The Future Is Coded

Travel restrictions raise new challenges for cross-boundary artistic/scientific research. Residencies at the Ars Electronica Futurelab remain a source of mutual inspiration.

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Changing our attitude to successful dialogue means that a residency, even without a physical presence on site, need not become a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, all members of the team hope that it will be possible to welcome Fanny Zaman to Linz within the upcoming year. As part of a vision memorandum on digital transformation in the cultural sector, the Flemish Ministry of Arts and Culture began developing a new, innovative residency program in 2018. The stated aim: to drive experimentation and innovation in an open-minded and visionary environment. In addition to Empac in New York and the Media Lab Prado in Madrid, a cooperation with the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz was a top priority. These institutions are engaged in very different fields but they have one thing in common: they develop visions and innovations at the crossroads of technology, art and important questions on the future of society.

“In a way, it is resonance that we end up striving for, now. Resonance in the sense of ‘making something resonate in the other person’. Whether by collaborating remotely or by putting our heads together side by side, developing new ideas, having experiences and mastering challenges together. Shared visions create resonances that will stay with us and have an impact that lasts beyond the certain period of residency ” – Maria Pfeifer

Next to Fanny Zaman, whose extensive focus on visual art, cultural studies and information science, as well as performance and sound design, has attracted many other interesting and committed artists to apply for the residency at the Ars Electronica Futurelab. How did the versatile media artist convince the jury?

Maria Pfeifer: In the call for residencies together with the Flemish Ministry of Youth, Culture and Media, we were looking for artists working in all fields of media and interactive arts, artistic research and other artistic disciplines that have a connection to the digital approach, and deal with questions about our future and how to shape it. We have been looking for innovative ideas and projects that step “outside the box” and explore the unknown territory of human created digital systems. We were looking for concepts that use an artistic approach to look beyond our own garden walls, to discover what is possible in order to go far beyond.

Fanny Zaman has a rich theoretical background, and we were intrigued by her process-oriented approach. We are very much looking forward to interacting and collaborating with her ― be it on the level of support with technological know-how, in terms of VR experience, or the ongoing reflection on future storytelling.

Her attitude towards collaboration and her openminded approach to Future Thinking distinguished her. Most artists/contributions presented a quite concrete idea. Zaman´s wide range of possibilities and her theoretical background were very persuasive, as were the questions they raised. They were about very similar issues to those we are exploring at the Ars Electronica Futurelab.

What made you apply for the artist residency at the Ars Electronica Futurelab and move your workplace from Antwerp to Linz – the corona situation permitting?

Fanny Zaman: In Flanders, hardly any institutions are working with an interdisciplinary approach between Art, Technology and Science. This is mainly because our education system doesn’t have an interdisciplinary focus. The system consists of discrete institutions that work separately from each other. In addition to, or maybe because of this, there is also a growing gender gap: STEM for the boys and Art for the girls. This is what has happened in the last twenty years. Within that divided and separating educational system, it is not possible to include hardcore art studies with hardcore technology studies and hardcore theoretical studies. Also, following graduation, these worlds tend to remain separated. Art, where the girls are, is currently short of funding whilst STEM, where the boys are, is the target of all investments. Everything in between is a vast desert at the moment. Add to this cuts in the humanities are not only a Flemish trend, but an international one, too.

If you want to work interdisciplinarily, then you must go to very different schools. I spent four years at Art School, where I did my master’s degree, which is on a practical level. After that, I had one year in Media Studies and one year in Information Science – both at universities, and at a theoretical level. Then, I did a two-year teacher training to become eligible to teach my subject, plus one more year in Game Development at a technical school. That’s nine years of study to only get to the basics. I still suffer from impostor syndrome, especially due to the lack of peers and role models. The Flemish Ministry of Arts and Culture has started to develop an interdisciplinary Digital Culture residency program abroad to meet the demand. It is a start.

The project I proposed to the Ars Electronica Futurelab is titled “The Future Is Coded”, which I thought would be a good fit for a laboratory of the future. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon – perhaps the human obsession –, of forecasting; going from ancient, analogue and widespread divination techniques in folklore to contemporary digital technologies in finance, industry and politics to predict futures.

