Transmediale 2017: Singularities

Singularities was a panel discussion curated and moderated by Morehshin Allahyari and myself at Transmediale 2017. Featuring Luiza Prado & Pedro Oliveira (A parede), Rasheedah Phillips, and Dorothy R. Santos speaking (and performing) on refiguring techno-colonialist and heteronormative pasts, presents, futures and identities.

A singularity is a point in space-time of such unfathomable density that the very nature of reality is brought into question. Associated with elusive black holes and the alien particles that bubble up from quantum foam at their event horizon, the term ‘singularity’ has also been co-opted by cultural theorists and techno-utopianists to describe moments of profound social, ontological, or material transformation—the coming-into-being of new worlds that redefine their own origins. Panelists contend with the idea of singularities and ruptures, tackling transformative promises of populist narratives, and ideological discrepancies that are deeply embedded in art and design practices. By reflecting on Afrofuturism and digital colonialism, they will also question narcissistic singularities of ‘I,’ ‘here,’ and ‘now’, counter the rhetoric of technological utopias, and confound principles of human universality.

Photos of the panel


Photos by Adam Berry. More here.

Singularities (Introduction)

Panel delivered at Transmediale, Sunday 5th February 2017.
Introduction by Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke.

Morehshin:

In 1979, the Iranian Islamic revolution resulted in the overthrowing of the Pahlavi dynasty and led to the establishment of an Islamic republic. Many different organizations, parties and guerrilla groups were involved in the Iranian Revolution. Some groups were created after the fall of Pahlavi and still survive in Iran; others helped overthrow the Shah but no longer exist. Much of Iranian society was hopeful about the coming revolution. Secular and leftist politicians participated in the movement to gain power in the aftermath, believing that Khomeini would support their voice and allow multiple positions and parties to be active and involved in the shaping of the post-revolution Iran. Like my mother – a Marxist at the time – would always say: The Iranian revolution brought sudden change, death, violence in unforeseen ways. It was a point, a very fast point of collapse and rise. The revolution spun out of control and the country was taken over by Islamists so fast that people weren’t able to react to it; to slow it; or even to understand it. The future was now in the hands of a single party with a single vision that would change the lives of generations of Iranians, including myself, in the years that followed.

We were forced and expected to live in one singular reality. A mono authoritarian singularity.

In physics, a singularity is a point in space and time of such incredible density that the very nature of reality is brought into question. Associated with elusive black holes and the alien particles that bubble out of the quantum foam at their event horizon, the term ‘singularity’ has also been co-opted by cultural theorists and techno-utopianists to describe moments of profound social, political, ontological or material transformation. The coming-into-being of new worlds that redefine their own origins.

For mathematicians and physicists, singularities are often considered as ‘bad behaviour’ in the numbers and calculations. Infinite points may signal weird behaviours existing ‘in’ the physical world: things outside or beyond our ability to comprehend. Or perhaps, more interestingly, a singularity may expose the need for an entirely new physics. Some anomalies can only be made sense of by drafting a radically new model of the physical world to include them.

For this panel we consider ‘bad behaviours’ in social, technological and ontological singularities. Moments of profound change triggered by a combination of technological shifts, cultural mutations, or unforeseen political dramas and events.

Like the physicists who comprehend singularities in the physical world, we do not know whether the singularities our panelists highlight today tell us something profound about the world itself, or force us to question the model we have of the world or worlds.

Daniel:

As well as technological or socio-political singularities, this panel will question the ever narcissistic singularities of ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now’ – confounding the principles of human universality upon which these suppositions are based. We propose ‘singularities’ as eccentric and elusive figures in need of collective attention.

It is no coincidence that ‘Singularity’ is often used as a term to indicate human finitude. Self-same subjects existing at particular points in time, embedded within particular contexts, told through a singular history or single potential future. The metaphor of the transformative Singularity signals not one reality ‘to come’, nor even two realities – one moved from and one towards – but of many, all dependant on who the subject of the singularity is and how much autonomy they are ascribed.

