I’m delighted to be able to announce my participation in the the following event:
On the evening of Thursday November 18th, Warehouse will host an online talk (via Zoom) moderated by Aurélie Van de Peer, with contributors Aïcha Abbadi, Dal Chodha, Megan Wray Schertler and Sophie Barr. Warehouse Review 002 editors Hanka van der Voet and Johannes Reponen will also be present. The talk will start at 19:30 (CET), and address topics such as the future of fashion reviewing, the function of reviews, online versus offline reviewing, and new modes of reviewing. If you are interested in participating, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Warehouse Review 002 | ‘A Review of Reviews’
In his fall 2020 collection, Nicolas Ghesquière, the creative director of Louis Vuitton womenswear, explored notions around time. Talking to Nicole Phelps, the Director of Vogue Runway, he stated: “I wanted to imagine what could happen if the past could look at us.” With that sentiment in mind, the contributors of this Warehouse Review interrogated these, now historical written records, that collectively make up a response to Louis Vuitton fall 2020 presentation. Through this meta-critique, we hope to explore what we might learn about these past examples of catwalk writing as a way to move the discipline forward. As McNeil and Miller declared “…the reviewer is the critic!” it is now time to critique the critic and to review the review.
With contributions by: Aïcha Abbadi, Chinouk Filique de Miranda, Dal Chodha, Femke de Vries, Hanka van der Voet, Isabel Mundigo-Moore, Johannes Reponen, Laura Gardner, Megan Wray Schertler, Ricarda Bigolin and Sophie Barr. Design by Line Arngaard.
Buy your copy of ‘A Review of Reviews’ at the Warehouse webshop.
‘A Review of Reviews’ will also be sold at select bookstores such as San Serriffe (Amsterdam), Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum (Amsterdam), Tenderbooks (London), Play the Tambourine (online), Reina (Melbourne) and Dispozitiv Books (Bucharest).
Come along if you can, it’d be great to see you there!
In recent years I’ve become increasingly drawn to making text-based artworks. My first experimental series was called, Prints Based on Graffiti I Have Actually Seen. These prints feature odd, often misspelt phrases, tags, or ‘calls for help’ that I have seen sprayed and marked across blank walls, garages and public toilets – the weirder the better. Subsequently, I have ‘collected’ and used text from a wide range of sources to make my print-based works: those ubiquitous, trite self-help phrases you find pasted in so many office cubicles; subject headings from junk email, promises outlined on leaflets of obscure churches, as well as threatening (and sometimes lewd) text generated by Russian bots or hackers.
I am drawn to these texts partly because we don’t and can’t know the authors. The contexts in which the graffiti artist cries for help, Professor Makuba promises to ‘remove voodoo’ and ‘Твой кошмар I HACKED YOUR DEVICE SOPHIE’ mean these authors are secret, disguised or in some way performed. In the case of the self-help memes, the text is so banal and at the same time so extensively circulated that its relationship with its author is entirely untethered. These texts also excite me because of their fragmentary, part-communication and miscommunication. There is a chasm between intended audience and actual audience which makes meaning hard to access, a bit like Surrealist or Beat cut-ups. Perhaps these found texts tell us something about collective despair or desire; they are simmering and unauthorized by-products of an anxious twenty-first century psyche.
I was recently invited to ‘review the reviews’ for Louis Vuitton’s A/W 2020 Paris fashion week show for Warehouse Review, “a publication that aims to explore alternative modes of fashion criticism”. It seemed a good idea to use these techniques. But the dozen or so reviews I looked at from traditional print and online sources were too well-written, they communicated with the audience too efficiently and economically, they were too rational. There was no threat, weirdness or implausibility, no fissure between author, content and context and reader, no uncomfortable guessing at meaning. Could these reviews be ‘detourned’ somehow to reveal some collective angst, or piercing critique of the spectacle of Nicolas Ghesquière’s collection in the shadow of the oncoming Coronavirus crisis? In the spirit of Surrealist automatism I turned to artificial intelligence to automate a review for me, based on the existing reviews. This would function somewhat like the Surrealist game of ‘exquisite corpse’ where individuals write or make images based on a fragment of someone else’s work. Instead of attempting to access the human unconscious mind I would access the (by its nature unconscious) ‘mind’ of an artificial neural network, trained by colossal internet datasets and Silicon Valley developers. Surely this would tell me something either about the fashion show review, or at the very least, the dark recesses of the internet.
