Flat Vocality: Computation and the Violence of Representation in Art

Peter Polack and Chris Kim

Improvisation (1/5), Chris Kim.


Artworks about the tech industry, computational media, and algorithms have the capacity to inform or overturn how we understand computational processes when we confront them in our everyday lives. Today, however, it would seem that these artworks do more to affirm the dominance and permanence of computational infrastructures than to interrogate their limits and patterns of exploitation. Despite the most critical intentions of their producers, these artworks tend to amount to horrific fascination or insular mockery: reproductions of computational processes either dwarf us in their sublime complexity or present themselves as reflections of our own human fallibility. Thus it remains unclear whether these artworks contribute to the increasing disillusionment with computational infrastructures that we are witnessing today, as popularized by events like the Cambridge Analytica and Project Maven scandals, or whether they merely respond to this dissatisfaction by giving it a commercial outlet to dissipate through. Altogether, critical computational art appears less as an adversary to computational power than as a meditation on it.

Rather than supposing that the complexity of computational infrastructures is too great to be confronted by artworks of any kind, we might interrogate how contemporary critical art is limited in its approach to thinking computation. To this end, I argue that critical art about computation stands to learn from some of the historical failures of art curation to represent the violence of representation maintained by primitivism and colonialism. What computational infrastructure shares with these regimes – and what is largely absent from art about it – is its capacity to establish modes of representation that in turn deny certain subjects the right to self-representation. Representation, or the presentation of an existing object, subject, or experience in a new context, becomes violent when it silences some aspect of the existing thing in this way, flattening it into what appears as a comprehensive presentation. Insofar as critical art about computation does not address this representational violence, it merely replicates the patterns of the tech industry and its products, which for their part depend on particular regimes of representation by their very nature.

The artworks produced by primitivism and colonialism retain a special function in emblematizing the violence that comes from denying certain subjects the right to represent themselves. Where the cultural products of colonization bar certain people, populations, and identities from the right to self-representation, they also attest to the reality of this representational violence by putting it on display. Today, critical postcolonial artwork and art criticism is charged with seeing this process through: to document historical acts of representational violence, to identify their present incarnations, and to dispute their hegemony. Above all, such a project requires that a testament to polyvocality prevails over the flat univocal hegemony of imperial discourse, identity, and art. Provided a certain context, even imperialism attests to the reality of polyvocality experienced as its negative, and it is the assignment of contemporary postcolonial thought to position the imperial artist in such a way that polyvocality can be experienced through and despite him. Critical art about computation stands to learn from this work, not only because computational media itself enacts a flattening of polyvalence by encoding diverse speech acts into streamlined codes, but also because the skills and subjectivities required to do computational work and to intuit their criticisms are presently harbored by a minority of the world’s population.

In this article, I describe two controversial exhibitions that take representation as their subject matter, albeit in two very different ways, and nonetheless do not adequately relate the artworks and artifacts they present to their latent polyvocality. The first exhibition is Primitivism in 20th Century Art, which for Simon Gikandi subordinates the influence of African culture on Picasso’s art to the heroic genius of its author​*​. The second exhibition, Into the Heart of Africa, is meticulously dissected by Enid Schildkrout to reveal all the ways that it represents colonization at the expense of representing the experiences of those colonized ​†​. These exhibitions in turn serve as precedents for the difficulty faced by contemporary critical art to think beyond the representational regime of computational infrastructure. To illustrate this connection, I describe a recent critical art exhibition about computational infrastructure called The Glass Room. What becomes evident in this case is the stylistic preeminence of the curation and exhibition of the artworks over an interrogation of their implications. What results is an aesthetic of horrific fascination and foreboding, intelligible only to a particular audience that observes it from the outside: those privileged to visit a “tech store with a twist” to contemplate the future that its paraphernalia foretell.

This article concludes by briefly addressing a limitation of modern critical art about computation according to Jacques Rancière’s notion of the “distribution of the sensible”​‡​. A distribution of the sensible is a particular organization of sensible experience that welcomes certain interpretations while denying others, and it is in this way a reflection on egalitarian politics. Thus Rancière’s theory motivates us to consider how polyvocality can be represented in art, and to what extent this is possible. I read Rancière to conclude that agonism – a sense of contending perspectives and voices – should be introduced into critical art about computation, which for its part asserts the voice of computation above all others.

