Kate O’Riordan comments at the plenary discussion: Biodigital Paradoxes (symptoms of the biodigital)

The closing plenary of the workshop generated considerable buzz and many of you asked me for ways in the material presented. Pasted below is a draft of Kate O’Riordan’s commentary, entitled Biodigital Paradoxes (symptoms of the biodigital), copied from her research blog Biodigital Life. In due course, we hope to publicise the other contributions in some format.

Linking questions about sustaining knowledge in feminist art and activism and with work on emerging technologies:

I’m interested in the biodigital – the coming together of life itself and information systems – the convergence of biology and information sciences – life modulated through digital culture – the biodigital is on the one hand a descriptive term and on that basis might have an ontology and a lexicon – but it is also a tool of analysis or diagnostic and as such it has symptoms. Symptoms alert us to what has befallen us and provide the grounds for change.

Three symptoms of the biodigital are unreal objects, medium knowledge and impossible worlds:

1) Unreal objects
We see a huge and ongoing investment of time, money and institutional resources in unreal objects e.g. genomes, smart grids, precision medicine, networks – at the same time as we see a disinvestment in lives – in the arts, humanities, education, health and welfare. These things are hinged together – unreal objects undo subjects – e.g. smart grids have no humans, the human genome project was about information, investments in technoscientific projects at best distract and at worst detract from people in their everyday life contexts where they are more concerned about how existing basic health care and education can be accessed rather than the next global science project.

2) Medium knowledges
Digitization and networks; media culture/media life; unreal objects are made in media forms; genomes inhere as digital artefacts; smart grids are about strangely human-less ecologies with objects communicating through an exchange of signals – like the internet of things; or ubiquitous computing environments with new hierarchies of servitude. Medium knowledges—formed in the social media paradigm—both proliferate and cannibalize.. We compulsively seek to share with one another as our actual bodies are networked, photo-shopped and plastic surgeried out; the press release is the news and the audience is the advert; medium knowledge is Wikipedia and Google, and their biomedical allies; the receding of book publishing and of professional writers, the reduction of access to formal education at the same time as the explosion of writing, teaching and knowledge and media making in everyday life.

3) (Under)whelming worlds
The vision of the cloud is an underwhelming world – a paradigmatic object par excellence of unreal objects and medium knowledges – it promises to hold the underwhelming world of an indefinite excess of big data (for which the question of human scale meaning is endlessly deferred) – and networked everything – in its heavenly haze. At the same time it demands resources for server farms, deforestation, strip mining, mountain top removal, war, fossil fuel extraction, nuclear power, industrial farming. These all provide the substrate for worlds which are rapacious in their demands for resources.

A second, much more obscure but non-the-less paradigmatic project of these biodigital symptoms is de-extinction. The concerted effort to bring back extinct species in the pursuit of both reparation for – and the promotion of – technoscientific business as usual. From the impossible human-free eco-imaginaire of clouds, smart grids and cloned tigers and other big science dreams – to the actual impossibility of sustaining the pursuit of happiness in times of economic disaster and the threat to life of a superheated planet – underwhelming worlds are a symptom of the biodigital. Funding is poured into big science projects that promise revolutions and technological fixes, whilst exacerbating inequality and demanding resources. At the same time money cannot be found for the lived experiences of everyday life – for cushioning against the viciousness of precarity – for a livable life for all, for education and for health.

The axes of these biodigital symptoms – materiality, knowledge, worlds – are also the concerns of feminist media art and activism. The paradoxes of the symptoms of the biodigital are that reparation does revolve around the same axes –– the space of unreal objects is also generative of creativity and an invitation to make things up – to invent – or make up: but also to make up in the other sense of to make up for: reparation – the imaginative and the ethical conjoined.

This takes me to medium knowledges that exploit the audience as advert but also invite us to promote things worth knowing – media making offers an opportunity to create new institutional dynamics through media platforms and re-inventions of the social in a time in which those institutions that have done the work of marginalization and destruction of the social themselves are threatened and revised. Medium knowledges become a platform for possibility.

Underwhelming worlds – both imagined and experienced – can be reworked and the life of the mundane and everyday can be connected to the ecological, and the global

In this paradoxical landscape of biodigital symptoms it is possible to both work with emerging technologies and their big (un)real and destructive dreamscapes and to take something from them to work with the everyday, the creative and the marginal. In this context we are making a small intervention with the construction of SusNet a feminist network that couples itself with the technoscientific dreamscape of unreal objects, medium knowledge and impossible worlds. On the one hand it is a utopian impulse towards a network of people that is also a media platform, that sustains knowledges and enables connection. However, on the other hand it is also a small group of people, a small amount of money and a set of actual practices that ask people to reflect on their own practices and histories of collaboration and connection and motivations in order to materialize the rather utopian unreal object of a network, create medium knowledge, and re-institute a kind of worlding through an account of feminist media art and activism and its connections and solidarities as well as disconnections and antagonisms – (in the context of biodigital symptoms.)

[this is a draft of material for today’s roundtable https://www.facebook.com/pages/Queer-Feminist-and-Social-Media-Praxis-Workshop/434729706593342]

About the plenary:

Radical art practices, feminism, new technologies and performance

Maria Chatzichristodoulou (a.k.a. Maria X), Kate O’Riordan (UCSC/Sussex), Joanna Zylinska (Goldsmiths)

Discussant: Sally-Jane Norman (Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts)

This plenary aims to enable discussion about new technologies, digital and other, in relation to gender, sexuality and the body – and to weave some common threads across art, science and theory. At the same time, it seeks to enable a space for experimentation and performative mode of action, as it summons its own publics, initially in the physical space of the workshop and later in its digital materialisation (in the SusNet platform).

The framing question to the participants of this plenary aims to find some common ground between them and to also identify differences: How do digital technologies shape your artistic practice, politics and/or research?

The more specific question aims to link the plenary and the workshop as a whole to the larger project of sustaining networked knowledge production, which is the EPSRC/CCN+ funded network project SusNet: What are some challenges to and opportunities for radical, alternative or critical knowledge production (in its different modes, e.g. art, theory, or other modes of practice) within institutionalised contexts today (including digital ones)?