I used an online tool called Inferkit that, ‘takes text you provide and generates what it thinks comes next, using a state-of-the-art neural network’ called Megatron-11b. I was attracted by the developer’s suggestion that the text generator be used for, ‘writing stories, fake news articles, poetry, silly songs, recipes and just about every other type of content’. The developer of the tool warns that ‘the generator may produce offensive or sexual content’ because, of course, its learning is based on so much extant web content. This then seemed to be the perfect tool to create a new, irrational and even perverse review of Nicolas Ghesquière’s historic moment in the Louvre.
However, I soon became aware of the limitations of the tool. It can only comprehend 3000 characters at a time, so I wasn’t able to feed in those dozen or so reviews as ingredients for a new one. Using an ‘auto-completion’ function on a couple of paragraphs showed some promise – but too often the generated text seemed like a fairly plausible, if boring interview, movie or product review, with none of the unexpected nature of the found texts that so intrigue me. In some ways they were too good. According to James Vincent of tech news website The Verge, “at a fundamental level, the system doesn’t understand language or the world at large. The text it generates has surface-level coherence but no long-term structure.” What I needed was to find a way to exploit the tool’s limitations and make it disfunction.
Naturally, describing garments is a central part of a fashion show review. The described garment is often coupled with an adjective, sometimes two or more. The Louis Vuitton reviews contain technical descriptions of garments such as, “transparent, chiffon trousers” or “jewel-encrusted boleros”. Sometimes adjectives are used more poetically or as qualifiers for the garment, exemplified by phrases such as, “playful, feminine flounce skirts “or “beautiful bullfighter boleros”. There are other expanded noun phrases in the reviews that describe the atmosphere or mood of the show. Phrases such as, “time-collapsing sensation” and “hauntingly cyclical illusion” describe a kind of affective sensual or emotional ‘scape’. I decided to see what Inferkit would do with a selection of these phrases. Would these more fragmentary textual glimpses into the Louis Vuitton show encourage the generator into a different writing style?
With a few trials and tweaks I found that feeding just these descriptive phrases into the text generator tool jolted it into a more poetic mode. It generated lists, prose, direct addresses to the reader, text speak and advertisements as well as what could be described as the repetitive stutters of a collapsing machine mind or maybe some meth-addled poet. The texts are like modern American poems that riff on road trips, photography and pet grooming products. Others list garments or looks that would not be out of place in a real fashion show. There are beautiful and unexpected turns of phrase and wonderfully inappropriate juxtapositions. Yet, they are opaque, inaccessible – a pastiche of poetry.
You’ll have to wait for publication of Warehouse Review to read the complete set of poems but I have included one below as a taster. I have called them ‘Completion Poems’, poems started by found phrases from the Louis Vuitton A/W20 reviews and completed by the Megatron-11b artificial neural network. I am confused about my role in all of this. Perhaps I could be described as editor, selecting the phrases to enter into the text generator, selecting the best ‘poems’ and working only lightly on the punctuation. But that doesn’t seem quite right. It really is very weird to see a whole load of text generated in front you, that’s mostly not of you, but it’s not really of anyone else either. It’s a prediction generated by maths.
Using AI to generate text or ‘content’ is no longer the domain of programmers and engineers, it is becoming everyday reality for many media organisations and individuals. It is no surprise that the demand for ‘content producers’ and the ‘content industry’ is growing whilst the need for critics, journalists and journalism diminishes. One advertisement for an AI text generator claims that its “articles are usually very close to what a cheap article writer would produce, and you can publish them after only a few minutes of editing.” Another ad claims “up to 80% time savings” for AI-powered content generation. In a world where revenue is based on clicks, internet traffic and volume – quality and originality play second fiddle to speed. This echoes the relentless cycling of the fashion seasons, fashion as content and fashion houses as production companies – maximising brand visibility through the mass circulation of spectacle.
