Data Politics and Automated Aesthetics Workshop

Friday 25 August 2017

Organised by Liam Magee, Luke Munn and Ned Rossiter

Institute for Culture and Society Digital Life research program

Venue: Female Orphan School, Conference room 3, Western Sydney University Parramatta South campus

Data, despite its claim to 'pure' technicity, is permeated all the way through with the political. From the 'ground truth' of machine learning to the manipulations of employee tracking, data systems and architectures are infused with the extra-rational. This is not a party politics, but a politics of small things with scalar potential. Design decisions are embedded in our technical systems and digital devices. These low-level decisions stack up to form asymmetries of power, increasingly determining how architecture and our environments are arranged (Airbnb), the social and labour relations that constitute work (Uber), the imagery and information we consume (Facebook) and the ways in which we produce and locate knowledge (Google). Politics here is not spectacular and overt, nor aligned exclusively with the modern authority of the sovereign state. Rather, data politics disappears as background performance within operational structures and systems. In this sense data politics can be considered protological (Galloway), or a 'microphysics' (Foucault) of power. To critically understand this politics, we need new methods and analytical devices unconstrained by traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Automation produces new forms of aesthetics. Think, for instance, of the personalised social media feed as an automatically constructed object – a particular arrangement of updates and info, viewpoints and video designed to receive the highest engagement and the most likes. Or take, for example, machine vision as a set of aesthetic practices that understand the world as an algorithmic topology from which trackable objects, readable numbers and parseable text might be extracted. As Rancière reminds us, aesthetics are never purely about beauty or style, but rather inherently political in that they determine who gets to speak and who remains silent, what is visualised and what remains invisible. Beyond the logic of representation is the politics of operation (Mezzadra and Neilson).

Data politics and automated aesthetics determine futures. From speculative fiction to phantasmic visualisations, the future is materialised through imaginaries generated as much out of the guru-driven enclaves of Silicon Valley as the startup buzz of China and its factories of gold farmers. The artist studio and the scientific laboratory are replicated in silica in the data centre. This cultural epoch will be one that integrates mechanical reproduction into wider circuits of machinic production, where novel visual, aural and sensory effects are produced through data mining, patterning and optimisation. These imaginaries forecast the termination of the human capacity to intervene. But these fantasies never completely exhaust the possibilities of automation, nor fully enclose constitutive outsides. How might theory and practice, criticality and invention come together to contour the forces of technological change?

This workshop probes aesthetic practices as a handle on algorithmic regimes of governance and automated worlds.



Welcome and introductory remarks


Professor Anna Munster, National Institute for Experimental Arts, University of New South Wales: 'DeepAesthetics'

Professor Glenn Geers, Principal Engineer, Australian Road Research Board: 'Automated Vehicles and Future Urban Form'

12.15-1.00pm Lunch

Tech workshop, Liam Magee and Luke Munn: Image Analysis with Processing: Approaching Media with Algorithmic Eyes

This short hands-on workshop introduces the basics of algorithmic image generation using the popular scripting tool Processing. Participants will load images, examine their colours, and loop over their pixels, playing with these simple parameters in order to explore some of the fundamental logics underpinning digital aesthetics.



Dr Josh Harle, Director, Tactical Space Lab, Sydney: 'Digital capture and the Aesthetics of Verisimilitude'


Dr Debbie Symons, Melbourne based artist: 'Communicating via the Database'


Closing remarks


This event is free to attend. Please RSVP by 22 August (opens in a new window)

Framing Questions

  • What kind of politics emerge from data practices? How are the conventional categories of race, sex and class reworked into new classifiers generative of new political forces?
  • What is the trajectory of this politics? Automation, for example, is deeply ingrained with an historical process of optimising labour, significantly altering the conditions and experience of work. 
  • How is this politics made operational? Can we empirically examine data within machinic and computational settings in order to make legible the techniques used, the architectures employed and the strategies that are actioned?
  • How might aesthetics assist with the analysis and understanding of these processes, which are often imperceptible or purposefully made inaccessible?
  • How might data and automation be instrumentalised by alternate logics, intervening in the given and instead pointing towards new theories, new methods and new aesthetics?

