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Ofri Cnaani on Art, Digital Archives and Activism

In this episode we chat with Ofri Cnaani, an artist and associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. Artists are doing amazing things in tech spaces, not just working with tech but using art to explore how our world is infused with data. Ofri discusses some of her projects with us, including her investigation of the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in 2018, which prompted a massive crowdsourced appeal for photos of museum exhibits taken by visitors, and her statistical bodies project, which humorously looks at what kind of data about bodies aren't yet useful, like jealousy and social fatigue, or what is impossible to capture about the body.


Ofri Cnaani is an artist and educator, currently living in London. She works in time-based media, performances, and installations. She is an associate lecturer at the Visual Cultures Department, Goldsmiths, University of London. Cnaani’s work has appeared at Tate Britain, UK; Venice Architecture Biennial; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Inhotim Institute, Brazil; Israel Museum; Amos Rex Museum, Helsink; Kiasma Museum, Helsinki; PS1/MoMA, NYC; BMW Guggenheim Lab, NYC; The Fisher Museum of Art, L.A.; Twister, Network of Lombardy Contemporary Art Museums, Italy; Herzliya Museum of Art, Israel; Moscow Biennial; The Kitchen, NYC; Bronx Museum of the Arts, NYC; Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna; Arnolfini Foundation Museum, Bristol; Tel Aviv Museum; Prague Triennial, among others.

Prior to her recent move to London, Cnaani was based in New York City, where she was a faculty at the School of Visual Arts’s Visual and Critical Studies. At SVA she also ran the 'City as Site: Performance + Social interventions' program. In 2016 she co-founded, with Roxana Fabius, the ‘Unforgettables Reading/Working Group’ at A.I.R Gallery, NYC.


Reading List:


See Ofri's incredible artwork here: https://ofricnaani.com/


Azoulay, A. (2019). Potential history : Unlearning imperialism. London: Verso.


Singh, J. (2018). No Archive Will Restore You (1st ed.). Brooklyn, NY: Punctum books.


Wendy Hui Kyong Chun on Facebook ‘Friendship’ and Predicting the Future, The Good Robot, https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/wendy-hui-kyong-chun-on-facebook-friendship-and/id1570237963?i=1000553286566


Transcript:


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Hi! I’m Dr Kerry McInerney. Dr Eleanor Drage and I are the hosts of The Good Robot podcast. Join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how can feminism help us work towards it? If you want to learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, www.thegoodrobot.co.uk, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list by every guest. We love hearing from listeners, so feel free to tweet or email us, and we’d also so appreciate you leaving us a review on the podcast app. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode!


ELEANOR DRAGE:

In this episode we chat with Ofri Cnaani, an artist and associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. Artists are doing amazing things in tech spaces, not just working with tech but using art to explore how our world is infused with data. Ofri discusses some of her projects with us, including her investigation of the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in 2018, which prompted a massive crowdsourced appeal for photos of museum exhibits taken by visitors, and her statistical bodies project, which humorously looks at what kind of data about bodies aren't yet useful, like jealousy and social fatigue, or what is impossible to capture about the body. We hope you enjoy the show.

KERRY MCINERNEY:

Brilliant, thank you so much for joining us here today. It's really so lovely to get to chat to you about your work. So just to kick us off, could you tell us a bit about who you are, what you do? And what's brought you to thinking about feminism, gender, colonialism and technology?


OFRI CNAANI:

Hi, Kerry and Eleanor, it's really so great being here. I've been listening to your podcast for a while now. So my name is Ofri Cnaani, I'm an artist and a researcher and I work across media and performance. And I write mainly about data and coloniality, but specifically within the realm of museums and cultural institutions, in relation to algorithmic technologies. And I always come to those theoretical problematics from practice, which means that I often ask how I can, I would say relate to those questions from live methods, or what performance does, and how performance can be a way to create or to think about critical technologies. So for example, through practice, I look closely at those kinds of current techno-political environments, and the way they intertwine with canonic institutions like museums, and those sets of I would say research methods that are based on performance I feel offer deeply situated accounts of how particular terrains are currently shifting. So when I think about feminism the most honest so kind of simple way to think about it is that feminism is where I think from, it's not about one single term, it’s about how you make the world.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Fantastic. Thank you. So you have lots of wonderful reference points, as well. But what do you think about what good technology is, whether it's possible and how feminism can help us get there?

