Algorithmic Aesthetics and the Transborder Immigrant Tool

Transborder Immigrant Tool

The complexity of algorithmic global finance networks, the epistemological breakdown brought about by the post-truth era and the networked nature of politics necessitate a new complex and abstract form of aesthetics that is able to cope with our new situation. Aesthetics can be used to extend our understanding beyond traditional forms of human cognition in order to accomplish what seems to be the new mission in the arts: “the dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, more real than art”. (Graham, Dan, Ian Alteveer, Günther Vogt, and Sheena Wagstaff. Dan Graham. New York: Metropolitan Museum Of Art, 2014.) The role of the art world economy and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams do an excellent job of outlining a possible role for art in the 21st century: “An aesthetics of the sublime emerges here, with big data, complexity, and multi-causal relations converging on representations of the economy that are themselves beyond human comprehension… it is in these two mediation points that art can serve a significant political function – by contributing to the cognitive and sensible leverage over economic complexity.” The question then becomes, has art done a sufficient job of addressing this uptick in complexity? No. Scholars like Mohammad Salemy and Suhail Malik point to the formalization of “contemporary art” as a genre as a process that has also removed the ability of art to address contemporary social problems. Put another way, contemporary art has an internal logic that is more beholden to the maintenance of the financial structures that sustain it than to being a generative force capable of aiding the mapping and navigation of 21st century life and politics.

That all brings me to the Transborder Immigrant Tool constructed by Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab. It was a locative media and mobile phone based application intended to guide migrants making their way to the United States through the deserts of the U.S./Mexico borderlands to either the Rio Grande or Pacific Ocean. The application delivered helpful information about survival while providing mental and emotional support in the form of poetry and first-person testimonials from people who had already crossed. It was also capable of leading the travelers to food/water caches, providing information on the movements of security and border forces, and leading them to safer routes. It was designed to work on easy-to-hack, low-cost cellphones instead of just the Android and iphone markets.

The project caused a firestorm of backlash where Ricardo Dominguez, Brett Staulbaum, b.a.n.g lab and EDT were investigated by their home university UCSD, the FBI office of cybercrime, Customs and Border Protection, two republican congressmen and a national arts review board. They were ultimately unable to mount any charges against those in question. Where government interventions in art in the 90’s came as a result of creating a cultural context for fringe and non-traditional communities, this project was targeted because it not only used a contested region as the stage but also came into direct conflict with what was at the time a growing tension between those who support migrants and those who use border security as a symbolic issue. As an interesting side note (given my position as a CU student currently involved with organizations fighting student fees), TBT was already under investigation for their sit-ins and protests of the UC system student fees policy (they now have fee waivers) and the attempted dismantling of K-12 public education in the state of California. It’s important to note that the FBI was attempting to frame this as a cybercrime because the University of California Office of the President claimed the performance caused them to lose $5600. A cybercrime must cause over $5000 of “damage” to be investigated.

Now, it’s extremely pertinent to take notice of this fact: the project was never able to be deployed because of these investigations. But how would it have worked and what sort of conceptual framework were they working from? In their own words,

“our connection to critical ecologie(s)/environmentalism(s) are grounded to a geo-projection of these transcendental-isms as an ethico-aesthetic disturbance which marks the Mexican/US border, and all borders perhaps, as what Rob Nixon has termed the “slow violence” of the neo-liberal dismantling of bio-citizenship. This bio-citizenship is one of trans [  ] citizenship that crosses between multiple forms of life: from black bears to plants to water to global labor as borderized-entities that are blocked from geographic movement, which is the blocking of life itself. What is not blocked from movement is multiple types of techno-toxicity (Latin America as dumpster zone of last generation Silicon Valley economies) and free-trade markets from the US, China, EU and others”.

This begins to hint at why I’m making a connection between the idea of algorithmic aesthetics and the Transborder Immigrant Tool, namely, that it acts as an interface between an unknowably complex system (the assemblage of borders, nation states, multinational corporations, economies of scale, grey market movements by narcos and the governments of the US and Mexico) and people. In this way, it acts as a cognitive map in the manner laid out by Fredric Jameson. Notably, it does not attempt any mode of truth construction rooted in a transcendent or universal epistemology. It makes landmarks and cognitive interventions based on a constructed political goal.

This is the kind of work I aspire to make and wish more artists were doing something similar.


Hypertext novels and contemporary forms of storytelling present a challenge to general understandings of the novel but are particularly hostile concerning assumptions around authorship and authoritative interpretations, or, “top-down” interpretations. Of course, this is not the first destabilization of narrative fixity, authorial powers or interpretation. Both D.H Lawrence and Deleuze present an inverted understanding of time (for them time allows for the phenomenal self rather than time flowing as the result of a fixed self) that comes along with a deterioration of the fixity of the authoritative reading, for example, the “deep reading” model of the British academy.

