Interview with Stephanie Fillion, Radio-Canada, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, August 16, 2015. Paraphrased to the best of my memory and ability to embellish.

Tell us your name and what is it that you do.

Hi, my name is Kevin Day. I’m a media artist primarily based in Vancouver and Taiwan. I received my MFA in Visual Art from the University of British Columbia. My practice deals with the philosophy of technology and the contemporary situation of digital entanglement and what it means to be a digital citizen.

Why are you participating in ISEA 2015?

ISEA is a world-renowned event dealing with technology and art, encompassing a wide array of scholarship and practices. I definitely see my practice aligned with some aspects of it and I’m very happy to be involved.

What do you think electronic art refers to?

This is quite a contentious subject. Some scholars and artists would argue that anything conceived with the assistance of new media technology would constitute electronic art, while others would argue that it is any artworks that deal with new media, the philosophy of technology, and our everyday situation of being immersed in the digital. For me, it is the latter.*

Do you think all art should move towards new media?

No, I would say definitely not. The digital touches upon all aspects of humanity but it is still only one aspect of the human condition. There are many other avenues, socio-political and economic, that while are entangled with the digital, do not belong strictly within. 

How has the symposium been able to engage the public?

Contemporary art has a tendency to be inaccessible for the laymen. Electronic art, however, tends to be more accessible, by virtue of it using a familiar medium that the general public is used to. It has the capacity to engage the audience because it has an appeal; there is something attractive about new media that can draw the audience in. And once the audience is engaged, the work can begin to ask questions about that appeal, and the audience might realize, oh, this is not just an app, not just a video, it offers a deeper engagement. In that regard, I think the symposium has been quite successful.


*In the interview, Philippe Pasquier touched on a similiar distinction, between what he calls a more academic iteration of electronic art and the more accessible and popular version, which I am happy that he did, though I am unsure if he was critical of the latter.

Laconference + sovereignty of sound + the algorithmic other

On Saturday May 16th, I managed to catch the last two presentations at the 2015 Laconference (Lacan conference…) at SFU Woodwards, Vancouver. As always, I should have paid more attention than I actually did to do them justice, but both talks did trigger productive thoughts that contributed to what I have been thinking about.

The first talk, titled “Romancing the Machine: the Digital Libido of Samantha in Her,” by Alois Sieben, focused on various phenomena depicted in Spike Jonze’s movie Her and their relation to the immaterial/material and digital/embodied dichotomy and made a case, Donna Haraway-style, for the dissolution, or at least an insistence on the slippery and/or spurious nature of the boundaries. For example, Theodore’s constitution of Samantha into a desiring subject (through their increasingly amorous interactions), Samantha’s voice in reinforcing her capacity (and as an outcome of) to be a desiring subject, and Freud’s conception and theorization of the voice as something disembodied and virtual in the first place…etc. The paper articulated the capacity for the operating system, Samantha, to be an entity fully capable of becoming a Lacanian subject (and therefore, more than just an object/machine), as demonstrated by her/its propensity for enjoyment/juissance, exemplified, most importantly, through the voice (the sighing, the breathing, specifically), which is considered to be something superfluous and adds nothing to the transmission of information (presumed to be the machine logic). What I took away as the main argument was that this surplus, represented by the voice, indicates the subject-hood and humanness of Samantha and the fraught entanglement of the human and non-human. The usual conclusion to so much discourse revolving around machines is reached: it is impossible to discern what is and what is not machinic/digital/virtual.

Personally, I can appreciate any exploration that uncovers a seemingly ‘useless’ surplus that ultimately point towards something significant. But for me, the voice of Samantha as an indication of her transformation into a Lacanian subject is not the most interesting part. What struck me, through Sieben’s focus on the voice, is a reinforcement for a thought I have been developing, what I will tentatively refer to as ‘the sovereignty of sound.’