This article is not a lament for the dying art of the erudite critic, or an alarm call for the redundancy of human work. I neither fetishise or mourn how well AI generated ‘content’ imitates ‘real’ human output – that is beside the point. I don’t care about the real/simulated boundary – it’s really not the question here. The ‘poems’ demonstrate AI’s limits as well as its potential as a tool for curious writers and artists. This is not the death of the author, it’s the birth of hybrid, posthuman authorship and will require electronic and meat neural networks to create the fantastic, absurd and wonderful. I’d really like to see Nicolas Ghesquière’s next collection feature crop tops in flurries of lace, cross-dressing robot nurses, Belgian flower-children and tongue-in-cheek goggles. Let’s hope he remembers to “apply product to the outside of the animal’s leg” too!
COMPLETION POEM III
Generated using the phrases “Breathtaking tableau vivant”, “jarringly disconnected” and “ecclesiastical dresses”.
Breathtaking tableau vivant,
jarringly disconnected ecclesiastical dresses,
crop tops in flurries
of lace, frills of gold.
pea coats and tartans too,
canary feathers, coronets
and petticoats, bustles.
The white sandals. I like this scene. This picture. This picture.
Bereft of so many dresses to keep them in frame —
scattering into the distant hills — at the last two moments the girls in crinolines make a sudden return to pin curls, to thread their foot in heels.
Here’s the video ‘released’ today at Affect & Social Media#4.5 and Sensorium Art Show Media Virality and the Lockdown Aesthetic. Panels and presentations (some of them) archived here https://viralcontagion.blog/asm4-5/.
From the middle-ages to the nineteenth century it was commonly believed that diseases such as bubonic plague and cholera were caused and spread by a poisonous, stinking night vapour known as miasma. The source of this miasma was thought to be rotting organic matter, the discarded and fetid waste from densely populated urban environments. We might relate miasma theory to contemporary conspiracies about 5G and Coronavirus – a new invisible and imagined bio-technological threat. Meanwhile, “deforestation and other forms of land conversion are driving exotic species out of their evolutionary niches and into manmade environments, where they interact and breed new strains of disease” (Watts, 2020). These biological (and ecological, technological, geo-political, social and economic) threats are becoming more visibly connected.
This video was shot under lockdown conditions from a house and garden in suburban Tottenham. It is eerily quiet, a strange vapour emanates from defunct TV relay transmitters and lampposts as night falls. Data travels through a tangle of cables into the ‘cloud’ whilst slime slips down screens and crystals are found in a primordial garden. A twenty-first century plague doctor dressed in Amazon-sourced PPE stuffs her mask with a nosegay of Hydroxychloroquine to ward against poisonous data clouds to a soundtrack of ASMR squelches, whispers and clicks.
This video assemblage suggests that miasma theory might be useful to help frame media more materially, bust cloud myths and connect trashy memes with mineral extraction and species extinction. It also implies that however advanced we think we might be, the ‘new magic’ of today’s tech means ‘we have never been modern’.
Welcome to Affect & Social Media#4.5 and The Sensorium Art Show
MediaVirality and the Lockdown Aesthetic
I’m delighted to be taking part in this year’s A&SM#4.5 conference. A full programme of links to pre-recorded videos, short position papers, artworks, performances, presentations, book launches, and online discussion groups, and so on… will be released throughout a two-day period from 16th July 2020 from Dr Tony D. Sampson’s Viral Contaigon blog. The programme and list of contributors can be found here.
My contribution is a new video work called Miasma, inspired by the poisonous, stinking night vapour thought (from the middle ages up to the nineteenth century) to carry bubonic plague and other such infections.
This video was shot under lockdown conditions from a house and garden in suburban Tottenham. It is eerily quiet, a strange vapour emanates from defunct TV relay transmitters and lampposts as night falls. Data travels through a tangle of cables into the ‘cloud’ whilst slime slips down screens and crystals are found in a primordial garden. A twenty-first century plague doctor dressed in Amazon sourced PPE stuffs her mask with a nosegay of Hydroxychloroquine to ward against poisonous data clouds to a soundtrack of ASMR squelches, whispers and clicks.
