Sigurds Vīdzirkste: A Little-Known Contributor to Cybernetics in New York


While I was giving a talk in New York the other week I had the chance to see a preview of this incredible exhibit on Latvian migrant exile artists working in New York in the 1960s (thanks to Andra Silapetere). I was really struck by the mysterious work of one artists in particular: Sigurds Vīdzirkste. The patterns are clearly not random and yet no one knows the cipher for them. Oddly enough looking at his work one feels that something is being communicated at an almost unconscious level—just based on the material pattern and shape of the burnt lumps of metal bulging from the canvas. There is clearly a visual language of some kind but in the absence of representation it becomes irrelevant and one just feels the brute order and material pattern in its immanence. Looking at his work is like being able to look at one’s own language as if it had no representational meaning. So strange. That is, as a material, graphic, sculptural, textual, process. If you are in New York check out this exhibit at the CUNY gallery.

Sigurds Vīdzirkste: A Little-Known Contributor to Cybernetics in New York

The painter Sigurds Vīdzirkste is another example of an artist in exile responding to the environment of the New York City art world by developing ideas outside of it, while nonetheless participating within it. Vīdzirkste constructed his artistic language by reacting to the rising interest in technology at that time, and through that, bringing artistic production to a new level. After his studies at the Art Students League, he developed a unique style of painting that he called “cyber-painting,” in which he synthesized his interests in mathematics, chemistry, and music. He first exhibited this work in 1964, in a solo show in his studio at 148 Liberty Street, where, next to abstract compositions of circles and stripes, he displayed canvas with dot-like reliefs, callous clots, and metallic-powder compressions organized in different rhythms.8 This show was followed in 1968 by a solo show entitled Cybernetic Canvases, which, held at the Kips Bay gallery at 613 Second Avenue, was the first time Vīdzirkste publicly used the term “cybernetics” in relation to his work.9 All of the exhibited canvases were composed of relief dots on monochrome ochre or grey backgrounds, and they were untitled, undated, and unsigned; only a number was assigned to each work.


Sigurds Vīdzirkste in New York, late 1950s. Photo: unknown photographer. Private collection

After Vīdzirkstes’s death in his studio in New York, different pots with metallic powder and toluene were found, and after his paintings were brought to Latvia, a chemical analysis of one of his works revealed a mixture of pigments—metal particles soaked in a chemical substance and mixed with resin and resin lacquer.10Such combinations and experiments with pigments were most likely stimulated by his chemistry studies at the Riga State Secondary School before his emigration in 1944.

It is hard to trace a definite theory behind Vīdzirkstes’s dot paintings as he did not expand on his ideas in writing; but from sources available, we know that each work was created as an information system similar to that of punched cards for early digital computers.11 With each new painting, the artist organized dots in different rhythms and sizes and, as Voldemārs Avens (born 1924), another member of the Hell’s Kitchen group, remembers, he used precise calculations to create each system.12 As part of his process, he layered dot drawings done on transparent plastic sheets to create variations of patterns that could later be transferred onto canvas. This brings us back to his 1964 show, in which he also exhibited three drawings, which according to Vīdzirkstes’s letter written to his parents, formed the base of his information systems. Unfortunately, only one of them can be found in his archive, making it impossible to break his code.

With the development of technology after World War II, the use of cybernetics in art was prevalent in Europe,13 whereas in the United States, this was not the case. Even though one can map out early experiments linking art and technology, cybernetic and computational thinking in artistic production did not become widespread until the 1970s.14 Given this, Vīdzirkstes’s works developed in the 1960s, which demonstrate a unique and alternative system of visual signs bridging computing technologies and art, can be interpreted as a pioneering praxis that introduced the idea of programming to painting as a way to reconsider artistic production of the time.


Reposted from:


What is New Materialism?

What is New Materialism?

Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) WHAT IS NEW MATERIALISM?, Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2019.1684704

The increasing prominence of “new materialism” signals a growing cross-disciplinary effort to challenge longstanding assumptions about humans and the non- or other-than- human material world. This paper argues that there is currently no single definition of new materialism but at least three distinct and partly incompatible trajectories.1 All three of these trajectories share at least one common theoretical commitment: to problematize the anthropocentric and constructivist orientations of most twentieth-century theory in a way that encourages closer attention to the sciences by the humanities.