Improvisation (2/5), Chris Kim.

Metamorphosis in the Exhibition of Primitivism

The artwork in the exhibition hall is not the same as it was in the artist’s studio. It has been displaced, handled, and set in an environment that it did not originate in, and in this way it undergoes a re-presentation from one context to another. Such representations involve customs that dictate how the exhibited object should be handled, and it is through curation that the representation of the object into the exhibit is ordained, planned, and justified. It is not altogether surprising, then, to find the object of representation exhibited as a representation in itself: evincing a program of selection from existing elements and their presentation in a new form that deserves reflection and justification. Just so, when we regard Willian Rubin’s essay “Picasso” for the MoMA catalog to Primitivism in 20th Century Art​§​, we find a description of Picasso’s artistry that resembles the process of its representation in the museum: Picasso discerns, selects, and transforms objects of reference into a new context, and in doing so he enables us to behold and celebrate the journey of their creation.

For Simon Gikandi​¶​, the process by which Picasso represents objects of reference in his paintings is made salient by the commentary on this process, which celebrates it as an act of metamorphosis. Rubin’s MoMA commentary champions Picasso as a figure who “metamorphosized” African objects into the remarkable works of art put in display​#​ – here metamorphosis indicates a process by which an artistic agent transforms an object into something of higher value. For Gikandi, metamorphosis reflects a rhetorical sleight of hand, whereby Rubin emphasizes Picasso’s artistic genius at the same time as he downplays the role of the people who created his sources of inspiration. The violence of representation emerges here in the way that way that primitivist art is created, interpreted, and exhibited as a metamorphosis: metamorphosis emphasizes the agency and ingenuity of the European artist by marginalizing that of the Other that inspires him.

Metamorphosis is not so much a type of representation as an account of one, a description of a representation. For Gikandi, this is a description that leverages rhetoric to emphasize the role of certain agents of representation over others. The role of the Other – the creator of the objects, forms, and materials that inspire the metamorphosis – is relegated to that of inert matter that exerts a vague influence on an agent of metamorphosis, the artist. This influence may be magical or subconscious, and what is crucial is that it does not appear as a direct or intentional contribution. For instance, Rubin notes how African objects to Picasso are “more witnesses than models” in his practice​**​ – a distinction that markedly robs these objects of any agency that they might have in informing Picasso’s art – they are present but not actively representing. Key to these assertions of metamorphosis is an emphasis on abstraction and inspiration, as opposed to acknowledging any coherent contribution of African subjects.

Gikandi therefore counterposes metamorphosis to accounts of more direct and formal contributions to Picasso’s style accredited to modernist artists like Gauguin and Cézanne. In Rubin’s essay, this distinction between metamorphosis and formal aesthetic contributions is licensed by a theoretical armature that differentiates between “affinity” and “influence,” or weak and strong intertextuality, respectively. For Rubin metamorphosis is catalyzed by an affinity of “conceptual signs, rather than through pictorial conventions directly derived from seeing” ​††​. In this way the theory of metamorphosis is a means of curating which agents and subjects can be accredited with having a substantial, “strong,” and “influential” role in the process of making art, and which exist only at the periphery of the artist’s consciousness.

Thus metamorphosis for Gikandi reveals itself as an operation of purification or flattening, which asserts the originality of an artwork despite its derivation from extrinsic sources of inspiration. This effectively denies the Others of primitivist art their voices in accounting for the production of this art, substituting these voices and their agency for that of the primitivist artist. Through metamorphosis, existing modes of personal, cultural, and artistic self-representation are appropriated and represented as new representations; and what is more is that this processes is lauded as an achievement of the artist. In this way, metamorphosis is arrayed not so much to obscure an act of representation, but to valorize and celebrate it. Affinities, resemblances, and “morphological coincidences”​‡‡​ between African and primitivist art are not rejected but underscored, and they are glossed in such a way to emphasize the proficiency of the primitivist artist. Therefore, from the polyvocality of primitivist art – in all its sources of inspiration and intertextuality – emerges only the voice of the primitivist artist, mediated by his curator.

