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The social life of bots

December 23, 2016


socialbotsWhat happens when we chat with a bot on Twitter, Kik or Grindr? Is it a form of social interaction? Do such interactions weaken the boundary between human and machine, or fortify it? And is it possible for a bot to be social with other bots? Grant Bollmer and I look at some of those questions in a chapter written for this new book on socialbots edited by Rob Gehl and Maria Bakardjieva.

Does theory exist?

December 18, 2016


screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-12-28-20-pmI spend a lot of time around “theory”, in the sense used by irritating grad students which I will define below. But does it actually exist? Perhaps, in distinguishing “theory” from other kinds of reflection and critique, we are like the pre-modern physician insisting that yellowish-black choler is fundamentally different from blackish-yellow melancholer, when today we call both simply “bile”.

Social theory does not aim to explain society, according to a definition suggested by Kenneth Allan. It is not sociological. Rather, he says, the aim is to comment on and critique society. And the same could be said of cultural theory as distinct from, say, anthropology. In critical theory, of course, this critique is the central purpose.

But what, then, distinguishes a theory of art from an opinion about art expressed by a working class man in an Australian pub in response to a news story about a $2 million Gerhard Richter painting purchased with taxpayer’s money (“What a bloody bunch of wankers, my blue heeler’s dick could paint a better picture”). Both are commentary or critique, after all.

Is it possible that even President-elect Donald Trump could be a theorist?

As that tweet suggests, I think it’s possible to rewrite many of these commonly-heard opinions about art, and society in general, in the language of academic theory. By changing the form but not the core propositions of the argument, the supposed “philistine”would be transformed into an intellectually exciting provocateur? Or at least that’s a hypothesis I plan to test next year.

Perhaps the point is not that theory doesn’t exist as a category, but that every critical utterance is a theory. In 1996, Thomas McLaughlin published a book about “vernacular theories” like the Christian anti-porn movement and new age spirituality. But he was careful to insulate these from the true, rigorous theory of the academy, as pointed out by Horn Sheeler et al. in their critical book review.

I want to go much further.

I think there might be no essential difference between vernacular and academic theories in truth value or importance or even complexity.

And I think non-human utterances are kinds of theories too, such as the squealing, struggling and biting of pigs as they are herded onto the killing floor at the abbatoir.

Indeed, I think sentience itself form of theorising.

Rather than a conception of “theory” that privileges only those expressed in the language of high-status academics, a symbolist metatheory that is focused on the semiotic features of the utterance, maybe we need a sentientist metatheory that pays attention to the inner life of the individual concerned.

Which would also be one that orients us to the interests and worldviews and angry critiques of those who are not middle-class academicians.

Wittgenstein said we wouldn’t understand the lion if it could speak to us. I suggest that both human and non-human animals have already been uttering complex and challenging ideas for a very long time in their words, expressions and gestures.

Their theories may be difficult for us to parse, but then so are the theories of dead Frenchmen.

Welcome to the post-sublime

December 2, 2016


screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-12-00-59-amOK, so consider this.

  • Fractals are kitsch
  • Recursion is a cliché
  • Quantum theory is banal
  • Nature just reminds us of shitty motivational posters or the default wallpaper in Windows XP
  • Infinity is middlebrow.

Do we live in the age of the post-sublime?

(This is the first in a series I’m calling “Drunk Theories”, because they’re speculative and probably full of shit,  but kind of fun to think of, although not really that fun to hear).

Gandhi, fixed

January 5, 2015


Jane Smith / Flickr

Gandhi, fixed:

First they ignore you.
Then you write an angry Guardian op-ed about them.
Then you convene an academic conference about them.
Then you turn it into a special issue of a journal.
Then your cool friend from Berlin curates an art show exploring the biopolitical techniques they use to enforce their oppressive power/knowledge.
Then all the foreign art hipsters who live in Berlin come to the show and tell you how amazing it is.
Then you all go and do ketamine off a SpongeBob Squarepants DVD case in somebody’s apartment in Neukölln.
Then they fight you.
Then they win.

The work of art in the age of platformization

September 6, 2014


The most exciting innovation in digital art isn’t the art itself—it’s the platformization of that art.

This is Jason Salavon’s Kids With Santa, created by averaging dozens of photos of children sitting on Santa’s lap:


And this is the platform inspired by it that allows anyone to create their own Salavon-esque “average art”, based on any set of photos:

This is a major contemporary trend of the remix era: a digital artwork pioneers an innovating and striking new technique, and a short time later, a platform arrives that allows anyone to imitate it (sometimes created by others, other times offered by artists themselves).

It’s a bit like Brunelleschi putting the finishing touches on the Duomo — only to discover that every middle class family in Florence had designed and built their own private domed cathedral that was every bit as good as his.


So what’s the result of platformization for the artwork the platform is based on?

As Walter Benjamin observed in his famous essay, in the age of mechanical reproduction of art, the “aura” of the original artwork tends to “wither”.

What happens to that aura in the age of platformization? I think the destruction of the aura is even more violent.