I suggest in this work that miasma theory might be useful to help frame media more materially, bust cloud myths and connect trashy memes with mineral extraction and species extinction. It also implies that however advanced we think we might be, the ‘new magic’ of today’s tech means ‘we have never been modern’.
I’ll post the final piece on here after it ‘debuts’ next week! If previous Affect & Social Media events are anything to go by it will be an excellent and enlightening couple of days.
I’m on strike. I don’t like it. I like going to work, I like my job as a lecturer and I miss it. I feel that to do my job is a privilege. I get to think (sometimes), be creative and critical, I work with amazing students from all over the world and I learn something new from them every day – I know it’s a cliché but it’s true. My team is great – our direction of travel is pretty much aligned, we are working towards the same goals and we are supportive and fun. Sometimes the job is challenging and stressful, but what job isn’t? So why am I on strike?
UCU called a strike and action short of a strike for 14 days over February and March this year over pay, workload, equality and casualisation. My institution’s union voted in favour of action. However, many who voted in favour of the strike are not on strike, and many colleagues are not in the union. I understand, it’s been an extraordinarily difficult decision for me to strike, despite voting for it. There is the disruption to the students, who pay through the nose for their education. I worry about damaging personal relationships built over the years with students who need support and reassurance, not just an unanswered email or an oblique out of office response. I worry about my colleagues who are holding the fort and doing extra so as to minimise disruption. I worry about my reputation, will I be seen as a trouble-maker, lazy? Will I damage my relationships with my colleagues not on strike? Will I miss out on opportunities or sabotage my own projects that I’m working on? I feel my pay and conditions are quite good compared to most other workers in the country. Will a pay rise come out of student fees? Finally, I’ve been worrying that it’s the wrong fight. Aren’t divisions in our sector a gift to Dominic Cummings and co. who no doubt think an Arts University like ours is a waste of billions of pounds (see Wintour, 2013). I probably worried about all these things more than the issues over which I voted to strike. I have never felt so uncertain about a decision. But I did strike.
I talked to colleagues before the strike a lot. I joined the picket line to continue to talk to colleagues to try to understand the strike better. On day 5 I nearly caved and went to work. I got up, got dressed, dropped my daughter at school and then went to the picket line instead to talk about my doubts and worries, to try to feel I was doing the right thing. I read and listened to what colleagues at other institutions were saying and doing. I spent a lot of time thinking.
Clearly, the point of a union is to do things together, it is only collective power that brings about meaningful change. If I don’t actively support the strike I may as well stop paying my subs and leave the union. But the hypocrisy would be too much. How could I face young people in the classroom and encourage them to take part in collective action, make change, make lives better, become critical practitioners, be involved in politics, be anti-racist, feminist, fight for all kinds of equality, critique neo-liberalism when I won’t strike because I’m worried about my reputation?
I’m on a 0.8 contract and I have worked out that (depending on how the university will dock our pay) I will lose either £142.84 or £101.75 gross pay per day that I strike. It is not lightly that any of us strike when we will certainly lose into the thousands of pounds. I do not have savings to fall back on, but I am married to a salaried person – so we can carry it. But this is not true for many colleagues who are fractional, single, carers and of course precariously employed hourly-paid lecturers (or any combination of those). I know a lot about precarious employment – I was employed as an hourly-paid lecturer for seven years (that’s the longest I’ve been in any job) and as the years wore on they had a profound effect on my well-being and mental health.