Altogether, we can acknowledge in metamorphosis multiple operations of flattening that control and reduce the polyvocality of the primitivist artwork. In addition to subordinating the voices of African subjects to that of the primitivist artist, the theorist of metamorphosis licenses himself to speak in the stead of African subjects, choosing how to account for their contributions. Gikandi contends that such an account of primitivism only provides one side of the story, which might be complemented by an African account of influence on primitivist art. Furthermore, Gikandi describes how the accumulation of African objects and documents for primitivist exploration was mediated by “surrogate native informants” ​§§​, who themselves represented African subjects according to the mandates of colonial enterprises and intellectualism. This demonstrates that even the European collection and possession of African objects and experiences was informed by a discursive regime that disregarded the voices of African subjects or painted them in a certain light. The ostensible neutrality of primitivist inspiration and metamorphosis is in fact colored by the representation of colonized subjectivity, which for Gikandi is a silencing operation that primitivist artist perpetuates if he does not overtly denounce it.

Improvisation (3/5), Chris Kim.

Ambiguous Objectivity in the Exhibition of Colonialism

In metamorphosis, the description of representation takes great care to emphasize certain influences, contributions, and voices over others; theory and rhetoric come together to support an argument about whose voice is present in an exhibited artifact. But what do we make of an account of representation that merely documents the existence of voices, charting the genealogy of an exhibited object according to what has been said about it? We find this scenario throughout the Museum of Toronto’s Into the Heart of Africa, an exhibition about colonialism in Africa that came under public scrutiny for its poor representation of the colonial experience. But far from committing the representational violence of metamorphosis, Into the Heart of Africa revealed the representational harm of objectivity: a mode of scientific representation that seeks to preserve the existence and reality of facts. Through objectivity, Into the Heart of Africa perpetuated the violence of colonial representation by flattening it into a description of its historical reality.

Unlike metamorphosis, objectivity does not attempt to celebrate an act of representation. However, in its supposed neutrality, objectivity makes no clear distinction between what should be celebrated and what should be denounced in representation – it merely reproduces the act of it. This becomes especially problematic when a voice that declares univocality, or the primacy or dominance of one experience over another, is amplified and put on display in order to demonstrate its existence. Such is the case throughout Into the Heart of Africa, where the beliefs, documents, and voices of colonists are represented in the exhibition to document their reality. For Enid Schildkrout ​¶¶​, the evaluation of these voices by the exhibition is ambiguous and becomes the onus of the spectator, who must interpret them as right or wrong. In Into the Heart of Africa, the audience is supposed to distinguish between the objectively represented voices of colonists and that of the museum, which for its part attempts to remain objective, neutral, and removed.

Schildkrout takes issue with the objectivity of Into the Heart of Africa because it seems to marginalize the perspectives and voices of the African subjects affected by colonialism. Whereas the exhibit displayed objects and descriptions in such a way to reflect how they might be arranged by colonists – like ironically using the word “Commerce” to denote the slave trade – Schildkrout notes how this cute reflexivity was lost on spectators given the fact that “the only “voice” speaking was that of a rather pedestrian anthropology” Schildkrout, 1991). Here, a mode of representation that is supposed to document the violence of colonial representation is conflated with anthropological objectivity, and it becomes ambiguous whether the exhibition actually condones the rituals of colonialism. What altogether emerges through this objective representation are the voices of the colonial worldview, and that of the anthropologist that represents them, but not the voices of those individuals subject to the rituals of colonial and anthropological representation. This flattening of polyvocality through representation becomes harmful when it is not explicitly acknowledged in its exhibition, and especially when it is conflated with cute narrative tricks – not to mention the exhibition’s adventurist title.