The ‘Technological’ Singularity is a myth of the ‘transhumanists’, a group of mainly Western, commonly white, male enthusiasts, who ascribe to the collective belief that technology will help them to become ‘more than human’… ‘possessed of drastically augmented intellects, memories, and physical powers.’ As technological change accelerates, according to prominent Transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, so it pulls us upwards in its wake. Kurzweil argues that as the curve of change reaches an infinite gradient reality itself will be brought into question: like a Black Hole in space-time subjects travelling toward this spike will find it impossible to turn around, to escape its pull. A transformed post-human reality awaits us on the other side of the Technological Singularity. A reality Kurzweil and his ilk believe ‘we’ will inevitably pass into in the coming decades.

In a 2007 paper entitled ‘Droppin’ Science Fiction’, Darryl A. Smith explores the metaphor of the singularity through Afro-American and Afrofuturist science fiction. He notes that the metaphor of runaway change positions those subject to it in the place of Sisyphus, the figure of Greek myth condemned to push a stone up a hill forever. For Sisyphus to progress he has to fight gravity as it conspires with the stone to pull him back to the bottom of the slope. The singularity in much science fiction from black and afro-american authors focusses on this potential fall, rather than the ascent:

“Here, in the geometrics of spacetime, the Spike lies not at the highest point on an infinite curve but at the lowest… Far from being the shift into a posthumanity, the Negative Spike is understood… as an infinite collapsing and, thus, negation of reality. Escape from such a region thus requires an opposing infinite movement.”

The image of a collective ‘push’ of the stone of progress up the slope necessarily posits a universal human subject, resisting the pull of gravity back down the slope. A universal human subject who passes victorious to the other side of the event horizon.

But as history has shown us, technological, social and political singularities – arriving with little warning – often split the world into those inside and those outside their event horizons.

Singularities like the 1979 Iranian revolution left many more on the outside of the Negative Spike, than the inside.

Singularities such as the Industrial Revolution, which is retrospectively told in the West as a tale of imperial and technological triumph, rather than as a story of those who were violently abducted from their homelands, and made to toil and die in fields of cotton and sugarcane. The acceleration toward and away from that singularity brought about a Negative Spike so dense, that many millions of people alive today still find their identities subject to its social and ontological mass.

In their recent definition of The Anthropocene, the International Commission on Stratigraphy named the Golden Spike after World War II as the official signal of the human-centric geological epoch. A series of converging events marked in the geological record around the same time: the detonation of the first nuclear warhead; the proliferation of synthetic plastic from crude oil constituents; and the introduction of large scale, industrialised farming practices, noted by the appearance of trillions of discarded chicken bones in the geological record.

Will the early 21st century be remembered for the 9/11 terrorist event? The introduction of the iPhone, and Twitter? Or for the presidency of Donald J Trump? Or will each of these extraordinary events be considered as part of a single, larger shift in global power and techno-mediated autonomy? If ‘we’ are to rebuild ourselves through stronger unities, and collective actions in the wake of recent political upheavals, will ‘we’ also forego the need to recognise the different subjectivities and distinct realities that bubble out of each singularity’s wake? As the iPhone event sent shockwaves through the socio-technical cultures of the West, so the rare earth minerals required to power those iPhones were pushed skywards in value, forcing more bodies into pits in the ground to mine them.

As we gather at Transmediale to consider ai, infrastructural, data, robotic, or cyborgian revolutions, what truly remains ‘elusive’ is a definition of ‘the human’ that does justice to the complex array of subjectivities destined to be impacted – and even crafted anew – by each of these advances.

In his recent text on the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster Jean-Luc Nancy proposes instilling “the condition of an ever-renewed present” into the urgent design and creation of new, mobile futures. In this proposition Nancy recognises that each singularity is equal to all others in its finitude; an equivalence he defines as “the essence of community.” To contend with the idea of singularities – plural – of ruptures as such, we must share together that which will forever remain unimaginable alone.

Morehshin:

This appeal to a plurality of singularities is easily mistaken for the kinds of large scale collective action we have seen in recent years around the world. From the Arab Springs, and Occupy Movement through to the recent Women’s March, which took place not 24 hours after the inauguration of Donald Trump. These events in particular spoke of a universal drive, a collective of people’s united against a single cause. Much has been written about the ‘human microphone’ technique utilized by Occupy protesters to amplify the voice of a speaker when megaphones and loud speakers were banned or unavailable. We wonder whether rather than speak as a single voice we should seek to emphasise the different singularities enabled by different voices, different minds; distinct votes and protestations. We wonder whether black and brown protestors gathered in similar numbers, with similar appeals to their collective unity and identity would have been portrayed very differently by the media. Whether the radical white women and population that united for the march would also show up to the next black lives matter or Muslim ban protests. These are not just some academic questions but an actual personal concern… what is collectivism and for who does the collective function? When we talk about futures and worlds and singularities, whose realities are we talking about? Who is going to go to Mars with Elon Musk? And who will be left?