OFRI CNAANI:

This is the billion dollar question! And I have to say that every time I listen to you, I have a very productive sense of anticipation to hear what people say, because it's a great provocation. I would say that good technology, the way I think about them, is local and situated. They're always - they should be somehow responsive to changing local conditions, so they go against universal claims. And again, I spend a lot of time thinking about this project of the global-Imperial-universal-knowing-all-encyclopaedic-Museum, the one that is based always on separation of either objects, cultural objects, or, or different nature phenomena from their original setting, and kind of re-orienting them. And there is one code, which is the index, and the one rule. And I think, in many ways, when we look at big projects of datafication, they are following very similar routes, a very similar kind of logic. So, I would say that, for me, good technologies are going against these universal claims. And these fantasies of sync-temporalities, like an overarching timeline or an overarching narrative, and they instead go against this challenge, this drive of scaling up, and this, I would say, hunger, really of classifying everything, that now we know is terrifying. Everything, which as I said before, it's never neutral and is always coming from, you know, from privileges. So, for me, good technologies are, I would like to think about them as the one that are spoken from the mouths of many, many humans but also non-human agencies.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

So you did this amazing project called statistical bodies, and I love looking at these images, they're really amazing, where you took photos of yourself, and then you overlaid them with data points, from wellness to social fatigue. And then the really funny thing is like the bile after your second coffee of the day, you know, and it got me thinking about really what kind of data points are being extracted from us? And which ones are not, you know, which ones are valuable and actionable, and which ones aren't at all. So can you explain what this project did and what you were trying to say about the way that technology quantifies our bodies?

OFRI CNAANI:

Yeah, I mean, some of them are data points that have not yet been identified. But it's a matter of time, and then maybe, to think, a little bit more poetically about what cannot be identified. But yeah, thank you for asking about that. That's a project that ended up with a few photos, as you mentioned, but it has emerged from an ongoing series of performances, oftentimes they are one on one and taking the form of a reading, you know, a spiritual reading of a kind, and they always intercross I would say, the occult or this idea of prediction, coming from different systems of knowledge and different traditions, with the ambition to predict the future that can emerge from this late capitalist algorithmic-enhanced environment that we live in. And this idea of knowing the future for a while - the future was the only domain that could not be datafied, but then i five or six years ago, Google announced in one of those kinds of megalomaniac announcements that they are now doing, you know, the ability to predict the future. I was listening to that and it was like, Well, what can we do with that. And again again, from working with embodied practices, my question was at the time, how this intangible power of algorithmic, algorithmic capitalism vibrates in our bodies. And when we think under this umbrella of data surveillance, when this data surveillance meets the intimate body, it used to be about visual surveillance, like the camera. In the camera, we see a person crossing the room or the street, the person is or the body of this person, this individual, is one body. And even if we have location based surveillance, you know, one data point one, you know, blinking light is one single person. But if we think about technologies of quantified selves, they started from counting steps, and I don't know, stuff like that. But now they're really penetrating or really vibrating within the cell level. And they are becoming very, very abstract, this concept of what the body is, how the body counts, and how it's being counted, is at the level of the blood consistency, the sweat level, and so on and so forth. And my question, working with bodies and moving bodies, is can we ask questions about kind of new modes of digital and data governance, as a problem of and in the body? Can we ask those questions from what the body knows? And can we kind of look at those micro-movements of non-tangible spaces, and try to refuse them, or look for those kinds of imperfect edges of synchronicity between body and object and social and technological milieu. And those imperfect edges for me present spaces with reduced governmentality, the places that almost cannot be captured, because at least as far as I know, there’s always something that drops out.


So I kind of read a few of them as the same old issues of anxiety, the frustration of being stuck, the slow violence of feeling empty, the pathetic hope that someone will understand you without words, the tendency of giving up trying, the inability to relate the feeling that no matter what you do, there is always something wrong. The moment they don't even know.

The shame of self harm, the [replace], the lacking of self awareness, the night sweat, the annoyance of not really telling the truth, the itching of jealousy. Wow, the rage, the rage, the skin that can see the resentment of someone you love. The numbness of scrolling down the irritation of losing a thread of thought.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Wow, thank you so much for that. And I think there's just such a richness in the way that you weave together all these theoretical ideas that Eleanor and I deal with a lot in our work with the embodied practice of it. And I can see exactly what you're talking about the beginning of this, why you think practice is so important in the way that you generate all these different ideas and methods for thinking about quantification and thinking about the way that we're increasingly now, particularly with AI-powered technologies, which Eleanor and I look at, try to quantify futures. And for our listeners, I think a lot of what we're talking about right now really resonates with the episode we had with Wendy Chun, and her incredible work-