What Samantha’s voice signified for me is that the phenomenon of how sound is being used to condition, control, and indoctrinate the population, through its expert deployment and complicity in creating an immersive and ‘interactive’ everyday experience. There has been much development in cultural criticism, art history, film studies, and other discipline in the humanities that for the past century has focused on visuality and semiotics in the examination and criticism of popular culture, the mass media, language, and the spectacle. Sound had been referred to the context of the mass media, its role in creating propaganda and advertisement obliquely acknowledged, but much emphasis has been placed on the visual. I would argue in the contemporary context of the ubiquity of information and communication technology, that sound plays a crucial role in creating a fully technologically-dependent and machine-governed existence. Sound design, sound effects, sound cues, phone messages, phone voices, voice recognition, ringtones… An entire society undergoing a Pavlovian experiment. Is it possible that sound will have an increasingly prominent role in our society, such that we might be entering an age akin to the pre-writing, oral/auditory culture, where truth is in the Voice, and hearing is believing? Contrary to thinking about Samantha’s voice as a machine-becoming-a-Subject, I’m more interested in thinking about another character Scarlet Johansson played, that of the alien in Under the Skin, where in the beginning of the film all the audience hears is her character ‘practicing’ speaking by making various fragmented phonetic sounds, readying herself for the con that is abducting humans: the voice as a technology, a tool to deceive and destroy.

*As an update on this thought, yesterday I received a phone call where I did not realize until a minute in that I was speaking with a machine. The program was expertly engineered to emulate a real person, with pre-recorded messages and a keen word-recognition software to intuitively responded to all my answers. It was not until I became irate and snapped at the ‘telemarketer’ that the program malfunctioned, exposing its opaque machinic self, by switching pre-recorded voices and replaying certain segments. Education and critical awareness always comes from breakdown and interruption.

The second talk was by Clint Burnham, titled “The Subject Supposed to LOL: Slavoj Žižek and the Event of the Internet,” which was the main reason I attended the conference. The talk began and ended with the same assertion: the question is not that whether Facebook is an Event, but rather was Facebook an Event. An ‘Event’ as outlined by Žižek, following Badiou and Deleuze, as a shifting and reframing of perspectives, systems, orders…etc. In that sense, the assertion perhaps indicates the radical reordering of the world has ended, and the Event that was FB has been normatized and ‘diseventalized’ into convention, the world as we know it, business as usual. Burnham touched upon so many issues that I am fascinated with, but did not delve into details for most of it, which is understandable as the paper was really a condensed intro to a large breadth of thought (although I was lost as which was Žižek’s point and which was Burnham’s own addition). The speed at which Burnham expounded his thought was precipitous, but I managed to latch onto two strands of thoughts, namely 1) everything we hate about the Internet is what makes it an Event and 2) it is only at the moment someone ‘likes’ and/or comments on something we post, we become a subject (in the post-FB/Event age) – the ‘subject-supposed-to-like.’ The ‘void of the comments field’ being the indication of a lack that leaves the user desiring to be constituted into a subject, through the others’ interactive/interpassive process of commenting and liking. The former point was one of those comments that is just so agonistic that leaves one wanting to agree with and to argue against simultaneously…much can be unpacked there. However, it is the second point I wanted to focus on (because, again, selfishly, it brushed against my own interests).

