The forgetting is by design. Close-reading technological objects, interfaces and software involves reminding myself of that fantasy of the restart, of the new, glittering world that object is meant to suggest. I keep coming back to that.
AZ: What fiction devices do you find most helpful?
Metaphor is the most powerful tool that I’m ever able to use. Writing about tech involves coming up with new metaphors. New language can help people move from their immediate context to a type of thinking loosely described as that of a machine intelligence. For example, there was a video of the Boston Dynamics robot “dog” that was trial-policing Singapore’s parks. It is yellow, and prances, and doesn’t look like a dog, but acts like one. It comes up to people and says they need to social distance or go home. People are running away in total fear. It briefly reads like an animal, but what it sees when it sees you is new. It’s scanning your body, your temperature, how close you are to the next person. You’re now a set of metrics and contingent data. Finding metaphors for what this dog-robot is seeing and “thinking” in a way that people can find legible—and also describing the fact that its perspective won’t be totally legible, and finding the language, words, for the feeling of our encounter with it—is the perfect challenge.
AZ: That makes me think of dreams and fantasy, and how those symbols or metaphors can be individual or collective.
NK: Werner Herzog was monologuing recently about the dream state of the Internet in his recent documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World. The collective speech on Twitter or Facebook or an assessment of Google Images; these are all mirrors reflecting back onto us. There is something to be said of patterns within a collective subconscious or a collective dream state that’s being reflected back to us, particularly with the wild advents in machine-learning. I guess the important question is, what is being reflected back? If these vast pools of data mirror back to our worst attributes, our desires for power or control, every fear and anxiety or desire that we might have, what to do with that tracked collective subconscious? How to read it, interpret it, analyze it all?
AZ: I think about this also in terms of all the visual codes on Instagram. You can tell how much someone wants to fit in, and can’t, or who has a gift for enhancing and personalizing those codes. And then, the virtual plastic surgery of the beauty images, and the self-loathing behind it.
NK: When desire is collectively expressed on the socials, we learn so much about how we are trained to desire. I do love tracking the history of selfie representation. They are endlessly mineable. Selfies change from month to month. There is the hyperreal aesthetic, but then there’s this new real and raw look; there’s ranges of vulnerability. There are codes for expressing position. Criticism changes because of the Instagram political activism carousel. I read essays that rework carousel points and copy their arguments. They are influential. I pay most attention to the critics who track how the algorithm is responding to images, words; how the algorithm is racialized and class-based, and is averse to political discussion. Mandy Harris Williams, @idealblackfemale, of #BrownUpYourFeed, practices radical use of the platform. I’m excited by thinkers like Mandy who do difficult political work in such spaces that resist criticism. It’s a microcosm of the battle in the real world.
AZ: Tell me about your teaching.
NK: I love teaching and see it as the space all these topics, questions, and ideas can unfold in practice. I’m with some of the two-year MFA students in Digital + Media from the beginning of their research practice; I teach classes of my design about technological criticism, and seminars in Graphic Design. Many students eventually write their thesis book with me. They begin their questions in a course about critical theory and artistic research. We discuss: How do you write about your practice? How do you talk about the digital and emerging technologies? How do you think about the fusion; what critical questions are you asking of your field? How do you argue and make claims? In one class, their final work is to write a piece of criticism about the use of technology in their field at RISD: Architecture, design, graphic design—and look at how technological imperatives are shaped, problematic, or not examined.
AZ: Did curation come out of all of this?
NK: I see curation as absolutely linked to teaching. Curation has the potential for radical schooling and pedagogy. Curation in digital media and media art spaces has always been tied to finding language for the general public to enter, to feel connected and invested in the questions on offer. How do you explain ‘algorithm’ to a casual visitor in a way that they feel invested in the issues brought up by the phone in their hands? How do you make the exhibition a classroom for investigating the history of the museum’s relationship to the community around it? There is immense possibility for curatorial practice to embracing teaching as one of its tenets, and the curator’s role is to protect the space of exchange between the artist and the public.
At The Shed, we were in a theater. These questions of technological impact—of our bodies and minds being shaped by technologies, and our agency and ability to recode ourselves—were on dramatic display. It was a highly spooky show, a stage for many of these ideas, conflicts, and upheavals. A dear friend walked through it and said, “It all felt very Nora, the staging, the design, the ideas.” Future goth, I like to think they meant. The point being: These questions about how we will meet predictive, oppressive, uncanny systems are the most important and dramatic of our time, and for years to come. We can meet their challenge to humanist values, in clear language, with all the creativity we have to offer, with curiosity, and yes, in style.