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November 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Visual culture nowadays.

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The Steganographic Image

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s the Conspiracy week at the Photographers’ Gallery in London and I was asked to write a short text on what lies inside the image (code). In other words, I wrote a short text on the Steganographic Image, and hiding messages in plain sight, although in this case, encoded “inside” a digital image. The image that tricks, the image that operates behind your back, or more likely, triggers processes front of your eyes, in plain sight, invisible. As I was reminded, this is also an idea that Akira Lippit has in a different context developed through Derrida. To quote Lippit (quoting at first Derrida): ‘”Visibility,” he says “is not visible.” Invisibility is folded into the condition of visibility from the beginning. There is no visibility that is not also invisible, no visibility that is not in some way always spectral.’One would be tempted to argue that this is where this consideration of the visual meets up with the history of cryptography, or ciphering and deciphering. Or as Francis Bacon put it in 1605 in ways part of the longer media archaeology of the steganographic image too: “The virtues of ciphers are three: that they be not laborious to write and read; that they be impossible to decipher; and, in some cases, that they be without suspicion.” It is especially this third virtue that remains of interest when looking at images without such suspicion: the most banal, tedius of pictures; a spectrality that conjurs up hidden passages, triggers and operations.

My short text can be found here online. It’s only scratching the steganographic surface.

A short preview of the text.

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Steganographic Image

Who knows what went into an image, what it includes and what it hides? This is not merely a question of the fine art historical importance of materials, nor even a media historical intrigue of chemistry, but one of steganography – hiding another meaningful pattern, perhaps a message, in data; inside text or an image. This image that is always more than. More than what? Isn’t it obvious from the amount of work gone into art-theoretical considerations of the inexhaustible meanings of the photographic image that it has always been a multiplicity: contexts, fluctuating meanings, readings and the insatiable desire to look at things in order to discover its depths.

As such, a steganographic inscription is neither a depth nor the plain surface but somewhere in between. In contemporary images made of data it refers to how the image can be coded as more than is seen, but also more than the image should do. The steganographic digital image can be executed; it includes instructions for the computer to perform. Photographs as part of a longer history of communication media are one particular way of saying more than meets the eye, but this image also connects to histories of secret communication from the early modern period, to more recent discussions in security culture, as well as fiction such as William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003). Were J.G. Ballard’s 1950s billboard mysteries one sort of cryptographic puzzle that hid a message in plain visual sight?

Continue reading – link to full text

Data Asymmetry – a Burak Arikan exhibition in Winchester

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

monovacation-teaser-3x2_en-jpg_sia_jpg_fit_to_width_inlineI am happy to announce that the Turkish artist, technologist Burak Arikan’s exhibition Data Asymmetry opens in November at the Winchester Gallery (at the Winchester School of Art).

The exhibition addresses critical mapping as a way to understand data culture. The pieces raise questions about the predictability of ordinary human behavior with MyPocket (2008); revealing insights into the infrastructure of megacities like Istanbul as a network of mosques, republican monuments and shopping malls (Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism, 2012) ; remapping and organising recurring patterns in the official tourism commercials of governments with Monovacation (2012); exploring the growth of networks via visual and kinetic abstraction with Tense Series (2007-2012); and showcasing collective production of network maps from the Graph Commons platform. As the works emphasise, the aim of the Graph Commons is to empower people and projects through using network mapping, and collectively experiment with mapping as an ongoing practice.

Previously Arikan has had his work shown at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art New York, Venice Architecture Biennale, São Paulo Biennial, Istanbul Biennial, Berlin Biennial, Ars Electronica and many others.

The exhibition opens November 10.

In addition to the exhibition in the Winchester gallery, Arikan is organising a workshop on critical mapping and network graphs at the Winchester School of Art.

Arikan’s visit also includes another workshop in London at the British Library and as part of the Internet of Cultural Things-project. The visit to Winchester is also supported by the AMT research group at WSA.

For more context on Arikan’s art practice, please find here an audio interview I did with Arikan on stage at transmediale 2016 in Berlin.

For information and queries, please contact me: Contact details.

The Elastic System – Data in a Cultural Institution

September 11, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the milestones in our Internet of Cultural Things-project (AHRC: AH/M010015/1) was the launch of artist Richard Wright’s Elastic System. With an interesting media archaeological angle, the art project creates an alternative visual browsing/search/request system on top of the existing British Library one. As an experimental pilot, this interface (an installation and soon an online version) returns the library to an age of browsable, visual access to books.