The common motivation for this “materialist turn” is a perceived neglect or diminishment of matter in the dominant Euro-Western tradition as a passive substance intrinsically devoid of meaning. In what has become a kind of de facto motto, new materialists routinely emphasize how matter is “alive,” “lively,” “vibrant,” “dynamic,” “agentive,” and thus active. As we will argue, however, while new materialist scholars tend to use them interchangeably,2 such terms nevertheless take on sharply divergent meanings across the three approaches we identify. Likewise, as we examine below, this same divergence also underlies new materialist efforts to problematize anthropocentric binaries (e.g., “meaning and matter,” “culture and nature,” and “gender and sex”).

Alongside the rise of new materialism, there have also been numerous critiques. For example, new materialism has been criticized for exaggerating the extent of earlier feminist scholarship’s “biophobia” or neglect of matter;3 for rejecting Marxism and cultural materialism on mistaken grounds;4 for uncritically embracing and conflating the scientific study of matter with matter itself;5 and for overstating its alleged “newness.”6 Unfortunately, however, these critiques have largely placed all new materialists under the same umbrella and thus have often misidentified their target. At least, this is what we hope to demonstrate.

This paper emerges from our desire to offer a response to such criticisms but not in order to defend new materialism in general. Instead, we hope to help redirect each arrow of critique toward its proper target, and on this basis to advocate for the approach we call “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism. We think this approach has the greatest value and potential for future development but has unfortunately been badly misunderstood and wrongly conflated with the other two types of emerging new materialism. We therefore aim to illuminate how “negative new materialism,” “vital new materialism,” and “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism are simply not compatible.7 Even if their motivations are similar, their basic guiding premises are not.

More specifically, although each of the three types of materialism seeks to critique anthropocentrism’s presumption of matter as inherently passive and devoid of meaning, we argue that only the performative new materialist approach radically undermines a discrete separation between humans and matter. In distinct ways, both negative and vital new materialism continue to foreclose an appreciation of the truly performative movements of matter. On one hand, negative new materialism embraces either a radical division between human thought and inorganic matter or a “withdrawn” essence, both of which we think persist due to its uncritical embrace of an external, human-observer perspective.8 On the other hand, while vital materialism explicitly rejects any form of essentialism, we think it nevertheless manages to sneak back in through a metaphysics of life projected onto inorganic matter.9 In these crucial ways, as we elaborate below, non-performative new materialist theories continue to implicate certain objectivist, non-relational and, thus, idealist assumptions or residuals.10

The performative approach to new materialism, however, successfully eschews discrete separation by refusing any presumption of something external to matter – including human meaning – that guides, structures or grants meaning to its behaviors. In such a view, matter simply “is […] a doing,” as Karen Barad puts it.11 Matter is what it does or “how it moves,” as Thomas Nail puts it.12 And since the performances of humans are not external to those of the rest of the material world, this view also leads, importantly, to a performative understanding of science in which every act of observing also constitutes, at once, a transformation of what is being observed. Such a view enables the following responses to the criticisms of new materialist work we mentioned above:

(1) The neglect of matter. While we agree that some new materialism work does unwittingly reinforce the binaries it seeks to problematize,13 we believe this criticism does not apply to the performative approach. For example, when the latter speak of a prior “neglect” of matter they do not mean that previous theorists did not talk about matter but rather that those theorists neglected or discounted matter as inherently dynamic and meaningful (precisely due to the anthropocentric presumption that meaning, and whatever else might make humans exceptional, is immaterial).14

(2) Science envy. While we also agree that some new materialists have embraced science uncritically in ways that conflate its findings with matter as such, in a performative account scientific practices and discourses are just as productive of the very world they describe as is any other action, human or otherwise. Such an account therefore agrees with poststructuralism and science-and-technology studies that all human discourses are constitutive. The novel argument, however (at least within the dominant Euro-Western tradition), is that those discourses are themselves also – and only – particular configurations or performances of matter.

(3) The fetish of novelty. Although we fully embrace historically oriented work questioning the alleged newness of new materialism, we again do not agree that this critique applies to the performative approach. Matter always has been in motion. We have shown elsewhere how the creativity of this movement has been erased or excluded in the Western tradition.15 Furthermore, arguably the most important historical Euro-Western precursor to performative materialism is the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose philosophical poem, in many ways, is connected to a performative materialist understanding of Homer.16 In addition, we also find a great deal of merit to the recent call for greater recognition of and sustained engagement with the affinities (and differences) between a performative “new” materialism such as Barad’s “agential realism” and the many and varied agent ontologies discussed in indigenous studies literature, which in some cases can be traced back many millennia.17 We thus understand performative materialism as a recovery in novel form of older subterranean or largely disparaged or disregarded materialisms and certainly not as an ex nihilo appearance.