For Schildkrout, where there were opportunities to represent the voices of the African subjects of colonialism, Into the Heart of Africa insisted on dense anthropological explanations instead of highlighting personal narratives. Africans in the exhibition thus appeared as passive subjects without an active voice, subordinate to the voices of the collectors. Moreover, the exhibition foregrounded the exploitation and violence of colonists to such an extent that the actual experiences of the victims of this violence went largely undocumented. Schildkrout notes that this lead “many critics [to ask] whether an exhibition on the Holocaust from the point of view of the Nazis would be acceptable” ​##​. The focus on certain voices over others in the exhibition’s style of representation – no matter its objective or stylistic motivation – resulted in a flattening of polyvocality that seemed all too similar to that perpetrated by the colonists it documented.

Ultimately, the problematic style of Into the Heart of Africa was exacerbated by the fact that the Museum of Toronto did little to build positive relations with the local communities it might have catered to. In this way, the Museum of Toronto was already perpetrating a form of univocality – like that of the colonists or the anthropologists in the exhibition – that marginalized the polyvocality expressed by its local community. It is altogether unsurprising, then, that an exhibition about the univocality of colonialism, represented by the univocality of anthropological objectivity, and produced by an institution with a history of univocality, was met with hostility by its patrons. The attempt to critically expose some essence of representational violence by merely reproducing it is Into the Heart of Africa’s notorious blunder.

Improvisation (4/5), Chris Kim.
Foreboding in the Exhibition of Computational Power

The exhibition of primitivist art and colonial history has been seasoned by postcolonial criticism and theory since Primitivism in 20th Century Art and Into the Heart of Africa. But the production and exhibition of critical computational art – which is to say, art that interrogates the pervasiveness, rationality, or aesthetics of computational infrastructure – remains relatively untouched by reflections on what it means to exhibit computation through art. Like other analog and digital media, computational media can represent phenomena in a way that retains a partial image of their reality. And like these other media it can operate in the service of primitivism or colonialism, as a means of operationalizing representational violence. So what is new about computation that motivates its frenzied representation in critical art? I argue that computation inaugurates new forms of representational violence that have yet to be widely understood as such, and for this reason artists can create a spectacle out of these novel forms. In doing so, they also risk perpetuating the tendencies of metamorphosis, ambiguous objectivity, and the flattening of polyvocality.

Consider The Glass Room ​***​, an exhibition of diverse artworks and real computational artifacts that each deal with instances of computational power, or the capacity of computational infrastructure to represent, control, and surveil human bodies. If there is any collection of all the eminent artists in the genre of critical computational art, The Glass Room is the closest thing to it, backed by the non-profit tech company Mozilla and featuring contributions from scholars, artists, and activists across the world. The artworks and projects exhibited here are diverse (there are more than 30 displays), but I argue that they all reflect a tension inherent to the representation of computational power, especially in their mode of exhibition, that can be teased out by reflecting on the exhibition of primitivism and colonialism in Primitivism in 20th Century Art and Into the Heart of Africa. In particular, while the critical artworks evince an aesthetic of metamorphosis by flaunting the ingenuity of their creators, the more descriptive accounts of real computational artifacts tend toward ambiguous objectivity in their neutral presentation of computational power. Although we are not dealing with nearly the same degree of representational violence perpetrated by primitivism, colonialism, or their exhibition, we experience a new flatenning of polyvocality that is unique to the computational form, both in its everyday reality and its artistic representation.

The Glass Room is not a celebration of computational power. It is overtly critical of this power and goes to great lengths to explain and question its underpinnings in writing. However, I argue that The Glass Room yet appears as a kind of celebration. Although it does not condone computational power, it certainly wields it to make a point; and for this reason the exhibit is caught up in an affair of denouncing aspects of computation while leveraging and valorizing others. Artworks like “Floodwatch” and “Forgot your password?” invite patrons to explore the data of anonymous individuals and think on their volume and intimacy, but what resounds as inspiring or provocative about these corpora is their mode of artistic presentation, and not their latent implications. What The Glass Room in fact celebrates is the artistic ingenuity of the critical artists that use computation to interrogate computational power reflexively. It celebrates acts of metamorphosis: the rendering of base, problematic computational matter into provocative and beautiful artifacts.