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The King’s Library at the British Library in 1851. Now the King’s Library tower is the only permanently publicly exhibited collection at the BL. Source: suzanne-historybritishlibrary.blogspot.co.uk

While still in the middle of the 19th century the library space could be seen more as a public space with visual access to the collections, the modern storage and delivery systems at the BL created a different sort of a spatial setting. The sheer increase in the number of items in its holdings necessitated this change that could be easily seen as a precursor to the issues the more recent information culture has had to face: lots of stuff that needs to be stored, equipped with an address, and locatable. The short animation Knowledge Migration by Richard Wright is one way to visualize the growth in acquisitions on a geographically mapped timeline. The video is a short animation made by Richard Wright,  showing “each item’s place and date of publication (or date of acquisition where available) since the library’s foundation in 1753.” Knowledge Migration used a random sample of 220,000 records from the print catalogue.

The current reality of the British Library as a data institution can be approached through its infrastructure, also the many datasets and systems, including the ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System); this infrastructure includes both the data based systems and digital catalogues, online interface and searchable collections, their automated robotic systems in Boston Spa storage/archive space and also the important human labour that is part of this automated system.

The Elastic System project introduction by Wright states:

“ELASTIC SYSTEM is a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections.

The mosaic image of Watts has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.

The Elastic System functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.”

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You can view and use the installation system at the British Library in London until September 23, 2016 – it is located at the front of the Humanities Reading room (during library opening hours).

The online version will be launched in the near future.

Here’s Richard Wright’s blog post about his artistic residency at the British Library as part of our project: Elastic System: How to Judge a Book By Its Cover.

We are discussing these themes in Liverpool on September 14, 2 pm, at FACT – this panel on cultural data is part of the Liverpool Biennial public programme.

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A thank you to Aquiles Alencar-Brayner (BL, Digital Curator) for the snapshots of the texts above.

Autonomous AI as Weapons, Policy and Economy

August 11, 2015 Leave a comment

WIth my colleague Ryan Bishop we did some popular writing over the summer and responded to the recent call to ban autonomous weapons systems. The open letter was widely discussed but usually with the same emphases, so we wanted to add our own flavour to the debate. What if they are already here? What if the media archaeology of autonomous weapons goes way back to the experimental weapons development started during the Cold War?

Here’s our short piece in The Conversation. It was rather heavily edited so I took the liberty to paste below the longer original version (not copyedited though).

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Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka, Winchester School of Art/University of Southampton
Autonomous AI as Weapons, Policy and Economy

A significant cadre of scholars and corporate representatives recently signed an open letter to “ban on offensive autonomous weapons systems.”  The letter was widely publicised and supported by well-known figures from Stephen Hawking to Noam Chomsky, corporate influentials like Elon Musk, Google’s leading AI researcher Demis Hassabis and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The letter received much attention in the news and social media with references to killer AI robots and mentions of The Terminator, adding a science-fictional flavour. But the core of the letter referred to an actual issue having to do with the possibilities of autonomous weapons becoming a wide-spread tool in larger conflicts and in various tasks “such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.”

One can quibble little with the consciences on display here even if scholars such as Benjamin Bratton already earlier argued that we need to be aware of much wider questions about design and synthetic intelligence. Such issues cannot be reduced to the Terminator-imaginary and narcissistically assume that AI is out there to get us.  Scholars should anyway address the much longer backstory to autonomous weapons systems that make the issue as political as it is technological.

The letter concludes with the semi-Apocalyptic and not altogether inaccurate assertion that “The endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting.” However this not the endpoint but rather it is the starting point.

Unfortunately the AI global arms race has already started. The most worrying dimension of this AI arms race is that it does not always look like one. The division between defense and offensive weapons was already blurred during the Cold War.

The doctrine for pre-emptive strike laid waste to the difference between the two. The agile capacity to reprogram autonomous systems means all systems can be altered with relative ease, and the offensive/defensive distinction disappears even more fully.

The new weapons systems can look like the Planetary Skin Institute or the Central Nervous System for the Earth (by Hewlett-Packard), two of the many autonomous remote sensing systems that allow for automated real-time responses to the conditions they are meant to track. And to act on that information. Automatically.

In the present, platforms for planetary computing operate with and through remote sensing systems that gather together real-time data and of the earth for specific stakeholders through models and simulations. A system such as the Planetary Skin Institute, initiated by NASA and Cisco Systems, operates under the aegis of providing a multi-constituent platform for planetary eco-surveillance. It was originally designed to offer a real-time open network of simulated global ecological concerns, especially treaty verification, weather crises, carbon stocks and flows, risk identification and scenario planning and modeling for academic, corporate and government actors (thus replicating the US post World War II infrastructural strategy). It is within this context of autonomous remote sensing systems that AI weaponry must be understood; the hardware and software, as well as overall design and implementation, are the same for each. Similarly provenance for all of these resides primarily in Cold War systems designs and goals.

