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Dressing Animals, Governing Files, Managing Traffic: Habits of Automation

Speaker: Gunalan Nadarajan

Recorded: 22 October 2021

Historical and contemporary discussions of automation have been overly focused on its technological instantiations, specifically on its mechanical and industrial instances at the expense of the ways in which automation is embedded in and programmed into practices, discourses and materialities that are seemingly ‘non-technological’. It is proposed that automation should be (re)conceived in an expanded way as a constellation of elements through which cultures are produced and structured to predispose specific behaviors and material effects; specifically, as structures and programs for the deferral of decisions and actionsdeferral to other things, other occasions, and other people. Thus, automation is framed as spatio-temporal and socio-technical programming rather than as referring simply and only to its mechanical instances and outcomes. It will be argued that automation historically emerged from and continues to evolve amidst the shifting mobilizations and disarticulations of the biomachinic interface; the different and culturally-specific technological devices, industrial machinations and technical discourses that have come to be associated with automation; the efforts of organizations to simultaneously and sometimes counterproductively appropriate and substitute labor power in the guises of productivity, efficiency, welfare and duty; the changing philosophical, neurological, psychological, legal, and ethical conceptions of intentionality and action including notions of free will, autonomy, intelligence and habit; and the governmental and infrastructural programs that regulate conduct. My research seeks to excavate this expanded notion of automation drawing on and reframing a range of disparate historical and contemporary examples. It is suggested that this revised notion of automation enables a more productive perspective to critically retool and creatively reimagine its possibilities and problems.

Gunalan Nadarajan, an art theorist and curator working at the intersections of art, science and technology, is Dean and Professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. His publications include Ambulations (2000), Construction Site (edited; 2004) and Contemporary Art in Singapore (co-authored; 2007), Place Studies in Art, Media, Science and Technology: Historical Investigations on the Sites and Migration of Knowledge (co-edited; 2009), The Handbook of Visual Culture (co-edited; 2012) and over 100 book chapters, catalogue essays, academic articles and reviews. His writings have also been translated into 16 languages. He is on the editorial board of the book series, Technicities, Edinburgh University Press and the journal, Cultural Politics (Duke University Press). He has curated many international exhibitions including Ambulations(Singapore, 1999), 180KG (Jogjakarta, 2002), media_city (Seoul, 2002), Negotiating Spaces (Auckland, 2004) and DenseLocal (Mexico City, 2009) and Displacements (Beijing, 2014). He was contributing curator for Documenta XI (Kassel, Germany, 2002) and the Singapore Biennale (2006) and served on the jury of a number of international exhibitions, like ISEA2004 (Helsinki / Talinn), transmediale 05 (Berlin), ISEA2006 (San Jose) andFutureEverything Festival (Manchester, 2009). He was Artistic Co-Director of the Ogaki Biennale 2006, Japan and Artistic Director of ISEA2008 (International Symposium on Electronic Art) in Singapore. In 2004, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art.

Paul Vanouse: Labor, Bodies, Nonhumans & Identity
26 August 2021

Labor, is a multi-sensory, bio-media artwork, by Paul Vanouse, which premiered in 2019. Labor is an exploration of the microbial (post-anthropocentric) basis of human sweat, something typically considered almost uniquely human. In the artwork however, there are no people involved in making the smell — it is created by bacteria propagating in three bioreactors in the exhibition space. Each bioreactor incubates a different species of human skin bacteria responsible for the primary scent of sweating bodies: Staphylococcus epidermidis, Corynebacterium xerosis and Propionibacterium avidum. Over the course of each exhibition, these disembodied scents are channeled into a central bell jar before diffusing into the room. Human sweat in itself is odorless: it is these bacteria feeding upon the components of sweat that creates volatile, odiferous chemical compounds that we associate with sweat and physical effort. In Labor, humanness was a phenomenon, that was not fundamentally the property of a human subject, but rather of a more complex intra-action between significations of humanness and microbes commonly associating with the human body.

Paul Vanouse is an artist and professor of Art at the University at Buffalo, NY, where he is the founding director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art. Interdisciplinarity and impassioned amateurism guide his art practice. His projects, “Latent Figure Protocol”, “Suspect Inversion Center” and “America Project” use molecular biology techniques to challenge misleading “DNA-hype”, such as the idea that “DNA Is Destiny”. His work has been exhibited in over 25 countries and widely across the US. Recent solo exhibitions include: Burchfield-Penny Gallery in Buffalo, Beall Center in Irvine, Muffathalle in Munich, Schering Foundation in Berlin, and Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana. His scent-based bio-artwork, Labor, was awarded a Golden Nica at Prix Ars Electronica, 2019.