« Re:Transmission Event and Network | Main | Langlois Foundation Grants for Researchers in Residence »

September 21, 2006

[iDC] Some things about things


"Performance" and Situated Technologies.

I thought I might introduce a paradigm, that of "performance", into the discussion of situated technologies. This could provide a way to talk about people and things in networked milieus without fetishizing the object or exceptionalizing the human.

Trebor writes: "Sociality between networked objects and humans is a core question. Who is served by such mythologizing rhetoric with terms like "co-inhabiting"? These, ___ (fill in the blank) are just pieces of metal and silicon... They are around and they make some things easier and they (will) join our conversations by contributing data."

And Anne also points out: "I also wonder about a current fetishising of 'things'. Or how can we 'return to the object' without privileging objectivity? I really disliked the phrase 'the internet of things' when I first heard it, but I've since embraced it as a rather lovely manifestation of a type of contemporary commodity fetishism."

Firstly, as a designer I can't help but like things. Sometimes they are buildings but mostly they are just things. I don't design them in and for themselves but to be used by a variety of actors: people (gender age and race a clear consideration) but also for institutions (and here I use it in Agre's terminology: http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/hci.html) like festivals and cities. Although I agree with Anne's warning of fetishizing, I don't think it will be of the object. Their will be nostalgia for the material object, but it will be difficult in light of networked technologies, virtual/real hybrids to essentialise and fetishize the object in the same way again. What I do think will be become fetishized if it hasn't already is "performance".

Jon McKenzie in his book _Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance_ attempts to formulate a general theory of performance by drawing on three strands of concurrent but fundamentally independent researches: "Performance Studies", "Management Performance" and "Techno-Performance". All three are products of the post-war: Performance Studies taking its germination from theater studies and anthropology, Management Performance developing in opposition to Taylor's Scientific Management and Techno-Performance Research tied to computer science and engineering. What McKenzie tries to do is demonstrate the "normativity" of performance. Performance has become a mode of measuring, evaluating and ultimately reifying forms of knowledge and power. The nature of these measures/values differs from one activity to another and McKenzie distills three to coincide with his three research areas: "efficacy" for cultural performances, "efficiency" for organizational performance and "effectiveness" for technological performance. These valuations are instrumental in maintaining "high standards" (normative) while also issuing a challenge (operational) to all those that wish to participate. It is in the relationship between challenging and performance that McKenzie finds "the power of performance":

"At the crack of millennia, performativity guides innumerable processes ranging from the intricacies of class, race, ethnic, gender, and sexual identification to the large-scale installations of technologies, organizations and cultures. "Perform- or else" is a challenge made in the USA and now restoring itself worldwide through innumerable circuits... Challenging is the fundamental tonality of this transformation without foundation; it is the affective dimension of the performance stratum, the shifting element of its "perform_ or else." Accordingly, the age of global performance is not only populated by high performers, peak performers, star performers, performers who challenge forth themselves and others, but also by the performatively challenged, those who cannot perform up to spec: the mentally challenged, the physically challenged, the economically challenged, the digitally challenged, the stylistically challenged and even the liminally challenged. Perform- or else: there is no performance without challenge, without claims and contestations, demands and accusations, field tests and identity checks, as well as the occasional untimely dare (p.188)"

In light of the performance paradigm Sterling's spimes are interesting. They rise to the challenge of techo-effectiveness as they as incredibly sophisticated compositions of cutting edge technologies: rfid, gps, the internet, CAD, rapid prototyping and recycling. They rise culturally to the environmental challenge because as they transform materially and informationally over their lifetime they develop a history with their environment (people and other things). And when their use is up they forfeit their material existence for the benefit of other spimes and the planet. Organizationally they would be an efficient version of my verizon mobile phone service or my fav software, both organizations of "convenience", quick fixes, and upgrades every n years. Also spimes carry lifetime warranties, which tie me to a contract that probably carries heavy penalties, social and financial, if I want to opt out. The spime program appeals to designers and why shouldn't it? It has great technical challenges tied to social responsibility. This is innovation with conscience. In conflict resolution parlance it is a win-win.

McKenzie again:

"The most striking aspect of performative power is that it actually encourages transformation, innovation, even transgression and perversion. No longer objects of discipline, we now perform, multitask, do our own thing. This last aspect of performance is especially troubling, for it reveals the libidinal infrastructure of contemporary domination. Deleuze, reading Foucault, writes that strata coalesce around relatively rare perfomative statements or "order-words." The order word of the performance stratum? Perform- or else."

This is the paradox of performance, it is "normative" but also "mutational". The disaffection that I sense from Trebor and Anne's posts seem to be directed at performance's normative tendencies: techno-effectiveness with its concerns for "optimizing" and organizational-efficiency with its needs on "streamlining". Perhaps it is easy for us on this list to rally around cultural performances, theater, dance, performance art, aesthetic practices, political demonstrations and "free cooperation", whose aims are social efficacy. But I am suspicious that it won't be so easy to decouple one type of performance from another. As McKenzie also points out "the paradigms are coming into contact more and more, and as their citational networks become hyperlinked, their respective performatives and performances break apart and recombine in a highly charged, highly pressurized milieu."

