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Josh Harle: Warrior or Pornographer?

Josh Harle: Warrior or Pornographer?

Josh Harle is the current Artist-in-Residence of Q21 recommended by the Research Institute for Arts and Technology at MuseumsQuartier. Harle is an artist and researcher based in Sydney who explores the use of technology to map and make sense of the world, critiquing its opaquely ideological use. Through his radical cartographic practices, Harle reveals his own place in a world of competing drives to organise, stake-claims, and dictate boundaries. Andrew Newman from the Research Institute for Arts & Technology speaks to him about his practice.

You primarily work with technology, yet you have a very problematic relationship with it, why?

Technology is dishonest about its limitations and motivations. Tech-journalism and pop science propagates this myth that it is the only legitimate way of understanding the world. When I was a kid, I really was a cliche of a geek, building computers and programming, so when I finished school I studied computer science and cybernetics. I was surrounded by people who were completely focused on that way of thinking about the world.

And what is this way of thinking?

It’s really comforting to have a way of dealing with things: to be able to take the messiness of the world and compose it in a way that’s more organised, clearer, that you can get a robot to understand, a way of rationalising and dealing with it, figuring out how you can categorise it and fit it into something that you can understand a little bit better. It’s less intimidating, it’s less scary, you have control over it basically.

It seems quite messy inside your studio now, did you stop making order of the messiness? 

I definitely was someone who found it very comforting to look at the world in that particular frame where everything can be understood if you go about it in that particular way, if you abstract it with a level head.

What is this kind of frame?

The frame of rationalising the world. That sort of frame.

But how does one even do that, rationalise the world?

It’s something that computer scientists are pretty much trained to do. You look at processes in the world and try and figure out how you can take it and represent it in a computer. How you can remove all of the noise and all of the gumph, isolate out as much as possible, and understand it in as clear-headed way as possible. This means ignoring some bits and focusing on other bits.

I would say one of the reasons I am cynical about technology, while I was comforted by that approach, comes from my family’s involvement in nuclear weapons research. Basically, the way they think about it is just as a process of developing technology.  All of that amazing scientific/technological/engineering focus is something you can see as a purely abstracted process: “Here is our problem, here is how we are going to solve that problem”. But the thing that you are doing is insane, it is not a sane thing to want mutual assured destruction, which is the basis of Trident in the cold war, which was still going on when I was a kid, and hanging out in this tiny country town in the UK where the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) was based, where my grandparents were living, and where my father met my mother while working there as a nuclear physicist. The thing that they are doing is fucking insane. It is not a rational thing to do, you can see the problem, people working on it can sit there and enjoy this process of thinking rationally and clear-headedly in solving a problem, but that problem is part of something, the motivation in solving that problem is not a sane motivation.

My grandad could calmly explain the clever decoy system in a nuclear missile while I sat there horrified, imagining people trying to shoot it down to save their loved ones…

But do you think this way of thinking is inherent to technology itself?

It’s not hard when you look at different technologies to see, for example the Internet came out of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). I would say looking at different technologies, they always come from a very messy, very human sort of motivation. Technical developments are basically driven by war and pornography. The betamax format died against the VHS because the porn industry in the USA chose VHS over the betamax, and that was just a licensing thing, just a luck of the draw whichever one they chose, and because they chose, and it was a huge industry, it became the standard despite having worse technology.

Artist's website: www.joshharle.com 

Upcoming Events: 

30th March 19:00 – 22:00, MetaLab, Rathausstraße 6, 1010 Wien, Austria, “Workshopping a Nomad WiFi Map”
Harle will hold a workshop presenting his Nomad Map WiFi map-server project – a kind of ‘pirate’ Google Maps.

8th April 19:00 – 21:00, Raum D /Q21, MuseumsQuartier, “Decolonising the Digital
Harle will discuss his ongoing research in ‘technology as cultural practice’ and the implications of colonial politics in the application of digital scanning technologies. He will outline his practice, current research, and demonstrate virtual reality works using Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard 3D.

So why is technology the root of all this messiness?

Because it hides it, the idea of science as this grand big sort of thing that we put a lot of faith in, the noble progression of human knowledge. A lot of the money for this research comes from the military. Research funding relies on the right combination of sexy buzzwords, and often comes with grubby political associations.

It is interesting that you move from a critique of technology, to a critique of science, yet call yourself an artist and researcher. Why do you use this identification if you are so opposed to technology and science, why don’t you become a luddite?

Because I think it is useful looking at it not from the outside, but through usage. What I try to do is take particular technologies that have been co-opted, and come out of a particular way of dealing with the world, and show how that way of thinking about the world isn’t necessarily implicit to them. To subvert that technology and show how there is a human use behind it.

So a critical way of using a technology?

Yes. The use of a technology isn’t neutral or given, and you can co-opt and subvert in different ways, in a way that doesn’t try to hide the human element, or the expressive, or the messiness of the human process. I have been looking at mapping technology, the process of mapping in general, and how the map is a particular kind of technology that hides the politics behind the map-making process.  Of course with a long, long colonial history.

And how do you consider your role as an artist using technology?

I think I’m in a nice position of someone who doesn’t fetishise the technology, I am aware of the process that goes on. There are a lot of researchers talking about certain technologies like the Cloud, and they talk about “ah you know this technology is a deterritorialized ephemeral thing”, but they are not aware of the material constraints of those technologies, and how they work. It’s not ephemeral. It’s somewhere. And when it gets struck by lightning all these major websites go offline for days.