As we put this panel together, in the last weeks, our Manifesto’s apocalyptic vision of a world accelerated to breaking point by technological progress began to seem strangely comforting compared to the delirious political landscape we saw emerging before us. Whether you believe political malaise, media delirium, or the inevitable implosion of the neoliberal project is to blame for the rise of figures like Farage, Trump or – in the Philippines – the outspoken President Rodrigo Duterte, the promises these figures make of an absolute shift in the conditions of power, appear grand precisely because they choose to demonize the discrete differences of minority groups, or attempt to overturn truths that might fragment and disturb their all-encompassing narratives.

Daniel:

The appeal to inclusivity – in virtue of a shared political identity – often instates those of ‘normal’ body, race, sex, or genome as exclusive harbingers of the-change-which-should – or so we are told, will – come. A process that theorist Rosi Braidotti refers to as a ‘dialectics of otherness’ which subtly disguises difference, in celebration of a collective voice of will or governance.

Morehshin:

Last week on January 27, as part of a plan to keep ‘Islamic terrorists’ outside of the United States Trump signed an order, that suspended entry for citizens of seven countries for 90 days. This includes Iran, the country I am a citizen of.

I have lived in the U.S. for 9 years and hold a green-card which was included in Trump’s ban and now is being reviewed case by case for each person who enters the U.S..

When the news came out, I was already in Berlin for Transmediale and wasn’t sure whether I had a home to go back to. Although the chaos of Trump’s announcement has now settled, and my own status as a resident of America appears a bit more clear for now, the ripples of emotion and uncertainty from last week have coloured my experience at this festival. As I have sat through panels and talks in the last 3 days, and as I stand here introducing this panel about elusive events, potential futures and the in betweenness of all profound technological singularities… the realities that feel most significant to me are yet to take place in the lives of so many Middle-Easterners and Muslims affected by Trump’s ban. How does one imagine/re-imagine/figure/re-figure the future when there are still so many ‘presents’ existing in conflict? I grew up in Iran for 23 years, where science fiction didn’t really exist as a genre in popular culture. I always think we were discouraged to imagine the future other than how it was ‘imagined’ for us. Science-fiction as a genre flourishes in the West… But I still struggle with the kinds of futures we seem most comfortable imagining.

THANKS

We now want to hand over to our fantastic panelists, to highlight their voices, and build harmonies and dissonances with our own. We are extremely honoured to introduce them:

Dorothy Santos is a Filipina-American writer, editor, curator, and educator. She has written and spoken on a wide variety of subjects, including art, activism, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. She is managing editor of Hyphen Magazine, and a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellow, where she is researching the concept of citizenship. Her talk today is entitled Machines and Materiality: Speculations of Future Biology and the Human Body.

Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira are Brazilian design researchers, who very recently wrapped up their PhDs at the University of the Arts Berlin. Under the ‘A Parede’ alias, the duo researches new design methodologies, processes, and pedagogies for an onto-epistemological decolonization of the field. In their joint talk and performance, Luiza and Pedro will explore the tensions around hyperdense gravitational pulls and acts of resistance. With particular focus on the so-called “non-lethal” bombs – teargas and stun grenades – manufactured in Brazil, and exported and deployed all around the world.

Rasheedah Phillips is creative director of Afrofuturist Affair: a community formed to celebrate, strengthen, and promote Afrofuturistic and Sci-Fi concepts and culture. In her work with ‘Black Quantum Futurism’, Rasheedah derives facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics, futurist traditions, and Black/African cultural traditions to celebrate the ability of African-descended people to see “into,” choose, or create the impending future. In her talk today, Rasheedah will explore the history of linear time constructs, notions of the future, and alternative theories of temporal-spatial consciousness.