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

1

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.

7

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: https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/1271-baltic-exile-and-emigrant-communities-hell-s-kitchen-collective-in-new-york

 

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!

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation 

Cithaerias Esmeralda MHNT.ZOO.2004.0.976 (2).jpg

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation 

Climate change has disproportionately negative effects on poorer countries and people of color, and disproportionally positive effects on receiving countries that benefit from hyper-exploitable and precious labor – what I call a ‘reserve climate labor army.’ This asymmetry is the result of a long history of capitalist colonialism and racism, which continues now through the bordered management of migration. Thus, contemporary global migration cannot be reduced to merely natural climatic causal explanations (Hulme 2011). The figure of the ‘climate refugee’ is never simply fleeing climate change but is doing so under postcolonial conditions of geopolitical violence and racism. The term ‘climate refugee’ itself serves to cover over the real kinopolitical conditions of social circulation at work that make such populations vulnerable to displacement in the first place. 

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation, or what I would call ‘expansion by expulsion,’ because it expands Western power by forcibly expelling people from their previous patterns of motion and appropriating them into its own conditions of social reproduction. This expulsion is fourfold: migrants lose the right to their land and homes (territorial expulsion), they lose their right to full civic participation (political expulsion), they lose their right to legal status (juridical expulsion), and they lose their right to the means of production or subsistence (economic expulsion). This fourfold expulsion is the necessary condition for the direct appropriation of vulnerable and cheap migrant bodies and for the expansion of capitalist eco-racism. 

Nationalism, xenophobia, and racism also play a structural role in the process of primitive accumulation because they socially devalorize and thus cheapen the labor and lives of migrant workers. If migrants arrived but were not thoroughly racialized and discriminated against, their labor would be too valuable for capitalist investment to bother appropriating them in the first place. Thus, capitalism wields climate change under a triple condition of eco-colonialism: 1) the historical origins of recent climate change are in colonialism itself (oil from Africa, industrial production from slavery, and so on); 2) colonized populations and indigenous people are disproportionately forced to move because of climate change; and 3) these same populations are racialized as dangerous barbarian boat people upon arrival (Moore 2016; Goldberg 2017; Giuliani 2017). 

But climate change, like primitive accumulation, is not just about the dispossession and appropriation of people and cheap labor. It is also about the direct appropriation of cheap or free land. The two go hand-in-hand and have done so since before the rise of capitalism (Nail 2015). At the same time that climate change displaces people, it also opens up previously occupied lands, waters, and forests to new privatized extractive and/or constructive industries. As the climate changes, previously inaccessible areas will be opened up for expanding new markets (supplied with abundant cheap labor), including new security markets for new borders, fences, walls, drones, and all the rest. (Think of the privatization and gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism but might in fact herald its rebirth or second wind. 

If capitalism loves disaster, why should we think climate change will necessarily mean the end of capitalism (Klein 2007)? If anything can be commodified, there is no absolute natural limit to capitalism, only relative limits to profit. We are most certainly at the cusp of one of these limits today, which Jason Moore attributes to ‘the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall’ (Moore 2016). 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, the capitalist dreams, to somehow cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and appropriate it. 

In other words, if climate change did not exist, it would be necessary for capitalism to create it. Lucky for it, it does, because it did. Migrants today ‘form a disposable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost’ (Marx 1976, 784). 

Read more here.

Climate, Capitalism, Control (Video by Ian Alan Paul)

Watch it here.
The work aims to diagram the conjunctive power of planetary-scale computation, commodification, and climate change, and begins with the following voice-over:

“Dispersed across the surface of Earth, computer clusters electronically hum in vast air-conditioned rooms.
One models sea level rises, precipitation rates, temperature increases, and property values in coastal metropolises
over the coming thousand years. Another runs simulations of various military strategies designed to respond to
the ensemble of armed insurgencies and mass migrations that are predicted to accompany expanding droughts
and crop failures. This cluster runs affect recognition algorithms on videos streamed from malls, schools, bridges,
beaches, cafes, prisons, subway cars, and stadiums in order to forecast the spatial distribution of criminal activity
in a bustling financial district. That cluster hosts a seemingly endless grid of lush virtual gardens that users
digitally water by periodically tapping on their phones while commuting to work. These clusters compete with one
another to mine cryptocurrencies while quantitatively speculating in weather derivatives markets. All of this silicone
only senses, analyzes, and simulates the planet in order to grow as a more total power over it.”