One might say, therefore, that the exhibition voices concerns about computation mainly by demonstrating computational power in a positive light. This is not fundamentally problematic insofar as computation, like any medium, can be operationalized to diverse ends and in myriads of contexts, only some of which can be seen to enact representational violence. However, the meaning of the exhibit becomes superficial and flat if it does not distinguish between what is suspect and what is beautiful in computation, and when it is evaluated according to the beauty of computational art tout court. Accordingly, when a New York Times critic writes in “Finding Inspiration for Art in the Betrayal of Privacy” that they “left The Glass Room invigorated by the ways artists are exploring the dark side of our digital footprint” ​†††​, we are led to wonder whether the exhibit reveals anything very new about computational power, or whether it merely stimulates interest in artistic metamorphosis as such.

Undoubtedly, The Glass Room likely does both, but it bears a curious resemblance to Into the Heart of Africa insofar as it foregrounds the power, representational violence, and magic of computation, all at the expense of involving polyvocal expressions of its material consequences and its lived experience. Indeed, the experience made most salient by The Glass Room is that of touring a “tech store with a twist” ​‡‡‡​ and gawking at the paraphernalia on display – a mode of presentation that caters to a certain audience by reproducing a familiar experience to them. This style of exhibition is not unique to The Glass Room and in fact points to a broader trend in critical computational art: the ornamental aestheticization of computational forms to inspire horrific fascination in them, all with a somewhat detached irony. Far from generating an aesthetics of polyvocality, these exhibits play on the flat univocality of computational power – the repression of human voice that one feels upon walking into an Amazon pick-up store – and amplify it with a creative twist. Thus the metamorphoses of critical art take center stage.

But The Glass Room is not all about fascination in critical art; it includes interactive installations that describe forms of computational power or teach its patrons how to use them. Physical and digital demonstrations of predictive policing, iris scanning, sociometric badges, and “monitoring solutions for seniors” are on display, undoubtedly to raise awareness about their existence. But when the description of the predictive policing display, for example, follows the ambiguous objective style of Into the Heart of Africa to indicate that predictive policing can “help us predict future criminals, or perhaps even future victims” and “makes policing cheaper” with a vaguely ironic cadence​§§§​, we struggle to discern whether we should feel at ease or not. Altogether, I argue that descriptions like these do little more than to inspire a sense of foreboding, and that their language caters especially to an audience that is already initiated into knowledge about computational power, already sensitive to its implications and its aestheticization in art.

The Glass Room foretells the incipience of new forms of computational power by putting them on display. In doing so, it emulates modes of representation that are characteristic of computational infrastructure and media, and it reproduces their same flattening of polyvocality. The voices that emerge from the artworks are those of the artists, or of those who wield computational power, albeit with a hint of irony. Indeed, this is not an oversight of any one artist exhibited at The Glass Room but a more general shortcoming in the ways that computational power is represented through art. If critical computational artists aspire to engender a sense of foreboding or de-familiarization with computational power, they succeed only insofar as their audience is already familiar with the form, logic, and consequences of computational representation. While the artists of The Glass Room are in conversation with patrons that are perhaps not as aware of “the dark side” ​¶¶¶​ of computation, both parties represent the literacy, skills, and subjectivities required to do computational work and to intuit their criticisms. What is lacking is a dialogue with those not already invited into the aesthetics and experience of The Glass Room.

Improvisation (5/5), Chris Kim.
Conclusion: Agonism in Computational Art

The Glass Room reflects a moment of artistic criticism that demonstrates the possibility of using computation to think on and engage with computational power critically. What is at stake in this moment is whether it tends toward fetishizing the foreboding of computational power, or whether it can inspire us to develop new artistic forms and modes of engagement that redistribute computational power more broadly and militate against its forms of representational violence. Throughout this essay, I have argued that the treatment of polyvocality is crucial to determining which of these tendencies prevails. But we have yet to discern a solution to the problem of reproducing the power of computational representation through art. To this end, I briefly conclude by reflecting on Jacques Rancière’s theory of the “distribution of the sensible” ​###​ to indicate where it might spell a line of flight from the redundant reproduction of computational representations.

