Contingent Systems: Art and/as Algorithmic Critique is a bi-weekly panel series that explores critical intersections between creative practice and algorithmic culture. Each panel brings together interdisciplinary artists and scholars to examine in greater detail a theme aligned with the corresponding exhibition. Paper presentations will be followed by a moderated discussion period and Q&A.


Martha Wilson: Algorithmic Performative

Dr. Adam Lauder, OCAD University

This paper looks to the pre-history of contemporary algorithmic culture to recover strategies of resistance to the computational capture and ordering of bodies today. I argue that the early feminist practice of Martha Wilson (b. 1947) enacted a critical intervention within the algorithmic protocols of Conceptual art, as established in New York by Sol LeWitt and disseminated to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) via figures including David Askevold, Gerald Ferguson and Gerry Neill Kennedy.

As Taylor (2014) has argued, LeWitt’s “dematerialized,” instruction-based art mobilized a functional logic homologous to the command-based operations employed by early computer artists such as Manfred Mohr and A. Michael Noll to execute their serial permutations of formal relationships and values. For the first time, this paper historicizes the conceptual culture of 1970s NSCAD in relation to contemporaneous developments in computer graphics and information theory, in both Canada and the United States. It was while working at NSCAD as an English-grammar instructor (see Wark 2006) that Wilson produced innovative works at the interface of conceptual, feminist and—I argue—computational practices, which substituted a dissident repertoire of embodied actions for the abstract routines and Platonic forms enshrined in both mainstream conceptualism and computer art. Wilson’s early practice both exposes the gendered discontents of algorithmic vision systems—their normative taxonomies and universalizing occlusion of difference—while simultaneously performing acts of resistance that resonate in the work of post-Internet artists such as Amalia Ulman (see Kholeif 2016).

Drawing on a combination of performance theory (see Butler 1990) and recent historicizations of first-generation computer art (see Brown, Gere and Lambert 2008; Higgins and Kahn 2012; Kane 2014; Patterson 2015; Taylor 2014), I explore Wilson’s challenge to still-dominant determinist and essentialist constructions of computational arts, while highlighting opportunities for low-tech tactical interventions within the increasingly hegemonic visual field constituted by algorithmic instrumentalities. What emerges from this reassessment is a fresh picture of early feminist art practice as being in dialogue with the same algorithmic premises that propelled Conceptual art of the same period. But unlike conceptual peers such as LeWitt and Kennedy, Wilson and feminist contemporaries exposed the situated foundations and social implications of those principles.

BIO | Adam Lauder graduated with a Ph.D. from the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto in Fall 2016. Lauder has contributed articles to scholarly journals, including Amodern, Art Documentation, Canadian Journal of Communication, Future Anterior, Imaginations, Journal of Canadian Studies, PUBLIC, Technoetic Arts, The Journal of Canadian Art History, TOPIA and Visual Resources, as well as features and shorter texts to magazines including Art Handler, Border Crossings, C, Canadian Art, e-flux, Flash Art, Hunter and Cook and Millions. From 2017-2019 he was a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at York University in Toronto, where his focus was computational arts in Canada, and in 2019, an RIC research fellow at the Ryerson Image Centre.


Challenging the “Data Body”: Embodied Resistance, 1990s-present

Constanza Salazar, Cornell University

The genealogy of the term “data body”—an informational body birthed from capitalism’s extractivist logics, and perversion of the virtual body—comes to us from various sources such as with the art-activist collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE, 1994), artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (Leeson, 1994), and even arguably from the history of the datafication of the African slave (Browne, 2015). However, with the incarnation of the term data body making its way into popular discourse through different neologisms, one might find it particularly difficult to think “resistance” within the capitalist impulse of data extraction as seen through the pervasive technologies like surveillance.