In my research, I discovered certain correlations between them. Analogue as well as digital techniques both use media or mediators to fixate or handle change events. To interpret the fixed medium – tea leaves in a cup, or the outcome of throwing the dices– we use indexes (to set guidelines) and apophenia (to create coherence). Apophenia is our brain’s natural ability to project and tell stories from unrelated bits of reality.

“The Future Is Coded” draws attention to the fact we use our capacity for apophenia to speculate about the future. To not do so would leave this future space locked, and to unlock it means cracking a code. Through our senses, streams of data from the world around us gather in the pool of our non-conscious mind. The key to crack the code must be there, hidden in the non-conscious storage room of our brain.

How is apophenia interesting at the interface of technology and science?

Fanny Zaman: In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff explores how Big Data companies forecast our future behavior. A lot of these companies´value depends on what Zuboff calls the “rest data.” The “rest data” we produce through our online behavior has much greater predictive value then a selfie we consciously post online. The algorithm looks for correlations in the “rest data” of our online behavior: how long or how fast we click, what click patterns emerge from successive sessions, and more. Algorithmic profiling leads to the “algorithm knowing us better then we know ourselves” (see on that matter also Yuval Noah Harari ‘s Homo Deus).
Algorithms are now used to survey our “rest data,” but they don’t map it out for us to use. These maps are sold to third parties without our knowledge or consent.

Will these maps be at the centre of your research at the Ars Electronica Futurelab?

Fanny Zaman: How these maps are generated by the Big Five (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) is not publicly known. In the Ars Electronica Futurelab, we will research data analytics and algorithmic profiling in small test settings. We will correlate data and compare it to our human capacity for apophenia. We will reflect on this with a small team of participants from the Ars Electronica Futurelab.

Could you share with us a few ideas about the direction your work could be heading towards in this context?

Fanny Zaman: My intention is to create a three-dimensional VR environment that uses the element of profiling. The player will be confronted with his*her emerging profile, which progresses as he*her travels and spends time inside the virtual world. He*She will be confronted with the resulting map and invited to reflect on it, together with a virtual guide or narrator.
I look forward to discussing my plans with the Ars Electronica Futurelab team. Since I must now work alone at home in Belgium, we haven’t met yet, but I miss them already.

Fanny Zaman (BE) is a media artist working in Antwerp. She had a practical as well as a theoretical training in visual art, cultural studies, information science, performance and sound design. Since 2000, she has been experimenting with video– and sound-montage at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts (HISK). The period closed with a residence at Cité des Arts, Paris. In 2008, she made the film Surface, which was screened in competition at FIDMarseille. She has since made three more essay films (about the world of finance/markets), with a focus on group-dynamics (in the pit) and speech-acts. The films were supported by VAF (Filmlab), labeled as hybrid film and/or expanded cinema, and screened in several film festivals (as single screen) and art institutions (as installation) including BOZAR, LE BAL and WIELS, where Zaman did a six months residency in 2012. The focus of her research in producing these works is on how the material (sound, image and technology) is simultaneously shaped (by us) and reshaping our political understanding of the world we live in.
Zaman collaborated with Dominik Daggelinckx in the film THE AIRSHIP, which looks at the collateral effects of social media and technology through aesthetics and materiality. This focus on the social impact of technology on our ecology/reality has been a recurrent thread in Zaman’s work. Arnaud Claass, Jean-Pierre Rehm and Mihnea Mircan have written on her work.

maria PfeiferMaria Pfeifer is Key Researcher for Future Narratives, where she investigates the question, how stories about the futures can change the here and now. Other thematic interests lie in Art Thinking, art-inspired innovation and the collaboration between art and science. She studied art, comparative literature and cultural studies in Vienna and has been working for the Ars Electronica Festival and Futurelab on and off since 2011.
She is particularly interested in the potential social impact of future technologies-such as artificial intelligence, automated driving, virtual reality-beyond their direct fields of application. Research projects she has been involved in include topics such as Work of the Future, Ethical AI, Automated Environments, Future Skills, Speculative Design & Artistic Strategies in Futures Research.