Often misunderstood as a call to set artistic elements in relation to one another in a way that it is new, and therefore inherently provocative, Rancière’s thesis is that art suffers from a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, art may be canonical and recognizable as art as such. In this way art affirms the standing sensible order of things, according to which some things are recognized and others are unaccounted for, some interpretations permitted and others denied. On the other hand, art may be unrecognizable as such, by departing from the standing regime of art and inaugurating a new aesthetic, a new “distribution of the sensible.” Rancière argues that art must continually strive for the latter in order to contest the standing regime of aesthetics, even though this disruption will in turn become a canonical and recognizable regime of art. Therefore, although it is not possible in Rancière’s formula to induce a distribution of the sensible that does not in turn become a recognizable, and therefore dominating, regime of aesthetics, we might ask how art about computation could open itself to distributions of the sensible as they arise.

Computational media is uniquely capable of inviting interactive input, communicating messages across great distances and between semiotics, and generating aesthetics dynamically. The artists exhibited in The Glass Room are clearly aware of these affordances, and they play with them to reflect on the power that they entail. But why reproduce forms of computational power and univocality in order to reflect on their reality, when we might counterpose them to their ulterior polyvocality – to the many voices captured, encoded, and silenced by computational representations? In other words, might we generate distributions of the sensible in the regime of computational art, by representing computation according to voices of its diverse subjects, as opposed to those of artists and tech store patrons already versed in a particular experience of computation? This would be to invite agonism into the flat artistic representation of computation, to convey a sense of contending perspectives and voices about what computation is, what roles it serves, and who it serves.

To do so, we should begin by making a careful distinction between interaction and agonism in computation. Interaction appears to evince a polyvocality; indeed, it reveals a spectrum of possible ways of doing things, each of which may be suited to a different human user. Multiple artworks in The Glass Room experiment with interaction, inviting users to input their own decisions or reflexes into computational systems. But these spectrums of decisions, seemingly personal and infinite, are ultimately bounded and flat, enclosed by the logic of computational rules. Much like Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational” aesthetics​****​ these decisions invite audience participation, but they only go so far in giving the audience control over the message of the exhibition. Agonism, then, is what happens when the audience is allowed to take control of this message, and namely when the audience exceeds the flat glass veneer of the tech store. Thus the question remains, perhaps to be asked by critical art: is this something that computation can be developed to provide?

  1. ​*​
    Simon Gikandi, Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference, in Empires of Vision: A Reader. Duke University Press, 2014. Pp. 566-593.
  2. ​†​
    Enid Schildkrout, Ambiguous Messages and Ironic Twists: Into the Heart of Africa and The Other Museum. Museum Anthropology. 15(2), May, 1991. Pp. 16-23.
  3. ​‡​
    Jacques Rancière. Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
  4. ​§​
    William Rubin. “Picasso.” Primitivism in 20th Century Art, 1984.
  5. ​¶​
  6. ​#​
    Simon Gikandi, Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference, in Empires of Vision: A Reader. Duke University Press, 2014. Pp. 566-593.
  7. ​**​
    William Rubin. “Picasso.” Primitivism in 20th Century Art, 1984.
  8. ​††​
  9. ​‡‡​
    Simon Gikandi, Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference, in Empires of Vision: A Reader. Duke University Press, 2014. Pp. 566-593.
  10. ​§§​
  11. ​¶¶​
    Enid Schildkrout, Ambiguous Messages and Ironic Twists: Into the Heart of Africa and The Other Museum. Museum Anthropology. 15(2), May, 1991. Pp. 16-23.
  12. ​##​
  13. ​***​
    The Glass Room. Online: https://theglassroomnyc.org
  14. ​†††​
    Jenna Wortham, “Finding Inspiration for Art in the Betrayal of Privacy.” New York Times, December, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/magazine/finding-inspiration-for-art-in-the-betrayal-of-privacy.html.
  15. ​‡‡‡​
    The Glass Room. Online: https://theglassroomnyc.org
  16. ​§§§​
  17. ​¶¶¶​
    Jenna Wortham, “Finding Inspiration for Art in the Betrayal of Privacy.” New York Times, December, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/magazine/finding-inspiration-for-art-in-the-betrayal-of-privacy.html.
  18. ​###​
    Jacques Rancière. Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
  19. ​****​
    Nicolas Bourriaud, Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods, and Mathieu Copeland. *Relational Aesthetics*. Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002