For some, the early days of the pandemic are now remembered as a period of rapid digitization: an abrupt rerendering of daily life as data.
For those with the privilege of access to consoles and remote work, quarantine measures meant that labor, leisure, and learning were all relocated online. Each of these was facilitated by media infrastructures that offered remote connection even as they extracted massive datasets and algorithmically parsed user activity. Forms of sociality were indefinitely suspended onscreen. Encounters that once involved the copresence of human agents were now mediated through virtual interfaces. In the wake of social distancing guidelines, over half a million people began regularly talking to chatbots
. And yet, for communities without affordable high-speed broadband, digital access
to foundational human rights like healthcare and education became ever more uncertain.
As life was suspended onscreen for some, for others, the material conditions necessary for survival were held in indefinite suspension. The pandemic proceeded along a trajectory calibrated by systemic inequality, disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx communities in the US and exacerbating economic inequality across regions in the Global South. From its earliest appearance, the radiating effects of COVID-19 were inextricably tied to the ongoing public health crisis of institutionalized racism. After the police murder of George Floyd, the groundswell around the Black Lives Matter movement directed public discourse toward the ubiquity of racialized violence, the manifold failures of capitalist economies; and the asymmetrical distribution of economic resources and access.
What kinds of remote interventions might be possible under these conditions? And what forms of collective response might be developed for a foreseeable future of virtual presence?
Amid these transformations, the future of “the human” emerged as a digitally encoded question mark.
Questions like these are also the phenomena we study at the Transformations of the Human program (ToftH), a research platform founded at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles. Bridging philosophy, art, and technology, the program examines how AI and biotech initiate epistemic ruptures within modern conceptions of “the human.” In the Global North, the category of the human has historically been understood in oppositional relation to nature, technology, and racialized others — linked to the lineage of colonial classificatory logics. ToftH’s research program aims to unsettle the implicit assumptions underlying these earlier articulations. To that end, we engage philosophers, artists, and technologists in initiatives that think “the human” otherwise. In the unfolding of the pandemic, the urgency of these questions has been animated anew.
For this symposium, we invited Los Angeles-based artists, curators, and cultural workers to reflect on these questions:
How can we imagine the role of artists and cultural workers amid conditions of pervasive crisis, as we transition indefinitely toward remote, mediatized forms of production and reception?
Would it be possible to assemble a toolkit of speculative, technologically-enabled practices; digital networks of mutual aid; and virtual para-institutions that could represent a meaningful contribution at the present conjuncture?
What new communicative forms could artists and cultural workers devise to stage generative interventions as many are living life onscreen?
The responses assembled here were generated at different moments in the pandemic; some preceded the uprising and some followed it. They range among essays, artist statements, videos, pedagogical artworks, and performance scores. Each one points toward how the present might offer a space for imagining futures beyond the systems that once defined “the human.”
— Mashinka Firunts Hakopian
This symposium was convened by:
Tobias Rees, Director, Transformations of the Human, Berggruen Institute
Tui Shaub, Associate Director, Transformations of the Human, Berggruen Institute
Mashinka Firunts Hakopian, Senior Researcher, Transformations of the Human, Berggruen Institute
Arsine “Aria” Ghevandyan, Program Coordinator, Transformations of the Human, Berggruen Institute
& LARB staff
Header Image: Nancy Baker Cahill, Hollow Point 102
, animated VR drawing still, 2017