Over the duration of the ~30 minute project, a détourned montage of YouTube videos including data visualizations, drone recordings, defense industry promotions, corporate advertisements, news reports, Silicon Valley product demonstrations, protest documentary, and machine learning research is swiped through in order to visually survey the technical, political, and aesthetic dimensions that compose our disastrous present. Voice-over narration is algorithmically performed by the synthetic voices of Google’s WaveNet deep neural network, and a soundtrack is streamed on an Amazon Alexa.
 
Inspired and informed by diverse revolts, militant research, and contemporary anarchist and communist thought, the project aims to explicate the entangled operations of climate, capitalism, and control as well as to speculatively propose methods of bringing about their eventual undoing. In addition to its formalization as a video essay, “Climate, Capitalism, Control” is also presented as a standalone text which can be read as well as downloaded as a pdf here: https://www.ianalanpaul.com/climate-capitalism-control-text/

Following its online release, I will also be organizing exhibitions and screenings of the work in the year ahead. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you are interested in showing “Climate, Capitalism, Control” or if you know of potential events, venues, or curators that you think I should reach out to. Thank you for taking the time to read this far, and I hope that you find the project meaningful and worthwhile.

All of the best,

           ~Ian Alan Paul

Moving Borders

Debating and Defining Borders: Philosophical and Theoretical Perspectives, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

This book brings together insights from border scholars and philosophers to ask how we are to define and understand concepts of borders today. Borders have a defining role in contemporary societies. Take, for example, the 2016 US election and the UK Brexit referendum, and subsequent debate, where the rhetoric and symbolism of border controls proved fundamental to the outcomes. However, borders are also becoming ever more multifaceted and complex, representing intersections of political, economical, social, and cultural interests.

For some, borders are tangible, situated in time and place; for others, the nature of borders can be abstracted and discussed in general terms. By discussing borders philosophically and theoretically, this edited collection tackles head on the most defi ning and challenging questions within the fi eld of border studies regarding the defi nition of its very object of study. Part 1 of the book consists of theoretical contributions from border scholars, Part 2 takes a philosophical approach, and Part 3 brings together chapters where philosophy and border studies are directly related.

Borders intersect with the key issues of our time, from migration, climate change vulnerability, terror, globalization, inequality, and nationalism, to intertwining questions of culture, identity, ideology, and religion. This book will be of interest to those studying in these fields, and most especially to researchers of border studies and philosophy.

Buy here.

Read my chapter here.

Moving Borders

This chapter introduces a new process or movement-oriented “kinopo- litical” methodology for studying borders. In this I would like to argue against two common assumptions about how borders work: Borders are static, and borders keep people out. My argument takes the form of three interlocking theses about borders: (1) borders are in motion, (2) the main function of borders is not to stop movement, but to circulate it; (3) borders are tools of primitive accumulation. These three theses are then followed by a brief concrete example to illustrate them. These theses have major implications re-theorizing borders today, as I have shown elsewhere at length (Nail, 2016).
It is more important to study borders today than ever before. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there were more migrants than ever before in recorded history (10M, 2010; WHO, 2015) .2 Today, there are over one bil- lion migrants (UNDP, 2009, 21).3 Migration has risen by nearly 50 percent since the turn of the twenty-first century, and more than 56,000 migrants have died or gone missing worldwide over the last four years (Hinnant and Janssen, 2018). More than ever, it is becoming necessary for people to migrate due to environmental, economic, and political instability. In par- ticular, climate change may even double international migration over the next 40 years (IOM, 2009).4 What is more, the percentage of total migrants who are nonstatus or undocumented is also increasing, thus posing a seri- ous challenge to liberal democracies premised on universal equality (see Cole, 2000).5