Abstracts and Participant Biographies

Glenn Geers

'Automated Vehicles and Future Urban Form'

During the late 19th century the advent of the railways induced changes to urban form which has only accelerated with the rise of the automobile. As we enter the 21st century we are at another cusp in transport with automated vehicles set to influence almost every aspect of how we live, how we interact with friends and family; and how we do business. However, as history has shown new transport technology will influence the way cities and towns are designed. In this talk I will present some ideas about the way driverless vehicle technology may influence urban form and whether the results will be as rosy as some have suggested.

Glenn Geers is Principal Engineer, ITS at ARRB – Australia's largest, independent transport research organisation. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales, and is a member of Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics and Association of Computing Machinery. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) tasked with providing advice on the current research strategy and future scientific directions for the SMART Infrastructure Facility, University of Wollongong. Glenn holds honours degrees in electrical engineering and theoretical physics and received his PhD in the field of computational electromagnetism. He is on the editorial board of GeoInformatica. From 1994 to 2005 Glenn worked on biometrics, image processing and distributed systems at CSIRO and in private industry. In 2005 Glenn joined National ICT Australia (NICTA) as Systems Engineering Manager, Intelligent Transport Systems. From 2010 to 2015 he held the role of Technology Director, Infrastructure, Transport and Logistics at NICTA. During the same period he was a Director of ITS Australia.

Josh Harle

'Digital capture and the Aesthetics of Verisimilitude'

How do digital technologies attempt to make sense of the world? My recent work Making Sense re-appropriates digital capture technology to parody the motivations and ideal of the 'objective observer'. As a continuation of this research, I explore photogrammetry both from a technical standpoint and in its contemporary use by Australian archaeologists. This contextual discussion is broadened, examining the opacity of the automated reconstruction process, its questionable claim to verisimilitude, and the culturally sited standard for representing sites. To conclude, I present Surrounds and Relics – two works which use and subvert this process to create a very different aesthetic. I discuss the importance of a fictocritical approach and the presentation of broken results and conspicuous artifacts to reveal how alien the algorithm's understanding of the world is.

Josh Harle is a multidisciplinary researcher and new media artist with a background in Computer Science, Philosophy, and Sculpture. Harle's practice explores the contemporary use of digital technologies to map and make sense of the world, critiquing the opaquely ideological practice of digital capture. His works take various established and emerging mapping technologies – laser scanning, photogrammetry, geolocation tracking – and re-appropriates them as expressive mediums, altering their outcomes to introduce an affective element which is normally absent. The results embrace their performative origins and the contingency of their creation. Through these radical cartographic practices, Harle reveals his own place in a field of competing drives to organise, stake-claims, and dictate boundaries: the map as a performance of exploration, of trying to make sense of the world.

Anna Munster


In the context of machine learning, the term 'deep' refers to the addition of (potentially) thousands of layers to a neural network, providing a training AI with opportunities for increased precision in solving a particular task. But 'deep' must then imply the capacity to run such networks. Both the computational and economic facilities underpinning such processing have shifted to corporations capable of servicing and financing massive parallel networks: in 2012, Google's research labs ran 10 million YouTube cat videos through neural networks using Graphic Processing Units (GPUs) running parallel architectures across hundreds of computers. Deep learning was thus 'born' in a convergence of: i) a material infrastructural shift in computation – from CPUs to GPUs; ii) the consolidation of networked corporatism and 'intelligence' research; and iii) the literal capture and harvesting of contemporary visual culture by data centres.