OFRI CNAANI:

She’s also a huge influence in my work, especially her work on machine unlearning, which is very central to my thinking about how to engage with the past. And her interpretation of Ariella Azoulay unlearning imperialism. And I would like maybe before we move on, just to respond to that and say that, for me, maybe because I was an artist first and I mean, I was always taught but came to academia later to kind of pursue PhD and teaching and stuff like that. It's really important for me, and because I know many researchers listening to your podcast, to kind of leave aside I would say not behind the what I call the neat and tidy methodologies. So not to be well situated within a specific academic milieu, my work is always on the shifting grounds between performance studies, critical technology, and I would say museum or whatever archival and museum studies. So it's an uncomfortable place. And being in an uncomfortable place is I think very productive.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

Absolutely. This idea of existing within these spaces of discomfort and saying that these spaces are where we start to understand these fundamental kinds of tensions that characterise the world that we live in. And, you know, I feel like maybe The Good Robot should be mess-odologies or something, because of the messiness.


OFRI CNAANI:

Mess-odologies, I kind of love it.

KERRY MCINERNEY:

But you know, and I think this must be particularly powerful for your area of work because when I think of so many museum spaces, they present this facade of being super tidy, super complete, when those collections have often been violently brought together as this complete cacophony of circumstance and violent events. And so I actually want to ask you about another aspect of your work, which relates to the National Museum of Brazil. So something I embarrassingly didn't know and that you told me was that in 2018, there was a catastrophic fire there, which destroyed much of that collection, but then afterwards, some really interesting things happened to try and restore that collection. So could you tell us a little bit about that? What happened? And how did the contributions of previous visitors and the use of technologies get people thinking about some different ways of collecting and presenting art?


OFRI CNAANI:

Yes, sure. So I just completed major research about that. So in 2018, as you mentioned, in one very long night, in September, the National Museum in Brazil, which is, you know, kind of a born of a classic colonial practices used to be a palace, a Portuguese palace, and it collected knowledges, from all over the territories, or under the nationality of Brazil, and was burned to ashes because of an error, an electric shortage. And because there was not enough running water in the fire hydrant to start taking control of this fire, during that very, very long night, that people described as a lobotomy in Brazilian memory, 20 million objects that were housed in this collection burned in the fire. And just to orient you, I usually give as an example the British Museum, which has 8 million in the collection. This is 20 million, including, I don't know, like different indigenous ceramics and headpieces, but also dinosaurs and butterflies because it was also a national history, a natural history museum, but also a major linguistic archive of many indigenous languages that are no longer practiced. So this is the vast collection. And the way I came into this event, and I would say also that in the last couple of years, there are quite a few - and this is very alarming, but quite a few in the archives, libraries, or museums that are either being flooded or being destroyed - major parts of the collection. And this is pretty systematic neglect in a way that very, very systematically, austerity is coming into place and meeting the climate crisis. And that will happen again. But my questions are less about museology, or preservation, and neither - and this is very important - I'm not coming to those questions from the question of what happened, or reading them within the local, you know, kind of geo-culture of Brazil. The reason I started to look at that is because I find it quite shocking that in this age of hyper documentation and algorithmic reproduction, almost nothing survived within the digital realm. And the only thing is that they didn't have a digital collection, which, you know, the kind of politics of digitization is fascinating, and we can talk about it, you know, experimentally, but this is also a very, very costly process that, unsurprisingly is more advanced now in North America and in Europe, while other places around the world oftentimes don't have digital collection. So the only things that survived as digital remains are fascinating. So one thing is a kind of a handful of 3D objects. But then the two other things that survived, I feel tell a lot of the story that we are interested in about technology in society. So during that fire, hundreds and hundreds of people were standing there and seeing the museum, you know, burn wing by wing, and students from the University started a campaign nationally and it went international on Wikipedia, asking people to contribute their own media, their own images. And people uploaded photos of their kids and selfies and blurred photos and copies and all those things that we are not thinking about as proper images. And we have now a kind of a formal digital collection. But we have this amazing relational, poor image quality and completely user-generated collection, which I like to think of as almost a shift from collection to recollection. It's a memory in action. But also, each of those images, you know, sit on the device that took this picture. And let's say I left the museum and I showed it on Whatsapp group, and I put it on social media, and then my device died and I threw it away, and maybe whatever, it's somewhere else. And then it's part of the collection, the institutional collection. So almost every single image is a collection by itself. And this whole phenomenon is a collection of a collection. And then the other thing, if the first one is from collection to recollection, the other one is from collection to correlation. Because it's a virtual tour done by Google Art and Culture. It has actually nothing to do with Brazil or the museum. It's the same technology - CIA-developed technology - Google used to capture your street and the museum. And then if you go to Google Art and Culture, you see everything from Belgin Belson, to, you know, to the great desert in Arizona, and the Louvre all been kind of confined under this - if the museum wants to know all, if it is not colonial enough, now you have a company that puts as their objective - and that was the first collaboration they did with the British - they said the Museum of the World - and shifting the the display into more network-like, but their ambition is they have their own cameras, they give them to museums, they are the distributor. And obviously they also take the profit. So thinking about it as a continuation of the same model of the great museums in terms of taking, solidifying and organising into one institution, and really they come to museums now and it's really a scene from early colonialism. They come to museums that don't have digital collections, like ‘here the tools, we have the camera, here are the hosts, we have the platform’. And it's really operating in a way that - I feel those two models really represent various entanglements that mirror the way hierarchical institutions merge and entangle within a network of knowing and collecting data. And then yeah, and then and then they kind of develop a counter model to that through the research I do.