I too have been thinking – through the conventional Lacanian thought of how subjectivity is constituted through the ‘other’ during the mirror stage, which symbolically repeats throughout one’s lifetime, in a metonymic and endless chain of desiring to become a whole subject (which is unachievable) – that in the contemporary age, the ‘other’ is not other people or the Big Other, but rather the interface, the code, the algorithms, the machine. In Burnham’s account, the other is still other people, mediated through the interface. But to me, the other is (also) very much the algorithm/interface. The anxiety does not just stem from one being perceived by others, but also how one is perceived by the machine, and how one will be represented in the form of statistics/data. Are we being misrepresented, and how does this anxiety alter the way we behave? The machine is now the other, constituting but also destabilizing and questioning one’s subjectivity. Again, a futile and fruitless quest, the desire to become a subject leads to an endless and algorithmically-mediated existence, and one only momentarily becomes a subject at instances when one is satisfied with their data representation – subject as data (ie. “this pop culture personality pie chart looks like me, this Netflix consumption history looks like me, this video game preference and life partner correlation graph looks like me”). In the classic account of the mirror stage, the ‘other’ is the mirror self, and by extension the parents, all adults, and society (everyone’s whole but me, everyone else has their shit together). Do we add the networked society, information and communication technology, digital culture, to the pantheon of the Big Other/the Symbolic, along with knowledge, God, nature, the state, language…etc.? Or is this a new ‘other’ altogether? One that hoards, one that is insatiable, one that is malleable and mirrors (and constructs/constitutes) the lack and desire of the subject-supposed-to-be.

Other points of interest to take away: Jodie Dean’s insight on how humans enjoy repetitive minor tasks with little differences and how this links to the ‘digital enjoyment’ and circulation for its own sake; my old TA workshop classmate Prab’s reminder about Derrida and Stiegler’s claim that humans are always already ‘technological’ and that the distinction in Her (ie. the ending) needs to be re-examined. 

Michel de Certeau and UX

In French theorist Michel de Certeau’s seminal work The Practice of Everyday Life, he distinguished between the totalizing design, administration, and control of the dominant institutions such as the government and corporations, and how the actual population utilized the infrastructures created by such institutions. Specifically, he argued that while there is a tendency for urban planners, organizing bodies, and the general Western collective consciousness at the time to conceive of a God’s eye view that surveys and administers the population from a vantage point above, the actual consumers and users operate in a much more ‘tactical’ way on the ground level, where they appropriate, co-opt, and invert the city-planners, data surveys, and map-makers’ overarching and totalizing agendas.

In such a way, de Certeau gave much unprecedented agency to the consumers in an era booming with cultural criticism, unlike the Frankfurt School. For him, the users (in his examples, pedestrians) have the capacity to exercise agency and autonomy, most particularly in their refusals to utilize infrastructures in the way they were designed. In the famous example, he illustrated how despite the way city-planners lay out the city, consumers will carve out their own paths and shortcuts, evident in the way well-treaded paths inevitably emerge on grassy areas in the city. He argued that contrary to the totalizing and unifying view of the God’s eye view, it is really the particular acts on the level of each individual consumer/user that actualizes the city and its products. In such a way, he continued, data from analyses and urban-planning will always be behind the actual acts of the population, merely recording a trace of what has already passed – the design is always behind, not controlling, but merely chasing the users.

It seemed optimistic, almost inevitable in the way the users will always find a way to utilize products in a way that suited them best. In the contemporary era, the line of thought is well-enacted through the phenomenon of ‘life-hacking,’ which describes the myriad of ways users utilize mass-produced products from places like IKEA in unexpected ways to better suit their needs, as often made into lists on sites like Buzzfeed.

Much primacy has been given to the role and place of the ‘user,’ with phenomena adorned by this prefix popping up everywhere: user-generated content, user-friendly, user-interface, user-experience…etc. With de Certeau, the term ‘user’ was utilized in contrast to ‘consumer,’ for the agency and independent control the term connotes. The general collective consciousness and popular imaginary has shifted drastically since, from a culture of experts and gatekeepers to one of knowledge-sharing and user-curated content, under the guise of liberty, free expression, and democracy, ushered in through the aegis of ICT (information and communication technology). Along with this shift, design, administration, and control has shifted from the totalizing and unifying God view to the particularity of niches, crevices, long tails, and individual users on a micro level. Control no longer comes from above, now it resides in pixel clusters on an advertising banner to detect mouse-hovering duration.