I likened my job at one institution to an abusive relationship, where they had all the power and I had to keep smiling just to get another day’s pay. One year I had my work cut back knocking thousands of pounds off my annual salary, literally hours before I was due to start the work. In 2012 I got pregnant and I worked right up to my due date – I didn’t have the luxury of planning for my maternity leave, as I didn’t get any. I wasn’t eligible, something to do with a particular day falling in the summer break when I wasn’t working. I went back to work at my earliest opportunity after nine months, mainly for fear that someone else would get my hours and I’d never get another opportunity to develop my academic career. I had only two or three days to find a childminder – the first one had to do. All the other new mothers that I met spent months selecting theirs and planning their return to work. The first few years of my child’s life were spent worrying about work, worrying about money and feeling like my career was just a hobby. At one institution I worked for a whole term with no pay, no id card, no access to the computer system or library. I often had to wait five minutes for a security guard to let me in and out of the building so I could go to the toilet.
During all this there were good and great colleagues telling me I was good and great and I know they did their best to find opportunities for me. They did what they could, but the machinery of the institution was too powerful. Every day I felt like an imposter and a second-class citizen. I had no right to professional development, no invitations to meetings, no training, I was excluded from important communications. I had no say – my contribution was deemed lesser than my permanently employed colleagues, and I felt lesser. Meanwhile, I worked hard with students, developing and writing new material, supporting them, thinking about them, giving them the best experience I could on behalf of those institutions.
It was a massive struggle to reconcile my feelings of inadequacy that developed as a consequence of these years of employment with my sense of self as a good, worthwhile and conscientious employee. That only happened when I got a permanent position two years ago at the University of the Arts London. Out of all the places I worked as an HPL UAL have been the best communicators, provided the best conditions and always paid on time. They also were the only institution who actually employed me on a permanent contract. After I got my job I was so happy, I got fit, lost weight, my mental health improved massively. Suddenly I had the bandwidth to deal with other aspects of my life instead of worrying about work all the time. All that time I thought it was my fault, it was actually theirs! I got invited to meetings! Who gets excited about meetings? Me! I still feel happy to be involved and included, part of something. However, I know others have not been so lucky at UAL and across the sector.
But I did feel so lucky to finally be employed that I forgot how terribly dysfunctional everything was as an HPL. And because of that everything seems fine now. I’ll happily work on the day I’m not contracted or at the weekend, because I’m finally employed. I’ll happily spend my annual leave planning that big unit – because at least I get to plan that big unit! Whoops! I seem to have dug myself into a massive neoliberal gutter. All that time taking punches made me immune to the everyday, less instantly painful issues in our sector. So perhaps I can blame my years as an HPL for my compliance and unwillingness to rock the boat?
This is why I am striking. In the hope that the strike helps end this unfair employment practice. I am striking for colleagues across the sector who want a place at the table but are employed as second-class citizens. I am striking for all you hourly-paid lecturers who have this struggle, who have to keep smiling and keep trying to be good and useful when you feel awful. To all those women, mothers and people of colour who statistically are more likely to be precariously employed, I am striking for you.
I first met Lynsey Dart in November 2016 after a Peaches gig at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green. It was the day of Donald Trump’s election and my friend Iris and I decided to drown our sorrows afterwards in a lively bar full of cool and interesting young people. This is where we got chatting to Lynsey and her friend, a colleague from her music degree. We talked about all sorts of things, including electronic music, my conceptual, feminist, agro-pop band Hot Guts (which she agreed to join), the Peaches gig and all manner of other things. We drank quite a few beers and downed a few shots too – it was one of those nights when the hangover was worth it (there aren’t many of those in your forties). I became Facebook friends with Lynsey after that and we exchanged a few words here and there. I was really interested in her as a young electronic music practitioner and her experience of being a creative undergraduate. When Lynsey posted that she has got a first for her degree last summer I wasn’t surprised. Lynsey seemed to be a person that was serious about what she did, but clearly knew how to enjoy herself too!
Just before Christmas 2017 Lynsey and I met up at the Royal Festival Hall to carry on our conversations. We swapped musicians we were interested in, bonded over Bjork, talked about whether she should do a PhD or not (why not?). I discussed my (temporarily lapsed) doctoral research. She was clearly a very motivated, interested, funny, brave and clever woman with big ideas for her future and a burgeoning interest in disability activism. We agreed that we would work on something collaborative in the future and that I would act as a kind of mentor for her. She asked me to come to a meeting with Marianne Waite, founder of Think Designable at the end of this month. I really enjoyed meeting Lynsey, I’ve never really met anyone in that sort of capacity before, and I think it was all testament to her spirit of getting on with things and getting the most out of every opportunity presented to her. My friendship with Lynsey was very short, nevertheless I was really looking forward to spending time with her and working on something together in 2018 and beyond. I think she had a lot to teach me.