This paper argues that 'DeepAesthetics' names this new kind of machinic assemblage, and will propose that such an assemblage must be understood transversally as the relationality of technical, political and cultural claims to the production of automated forms of judgement and value. I will ask: how have existing aesthetic paradigms been subsumed by manufacturers of, for example, GPUs, such as Nividia? But the paper will also consider what alternative aesthetic practices might yet be possible as AIs themselves experiment with other kinds of deep aesthetics; ones which operate out of machine learning's own black boxing. We might speculatively propose that the largely impenetrable operativity of such vast neural networking might be the site of a radical unknowability and affectivity for machine aesthetics.

Anna Munster is an artist, writer, educator and professor in art and design, University of New South Wales. She is the author of An Aesthesia of Networks (MIT Press 2013) and Materializing New Media (Dartmouth University Press, 2006). Both of these examine aspects of artists' engagements with networks and digital culture. Anna is also an artist, regularly collaborating with Michele Barker. She has worked most recently on the installations evasion (2014), and HokusPokus (2011) using soundscapes, interaction and installation design to explore both human and nonhuman movement and perception. She regularly contributes to journals, writing on art, media, politics and culture and is a founding member of the online peer-reviewed journal The Fibreculture Journal. Her co-edited anthology, Immediations: Art, Media, Event, with Erin Manning and Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen will be published with Open Humanities Press in 2017.

Debbie Symons

'Communicating via the Database'

This presentation dives into three recent artworks that explore the destructive intersection of capital with the natural environment. World Species Market co-opts a stock market board and replaces the customary financial data with threatened species data. Counting One to Four: Nature morte visualises the predicted consequences of our warming atmosphere on the entirety of the Earth's biodiversity through the use of percentage formulas. The final work, Arrivals and Departures interrogates the inextricable links between the demise of numerous Australian native species impacted by the arrival of four species; the fox, rabbit, cane toad and the Indian myna bird. By reusing the visual language of financial and logistical systems, the catastrophic effects of consumption and capital are made implicit. But reusing these aesthetics also suggests new systems that might work to sustain, rather than suspend forms of life within our fragile biosphere.

Dr Debbie Symons is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Melbourne, Australia. She completed her PhD Anthropocentrism, Endangered Species and the Environmental Dilemma at Monash University in 2014 with the support of an Australian Postgraduate Scholarship. Symons collaborates with scientific organisations such as the IUCN Red List to facilitate the statistical data pertaining to her works. Symons' works have shown internationally; The International Urban Screen Association, The Streaming Museum, New York and Galerie Prodromus, Paris. Locally, Symons' has exhibited her works at [MARS] Gallery, Craft Victoria, Linden New Art, RMIT Gallery, Latrobe Regional Gallery. Her works are held in a number of private collections within Australia. She recently completed the inaugural Carlton Connect residency for the City of Melbourne as part of the CLIMARTE Art+Climate=Change 2015 Festival and exhibited in ARTCOP21, the artistic response to the COP21 talks in Paris, New York and Melbourne.

Suggested Readings

Jafarpour, S, Polatkan, G, Brevdo, E, Hughes, S, Brasoveanu, A & Daubechies, I 2009, 'Stylistic analysis of paintings using wavelets and machine learning' (opens in a new window), Signal Processing Conference, 2009 17th European, IEEE, pp. 1220-1224.

'Maillardet's automaton' (opens in a new window)

'Machine learning for musicians and artists' (opens in a new window)

Mezzadra, S & Neilson, B 2013, 'Extraction, logistics, finance: global crisis and the politics of operations' (opens in a new window), Radical Philosophy, no. 178, pp. 8-18.

Paglen, T 2014, 'Operational Images' (opens in a new window), e-flux, no. 59.

PwC, 'Managing the people and change aspects of implementing Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in the workforce' (opens in a new window), February 2016.

Srnicek, N 2015, 'Computational infrastructures and aesthetics' (opens in a new window), in C Cox, J Jaskey & S Malik (eds), Realism materialism art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, pp. 307-12.

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