Updating the Human Algorithm

By Mashinka Firunts HakopianAugust 2, 2020

Updating the Human Algorithm


IMAGINE YOURSELF as a videoconferencing device.

As a self-driving nonhuman agent.

As an expanded sensorium surveying a field of visual data streaming live.

Your voice is projected through an amplified speaker, your face displayed on a screen.

You are embodied in a robotic avatar with geospatial coordinates removed from your own.

Inhabiting a mixed-reality environment through algorithmic vision with the pan-tilt-zoom functions of a multi-camera system.

In this mixed-reality, you navigate an exhibition that might otherwise require proximity to other visitors or transatlantic air travel.

Telepresent, the experience of “physical presence where [you] can’t be in person.”

Imagine yourself caught in the infinite loop of an online viewing room.

Or, you’re on a virtual museum tour, led by a digitized docent zigzagging back and forth across a series of paintings that all turn out to be Allan McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates

After the global pandemic, we may need to cultivate something like this imaginary in the art field and beyond. Spurred by planetary accountability, or necessity, or both. We may need to imagine modes of presence that extend the materiality of human embodiment, that operate as copresence with nonhuman agents.

Aesthetic reception has historically been grounded in a particular model of embodiment — in the physical and temporal copresence of live humans, presumed to be mobile and able-bodied.

The museum was initially a “performance field” where visitors displayed their membership in a civic body. It was a site for the physical enactment of collective, secular rituals. In Carol Duncan’s account, the museum was a backdrop against which visitors staged embodied performances of “citizenship.” Their performance was predicated on unmediated access to an auratic, singular commodity object. An object with physical properties and a “presence in time and space,” a “unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

In recent decades, the live presence of human agents has become a luxury commodity in the art field, competing with the circulation of the market’s system of objects. Per Hito Steyerl, the value of “liveness” has risen in correlation to the ubiquity of digital mediation. The result is “an economy of physical human presence,” privileging the “seemingly unalienated experience and authentic encounter between humans.”

The centrality of presence in the art field — of humans as well as objects — is evidenced by the economic impact of the current crisis on artists. A COVID-19 Impact Survey of over 10,000 United States–based artists and creative workers revealed that 95 percent of respondents experienced income loss from COVID-19. Sixty-two percent of respondents are now fully unemployed. The first item listed in W.A.G.E.’s “Recommended Best Practice Protocols for Institutions and Funders” is compensation for online content, stipulating that “content transferred online or commissioned exclusively going forward for web-based platforms should be paid for at the same or greater rate as prior to the pandemic.” Moving forward, a wide-ranging reappraisal of digital labor will be necessary to ensure conditions of sustainability for art workers. This will require a reassessment of the assumptions that underlie the current framing of both presence and “liveness” as luxury goods.

Who, or what, is endowed with the capacity for “liveness”?

The human is a privileged term in economies of presence. Peggy Phelan famously described performance as “the presence of living bodies.” In the same vein, Philip Auslander notes that “liveness” has traditionally been understood as “the presence of living human beings before each other.” Complicating Phelan’s ontology of liveness, José Esteban Muñoz has countered that the focus on presentness prevents us from directing our attention toward something else: the temporality of “utopian performativity […] in the horizon, a mode of possibility” — a futurity that points toward new potentials for minoritarian belonging.

To borrow from Muñoz’s formulation with a slight difference, a focus on the presentness of human agents in the here and now constrains efforts to imagine alternative futures — and different configurations of the human — there and then.

Liveness is a contingent category that emerges as a concept in direct relation to its other (mediation). It sustains the fiction that the human body has privileged access to the real. Mediation through nonhuman means, technological platforms, data storage methods: all these have served as the foundation against which liveness has been defined.

In this respect, liveness has always been nonhuman.

Why should the conditions of aesthetic experience matter now? Why should we concern ourselves with how “liveness” is formulated in the arts amid a global crisis? Or, in an ongoing series of pervasive global crises? As one recent online exhibition title deftly put it, “How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?”

We can think about art at a time like this, partly because the art field has participated in producing “a time like this.” Global arts ecologies generate unfathomable carbon footprints via international biennials, robust transcontinental lecture circuits, and the concomitant rise of a class of cosmopolitan curators and creative industry professionals whose frequent travel is coordinated in migratory coteries.

If, as Yale medical historian Frank Snowden observes, COVID-19 is “emphatically a disease of globalization,” then we would do well to recall that the art field is itself an “agent of globalization,” as Pamela Lee reminds us. Its activities contribute to the globally networked circuits of production and exchange that enable anthropogenic climate change alongside our current public health crisis.

In the wake of the pandemic, shuttered institutions have responded with virtual tours, online viewing rooms, and robotic telepresence opportunities. While much of this constitutes a market-driven stopgap measure, it also signals what might be a moment of epistemic rupture.

Today, the future of the human appears as a digitally encoded question mark.

Beyond the infrastructures we have known, how can we rethink liveness and the human anew in this context?

