End-of-year conversation with the curator and writer Valentinas Klimašauskas looкing back at months of a devastating war in Ukraine and all the interconnections that have become apparent since its beginning. We talk about power, technology, and information as the "new gas", as well as how art can avoid being complicit in the all-encompassing human-machine propaganda complex of today's tech economies. Questions asked by Viktoria Draganova.
We are living in the Information Age, which is mainly about access to and control of data and data technology. In your opinion, which are the other crucial components and parameters of this era?
To quote Ukrainian film director and writer Oleksiy Radynski, information is the new gas. This statement is also a double reference to gas as something which was and still is cybernetically distributed through pipes but which also, considering all the power associated with it, shapes the lives of individuals and nations, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. I’m interested in the surplus of data per se and in the surplus ideas that define this densely technological and sophisticated era we are living in. For example, this specific age could be defined as the age of disinformation, cloud computing, Big Data, post-internet, new materialisms, various cyber-queer feminisms, or the age in which state surveillance meets surveillance capitalism (Shoshana Zuboff). To simplify, at this moment it is comprehensible that there is a clear line in how data (or gas) is distributed in today’s societies, the dividing line being blurred somewhere between democracy, neoliberal greed and autocracies.
The concepts you mention are speculative as to what we face as a global community. Do they also suggest a way out?
There is a massive problem in agreeing on where we, as a global we, are currently. The accent on the contemporary should be on “con-” – right now – which describes how various temporalities coexist and/or compete. To understand it means also to realise in which direction we are moving – hence, futurologist and speculative definitions defining the present and the near-present are unavoidable. To be speculative might mean being critical of the present and thinking about how to avoid human-made disasters, from ecological and economic to disinformation and various wars. Is there a way out? Maybe. However, human greed and various antagonisms keep us away from finding it.
In your lecture at Swimming Pool, you talked about the “Information Warfare” that is the result of a new association of propaganda and technology. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, we have been growing increasingly aware of what this superstructure can lead to. What, in your opinion, are its most disturbing implications?
The rather dominant today’s principle of quantified self makes contemporary subjects succumb to (un)conscious self-automation. This trend amplifies what the Austrian sociologist Christian Fuchs calls the merging of the current surveillance state with surveillance capitalism. Shoshana Zuboff, an American scholar who coined the term “surveillance capitalism”, says the latter’s ultimate goal is not only to monitor consumers and collect and sell information but also to turn us into programmable automata. The issues of automation, machine, artificial mind, disinformation, speculative futures, and the like are a crucial part of my research.
What happens when (un)conscious self-automation meets a disinformation system? A good example is today’s Russia, which has literally made people part of its propaganda material, the disinformation flesh.
How does such a new human-machine propaganda complex transform the cultural field?
Well, depending on how you define human, machine, or propaganda, this human-machine propaganda complex is not that new, to be sincere. I guess we could start by referring to the false hopes of more democratic or even utopic horizontal structures that arrived with the first decade(s) of the internet and social networks. Those were the times that openly declared certain hopes for grassroots movements, activism and journalism. However, quite soon the lessons were learned by various autocrats, dictators and agents of neoliberalism, who quickly transformed this space into disinformation and surveillance capitalism, to use Shoshana Zuboff’s term. In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), Zuboff offers a disturbing picture of how Silicon Valley and other corporations are mining users’ information to predict and shape their behaviour. According to her, “surveillance capitalists now develop ‘economies of action,’ as they learn to tune, herd, and condition our behavior with subtle and subliminal cues, rewards, and punishments that shunt us toward their most profitable outcomes.” Zuboff is explaining the link between surveillance capitalism, how it modifies our behaviour and corrupts democracy, and why this model takes away the future from us – which is, obviously, scary. Not to mention the precedence of the involvements of the Russian hackers and Cambridge Analytica in Brexit and electing Donald Trump, think about it in today’s context of Elon Musk taking over Twitter and using it for shaping the next US presidential elections.
How does the field of contemporary art operate in the conditions of various socio-political and technological tensions of the immediate present?
There are more questions than answers that arise when thinking about this very present. There are different possible outcomes that are very much dependent on voting for democracies and against autocrats – and acting transparently and inventing new uniting and embracing dictionaries, songs, and other empowering mythologies would be a good way to move on. However, we live in the age of real ecological and other deadlines, therefore acting is becoming more important than anything else.
Talking about the connection to the contemporary art scene, quite a few contemporary thinkers stress the importance of how describing and locating the present reality leads to anticipating and shaping the future, especially in the context of current Big Data algorithmic technologies. Bassam El Baroni, in his recent article “Tarrying with the Alien: Preliminary Notes on Curating and Algorithmic Realism”, stresses the importance of the data-driven “twenty-first-century media” concept of Mark B.N. Hansen in curatorial and exhibition practices today: “What distinguishes the prevalent media of this century from previous forms is their monumental reconfiguration from technologies focused on recording the past into data-driven infrastructures for the anticipation of the future.” He also introduced the importance of the “algorithmic realism” concept of Antoinette Rouvroy. For her, this is a new algorithmic logic that produces knowledge about future preferences, behaviors, and life events whilst to a great extent omitting people’s subjective accounts, experiences, and perspectives. This ‘data behaviorism’ – as Rouvroy refers to it – fully depends on data to relieve people of their responsibility in the making of meaning through processes such as transcription, representation, institutionalization, convention, and symbolization.
Just to summarize, today’s art-making and art-distributing are definitely connected to this new algorithmic logic.
What does it mean for the arts: engaging in activism and advocacy rather than pursuing a studio practice and producing for the white cube? What are the new roles cultural producers would aim at to avoid being complicit?
Sure, there are quite a lot of artists, thinkers, institutions, and online internet psycho-warriors – I’m not sure how to call them – meme makers, etc., who were and are deeply immersed in rewriting the Russian colonialist or disinformation discourse, just to give you an example. Some of the mentioned above are also creating new critical visions and vocabularies for non-discriminative and all-inclusive worlds in the current climate of ecological and other disasters, colonial and imperial thinking which is expanding its own brutal, chauvinistic and retrograde regimes. At this moment I’d suggest taking an interest in Ukrainian or Belarusian (in opposition) artists, curators, filmmakers and writers, who include Yevgenia Belorusets, Svitlana Matviyenko, Oleksiy Radynski, Nikita Kadan, Mischa Gabowitsch, Olga Shparaga but also various other initiatives. Listening, watching, reading, meeting, talking to these people, I feel like they are creating new concepts, methodologies, and networks, that hopefully will ignite new wordings and wordlings.