In order to manage and control this rising global mobility, the world is becoming more bordered than ever before. In just the past 20 years, but particularly since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States, and more recently the war in Syria, hundreds of new borders have emerged around the world: miles of new razor-wire fences and concrete security walls, numerous offshore detention centers, biometric passport databases, and security checkpoints in schools, at airports, and along vari- ous roadways across the world. All make manifest what has always been the true strategy of global capitalism and colonialism: to steal the world’s wealth and lock out the poor. “Europe has invaded all peoples; all peoples are com- ing to Europe in their turn” (Latour, 2018).

The recent rise in right-wing nationalism and xenophobia in the West is precisely a reaction to the so-called “migration invasion.” Borders are the new weapons being used to continue a war against the rest of the world. This is the context and importance of rethinking borders today…

Read the rest here.

 

 

 

Migrant Climate in the Kinocene

Image result for climate change migration

Andrew Baldwin, Christiane Fröhlich & Delf Rothe have just edited a wonderful  special issue of Mobilities on “Anthropocene Mobilities” Here.

You can read my contribution here [free] or at MOBILITIES 2019, VOL. 14, NO. 3, 375–380.

In this intervention, I put forward five short theses on the topic of ‘Anthropocene mobilities.’ My aim is not to unpack every concept con- tained herein but rather to provide a provocative introductory synthesis of five big ideas about Anthropocene mobility for further discussion. 1) We are living in the Kinocene, 2) The ontology of our time is an ontology of motion, 3) We need a new movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the mobile events of our time. We need a kinopolitics, 4) Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation. 5) The Kinocene presents us with the danger of new forms of domination (a new coloni- alism, a new climate capitalism, new states, and new borders) but also with the opportunity for a new revolutionary sequence.

 

We are living in the Kinocene
We live in an age of movement. I mean this in the directly materialist sense, in which huge amounts of materials are now in wide circulation around the globe. There are more humans, circulating and consuming more large, cultivated animals and calorie-yielding plants than ever before. Life is one of the most efficient maximizers of entropy on Earth, and humans have increased their entropic impact by further burning fossil fuels, overproducing nitrogen fertilizers, removing forests, and increasing net carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Portions of the planet are literally moving more quickly and more unevenly – around axes of gender, race, and class.
The widespread use of global transportation technology also means that more people and things are on the move on the surface of the Earth than ever before. The Earth is becoming so mobile that even its glaciers are on the move. Karl Marx was not thinking of receding glaciers, but I think it is safe to say that ‘all that was solid is today literally melting into air’ – as carbon dioxide. Mobility is not something happening to just humans: more than half the world’s plant and animal species are also on the move.
This movement as a whole, and not merely the geological impact of humans alone on a layer of strata, is why I think the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene are only subcategories of a much larger kinetic transformation of the Earth currently underway. Humans might have initiated this increase in movement (and capitalism certainly hastened it), but now the whole planet is produ- cing positive feedback cycles (carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles, etc.) that have lives of their own, whose mobility needs to be acknowledged.

Although the term ‘Anthropocene’ will likely stay with us as a productive term of contestation, it has a rather paradoxical meaning. The Anthropocene means not only that humans are parts of larger entangled geological and planetary processes but also that the use of the term ‘anthropos’ suggests that humans are somehow distinct enough from those processes to have their own special epoch. This is why Donna Haraway prefers the unwieldy term ‘Chthulucene,’ to describe the tentacular entanglement of all Earth’s processes with one another – thus partially undermining the very idea that there can be a sole independent cause of an epoch (Haraway 2016).

The Earth and all its processes (including humans) always have been in motion and entangled, so, historically, we are dealing with a matter of degree. However, I do think we can say that today more minerals (including those inside human bodies) are in circulation on the surface of the Earth than ever before. We thus are witnessing one of the most mobile geological strata of Earth’s history: the Kinocene…

Read the rest here.