This brings me to Architecture and Situated Technologies. I think architecture in architecture in particular is a good example of the "perform-or else" challenge. It requires efficient organizational management to handle the considerable capital that it uses, it provides lots of work making it one of the engines of the global economy, its practitioners are concerned with the aesthetic, social and environmental effects of their project (mostly) and technical innovation is a hallmark of its quality. The role of situated technologies in this mix can be twofold. They can contribute to achieving the prime directive ("perform-or else") or they can open the performance of architecture up to unscripted performances which would allow for other socialities: alterity, participation, learning, cooperation. It all depends on "which" situated technologies we are talking about and not "what" situated technology.

In my last post I evoked the specter of Gordon Pask, "mister cybernetics" to suggest some antecedents for this symposium. In addition to his contributions to the subject of cybernetics and human-machine interaction he was a performer and "dramaturg" http://www.pangaro.com/published/Pask-as-Dramaturg.html. In July, 1968 Gregory Bateson organized a conference in Burg Wartenstein, Austria entitled "Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation." Its proceedings were published in the form of a personal account by Mary Catherine Bateson entitled "Our own Metaphor." The conference has extended conversations on cybernetics with the metaphor of the machine being a contentious point. Here is Pask laying out an argument for "things":

"'You have all talked as though there was a fixed heritage of machines that dated from the Industrial Revolution or somewhat earlier,' Gordon said. "It seems to me that the notion of machine that was current in the course of the Industrial Revolution- and which we might have inherited- is a notion, essentially, of a machine without goal, it had no goal "of", it had a goal "for". And this gradually developed into the notion of machines with goals "of", like thermostats, which I might begin to object to because they might compete with me. Now we've got the notion of a machine with an underspecified goal, the system that evolves. This is a new notion, nothing like the notion of machines that was current in the Industrial Revolution, absolutely nothing like it. It is, if you like, a much more biological notion, maybe I'm wrong to call such a thing a machine; I gave that label to it because I like to realize things as artifacts, but you might not call the system a machine, you might call it something else.'"

Pask's "biological" observation is performative not ontological. These "things" will perform biologically, evolutionarily, iteratively. The agency that he gives them should not be confused with the idea of human agency which is tied to intentionality and hence consciousness. I think material things with underspecified goals can have agency in the way Pask describes them, where "intentionality" doesn't exist a priori but is an emergent quality apprehended only recursively.

If we are to understand the "internet of things", "networked things" or "situated technologies" from the position of performance then I think we may be able to interrogate them critically and constructively. We have to be careful of terms like "co-habitation" because to inhabit or dwell may suggest too much human intentionality. "Co-perform" may be better? To do this we would ask which situations? and what technologies? so as not to objectify the "thing' but elaborate on its performativity.

Omar Khan

Below is an excerpt from Pask's The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics, Architectural Design 1969

A simple cybernetic design paradigm
In the context of a reactive and adaptive environment, architectural design takes place in several interdependent stages:
i) Specification of the purpose or goal of the system(with respect to human inhabitants). It should be emphasized that the goal may be and nearly always will be underspecified, ie. The architect will no more know the purpose of the system than he really knows the pupose of a conventional house. His aim is to provide a set of constraints that allow for certain, presumably desirable, modes of evolution.
ii) Choice of the basic environmental materials.
iii) Selection of the invariants which are to be programmed into the system. Partly at this stage and partly at ii above, the architect determines what properties will be relevant in the man environment dialogue.
iv) Specification of what the environment will learn about and how it will adapt
v) Choice of plan for adaptation and development. In case the goal
of the system is underspecified (as in i) the plan will chiefly consist in a number of evolutionary principles.


Like a sleeping dog whose ears prick up when he hears himself being called, I glimpsed my name in Sergio's post, and, flattered as I am by the mention, just want to nuance what I said about Performance. I was trying to suggest that Performance was both a product of and a resistence to burgeoning digital culture. This is the quote from the book

...whatever their individual content or treatments performance works are united by a shared consideration of context and methods. Central to any performance is the question of the space in which it takes place and the means by which it is articulated, often centred on the artist's body as both location and means. Such work concerns the media, in the sense of that which mediates a communication, and how that mediation affects the message. It is no coincidence that modern Performance Art emerged at a time when electronic media were initiating what the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo describes as an 'society of generalized communication'. To some extent Performance can be understood as a pre-emptive defensive reaction, emphasizing the corporeal and embodied as well as the ephemeral and the physically located, as a form of resistance to the immateriality, ubiquity and virtuality of mass media and communications, which had taken over so much of art's role as the provider of aesthetic solace and meaning. But Performance can also be seen as rehearsing many issues that later become relevant to electronic and, in particular, digital media. These included questions of interaction, response, feedback, the relationship between the audience and the performance, the methods for combining different media elements and so on. Much of the visual and interactive grammar of modern electronic media, such as television and digital multimedia of various sorts derives from the work of those involved with performance and other, similar areas. Those working in these areas were among the first to explore the possibilities offered by electronic media, first in video and then in digital technology. Many of those involved in developing Performance as an artistic practice are currently involved in media art practice. But, even before the widespread use of technology these practices offered a framework for thinking about multimedia, interactivity and other issues, as well as offering an artistic and poetic matrix through which to think about their use.


Charlie Gere
Reader in New Media Research
Director of Research
Institute for Cultural Research
Lancaster University Lancaster LA1 4YL UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 594446
E-mail: c.gere[at]lancaster.ac.uk

iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity:: iDC[at]bbs.thing.net :: http://mailman.thing.net/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/idc

List Archive: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/

Posted by jo at September 21, 2006 05:34 PM