The aim of this paper is to clarify what distinguishes a performative or pedetic approach to materialism by illuminating its differences with both older materialisms and other new ones. The general aim of Part 1 is to develop the former distinction.

Read on!

The Climate Industrial Complex

The Climate Industrial Complex

A talk given at ArtsLink, CUNY, Baruch College, Nov 2019

The Kinocene

One way to think about the current geological epoch is that it is an age of movement and mobility. People and things now travel faster and further than ever before. Certain humans have extracted entire geological strata out of the Earth and thrown them into circulation around the planet. Extractive industries are literally turning the Earth inside out. We are now witnessing completely new kinds of highly mobile geological strata in the form of vehicles (cars, trains, planes, boats) flying around the globe. Orbiting above us are more than 500,000 pieces of space debris, traveling at speeds up to 17,500 mph. There is even a layer of plastic and petroleum products covering the entire planet and coursing through our bodies. A recent study found that we are now digesting a credit card worth of micro plastics a week. “Glacial” time has sped up and more than half the world’s plant and animal species have been forced into migration along with record numbers of human refugees. All that is solid has melted into air—as carbon dioxide. 

Certain humans may have initiated this increase in planetary movement (and capitalism certainly hastened it) but now geological mobility is taking on an unpredictable life of its own that I think should be recognized. Perhaps the Anthropocene is not the right term (since not all humans are to blame for it or equally effected by it). We are witnessing the most mobile geological epoch of Earth’s history. We are living in what we might call “the Kinocene” and the management of this mobility is what will define the 21st century.  

The Climate Industrial Complex

30 years ago, there were 15 border walls around the world; now there are 70 walls and over 1 billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next 40 years due to global warming. Our new epoch of global flux has also given rise to a new global climate security market. Building walls and fences to block rising seas levels and incoming people along with detaining and deporting migrants has become one of the world worlds fastest growing industries—projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a new “climate industrial complex.”         

The climate industrial complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events and migration. However, it also profits when security attempts fail and migrants sneak in anyway to live without status as criminals who will then need to be hunted down, detained, and deported. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry. Private detention centers in particular are making billions and their lobbyists are responsible for keeping migrants in detention as long as possible.  

Fueled by a Double Paradox

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians want to deport all undocumented migrants but if they did they would destroy their own economy; capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP) but if that labor is too expensive then it’s not nearly as profitable. Trump is the Janis-faced embodiment of this (anti-immigrant pro-economy) predicament and the solution to it (not that he knows it). With one hand migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state while with the other hand it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. Its a win-win situation for these camps—but a crucial element is still missing: what will compel migrants to leave their homes and work as underpaid criminals in such xenophobic and profit-driven country? 

The Climate Refugee

This is where the figure of the climate refugee comes in. What we call “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters” because climate change is not a strictly natural process—it is also highly political. The cause of climate-related migration is disproportionately Western countries and disproportionally affects poorer countries.
Who is forced to migrate is also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change tends to benefit the perpetrators of climate change with a supply of desperate climate-displaced criminalized laborers is key to the Trump solution.    

Land Grabs

Another key is the use of climate-change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate or frozen territories thaw; new lands, waters, and forests become open to  extractive industries like mining, drilling, and fishing (Trump’s recent bid to buy a thawing Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this). Climate stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets (the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina is one example). In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism but it could actually signal its rebirth from its current falling rates of ecological profit. Everything and everyone that could be appropriated easily (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up during colonialism. The workers who are left today want more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation.

If only there were a way today, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist capitalism would have to create it. Lucky for it, it does, because it did. Climate migrants today now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army” waiting around in under-employed global poverty until the next climate-related disaster strikes and they are moved around to wherever precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor is ready to be exploited next.”  

The Migrant Arts

There are no easy solutions that can be described here in two minutes but the starting point of any response to our current situation requires the migrant arts. The migrant arts are arts by or about migrants that show and tell the first-person stories of migration and struggle in the climate labor army. Why is this politically important? Because any inclusive solution must begin with a new political subject defined not by nation-states but by global solidarity against the climate industrial complex. The political “we” today needs to include everyone who is here regardless of their status. The migrant arts can help us paint a picture of this new “we” is that is emerging. They give flesh to the idea of a real migrant cosmopolitanism. 

