In thinking about avoidance I came across a service, a non-consumer revenue producing start-up it seems, it’s called Focusmate(.com). It is the contemporary version of that chatroom I showed you, except it is dogwhistling the entrepreneur and not the depressed, and weaponises visibility not anonymity – a descriptor of a general trend in internet culture since I started using that chatroom which still runs on drupal6.
On Focusmate you schedule in advance a 50 minute working session with a stranger. At the start of the session you say hi and describe what you want to do with your time, and then you work with your webcams (and often mics) turned on– the other becomes company or boss as is internally necessary. You yourself are turned into friend or scold by your ‘mate’. At the end you describe how the 50 minutes went and say goodbye. This is chat roulettes productive cousin, or perhaps child (generational cycles of inhibition and conservativeness?). These are people from all over the world, though there is no friend or add function.
Focusmate is actually the perfect tool for me, which I understand because I am already afraid both that it will go bust and also that it will become really popular and I will start to see my students on it. Here’s an image of me and a woman in Chicago working together.
[image of screenshot showing the top of a white woman’s head, her eyes are closed and on the right there is a smaller image of me with headphones, eyes also closed. To the left a chat window in which I have detailed tasks such as ‘email about rescheduling marking done’ and ‘screens ordered’]
Part of what I want to make for Flatness is a video produced between me and my friend Ashley, the one I went to see in California with the fee from Flatness. She is an old internet friend of mine, maybe it’s been 13 or 14 years that I have known her. She has always joked that we looked alike but this visit people kept mistaking us for family, twins even at one point. I can see it now. We have long faces, lots of cheeks, big foreheads and the same hair now too. We would make a split screen video of companionship, not unlike the Focusmate image above. We met as lonely young people, and now we are less lonely not-young people. Hers is my least avoidant friendship, which comes quite clearly out of meeting as pseudonymous avatars in different time zones.
What this video is I don’t know, but I am thinking about it.
Flatness re-launches with new commissions by artists Lucy Clout, Nikhil Vettukattil, Dan Walwin and Rehana Zaman, a comments feed and a series of live contributions from guest artists.
Works which have recently gone live on Flatness are Nikhil Vettukattil’s An Analog for Listening, an interactive application which translates the sounds you feed into it into patterns of visible light and Dan Walwin’s video and sound work in many parts, Demon floats out to meet you.
Flatness is a call to artists for their skills as de-automators of routine and learnt behaviours to prevent the complete co-option of technology!
Informed by the artist practices brought together on this site, Flatness aims to address the structural and the material conditions of working immaterially. While the coexistence between an artwork and its digital copy circulating on the net can be ambiguous, the artist contributions to Flatness are intentionally made for encounters through headphones and portable computer screens. The comments feed aims to build a community around these works, in support of their critical and social contextualisation.
In 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of the worldwide web and 12 years since the release of the first iPhone, the promise of borderless interactions enabled through cyberspace, of surfing free from geography, identity and property, seems only accessible to a white corporate elite represented by Silicon Valley. The interfaces and software they build surveil, datamine and categorise others’ behaviours and bodies standardising, and extracting from experience. As a result, Édouard Glissant’s concept of mondialité – encouraging an un-possessive worldliness towards unexpected forms and encounters, caring for the differences – is kept perennially out of reach. The culture that social media monopolies perpetuate therefore, of calling out and the inevitable backlash it causes, feels familiar and inevitable.
While acknowledging the latent mediation of corporations and governments through the web, and the ways in which the tyranny of the present created by the net jars temporally with the everyday, we are now digitally literate enough to realise that there is little distinction between our experiences on and offline – that virtual actions also have physical and social consequences. Flatness asks, could the space of art (including this site), which proposes and maintains a set of specificities and a sense of scale, be a place to practice being a good ally; and a good critic in public, actions which these days feel so fraught?
Under the current regime of communicative capitalism, humanoid AI (Alexa, Siri, Ggl etc.) conveys a feminised aesthetics of emotion and empathy that it cannot reciprocate, which could give the software an advantage in persuading users to follow its suggestions. (The presumption of curatorial neutrality can similarly mimic this scenario.) It seems that we are at once soothed by the AI’s apparent selflessness, while perhaps locked in a psychological transference of the experience of capitalism: We seem to enjoy taking the technologies’ thinly masked lack of agenda and agency for granted. Given these platforms encourage us to react or consume in an instant, rather than trust and engage in ongoing conversations, do we too become more machine-like, reproducing these nagging (negging?) feelings?
An active consciousness on a level with counter-surveillance is needed in order to deprogram our systems from the systemic racist and sexist malware through which hate operates, tainting experience online and off.
Long since before Web 2.0 and the dawn of social media at the turn of the millennium, politics and the law have been slow to keep up with everything science and technology has evolved for us in terms of the post-human potentials of our bodies, work and intimacy – who and what we connect with and how. Neglected by big ‘P’ political democracy, younger generations informed by independent liberatory research, anti-racist movements led by people of colour, and non-heteronormative collectivities are mobilised, nurtured and survive through network culture. Learning from science fictions to conjure a cyber-positivism, Flatness recognises this self-organised aspect of the web (for example, movements towards social and climate justice), while also keeping faith in the scope of technology to transform labour relations, and ultimately to free us from work which currently, depending on whether you’re richer or poorer, has become either addictive or punishing. It feels important for our collective mental health not to be distracted by the political biases and underhand economies of FB, Ggl and political administrations at large, and to see these on a continuum with the symptoms of hyper-capitalism manifest in the heavy conservatism and exclusivity of the institutional art world.
The digital image has long since been separated from its purely representative function and is valued, by bots as well as users, more for what it does, unconsciously affecting our behaviour like a sound, rather than how it is read. This latest update to Flatness considers this new conception of materiality alongside the objectifications of racism, sexism and capitalism, which turn people of colour, those who identify as women, and workers into things and commodities. I’m interested in the techno-uncanny that charges these attributes – skin colour, suffering, womanhood, indeterminacy – with a materiality, which can in turn manifest as fear or circumspection. How can this contradiction be harnessed and turned around to allow for new political programmes to emerge? Do users still have the capacity to affect the internet, and embody this unexpected and hard fought for resilience, rather than capitulate to the deceptive work of neoliberalism active through the medium?
Leaving aside theories of progress, objectivity and accumulation, which have proven to only benefit the few, the latest iteration of Flatness expands on non-linear, incompressible modalities including: the sonic, the subjective, the distributive and polyvocal, the uneven, dyschronic and contingent, in order to begin to make space for what a functioning, self-reflexive network could be.
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Flatness is curated (and monitored) by Shama Khanna.
[Interstellar] web design & programming by Gailė Pranckūnaitė & Andrius Zupkus.
Supported by public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
All texts, works and images either belong to the artist, author or photographer named or are licensed under the terms of this CC 4.00 certificate.