But that doesn’t really describe your role as an artist.

What do I do? The reason why I position myself as an artist? What am I, technology, artist research person? What am I?

Yeah maybe that should be the headline: “Josh Harle: What am I?”

(Laughs) What’s the deal? It’s because I feel I have skin in the game for the geek sort of part of it, of making things, and I am aware of what that mentality feels like, of finding it really comforting and compelling to want to rationalise the world, and also what that process involves… You know Bruno Latour did this great sociological analysis of a research laboratory, where he was embedded in it for a few years, and he looked at what the scientists were actually doing, and what he did was amazing because the people who were doing the process themselves didn’t have the perspective, or the reflective capabilities to look at the process, the social process that they were doing, and go like “well there’s something interesting going on here.” Artists have this reflective capability.

This is similar to how Hans-Jorg Rheinberger embedded himself in a scientific lab and looked at the practice processes of what they were doing, at how the experiment works, and how it is often improvised. This idea of how science works, that it is methodical, is not completely true. Would you say that this misunderstanding, that science and art are completely opposing practices, is an issue with your work?

Yeah, it is a problem because I think for a bunch of people, science is still the grand narrative. Instrumentalism is the term, the idea that you can use science to solve all problems.

There is an interesting thing, where Mark Zuckerberg decided to do the filter wall for Facebook. So the problem for Zuckerberg of how we are exposed to news, that there is so much going on, and there is only so much we can pay attention to. His technical solution to that problem was filtering out things that he knew people wouldn’t generally be interested in. So his quote, his actual quote in an interview was “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa”. He actually used the trope of people dying in Africa to say that most people don’t actually give that much of a shit to things that aren’t close to them. By building this facebook filter system, it was a fine technical solution, but it was disastrous from a social and political perspective. Because it just removes people’s sense of perspective. It’s really appalling.

So I suppose I had skin in the game from the technical side of things, and I found it deeply comforting to think about the world in that way, but I am also aware that the process of doing it is a violent abstraction, you are just isolating things out, and that process of isolation is politics basically. The decision of what is considered and what isn’t considered, it’s a particular ideological perspective.

And how did you find your way into art from computer science?

I didn’t go straight into art from computer science, I went into philosophy and the humanities first. And it’s basically two other alternative ways of thinking about the world, one of them is this rationalising way of isolating out, and the humanities, is a lot less. Art is very holistic, it gives you license to…

Take every perspective?

Yeah, and to think about the influences of feelings, influences of poetic resonances, poetic connections between different things. More than anything else, art considers that legitimate, and I consider that legitimate in the practice of science as well. I think the mythology of science is something that drives scientific research and technological development, and the use of technology as well.

You worked as a researcher at an art school on counter terrorism for the Australian government. Why did they want the perspective of an artist?

I worked between art and architecture at the National Institute for Experimental Arts, and our partner organisation was the state government’s counter-terror organisation, the Emergency Information Coordination Unit (EICU). It’s sort of like in the USA where security and intelligence services hire futurists as consultants, for instance they hired a whole bunch of sci-fi writers. It’s the same sort of thing. It’s a pragmatic appreciation that a single perspective isn’t enough. It doesn’t give you insight that you may need. So the EICU is beginning to appreciate the fact that alternative perspectives, things that are normally cut out from view, are actually deeply important.

Do you think working for the government is a problem for an artist? It reminds me of the critical reception of the Art & Technology project that occurred in California during the late 60s. Artists were paired with engineers at various corporations, such as RAND and General Electric. Many of these corporations were actively profiting from the Vietnam war. A review in Artforum described them as a rogue’s gallery of the violence industries subsidized by the US government. You said earlier that technology is driven by either warfare or pornography, and you’re a tech artist, so what are you, a warrior or a pornographer?

Working in these situations has given me a really valuable perspective, but absolutely it’s worth being cautious about.  But it’s also hard to get away from: last year I was artist-in-residence at the University of Western Australian, working with the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management.  I realised after a few weeks that I had been very naive about the politics of archaeology in Australia, and ended up spending a lot of time thinking and talking to people about these particular politics.

I hope I’ve avoided being a warrior or a pornographer.  My guiding principle is to try not to be an asshole, and it’s easy to be unaware of the politics and consequences of things you do. I suppose thinking about people like Latour, I feel more like an embedded agent, paying keen attention to what is going on, and then exploring it critically.

My approach to art research is not to try to give final answers to questions about ‘technology as cultural practice’, but to try to explore these themes as an active participant.  I’m not just engaging with the technology from outside like a theorist. My role as an artist lets me bring in a more holistic way of thinking about our use of technology, a sort of critical applied practice, one that engages in mythology: a research equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism. I wrote about this in more detail recently for the Journal for Research Cultures, an idea of ‘gonzo research’. So maybe you’d call me a gonzo researcher. As I said before, I’m not sure. What is great about art is that it doesn’t stigmatise being uncertain.

Read Josh Harle’s essay ‘Making Sense: Tactics, hacking and gonzo research’ at the Journal for Research Cultures.

Josh Harle is supported by Austria Australia Arts

Photos: © Eva Ellersdorfer-Meissnerová

Interview: Andrew Newman @anewmn

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