While mechanical reproduction tended to occlude or mystify the process of artistic creation—a postcard of the Eiffel Tower makes it even more dreamlike and symbolic than the real thing, makes it even more difficult to discern how it was ever designed and built—platformization demystifies artistic creation by showing audiences how to make art that is exactly as good as the original.

Thus what Benjamin prophesied would happen to art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but never (in my opinion) really did happen, now actually is happening in the age of platformization.

I am the very model of a modern metasexual

September 2, 2014


A theory:
The defining trait of the 21st century gay male is not hypersexuality so much as metasexuality … a single-minded focus on managing the diverse digital platforms that generate sexuality, rather than on sexuality itself.


Image via dismagazine.

Battle of the memes

September 2, 2014



A familiar cry on the Left is that so-called “slacktivism” is diverting the energies of progressives away from traditional, effective activism such as street protests into frivolous, symbolic battles. I wanted to interrogate this claim, so I wrote this op-ed for the Guardian about it.

I developed these ideas a bit more in a journal article called “When Memes Go to War: Viral Propaganda in the 2014 Gaza-Israel Conflict”, which you can find on my page.

The problem with crowdfunding

November 14, 2013


Many of my creative peers are turning to crowdfunding to support their work. I continue to be skeptical of the funding model because I think it blurs the lines between cultural patronage and charity dedicated to helping those in serious need. It’s especially problematic when major arts institutions characterize their crowdfunding campaigns as “good causes” (as several high profile ones have done).

I’m much more comfortable when crowdfunding campaigns for arts projects characterize the offering as a purchase rather than a donation. Someone who buys a pop-up book or Star Trek themed game off Indiegogo isn’t cannibalizing their charity budget to pay for it. Someone who supports a theatre or opera company to tour a production they have no intention of seeing, in return for a sticker or postcard, is engaging in charity, and I think there’s a very real risk that the donor may then reduce their spend on traditional charities which tackle critical, life-and-death issues such as global poverty.

I wrote an oped for the Guardian back in August which explores this idea in greater detail. Was pleased to see a couple of other similar articles come out since then which have made the same argument.

The art of the L.D.R.

June 19, 2013



Separation by long distances is a recurring theme in Australian culture. Enduring the hardships of isolation is a familiar trope of our music, literature and art, from the folk song Botany Bay to Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife or Russell Drysdale’s painting of the same name. Other iconic works, such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s epic canvas Warlugulong (1977), or Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and the film based on it, emphasise rather our interconnectedness across the vast continent.

The rise of fast broadband is providing new ways for us to relate to each other and the environment over long distances, collapsing space and time in important ways. What does it mean for the way we think and talk about distance, and how we connect?

Exploring that question is the focus of The Portals, a curated program of telematic art which opened on 8 June at Nan Giese Gallery in Darwin and The Concourse in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. It is one of the projects supported by the Australia Council’s Broadband Arts Initiative and forms part of ISEA2013, the 19th International Symposium on Electronic Art.

Read the rest of this blog post on the Australia Council’s online magazine, Artery.

Querying the hive mind

May 29, 2013



Over the past few weeks, artist Andrew Burrell and I have been busy finishing our networked art and e-literature collaboration for The Portals program, which will be opening at The Concourse in Sydney and Nane Giese Gallery in Darwin on 8 June.

Entitled Enquire Within Upon Everybody, it’s a real-time question and answer session which gives audiences the chance to query what is sometimes called the Internet’s “hive mind” —  that heterogeneous  assemblage of technologically mediated opinions expressed by various non-representative users of particular platforms — on any subject and receive real-time, generative responses. To make it work from a technical point of view, we’ve needed to define a series of complex (and sometimes simple) algorithms that query online data streams in order to return relevant answers without any intervention from us.

Currently we’re focused on testing the app that drives the artwork by priming it with questions (if you tweet a question now with the hashtag #enquiresydney or #enquiredarwin it will be added to the list). We’ve been finding that the answers given by the digital hive mind offer some glimpses into its emergent personality.

One of the very first questions we began with was simply “How are you feeling today?” We were struck by the downbeat (sometimes acheronian) tone of many of the responses:

… Today I am feeling tired and delicate

… Today I am feeling bruised in soul

… Today I am feeling really bad

… Today I am feeling alone.

The digital hive mind can be mercurial, though, and will perk up if you ask it the right question. We asked it “Am I beautiful?” and we got back:

… You are as beautiful as Cinderella

… You are as beautiful as truth

… You are as beautiful as your thoughts

… You are as beautiful as you were yesterday.

Notice the sting in the tail of that last response. Here’s what happened when we tried asking it “Why did the chicken cross the road?”:

… To get to the other site

… To get to the other side — er, no — to go shopping — no, not that either — damn it.

… To get to the other side and achieve its life goal, what are you doing to achieve yours?

… To get to the other *sigh*.

We’ve also been putting the finishing touches on the interface for the artwork, which outwardly takes the form of an arcade video game from the 1980s. The 8-bit style is particularly suited to visualising the lo-fi data that we’re querying in this work: tweets. They’re in plain text, with no images or sound, and are a maximum of only 560 8-bit bytes (Twitter was built on the 20-year-old technology of SMS).

For more information, visit The Portals Facebook page at