UX (user experience) has the advertising flavor of the user-centric, working for the user, designed for the user, intended to make the user’s life better. Disguised by the tech company PR slogans, UX has appropriated the celebrated de Certeau ideals and, with tragic irony, utilized it in a way that suited it best. Despite the language of working for the user, UX is conceived to better understand the user for the benefit of the state and corporate administration. Urban-mapping and city-planning is no longer adequate for understanding the population. Corporate strategy has fully understood the lesson of de Certeau and realized that design needs to have enough information to properly predict the behavior of, and therefore to control, the users. Shepherding by force is no longer feasible in an era where subjects are accustomed to the illusion of agency, control needs to be even more insidious now, supplemented by a wealth of data and packaged in a way to further this illusion of agency. Along with many other facets of the immaterial industry, UX is another industry where socioeconomic control and administration is sold as subject-empowering. As a final illustration of this unfortunate co-optation, it is fairly common for UX training to include the de Certeau example of comparing a path laid out by city-planners with a shortcut that has developed from pedestrians, enculturating an entire industry and generation of immaterial laborers to think of themselves as ‘working for the people’ – design that is not behind, but will anticipate, given enough data collected, the behaviors and preferences of users (for control and profit, which is the part that is usually left out).

brief thoughts on counter-gaming

As I’m writing this, a close friend just gave me a re-mastered version of the seminal game LOZ: Ocarina of Time, which many still argue is the best exemplar in mainstream video gaming. Placed in the history of gaming, in the context of digital culture, and specifically game art, I thought, why has this game captivated an entire generation of gamers including myself? What does the fact that, the trend of linear adventure games with singular narratives like this has given way to open sandbox games where users generate narratives and content, reveal about post-Fordist capitalist strategies and digital sovereignty?

I recently picked up Artists Re:thinking Games published by FACT and, two UK-based platforms for media art. What drew me to the book was the fact that it was the only publication I found to have contained anything on Guy Debord’s game Kriegspeil and Alex Galloway’s remake of the game. To my disappointment, the board game devised by the infamous French radical theorist/artist in the late 70’s and the digital remake by the media theorist do not appear to share the critical and philosophical lens of either of these theorists’ work. The brief interview was mostly about the logistics and minute details of the game design/play (which sounds like a standard 4X game - explore, expand, exploit, exterminate - set in Napoleonic times), with Galloway admitting he too pondered why is there nothing “Situationist” about this game.

The Situationist (SI) strategies and legacy was often cited in this book, linking détournement – the subversion through hijacking of dominant ideological strategies and turning it against itself – directly to the act of play, in this case conceived as playful artistic strategies utilized to provoke, reverse, and reveal the underlying structures and rules within games and their ideological progeny. Although Daphne Dragona’s essay acutely links this playfulness within the historical artistic movement of institutional critique and draws a parallel between institutions and games (structured and rule-bound), she did not give any examples of game art that actually deal with the political economy of the game industry or how the gameworld mirrors RL. She did, however, mention Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds, like everyone else (which always felt more like a study in existential dread to me rather than game critique). Although this parallel, I believe, offers fruitful insight to the questions I posed at the beginning, which I will return to at a later point.

Invoking SI again, Corrado Morganan unnecessarily and poorly distinguishes between art games and game art (and briefly admits to blurred boundaries), framing experimental media art as art games and traditional art objects situated in galleries as game art. The essay does list a number of game/art that present a subversive, resistant, and critical leaning, such as games that play themselves (Progress Quest) and offer frustrating, unusable game play and counter-intuitive mechanics (Achievement Unlocked, This is the only Level). A personal favourite is Jetro Lauha’s Racing Pitch, where the user controls a racing car by making car noises, a parodic act in which the only way a user can play the game is to constantly contribute to the creation of the simulation, rather than the game immersing the user in its simulation. Similarly, Mathias Fuchs talked about what he termed ‘ludic’ and ‘zero’ interfaces as approaches of game art in subverting and opposing the traditional conceit of HCI, by ‘playfully’ examining the interface or by completely withholding interaction (encompassed by what he termed ‘interpassivity’). “The interface is as much an inhibiting device as it is an enabling one. [...] Technically engineered interfaces are ideological in this regard, as they contain implicit rules, where we least expect them.” (56)