Juliet Martin’s Hyperbody is hypertext work that often directly addresses the reader. Like other opened visual novels, it allows the reader to explore the inner space of the work without too much authorial influence. The novel ends with a call to the reader to return to territory of their own imagination. This mirrors one of the triumphs of the work: that there can be no unified reading. This nests nicely with the epistemological breakdown of the contemporary moment (post-truth/post-fact). Researching this work brought me back to a favorite concept that I had only previously encountered in game design and VR works: ergodicity.

Ergodic storytelling, by the book, is a form of storytelling in which the manner of navigation requires a “non-trivial” (Espen J. Arseth, Cybertext) amount of effort from the reader. Whereas, according to this model, the traditional novel does not require a significant amount of effort from the reader. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is one of the most well-known works of ergodic literature. Multiple narratives and story fragments are presented to the reader in a way that requires them to actively construct a story from the seemingly disjointed materials. Lives, universes, stories, typographical structures and lines of inquiry live within the novel and are simultaneously realized and destroyed in this tome of potential energy. For me, this mode of existence strongly reflects the state of the internet and digital worlds that require massive amounts of efforts from users to comb through amounts of disjointed information that eek into the sublime.

Studying these works leaves me with a set of (hopefully) generative questions:

To what extent does authorial power live in feedback structures that occur within hypertext, cybertext and ergodic literature? Drawing from cybernetics, can narrative elements placed by the author force the hand of the user?

Writing off all traditional (open cover, read words from left to right and in order until you reach the end) as nonergodic strikes me as perhaps too neat. For example, is Finnegan’s Wake REALLY experienced in a linear fashion? It seems to me that such a complex novel that requires massive amount of efforts on the user to navigate might have facets of ergodicity that have been ignored by Arseth.

If many hypertext novels can be mapped out down to the level of every permutation, what is the site of narrative? Is it a structural element or something the user actively constructs? Or does that make it a mediated experience?

Walter Benjameme

For me, there’s no form more perfect for an interrogation of the state of the aura in a post-digital context than our humble friend the meme. The meme is a powerful parallel to the photograph and film based media when historicizing and placing the works of Benjamin. The meme manages to complicate questions of authorship, originality, distribution, copyright and networked cognition. Richard Dawkins can claim the first known use of the word in print. However, his usage might be closer to our understanding of tropes (for example, those found on in that they are self-replicating cultural units not bound to a particular discipline or field. But, for this purpose I’m speaking of the text on image files that circulate internet communities, are altered, evolve, and eventually fall out of use. Afterall, except in service to irony, when did you last encounter a Good Guy Greg meme?

Memes employ a collective form of language that makes it possible for a decentralized collection of users to digest, archive and synthesize “takes” on the current historical moment. Memes can act as an index of memory (similar to the memex concept employed by Bush) but they can also have very significant impacts on popular culture, media and politics. This is where the question of the aura becomes useful for the study of memes. In more traditional philosophical terms, a meme might be understood as the transcendent model under which the actual collection of phenomenon is understood. The idea of an original is completely irrelevant when considering a form of distributed intelligence like the meme. There can be no “original” per se because the form is established, developed and eventually destroyed by a network rather than a single “author”. Like the advent of cinema, understanding memes requires a “phenomenological reduction”. This reduction is made even more important by the rapid reproduction made possible by technological advances.

To give more consideration to the form of the meme, could it be considered a collection of intermedia techniques? The meme does more than simply combining image and text...many memes (Batman Slapping Robin, for example) rely on tension and even the break down of the distinctness of the text and image to convey meaning or record a cultural moment. Memes in particular are poised to rework, or digest, the mass amounts of information available in digital contexts and produce knowledge based on positionality and discretion articulated by the logic and tensions found in memes. The recent Bird Box meme features Sandra Bullock blindfolded and paddling away from (content determined by user). However, the unique aspect of this meme is the recent discovery that Netflix directly gamed the attention economy when they bought and used fake Twitter accounts in order to boost the visibility of the film.

Moving beyond the nature of the object itself necessitates examining how reception and socialization collapse into the logic and narrative of memes. Attention has always been currency the infinite reproducibility introduced by new image compression, editing and storage techniques partnered with the libindal nature of social media mean that attention has more value than ever. The commodification of data and attention also means that a very clear hierarchy becomes apparent: attention, or, for example, how many times a meme is shared, become the most intuitive system of judgement for the success and relative value of a meme.

Reading List for Copy, Sample, Plunder

Core Readings:

The Image Object Post-Internet (Artie Vierkant)

What is Hauntology (Mark Fisher)

Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise(Hito Steyerl)

Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as Compositional Prerogative

Winter Interim

I'll be teaching a class during the Calarts winter interim called Copy, Sample, Plunder concerned with emergent models for authorship, originality and copying. Course description and dates below


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Upcoming Events

Upcoming Concerts and Events:

jitdotdeath: Audiovisual Installations, California Institute of the Arts (WaveCave), December 4-11
Open 24 hours a day

Locations, Faculty Lounge, Cody Putman @ Betalevel, December 10th, 8pm

The Ensemble is Open Late, California Institute of the Arts (ROD), December 11th, 8pm
(premiere of my piece What Was Found for 16 players)