An Ethic of Caring Beyond the Human




OVER THE PAST SEVERAL MONTHS, as we have retreated from a virus that has permeated the planet, we are gradually discovering that the modern world is not designed to value life over numbers. Quantitative measures, like dollars and cents, maintain their primacy, even in the face of mass death of species that is likely to include our ownMore and more, it appears that the alternative to a sterile techno-future is one in which we collectively evolve our physical and social being together in a tapestry of bio-techno fusion. 

Posthuman imagining, while not new, is newly relevant under quarantine. Artists are already using technology to restore society’s attention to the importance of interpersonal, intergenerational relationshipsDrawing from both the natural and technological realms, artists are resisting superficial critiques of futurism, such as false equivalence between the organic and the nostalgicOur new 24-hour surveillance economy has dissolved the boundaries between (art) work and life, but perhaps by exploiting that dissolution, we can introduce an ethic of caring into an urgent social conversation that goes beyond the human. 

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We know that the digital clock does not make time for “bio breaks” — periods of rest required by the body. The Zoom workspace has brought corporate surveillance home, mandating adherence to a schedule set by productivity rather than physicalityThis ontological confusion between the clock and the human threatens to resolve in favor of machines, potentially augmenting, if not fully displacing, the body — a machine self refuses a value-form of care or survivalConsequently, we neglect our bodies, or oversaturate their various haptic and sensory inputs. As we wither indoors under the eternal sunshine of the screen, it seems that the biosphere of cities could flourish for the first time in decades. Like the self-regulating planetary bodyperhaps we can also begin an endometrial process of shedding — getting rid of what is no longer fertile. 

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Transformation means forgetting what we think we know. 

 Common beliefs challenged by the virus: educated people don’t need to feel their bodies; minimum wage jobs are more valuable than urban farms; workers need to convene for a third of their waking lives or operations will derail; smog is just part of living in cities; culture is about visiting and caring for objects; childcare is something that happens outside the workplace. The life that we work to forget in order to become “productive” is now asserting itself most forcefully, and yet for many it has been within a wholly mediated space of coexistence. 

 Negotiating “liveness” while using media to transmit the living action in perpetuity is not a new condition for performance artists, who remain rooted in embodiment even when transmitting over virtual networks. The paradox of performance art is that, unlike dance and theater, it evolved as a live practice after the onset of media saturation — that is, in the 20th century. Performance art can exist purely in lived time but it is also dependent on documentation to connect with audiences and register its historical importance. Performance can also happen exclusively for the camera, collapsing our sense of the screen as simulacrum, and instead creating a hermetic reality within the mediated image that is no longer tethered to any “real world” scenario. 

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Nina Waisman with Flora Wiegmann, Laboratory for Embodied Intelligences, performance in Santa Monica commissioned by 18th Street Arts Center, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Nina Waisman, Laboratory for Embodied Intelligences performance at Mono Lake, 2019. Photo by Christopher Wormald, courtesy of the artist.

The public image of artificial intelligence has emphasized the Turing test — “fool the human” exercises that promote complex but stilted chatbots — while less attention is paid to emulations of intelligence sourced from nonhuman examples. And yet, observing other kinds of social creatures like bees for example, who exhibit collective rather than individual cognition, has resulted in a variegated understanding of possible forms of intelligenceArtists can fill thgap in the broader imagination by coordinating projects that imagine existence within such a collective system of intelligence. Nina Waisman’s Laboratory for Embodied Intelligences, for example, teaches participants how to move like microbesexploring their environments and sharing information through tactile communication. Victoria Vesna’s Noise Aquarium places observers within a virtual environment that shifts our phenomenology from human to plankton. Today’s socially engaged artists — what I call “social practice 2.0”  are often as much philosophers as object makers, envisioning how things could work even if they clearly aren’t working now. Imagining is an important step toward remaking a collective life world that bridges physical and virtual space. 

Victoria Vesna, Noise Aquarium, 2018. Photo by Glenn Bristol.
Victoria Vesna, Noise Aquarium, 2018. Photo by Glenn Bristol.

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While media and culture treat machine intelligence as a set of parameters applied to data, deploying Donna J. Haraway’s concept of the Chthulucene encourages us instead to imagine a great whale, siphoning out nutrients in a billion tiny packages from an ocean of information with a digital baleen. When the whale dives deep, we see the richness of the data stream. When she surfaces and blows, we see the broad connections. Can artists use computers as tools to visualize an interspecies approach to human existence? What if, instead of the provocative spectacle of a murderous robotwho approaches the Other with violence — as humans do — we imagined a new mode of consciousness that relies upon us to bring it up safely and in good health? What if we were to view ourselves as shepherds of this new consciousness? Artificial intelligence researchers, reflecting on the sociability of AIhave proposed that a computer could be trained to understand the world like a human child [1], or another highly intelligent animalfor example the squids who grant Haraway’s concept its name. 

