Soft Machines: Technology and Material Impact

While the mechanics of advanced technology are often understood by the general public as an abstraction, so too are their impacts felt keenly within lived experience. Such machines are far from neutral, but rather instilled with the belief systems and biases of the humans who made them. Borrowed from writer William S. Burroughs, the notion of the Soft Machine refers to the human body and its relation to control mechanisms.

The conference will begin with a screening of Eye/Machine (2000) by the influential theorist, critic, and filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014). This work investigates how, with the live broadcasting of the 1991 Gulf War, military vision and electronic surveillance has infiltrated civilian life through so-called “operational images.” As Farocki demonstrates, the human eye as a tool to witness history has been replaced by computer vision, which disables our capacity to distinguish between “real” and fictional images.
Examining advanced technology from a material perspective, a mixture of artists and theorists will additionally speak about the personal and political implications of artificial intelligence, machine learning, eugenics, and data mining alongside notions of class, gender, race, modernism and colonialism. Invited speakers include Ramon Amaro, Lila Lee-Morrison, Natasha Tontey, and Kate Cooper. Through a critical discussion and performance program, these speakers will underline how existing power structures from the past – often exploitative in nature – complicate the experience of today’s technologies and digital cultures. The program will introduce critical concepts from the field of visual culture and automated facial recognition technology, as well as introduce a performative work by Kate Cooper and new videos by Natasha Tontey. Together, these theorists and artists present a multifaceted image of the intersections between digital art, the social sciences, and the felt impacts of data colonialism.

Karen Archey is Curator of Contemporary Art at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, where she cares for the collections of contemporary art and time-based media. She has organized major exhibitions of artists Hito Steyerl, Rineke Dijkstra, and Metahaven, as well as the group exhibition Freedom of Movement: the 2018 Municipal Art Acquisitions. She is currently organizing a major retrospective of the work of Marina Abramović. Formerly based in Berlin and New York, Archey worked as an independent curator, editor, and art critic, writing for publications such as Artforum and frieze. In 2014, she organized with Robin Peckham the exhibition “Art Post-Internet” at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. In 2015, Archey was awarded an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for short-form writing. Her book After Institutions (2022) examines museums as a troubled, rapidly evolving public space and renews discussions around Institutional Critique.