Rosi Braidotti’s theses on Anthropocene feminism offer possible directions. They describe:

a sort of “anthropological exodus” from the dominant configurations of the human — a colossal hybridization of the species. The decentering of Anthropos challenges also the separation of bios, as exclusively human life, from zoe, the life of animals and nonhuman entities. What comes to the fore instead is a human–nonhuman continuum, which is consolidated by pervasive technological mediation.

Dissolving the distinction between bios and zoe, we might begin by orienting ourselves toward a model of nonhuman liveness. In the conceptual space opened up by this reorientation, it could be possible to reimagine oneself through a variety of embodiments that enable what Donna Haraway calls “multispecies flourishing”: a robotic telepresence, an inhabitant of virtual space, a relational entity produced through intersubjective encounters with agents human and nonhuman alike.


Who or what does the “human” denote in these formulations of liveness?

In the Global North, the human has historically been understood in oppositional relation to nature, technology, and racialized others.

The stark demarcation of “human” from “nature” emerges within a colonial classificatory logic. Where the terrain of natural resources presents an inert arena against which the human actor’s extractivist narratives and territorial expansion unfold. The current pandemic has upended this conceit, reminding us that the human is just one organism among many in a natural ecosystem: acting with and acted upon by microbial agents. Our fate is inextricably linked to what Anna Tsing calls “interspecies entanglements.”

More saliently, the invention of the human as an ontological category proceeds from the colonial encounter with racialized others. There’s much to learn on this subject from Sylvia Wynter. Wynter shows how the concept of the human emerges in relation to colonized peoples who were “made into the physical referent of the idea of the irrational/subrational Human Other.” For this reason, “one cannot ‘unsettle’ the ‘coloniality of power’ without a redescription of the human.”

In 1994, Wynter assessed the categorical boundaries of the human in the text, “‘No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Her letter is instructive in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and the groundswell around the Black Lives Matter movement. Responding to the acquittal of police officers responsible for the 1991 assault of Rodney King, Wynter describes how the Los Angeles judicial system assigned the classification “NHI” (No Humans Involved) to the case. The acronym was used to label trials involving young and unemployed Black men. Wynter expands outward from this example to underscore how “the human” has been conflated with “North Americanness,” whiteness, and middle-class identity. In this way,  the judicial apparatus deployed “the human” as a classificatory tool for encoding and legitimizing violence.

At the same time, the human has been mapped as distinct from technology. Scholars in media studies, science and technology studies, disability studies, and queer and feminist studies have disputed this dualist framing — from the posthuman articulated by N. Katherine Hayles; to the queer, crip cyborg outlined by Alison Kafer; to the assemblage theorized by Jasbir Puar. Amid physical distancing measures, those with the privilege of access to consoles and computing devices encounter a scenario where “human” activity is enabled by technological platforms.

As Paul B. Preciado suggests, patterns of confinement and remote labor during COVID-19 threaten to make 24-hour “teleproducers” of everyone with the luxury of working from home. Here, teleproducers are understood as “codes, pixels, bank accounts, doors without names, addresses to which Amazon can send its orders.” With the intensification of reliance on always-on devices, the already outmoded distinction between the human and its technological prostheses becomes increasingly untenable.

We can think of “the human” as an algorithmic function correlated to a specific set of terms and outcomes.

From its inception, this algorithm has been designed to retrieve certain results while suppressing others, trained by a narrow coterie of developers on datasets that reinforce patterns of exclusion and structural violence.

The algorithmic logic of “the human” is predictive: it purports to neutrally forecast the future while scripting it in advance. In this respect, the radical uncertainties of the present offer an opening. A space of rupture where we might encode alternative conceptions of the human and of (co)presence — where we might retrieve unforeseen outcomes.


Note from the author: Early portions of this essay were written in April, others in June. I am profoundly grateful for the dialogue and input of Danny Snelson, Iggy Cortez, Jeanne Dreskin, and my remarkable colleagues and interlocutors in the Transformations of the Human program.


Mashinka Firunts Hakopian is a Senior Researcher for the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute. She holds a PhD in History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania and her book on algorithmic bias is forthcoming in 2020 from X Artists’ Books.


Header Image: Nancy Baker Cahill, Hollow Point 103, animate¤d VR still, 2017
Feature Image: Nancy Baker Cahill, Hollow Point 101, animated VR drawing still, 2017


LARB Contributor

Mashinka Firunts Hakopian is a senior researcher for the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute. Prior to joining the Institute, she held a teaching appointment in UCLA’s Department of English, teaching courses in media studies and visual culture. She holds a PhD in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in Curatorial Studies from Columbia University. With Avi Alpert and Danny Snelson, she is a co-founder of Research Service, a media collective that develops performative and practice-based models of scholarship, with whom she has presented projects for the Palais de Tokyo, the Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia), the New Museum (New York), and others. She is the co-editor of Present Tense Pamphlets, a hybrid digital and print publishing platform for score-based performance, released through Northwestern University and the Block Museum of Art. She is a Contributing Editor for ASAP/J and an Associate Editor for Noema. Her book on algorithmic bias is forthcoming in 2020 from X Artists’ Books.


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