 Researchers in China have recently established that for children raised by a biological mother and a biological father, their expectations of the malleability of their intelligence (their “theory of intelligence”) is significantly closer to that of the mother for all except the most involved paternal relationships. [2] How then do we adjust our expectations of intelligence to account for the fact that nearly every machine system has been designed by teams of men? The study used two competing theories of intelligence  incremental, or changeable, and entity, or fixed — and it suggested that parents of either gender, who subscribe to an incremental theory of intelligence are especially likely to have substantial influence over their offspring. If a parent believes that intelligence is something they can influence, they are more likely to be involved in their child’s life of the mindAdditionally, UC Berkeley cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik has shown that as infants and children expand their incremental intelligence, they generate a cognitive return that enlivens and expands the intelligences of the people who raise them. [3] If we use this as a model, a cultural shift toward an incremental theory of intelligence, advanced by artists working collaboratively with intelligent machines, could have restorative effects on the cognitive wellbeing of society as a whole. 

 Instead of the computer, which is a regime of the clock, we might bring into being a machine that functions under the regime of the body: circuits as synapses, networks as veins, hardware as bone and software as muscle, user interface as skin. Not only as a hybrid of flesh and circuit, but also as a technological system that follows the logic of a biological one. Artists from Andy Warhol to Stelarc have attempted to emulate technologies with their bodies. But what of the reverse? I envision more attempts to grow, bond with, and influence AI actors like Stephanie Dinkins has done, and more artworks that gamify viral spread as a metaphor for swarm intelligence, as Shu Lea Cheang has done. I see massive distributed performances in the vein of Sean Griffin’s recent operatic homage to Pauline Oliveros, Full Pink Moon, presented on Zoom in the third week of the quarantine in California. Protest art might appear in online games as interventions with politically activist intent, as in the work of Eddo Stern, or as in-person actions that apply game logic to the social sphere. These gestures could appear as signals of collective intention that rupture the isolation and individualism of the media frame. 

FULL PINK MOON: Opera Povera in Quarantine, 2020. Courtesy of Sean Griffin. Left to right: Micaela Tobin, Sharon Chohi Kim, Joelle LaMarre, Julian Otis, Gwendolyn Brown, Carmina Escobar.

Our institutions can become life-givers rather than mausoleums, dependent on a dichotomy of aesthetics and slaughter. We often shorthand this idea by proposing that women should simply run things; but the systems must change, not just their leaders. Patriarchal dominion means isolation within the ego, which is a way of being thatas Heidegger claims, only rises to become the authentic self when death looms on the horizon. We could replace this dangerous tendency to dominate with a matriarchal and symbiotic way of being-together that recognizes we are permeable and interconnected life forms. Caretaking as a primary value includes supporting difficult projects of long duration and significant cost, creative analogues to scientific research studies that can be collaborative, expansive, and transformative. We should prepare to imagine art forms that reach directly into homes and brains. Artists, having anticipated the innovation and the scarcity of the creative economy, are already living and working in our new paradigm. If we view support for their work as stewardship and cultivationakin to our planetary responsibilities, artists can help us ensure that life in the algorithm can be generative rather than exploitative. 

 The quarantine will end, and the push to resume “normalcy” will be relentless. But there’s no going back, there’s only rebirth. 

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Anuradha Vikram is a writer, curator, and thinker based in Los Angeles. 

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[1] Goertzel, Ben, and Stephan Bugaj. The Path to Posthumanity: 21st Century Technology and Its Radical Implications for Mind, Society, and RealityAcademica Press, 2006.

[2] K Jiang, J Liu, C Liu, X Guo, H Zhou, B Lv, Z Liu, L Luo. The Discrepancy of Parents’ Theories of Intelligence and Parental Involvement (abstract). Front Psychology (June 6, 2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6563673/ (retrieved April 282020). 

[3] Alison Gopnik: The Evolutionary Power of Children and Teenagers.” On Being with Krista Tippett (January 23, 2020), https://onbeing.org/programs/alison-gopnik-the-evolutionary-power-of-children-and-teenagers/  (retrieved 4-28-2020). 

 

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