The Nature of Digital Image: A Conversation with Thomas Nail

The nature of digital image

A conversation between Thomas Nail, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and the author of the recently published book “Theory of the Image,” and B.A. Gonczarek, your host.


A philosopher’s perspective on the nature of digital images, their material roots, and various consequences which escape our consciousness. Why the digital is more analog and material than we think and how the origins of this revelation go back to Rome. How viewing a painting makes us a part of it? An attempt to explain communication on a more fundamental level than the cognitive. How we’re progressing with the development of technology, how new frameworks can support our understanding, and how we continue to risk missing the point with existing frameworks.

Listen to the conversation:

“Centrifugal Force and the Mouth of a Shark: Toward a Movement-Oriented Poetics,” by Kevin Potter

Image result for Warsan Shire home

Centrifugal Force and the Mouth of a Shark: Toward a Movement-Oriented Poetics
Kevin Potter
Ariel: A Review of International English Literature
Johns Hopkins University Press
Volume 50, Number 4, October 2019
pp. 51-78


“No one leaves home unless / Home is the mouth of a shark” read the opening lines of Warsan Shire’s poem, “Home.” Connecting this powerful poem to the migrant/diasporic literary tradition, this article will introduce a new interpretive framework for the study of migrant literature—one which I call “kinopoetics.” I modify here Thomas Nail’s (2015) concept of “kinopolitics,” or a “politics of movement,” which suggests that “regimes of social motion” have historically created the material conditions for social and political formation (24). Kinopolitics, in turn, recognizes the migrant as the primary constitutive figure of social history and transformation. Extending from a politics to a poetics, kino-poetics takes a non-representational approach (derived from Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Nigel Thrift) that treats literary texts as aggregates of sensible experience and affective maps of migrant mobility. I will explore, then, how these texts depict the migrant experience of disenfranchisement and expulsion and the “pedetic social force” (Nail, Figure 124), or active political power, that migrants are able to enact. I emphasize how migrant literature reconfigures the static, place-based poetics built into a regime of borders and nationhood. I will conclude with a kinopoetic reading of Shire’s poem, showing not only how it foregrounds the centrifugal forces that coerce refugees into exile but also how the migrant’s poetic voice confronts and undermines nationalistic hostilities.”

New Materialist Aesthetics and Pedagogy: An Interview with Thomas Nail By Katherine Robert


New Materialist Aesthetics and Pedagogy: An Interview with Thomas Nail

By Katherine Robert September 19, 2019

Katherine Robert: You taught an aesthetics course this year and started the first day by saying DU has not taught aesthetics in a long time and it is taught less frequently in US philosophy departments than other areas of philosophy. I was intrigued by that. So, if you could if you could elaborate on that.

Thomas Nail: I was told DU has not taught aesthetics in 14 years. It is probably the least taught philosophy course of the core areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and moral theory. It also has some of the fewest publications of the core areas. I think there are two reasons for this. The privileged areas of philosophy are metaphysics “what is” and epistemology, “how we know what is.” Western idealism has made those the foundations of philosophy. Aesthetics is often not considered to be a foundational philosophical discourse because it does not answer these two questions in universal terms. There is also a long history of suspicion of sensation and perception in Western philosophy. Philosophers and scientists have almost always thought that the body is out there to trick us. The senses deceive you and knowledge and the intellect are what is true. So that’s one reason.

The second reason is that aesthetics is not useful or instrumental like most moral theory: ethics and politics. People often argue that it is important to teach moral theory because it is directly relevant and useful for people’s lives. It might help them make important political decisions like voting or ethical action. But aesthetics is not instrumentally useful like this so it is quite literally the most “useless” of the philosophical areas.

KR: So, it’s not pragmatic or utilitarian.

TN: Yes, aesthetics doesn’t, in my thinking at least, get at universal truths and it doesn’t give you any instrumental value. It doesn’t give you any categories to judge the world; it doesn’t help you in any clear instrumental way. It changes who you are. So that’s why I think aesthetics is not taught. It doesn’t fit those prevailing dominant categories of what is philosophically important. I personally think, however, that aesthetics is absolutely crucial. Sensation is what life is about… (laughs). Everything has sensuous qualities that cannot be abstracted or reduced to the other areas of philosophy. All the core areas are inseparable. Its a fiction of the West to have divided them up this way in the first place.