I was devastated to hear that Lynsey died in her sleep last week. I don’t need to know how or why – that is for her close friends and family to know. I do know that it is a terrible tragedy and she will be greatly missed by an enormous number of people. I am incredibly sad to know that I will not have a little slice of Lynsey in my future.
I made a new work entitled Repair Centre (2017) for my Doctoral showcase last month. Unfortunately the ‘arrangement’ I finally ended up exhibiting was far less successful than every single prior incarnation of the work. But these are the breaks! Like other work before it this work references many of the informal visual cultures one encounters in the less affluent zone 3 areas of London: shops with home-made signs temporarily fastened with visible tape and blu-tac; rolls of patterned vinyl; faded hairstyle posters and flyers that offer to solve all your problems. These references are juxtaposed with photographic images of another sort of global, the geological. Regular readers will know of my interest in combining the temporary with the seemingly enduring. In geological time-scales the ground beneath our feet is temporary too. If only I’d had the courage to leave the work on the floor.
These posters were my contribution to the Sensorium Art Show, curated by Mikey Georgeson and Dean Todd as part of the Affect and Social Media #3 conference at UEL. They were posted around the campus and perhaps one or two slipped by as inspirational posters aimed at students.
Astute viewers will see logos from gone bust businesses and enterprises emblematic of failure alongside familiar requests of the inspirational quote meme to better oneself and feel happy in the face of hardship. Hopefully the imagery speaks for itself!
You are entirely up to you, 2017 (A0 digitally printed poster)
It’s been an interesting few months for opening up the discourse around the Vernacular Aesthetics of the Global City and indeed my registration document for my Doctorate is now due, and most likely called ‘Global Vernacular Aesthetics’. A nice contradictory title!
In April I was privileged to present a paper and my short film The Brand Nobody Knows (discussed in much detail in other parts of this blog) at the Association of Art Historians Conference 2017 at Loughborough University. The stream was convened by Dr. Robert Harland and called The Object of Urban Visual Culture. It was really fruitful looking at my concepts of urban global vernacular visual culture via urban planner Kevin Lynch’s notion of the ‘city image’ and ‘imageability’ (1960). I argued that the kinds of global vernacular aesthetics I investigate in my work are frequently thought of as visual pollution, and lack the kind of ‘legibility’ and ‘clarity’ that Lynch holds dear for individuals to make a sense of place. Whilst Lynch accepts that one cannot fully account for how each citizen ‘images’ a city (and he also notes the limits of his sample in his research) his notion of imageability cannot fully take into account the complexities of global cities in the twenty-first century. I argued that in a superdiverse global city such as London, some 60 years after Lynch’s text was published, notions of imageability must be radically updated. Lynch did not, and perhaps could not have, predicted how mass migration and mobile networked technology has produced what we might think of as distributed subjectivity. One cannot think of oneself singularly, in only one place at a time, but scattered across and attached to a variety of time zones, nations, countries, languages, social relations and digital spaces.
The imageable city and the powerful brand are at odds with one another. Vernacular aesthetics (as long as they are not squashed by ‘regeneration’) are useful in resisting the power of the brand. Ultimately I argued that the way ‘successful’ brands generate images on behalf of consumers has some relationship to imageability, however I am certain that if Lynch was working today he would develop his notion that “The observer himself should play an active role in perceiving the world and have a creative part in developing his image. He should have the power to change that image to fit changing needs.” (1960, p.6).
My paper is still somewhat unpolished, but I will post when complete but in the meantime here is a link to the presentation.
There was plenty of interesting discussion in the stream, not least about what ‘brand value’ could mean in the context of global vernacular aesthetics.
Lynch, K. (1960) The image of the city. Cambridge, Mass, London, England: MIT Press