But the work of resistance to the datafication of the body has and continues to be led by artists, activists, and hacktivists of all kinds, utilizing whatever means necessary to circumvent, obfuscate, or withdraw from the tentacles of advanced technologies. Embodied practices of performance alongside different media can generate new forms of resistance by returning to the body as a primordial site of resistance. Therefore, what needs to be retheorized is not simply what resistance looks like, but rather what embodied resistance affords to the discussions of the strategies, tactics, and methods of resistance to algorithmic technologies. For, the information being extracted, bought, and circulated is of our informational breadcrumbs: our online behaviours, biometric information, and even our affects. In other words, what is at stake is how we may take back control of our embodied selves (bodies) immersed in these technologies.

This paper will consider the concept of the “data body” and think through it historically alongside works from the 1990s by artists who challenge it and return to the embodied body itself. Through performance and technologies, artists perform resistance, looking towards the body as the site of contestation from its very datafication, instrumentalization, and even its dematerialization. Of particular concern will be the “how” of how to perform resistance to discuss this as a historically potent tactic seen even today. Through different key moments in digital art history, I will explore how the challenge to invasive algorithmic technologies came from performative interventions using camouflage, masks, and even avatars. Some earlier artists that will be discussed are VNS Matrix, Critical Art Ensemble, subRosa, with more recent artists including Adam Harvey, Zach Blas, Leo Selvaggio, Hito Steyerl, and Joy Buolomwini.

BIO |  Constanza is a Canadian art historian and theorist living in New York City. Constanza is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, NY studying art, theory, and technology. Her dissertation titled, Embodied Digital Dissent: Coopting Technologies in Art, 1990-present, engages with how artists found moments and spaces of resistance to the different technological advancements of biotechnology, the internet, surveillance, and artificial intelligence as they emerged in the 1990s and its effects seen today. Constanza has presented papers internationally on the topics of art and technology, and has recently curated the online exhibition, Flesh Spaces, on the New Media Caucus web presence about the legacies of cyberfeminism into the 21st century. She received her Bachelors in Fine Arts and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and her Masters in Art History at the University of Guelph, Ontario.


Systems as Fictions

Sarah Friend, Artist

In Off (2021) Sarah Friend (CA) presents a series of black images hand-painted on plexi. The aspect ratio of each image replicates the exact pixel dimensions and powered-down appearance of their titular devices.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, the physical paintings presented here are intended to represent and, through the inclusion of a QR code, serve as an access point to a non-fungible token (NFT) – or the digital original. An established blockchain artist, Friend dropped the first batch of 85 images at the height of the NFT craze in 2021. Each visible black-screened image is accompanied by its secret identical counterpart, within which is hidden an encrypted sentence and shard of a decryption key – represented here by the pixelated screenprint on the front of each plexi screen. Collectors of the editions can work collaboratively to combine key shards, decrypt individual sentences, and piece together a text that comments critically on image ownership and the environmental toll of blockchain technologies.
BIO | Sarah Friend is an artist and software engineer, specializing in blockchain and the p2p web. She is a participant in the Berlin Program for Artists, a co-curator of Ender Gallery, an artist residency taking place inside the game Minecraft, an alumni of Recurse Centre, and an organiser of Our Networks, a conference on all aspects of the distributed web. Previous exhibitions include: Screensavers, Piksel Festival, Bergen; Seasons of Media Art, ZKM Centre for Media Art, Karlsruhe; Remembering Network, Radical Networks, New York; Crypto Grows on Trees, Devcon V, Osaka; Scaffolds I can no longer see, Interaccess, Toronto (2019); Much Ado About Everything, Microwave Festival, Hong Kong; ClickMine, Somerset House, London; Distributed Systems, Gray Area Festival, San Francisco; Perfect and Priceless, Kate Vass Galerie, Zurich (2018); Captive Portal: Customs and Border Protection, Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv (2017). She has been the recipient of the 30 Under 30 Developers In Canada award, the GDC Scholarship for Women in Games and the Blockchain Art Commission from Furtherfield and Neon Festival. She has spoken at Transmediale, Berlin; The New School, New York; and Interaccess, Toronto, amongst others. Her work has been featured in The Art Newspaper, Art the Science, Motherboard and Spike Art Magazine.

FEATURE IMAGE: Sarah Friend, Off, 2021 — Image Credit: Chelsea Yang-Smith

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