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Un Magazine 12.2

The amateur-*amante* as a future tool: An interview with Critical Días (Rebecca Close & Anyely Marin Cisneros)

Madeleine Stack

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10/26

Article

Photo taken during the workshop ‘Reinscripciones’, part of the Escuelita public program at CA2M, Madrid, curated by Julia Morandeira. Here, a group of participants named and ordered a corpus of images from the history of data visualisation (from maps to phylogenetic trees) on a timeline and connected them to key-words.

Critical Dias
How do we start? Maybe we can talk about the last two years, in all of our lives! In the book Reinscriptions (2017) that we’ve just published, there are two main texts that we’ve been writing over the past two years, when concerns about machine learning and algorithmic tech and data have perforated the mainstream in this loud way. And Anyely picked up, two years ago, on the way that people writing about algorithms in popular media would cite, ‘Oh, they’re racist. The algorithms are racist.’
Madeleine Stock
And not go any further into it. Like, it became received wisdom.
CD
Yeah, so there was this repetition that the algorithm is racist, in a way that racism arises in that debate as an anecdote —
MS
As a reinscription without a proper source. Or examples that you see are specific, anecdotal examples, like ‘look what happened to this man who tried to upload his pictures to facebook with face recognition.’ You can see how facial recognition works when it doesn’t work, by one single person’s experience. It’s presented as an outlier.
CD
Exactly those kinds of individual cases that have been repeated, and we’re exposed to a repeated image of ‘this human face was read as gorilla’, or whatever. So that was the starting point of the research: asking what exactly is an algorithm? It’s a set of instructions, like a piece of legislation. So part of the problem with the media noise about AI and machine learning is that on the one hand it presents the problem as somehow a new problem, and on the other hand the politics of the body are placed outside of that or tagged on as an extra issue. How can you re-read this idea of an algorithm or an instruction, but have a question about politics of the body, and racial and sexual surveillance, at the centre of that question, as it has been? The response of, ‘Oh we need to re-write or edit or update the algorithm to make sure it’s not doing that’ starts to look ridiculous from that perspective.
MS
(laughs) Like, let’s get to the bottom of this!
CD
So, Anyely was looking in the archives here in Barcelona, at the race laws, specifically the Black Codes, a body of legislation in France, Spain but also in the UK and US, which is a set of instructions that gave legislative power to the white population to act as bodies of surveillance across public space. So she was working on this moment when white privilege becomes legislated through a codifying of the gaze or vision. At the same time I was thinking about data, this idea, also present in the media, about data and how to access and secure but also ‘visualise’ it.
MS
It’s always framed as our data. Our precious data. But we don’t know exactly what we mean by that.
CD
Yes, either the conversation is super vague or super specific cases that pop up, like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation which turned into a distraction where everyone was talking about ‘newsletters’ and spam, which had nothing to do with the actual impact of that legislation. And this idea of data visualisation, where you find the same question framed as if the production or extraction of data is something new, which it isn’t. So I was looking at the history of data visualisation and connecting that to prior research that we’d done around the management of illness and disease in cities. Then I stumbled across this amazing link, that the first information maps were related to research around disease and contagion. For example John Snow’s Cholera Map in London, or Florence Nightingale’s Diagram of the Death of the Army in the East. In the National Library of Catalunya I was looking at the management of yellow fever epidemics in Barcelona in the nineteenth century and was searching for forms of visual representations, anything I could find, maps etc.

What I came across were a lot of images (watercolours or chromolithographs or etchings) of all kinds of biological material being studied under microscopes. What was interesting was that the doctors didn’t really know what they were looking for because the cause of yellow fever (a bacteria transmitted by a mosquito) wasn’t discovered until the 1890s. Before that they talked about ‘travelling germs’ or ‘miasmas floating in the air’. The other thing I thought was really funny was that the doctors were sort of worried about how to represent their findings. One German scientist wrote in his publication a kind of disclaimer, like ‘sorry I am such a terrible drawer’. This was the seventeenth century, which was the time of the amateur sciences, in the sense that scientific research was not plugged directly into capitalism in the way that it is now.

Later these sciences and scientists get formalised and institutions pop up, for example the Rockefeller Institute or London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which influence and funded, for example in Ecuador, the attempts to eradicate informal economies like sex work but also street selling. With this project we were looking at the ‘amateur’ moment before that institutionalisation. So we started thinking about the connection between these two lines of research as a question of technologies of seeing and the affectivities produced around or in connection with them. We started to compare the microscope as a technology of seeing with this body of legislation which also operated as a technology of seeing.

MS
What was the impetus for this wave of legislation? Was it the opening of mercantile routes across Europe?
CD
Basically the context is the move from the plantation model to the industrial model and the abolishment of the slave trade (but not necessarily slavery). In the Americas there is the need to regulate the free movement of the enslaved and freed populations within countries, which is also the case in Europe, as well as the need to control who is allowed to leave, travel, trade etc. This is also the history of the current migratory control system.