The Planetary Skin institute now operates as an independent non-profit global R & D organization with its stated goal of being dedicated to “improving the lives of millions of people by developing risk and resource management decision services to address the growing challenges of resource scarcity, the land-water-food-energy-climate nexus and the increasing impact and frequency of weather extremes.” It therefore claims to provide a “platform to serve as a global public good,” thus articulating a position and agenda as altruistic as can possibly be imagined. The Planetary Skin Institute works with  “research and development partners across multiple sectors regionally and globally to identify, conceptualize, and incubate replicable and scalable big data and associated innovations, that could significantly increase the resilience of low-income communities, increase food, water, and energy security and protect key ecosystems and biodiversity”. What it does not to mention is the potential for resource futures investment that could accompany such data and information. This reveals the large-scale drive from all sectors to monetize or weaponize all aspects of the world.

The Planetary Skin Institute’s system echoes what a number of other remote automated sensing systems provide in terms of real-time, tele-tracking occurrences in many parts of the globe. The slogan for the institute is “sense, predict, act,” which is what AI weapons systems do, automatically and autonomously. Autonomous weapons are said to be “a third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms” but such capacities for weapons have been around since at least 2002. At that time drones transitioned to being “smart weapons” and thus enabled to select their own targets to fire on (usually using GPS locations on hand-held devices). Geolocation based on SIM cards is now also used in U.S. drone assassination operations.

Instead of only about speculations concerning the future, autonomous systems have an institutional legacy as part of the Cold War. They are part of our inheritance from WWII and Cold War complex systems interacting between university, corporate and military based R&D. Such agencies as the American DARPA are the legacy of the Cold War, founded in 1958 but still very active as a high risk, high gain-sort of a model for speculative research.

The R&D innovation work is also spread out to the wider private sector through funding schemes and competitions. This illuminates essentially the continuation of the Cold War schemes also in the current private sector development work: “the security industry” is already structurally so tied to the governmental policies, military planning and to economic development that to ask about banning AI weaponry is to point to the wider questions about the political and economic systems that support military technologies as economically lucrative area of industry. Author E.L. Doctorow once summarised the nuclear bomb in relation to its historical context in the following manner: “First, the bomb was our weapon. Then it became our foreign policy. Then it became our economy.” We need to be able to critically evaluate the same triangle as part of autonomous weapons development that is not merely about the technology but indeed about policies and politics, and increasingly, economies and economics.

The Consortium: On Autonomous Sensing

January 6, 2015 1 comment

Last Spring we at #WSA started a consortium partnership with two other universities: University of California (San Diego) and Parsons School of Design (New School, NYC). Together with Jordan Crandall and Benjamin Bratton from USCD and Ed Keller from Parsons we are addressing themes such as machine perception, remote sensing, synthetic intelligence, etc. We are also organising a panel for transmediale 2015 – and Jordan Crandall will be in performing his drone performance Unmanned.

But already before transmediale at the end of this month, we are organising a group meeting and a public panel this week in San Diego under the rubric of “Autonomous: Sensing“.

Last Spring, we organised a panel in Winchester on Design and Contemporary Technological Realities and we aim to continue these meetings alongside some publications and curating exhibitions with the consortium partners.

— update —

Below some pictures from the San Diego-event and our panel.

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The Warhol Forensics

April 27, 2014 6 comments

The news about the (re)discovered Andy Warhol-images, excavated by digital forensics means, has been making rounds in news and social media. In short, a team of experts – including Cory Arcangel – discovered Warhol’s Amiga-paintings from 1985 floppy discs. As described in the news story: ”

“Warhol’s Amiga experiments were the products of a commission by Commodore International to demonstrate the graphic arts capabilities of the Amiga 1000 personal computer. Created by Warhol on prototype Amiga hardware in his unmistakable visual style, the recovered images reveal an early exploration of the visual potential of software imaging tools, and show new ways in which the preeminent American artist of the 20th century was years ahead of his time.” The images are related to the famous Debbie Harry-image Warhol painted on Amiga.

The case is an interesting variation on themes of media art history as well as digital forensics. As Julian Oliver coined it in a tweet:

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The media archaeological enters with a realisation of the importance of such methods for the cultural heritage of born-digital content, but there’s more. The non-narrative focus of such methodologies is a different way of accessing what could be thought of as media archaeology of software culture and graphics. The technological tools carry an epistemological, even ontological weight: we see things differently; we are able to access a world previously unseen, also in historical contexts.

But there is  a pull towards traditional historical discourses. The project demonstrates a technical understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary software culture but rhetorically frames it as just another part of the art historical/archaeological mythology of rediscovering long lost masterpieces of a Genius. This side still needs some updating so that the technical episteme of the excavation, detailed here [PDF] can become fully realised. Techniques of reverse engineering as well as insights into image formats as ways to understand the technical image need to be matched up with discourse that is able to demonstrate something more than traditional art history by new means. It needs to be able to show what is already at stake in these methods: a historical mapping of the anonymous forces of history, to use words from S. Giedion.

Scholars such as Matt Kirschenbaum have already demonstrated the significant stakes of digital forensics as part of a radical mindset to historical scholarship, heritage and media theory and we need to be able to build on such work that is theoretically rich.