KR: So how did [the class] emerge?

TN: So my research is very much focused on inverting the hierarchy that says that the senses and materiality deceive our quest for universal truth. I think sensation is primary for nature and for humans. In my book Theory of the Image I wanted to think about aesthetics from a new materialist perspective and from a non- anthropocentric perspective. There was not a single book about new materialism and aesthetics at the time, and that’s why I wanted to write it. I wanted to start with materiality and sensation and show the entanglement of all four core areas. So that was my interest going into the course: to teach aesthetics from a materialist and non-anthropological perspective based on my research.

KR: So… your co-instructor, how did you end up co-teaching it and why him- cause he’s a rationalist. How did that come about? And what did you learn? Because it was fascinating to be in the class and watch the tensions and watch two philosophers at work, doing the work of philosophy.

TN: That was for me what was most fun about that. I didn’t realize how different we were until teaching the class so part of it was just discovery of figuring out where this other person is coming from and over the course just watching that unfold. It wasn’t even obvious immediately what, how, and why his perspective was so different. So I learned a lot about where he was coming from and how far his argument goes and how it works. That was beneficial to me personally. There are a lot of people who are anthropocentric rationalists and who still have an investment in metaphysics and epistemology as the true foundations of philosophy and who don’t see aesthetics to be equally fundamental. They have lots of reasons for that. They might even like art and music too—but they do not agree that everything is fully sensuous. They believe that there are also “abstract mental objects” like the idea of a triangle that are fundamentally non-sensuous and immaterial. For me this belief is a speculative metaphysical claim neither provable nor falsifiable. So it was interesting to see how we differed and why. Definitely the fun part was having that dialogical experience of walking through the argument in ways that I don’t usually start from. So, bridging those two gaps I think was good for the class and also a challenge to try to teach.

KR: So, would you co-teach a class again with someone with a very different mindset, or are there pros and cons to teaching with someone who is really similar and on the same page versus being with someone who is coming from a really different perspective?

TN: Yes, and yes.

KR: Let me ask it this way, where do you want to go? Or is this Making Media Matter class the next step for you?

TN: Yes, materialist pedagogy is what I would like to work on now.

KR: So, this is an emergent process…? Pedagogically for you?

TN: Yes, the Making Media Matter class is the kind of co-teaching which is not just co-teaching, it’s collaborative; we’re doing something together and it feels very generative. Everybody is putting something into making a new class none of us had ever taught. From the get-go it was structured in a really organic and participatory way where everyone, including the students, were all doing and contributing and designing the course together. It has been rewarding, novel, and it’s pushing me in really interesting ways and directions that I had not anticipated—and that are great.

KR: You’re describing the differences in your pedagogical practices… the one was a traditional lecture, a theoretical lecture…

TN: For me, the lecture structure has not been as good for teaching new materialism.

KR: You weren’t doing new materialism, we were studying new materialism.

TN: That’s right. We were just reading people who had written about new materialism.

KR: So, it’s that “doing” pedagogy again, that active moving pedagogy.

TN: It was cool to do another aesthetics/art and new materialism related class that was so different in material format and just to feel how really different they are. Especially doing materialist pedagogy. I am just at the start of my experiments in materialist pedagogy but this MMM class has really got me thinking in a new way. Everything has to change now.

KR: Which is again the structure of academia and what we all are expected to do and fall in and if you want to break out of that you have to figure out how to do it- no one is going to support you with it (laughs).

TN: Well, that’s the thing that’s also very special about this three-way highly experimental co-taught class: its only happening because of special provisional funding. The class and all our public events and invited speakers have been amazing but it is all impossible without money.

KR: It’s lost revenue.

TN: It’s expensive if you want to have this kind of experimental education that is driven by methodology; the college gave us this money in order to experiment with new pedagogical methods and we are grateful. But it rarely happens. I would like to see it happen in the future of course but it’s not certain. Most people teaching do not have this opportunity and face all kinds of constraints. Innovation is too expensive…

KR: In the current model…

TN: In the current model it is too expensive to have three faculty teaching thirty students and then to triple cross list the course. There’s also a barrier that we could only triple cross list in our college; if we want- ed to do anything with the college of education or Korbel or the law school we actually could not do it be- cause they cannot figure out how the credits will overlap between colleges (laughs). Its such a barrier to genuine interdisciplinary teaching and research.

KR: Wow… isn’t that amazing. Well, thank you!