Annotated images drawn by scientist ‘Coulembier’ using solar microscope. In Coulembier, Sonnen-Mikroskop oder die neu entdeckten Wunder der Natur, second edition, Karlsruhe: 1835, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/

MS
As in who was permitted to go there and ‘make a claim’, presumably make a profit, as a Spanish person?
CD
It becomes about regulating markets and informal economies within the nation state but also who is able to travel across continents — street selling and sex work get tied up in these regulations. Anyely wrote the text Algorithms of Race, and I wrote a text that makes a link between this amateur moment in the sciences when people are looking through the microscope, and the conditions of seeing imposed by low-paid tech work, like Mechanical Turk, which is people being presented with a wide array of images and having to annotate what they’re seeing but much faster and in a corporate context. I wrote a fictional text where a character gets absorbed into a corporation where her work consists of ‘seeing’ and annotating and she is told constantly to free associate as in the surrealist and Freudian practice of free-association. Which refers back to Anyely’s work in her essay on the racialised unconscious. The worker starts to research and think about her own conditions of seeing and as she starts to observe the conditions she has been placed in, the work she does ends up being for herself — the corporate context sort of dissolves away as she starts to make her own inscriptions.
MS
It also strikes me as being about naming, in the sense that the job is naming what you see. And the moment of the amateur, the amateur scientist for example, is the period before something is named and codified. With turk work, you’re doing a kind of free-association work, annotating images at a speed that precludes thinking, so what the corporation is getting is access to your subconscious. And with Algorithms of Race, the algorithm is fed this whole bulk of data and it learns basically from the subconscious of all this information.
CD
Yes, and specifically, what happens when these forms of seeing get codified and used as part of this paranoid obsession with tracing germs across borders. The technology of the microscope is key in the invention of notions of contagion and transmission. We were looking at the yellow fever epidemics in Barcelona, which is interesting because they coincide firstly with the French revolution, so the management of yellow fever became a way to control the trafficking of political pamphlets across the border from France. So they created this sanitary border along the Pyrenees to control who was leaving ...
MS
Who was leaving to go and join the revolution.
CD
And then almost fifty years later, during the French restoration, Spain has a democratic liberal experiment during the 1820s, during another yellow fever epidemic. And the same concern about policing the border happens on the other side.
MS
So the first was closed on one side, and the second on the other side, under the guise of management of disease.
CD
The idea of contagion is as much to do with medical practices and disease as it is with the contagiousness of ideas, and how that is perceived to be a threat. This idea of the amateur, the amateur-amante, is related to the way that we work with one other — through processes of contagion. So we wanted to recuperate something of the amateur moment in the seventeenth century as a tool for moving through data capitalism.
MS
In which the position of being an amateur is imposed from above. An interesting thing about the question of data anxiety being mainstream is that the product being sold is knowledge about protection, with the paranoia framed as something a civilian will never be able to be in control of. All those things are played into by the media.
CD
Totally, we are forced into a position of ‘amateur’ in the context of financial capitalism when even the data scientist doesn’t know how her algorithm works. So how can we take control of this figure of the amateur? One way was focusing on the amateur as a lover. They’re someone who loves, and who loves what they’re doing ...
MS
I thought you were saying ‘amateur romantics’. ‘Me and Anyely are amateur romantics’!
No! Amateur-amantes. Lovers. One thing we’re interested in doing is resisting or reversing the ‘innocent curiosity’ of the amateur scientist, which is an affectivity that is completely rationalised, in academia, science and in the arts. Even critical institutions thinking about technology and science maintain this kind of star-struckness ... like this is amazing, so new! We all have to be interested in this!
MS
Like this question of data privacy, I think that disobedient observation is in the public imagination at the moment, mainly because of discourses around police brutality. Especially this wider consciousness of observation and looking as one of the tools you have, as a citizen under a regime.
CD
Yes, the difference between observation and surveillance, or observing the forms of surveillance as an example of disobedient observation.
MS
I see Reinscriptions as reading histories of data visualisation alongside this idea of systems of instruction, or human learning and machine learning.
CD
It is not a project that resolves these questions about vision, but we did recuperate the amateur-amante as a future tool. Defending the amateur-amante as a productive listener.
MS
Productive how?
CD
In the sense of how there is a contagion of ideas between amateur-amantes, but also across other networks of care and critique. So maybe productive as in movement, or flow. Amateur-amantes circulate in dialogue other networks of transmission of knowledge and practices between activist networks, poetry networks ... so strengthening those informal networks as forms of producing and reproducing ourselves. Contributing to them gives us confidence to participate and be in dialogue or conflict with the official or formal art infrastructures.
MS
I read this essay by Anne Boyer where she wishes that when you wrote a book that there would be an entry system. So people you hate couldn’t access your revolutionary poems, or whatever. This way that we could funnel people from the gift that is the text, so it cannot be co- opted. And I think particularly with working with or adjacent to tech as artists, or amateurs, I often wonder what strands of people’s research is being encompassed by the neoliberal or capitalist project.
CD
Do you think that connects to our relationship to institutions? Like sometimes you make work for or from within formal institutions but sometimes you make work for your friends.
MS
Our friends as an expansive category, yeah. People you’re in dialogue with.
CD
Being considerate with regards to what networks you are feeding is one thing. But everything is being co-opted all the time. Which is also related to this idea of contagion. Things are also co-opted through contagion. It means you have to be ultra-transparent in one context but opaque in another, move fast, change the language, vocabulary and location. Most of our previous projects have responded to a particular location or were produced in collaboration with other people and collectives or associations. But Reinscriptions is this dispersed action, or uses a kind of literary dispersion. It is not clear in the structure of the text who is writing, where and for whom and there is this continuous movement between high- and low-tech, dream maps and data-visualisations, algorithms and race laws, the human eye and surveillance cameras. There is a delirious dispersion of forms of representation that mirror the condition of dislocation and fragmentation or precarity. The amateur-amante was a location device in this dispersion, like how can we resist dislocation and co-option. How can we get lost without losing ourselves.

Madeleine Stack is an artist and writer based in London and Barcelona.