Elsewhere in the book, an appallingly one-sided and tenuous argument comes from Mary Flanagan’s inappropriately-titled essay “Creating Critical Play,” where a language of techno-optimism and tech industry PR pervades flagrantly, espousing simply that games offer addictive and beautifully-rendered worlds for exploring endless possibilities and creativity. She argues for the capacity for ‘activist’ games such as Layoff to educate players about socio-political issues and to induce empathy. I wonder how successful the game can be, to that end. Do my friends who are playing H1Z1 and Minecraft experience a palpable anxiety about ecological prudence and survival ethics, and the insatiable resource-hoarding of capitalist hubris? Or do they simply want to fuck around, build stuff, and act out Lord of the Flies? As someone who grew up playing LOZ and Final Fantasy, my experience of games have been hermetically self-contained and I am sceptical of the degree to which commercial games can offer critical reflection on RL. As Sherry Turkle noted in the beginning of Simulation and its Discontent, what simulations want is full immersion. By definition, its ontology negates self-reflexivity and awareness of exterior elements.

The idea that games offer creative exploration, new meaning-formation, and infinite possible realities is simply too one-dimensional and shallow. The rhetoric of ‘openness’ (along with other buzz terms such as interactivity, viewer as author, networked-connectivity, lack of singular author…etc.), which is so often facilely used and abused in any writing on media art, is again utilized as legitimation in game discourse. Openness, unfortunately, doesn’t mean shit. The argument assumes that all openness automatically leads to positive outcomes and it neglects the fact that games are created under specific ideological structures and ignores their political economy. As Trebor Scholz has argued, open/free has become a disguise for the dominant power regime to assert its irreplaceability in society. As always, Nicolas Bourriaud’s treatise on “Relational Aesthetics’ and Umberto Eco’s “Poetics of Open Work” are propped up here as poster boys, strengthening the idea that openness in interpretation and meaning-formation necessitates validity in contemporary culture and knowledge-production. It amounts to the relativism that plagued postmodernism (which clearly is still lingering) while concealing the underlying powers capitalizing on such framework. Galloway’s “Reticular Fallacy” does a fantastic job of declaring this line of thought. The danger of utilizing such theory-lite and meaningless words such as possible, potential, and open, is that it forecloses further and deeper discussions on what video games as a medium can actually achieve as a critical artistic tool.

To return to the opening thought I had and the parallel between institutions and games, I would like to suggest the following: the trajectory from structured and linear games heavy on narratives (ie. Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid) to the popularization of open sandbox games (ie. WOW and Minecraft) parallels (art and academic) institutions’ move from a structured curatorial and pedagogical model where the authority resides with the institution to a model that increasingly wishes to appeal to audience participation and production. Situated in the art historical context after institutional critique and postmodernism, this move seems logical, but more importantly it might also be indicative of the contemporary capitalist strategy of profiting from the idea of openness, user-generated products, user-as-author, user-centric interfaces and experiences, user customization, inflated sense of self-importance, fabricated individuality, and the emphasis on ‘YOU’ (a nod here to Austin Grossman’s meditative and compelling novel on game culture).

Derrida’s notion of play was utilized to elaborate on the impossibility of empirically totalizing being/language. Not because the field of examination is infinite, but rather because it is constantly fluidly undergoing the process of play, substitution, and agitation. Play creates a permanent and ambiguous non-wholeness, making quantification futile. In Galloway’s book Gaming, he links this notion to what he terms non-diegetic machine acts in video games: actions performed by the machine that are not integral to the gameplay and narrative of the game. For example, malfunction, ‘game over,’ and the emphasis on illegibility and disruptiveness in the works of JODI, all constitute non-diegetic machine acts. In contrast, Galloway elaborates what he terms the non-diegetic operator acts, which are acts of configuration executed by the user, that takes place outside the game’s narrative, such as ‘pause,’ cheats, and hacking, and this is where he locates the space for political intervention and critique in the coded system.