So as kind of a counter framework to the one of the museum I was looking at the museum residues that survive both in matter-form but also in body form and social order, and data, which are completely scattered and not only are they not unclaimed by the institution, they I would say they are unclaimable. The residues are non-identitarian, and non-ideological entities, but they offer kind of an ecology of leftovers of this event of the museum that did not go digital, they cannot go digital. But they offer a knowledge structure that is based on alliances between matter, bodies, and data. And can be, you know, and can be kind of productive to think in relation to the museum, and not simply by this idea of, you know, rebuilding the museum or taking one form and shifting it into digital form, which I think we are a little bit beyond.


KERRY MCINERNEY:

I love this idea of an ecology of traces. And your idea of how the residue is left behind reminds me of Julietta Singh’s work No Archive Will Restore You and such incredible work that's going on in these sorts of feminist and anti racist archival theories and spaces. And I also was really interested in what you were saying about the implication of big tech, with these neocolonial practices, and for our listeners this definitely resonates with the themes raised by Karen Hao in the previous episode, so please check that out. And also an upcoming episode we have with Michael Kwet. So I actually want to ask you now that you've brought that project to a close if you could tell us a little bit more about your new project. So I know that you're doing some work on colonialism and data apartheid. And could you tell us a bit more about it? Sure. Yeah.


OFRI CNAANI:

Thank you. So I recently relocated to the Middle East. And my project that I'm just starting now under the title of Data Apartheid. And I'm trying to take this main argument around digital colonialism or data colonialism within the tech ecosystem. Looking at, you know, this question that the same knowledge setting that is characterised to classic colonialism is now being shifted, implicated and expanded within the tech ecosystem with one major difference that the ones in power are no longer monarchy or the state, but the big tech companies. So I think this this whole argument is extremely interesting when we try and look in general at when territorial claims go or turn computational, but specifically within the locale of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, and it's really kind of convoluted within, like everything else here is extremely complex because the occupation, or maybe you say apartheid, it's still a very much national project in terms of power, however, and the way that Israel has been promoted to the world as the ‘start up nation’. And it has had this unbelievable technological kind of superiority in the last two decades or more, a lot of those technologies are emerging from the military, and specifically a focus on data surveillance. So the way technology plays a major role here in both extending and preserving the situation of that the occupation, from just one example is that with Google, the way that Palestinian villages are not represented on the map, Israeli say these are kind of military zone. But it's really a production of, of disorientation and erasure of the history of occupation. And there are many different aspects of them. And once again, I'm trying to think about it not so much from its geo-technological aspects, but also from other practices that are collaborative and performance based.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

That’s wonderful. I mean, it's such a pleasure to interview artists as well in tech spaces, because you're coming at it from some incredibly interesting perspectives, you’re super creative. And really restorative. I'm really excited to showcase more artists on The Good Robot. And we're so thrilled to have you as a listener as well.

OFRI CNAANI:

I mean, it's so wonderful, such a great podcast.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Thank you so much for coming on and talking to us today. It's been too short. And I hope very much that we speak to you again soon.


OFRI CNAANI:

Thank you. Thank you so much.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

This episode was made possible thanks to our previous funder, Christina Gaw, and our current funder Mercator Stiftung, a private and independent foundation promoting science, education and international understanding. It was written and produced by Dr Eleanor Drage and Dr Kerry McInerney, and edited by Laura Samulionyte.


The cover image is from Ofri's art project Statistical Bodies

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