His most recent post on 'counter-gaming' expands a tiny bit on what he glossed over in an interview with Mo Salemy in a 2013 issue of the art publication Fillip (where he disclosed the difficulty in realizing one in practice and briefly mentioned Kriegspeil). Just a tiny bit. Perhaps he has written about it elsewhere, maybe at the end of Gaming, which I have yet to finish. Seeing that video games seem to be the medium par excellence in the informatic/algorithmic/cognitive/attention/immaterial economy, with their micro economics, free labour justified as creativity and passion, work/play dissolution, digital sharecropping, bolstering the simulacra paradigm and therefore the simulation industry, escapist spectacles, contribution to globalization and its entrenchment...etc., which was succinctly articulated in Games of Empire by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, I have thought for awhile now that video games are naturally the most appropriate medium for one to get into, if they wish to critically examine contemporary digital culture and ICT with visual art. As I read through his post, Galloway makes a distinction between two types of counter-gaming he has witnessed thus far: negation and deprivation, with the former stripping all that makes a game a 'game' and the latter taking a more nuanced approach and becomes a self-aware and self-reflexive exercise (like a meta-narrative of the post-war era). He then very briefly but cogently makes a case for failure and the deprivation of something some would argue is intrinsic to games: fun. This is certainly echoed by the games listed by Morgana above.

I was partially disheartened and partially encouraged by this, as I had for awhile now imagined what my project would look like if I were to make a piece of game art. Without giving away the details, it would certainly fall into the deprivation category, painfully self-aware and tedious, devoid of enjoyment and constantly throw the player back into the physical world, languoring in real time.* I was disheartened because now that it has been labeled, it seems dated, naive, and simply sounds like an exercise in form, even though it is an exercise that attempts to resist the mindless identification and cognitive prescription and to encourage transparency of the medium. Perhaps because this particular iteration doesn't seem to get into the political economy of the game industry within the larger umbrella of cognitive capitalism and attention economy. But I was also encouraged by Galloway's optimism and the line he drew in relation to failure, which is often where I end up theoretically in the attempt to thwart the capitalist mandate. It appears that while there are many iterations counter-gaming might take, for Galloway they all revolve around a displacement of the games' imbrication with the market and militarization. And in a functional and instrumental society, a displacement from the intended purpose would equate failure (unless they end up generating revenue in unintended ways). We return, then, to the Heideggerian idea that only when a tool is broken does it become opaque - Vorhandenheit (present-at-hand).

Full disclosure, I am now going to play Ocarina of Time. I was just on my way to Hyrule Castle. The full examination of why this game was so engrossing to my thirteen-year-old self and many others will have to be a different piece of writing, but suffice to say this is not a critical game, and if it were, I would not have enjoyed it, or even have been able to play it. To return to Flanagan's essay, the title of which she never fully addressed, what is critical play and is it even possible?

*As a side note, dreaded video artist Bill Viola has put out a piece with a game studio called Night Journey, as an example of 'slow gaming.' Unfortunately, despite my initial desire to see slow gaming as an attempt to thwart the users’ need for instant gratification and to induce frustration and alienation from the game, Bill Viola’s conceit is to induce further immersion by letting the user slow down and check out the beautiful environment (which, upon closer inspection, reveals collages of his previous work…self-indulgent and nauseating like his other output). Gratification has only been replaced with visual immersion, and speed and rewards replaced by more intricate simulation, which is ultimately disappointing if slow gaming was designed to be a critical strategy.

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