Rebecca Uliasz on Audio-visual Art, Artificial Intelligence and Community
Interview - May 2018
I first met Rebecca in 2016 when I took a flash course she led on creating sound reactive visuals at New York University's tech camp in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). Rebecca (known to most as Becca) was a fellow student and I would often see her around the floor, wearing black and with a baseball hat pulled down over her head, working concentratedly on a laptop or laughing and talking excitedly with people nearby. The floor of ITP that summer was reminiscent of how I would imagine a '90s hacker movie that I'd never seen, except transported into the future now, replete with coding and robotics experiments and growing crystals from scratch. There was a spirit of collaboration in the air as well as the pressure of a condensed amount of time. I ended up approaching Becca with programmer Nils Westerlund to see if she would want to collaborate on a biofeedback installation project. Becca and I ended up doing another iteration of the installation together for Biome Arts, and have stayed in touch ever since.
This interview was conducted over e-mail, and coincides with the week Becca returned to New York City on a break from her PhD program where she is researching New Media at Duke University, stopping by several exciting festivals and residencies on the way. She will be playing at the 2nd annual audio-visual festival Confetti Machine on June 2nd in Ridgewood, Queens.
—Camilla Padgitt-Coles (Perfect Wave)
PW You just performed in events at Moogfest and before that at Signal Culture. Can you tell me more about what you did at both places?
RU Right now, I am coming off of the tail end of two drastically different but equally challenging and rewarding weeks. I spent one week in upstate New York, at Signal Culture, where I got the chance to utilize the studio space and equipment unique to their residency program. I had a lot of time to learn and use the various video editing and synthesis equipment they had there to process some material I had brought with me, as well as generate tons of new content—although I barely made a dent in exhausting the potential of working with such special instruments! It was great to have the chance to have time, space, and solitude after the end of a hectic semester. I spent a lot of time with the archive at Signal Culture as well, and am particularly taken with their magazine collections (genuine copies of Radical Software!). I left feeling all around rejuvenated and with images of feedback permanently burned into my retinas.
The residency came at a perfect time to work on material for the performance I was part of at Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina, titled “these borders that hold me down.” The work took the form of a multi-day, multi-media interactive installation and dance performance focused on the issues of gerrymandering and the contemporary effects of discriminatory and racist redlining legislation in the state. We worked with a really diverse team of artists, technologists, performers and researchers, who were able to provide a very rich historical account of redlining practices within Walltown, a historically black neighborhood in Durham. My frequent collaborator and peer, Quran Karriem, both played a role in the visual and auditory design of the performance. It was a challenging experience because of the sensitivity of the content, and the literal time and scale constraints of the show itself, but it was incredible to be a part of. I really appreciate Moogfest’s enthusiasm to push the boundaries of their content and include more experimental acts!
PW How has your recent time at Duke informed your video practice?
RU This is an interesting question that I am constantly reformulating my answer to. It is interesting to reflect on what it means to be in artist in academia, particularly with the instantiation of PhD programs across the country, like mine, that seek to expand the boundaries of what it means to have a practice based component to scholarly research. It involves a lot of skill developing in being able to speak across very different worlds, and very intentionally navigating what you do and do not take from each. For me, I came to my very theory based program from a practice based MFA, so it is a bit like being thrown headfirst into the deep end, but these are all rather uncharted territories. I still don’t know what it means to be an artist in academia, because the practice of being a researcher in the humanities, to me, is very much the same as the process of being an artist. Both involve an incredible amount of genuine dedication, chance encounters, and space for processing and development of ideas. Fully submerging myself in the resources that Duke has to offer has definitely altered my “practice.” At least for the time being, I am committed to my research and writing as I complete my coursework, although I have been able to maintain an active performance practice over the course of this past year. Performance and electronic media feel very natural to pair for me, as they both involve some immediacy, engagement with a body (the one manipulating the signal, or enacting the performance), and a temporality and duration. I like the collaborative and engaging nature of live performance, the ways in which the energy of other bodies in the room can affect me and the choices that I am making live, which feed back into the audience’s experience.
But back to the question of my “practice,” I think that for me, “practice” has always been a very loose term. Even when I was working on my MFA, I worked across media installation, internet based work, circuit building, performance, and more traditional forms like hand rendering. Right now, what constitutes my practice happens to include a lot of researching and writing, but that could feed into a different mode of working in the future (I am sure that it will).
PW You were also recently involved in a conference on the subject of racial discrimination in artificial intelligence [AI] and web search algorithms, etc. Can you talk about what happened there, and what you learned or took away from it on this issue?
RU Some of my colleagues at Duke recently organized a multi-day, multi-disciplinary conference titled "Data Determinacy" that presented a panel of scholars and artists who all attempt to grapple with technologies of racialization in different ways. Topics discussed ranged from platforms and right-wing extremism to drone warfare, to post-human cognition, to the particularities and nuances of black box technologies. We collectively tried to unpack the ways in which data can mis-represent, or fails to represent, as in the case of racially biased predictive policing algorithms. Michael Eng referenced Kate Crawford's claim from her article that appeared in NYT in 2016 titled "Artificial Intelligence's White Guy Problem," that "like all technologies before it, artificial intelligence will reflect the values of its creators.” In other words, an AI algorithm as a technology is a set of design choices that rely on and inform a western mode of seeing that in Eng’s words, “is a continuation of white narcissism” that propagates preexisting biases and stereotypes through the processes of selection, curation, and exclusion from datasets. We can think of the dataset’s role within the formation of the AI algorithm as defining some sort of pre-existing values in the form of axioms, which are than used to extrapolate further datasets, becoming increasingly removed from any sort of human ability to recognize patterns or biased trends produced through execution.
The crucial takeaway it that it is of the utmost importance to program inclusivity from the get go; it matters who is a part of the process of design. Artificial intelligence extends human rationality in volatile ways that feeds back into operable infrastructures that undergird systems of power. For Eng, artificial intelligence is a Kantian project; the construction of objects of knowledge is at the same time a construction of the subject who “knows”. Contra Kant, a computational intelligence can not just produce more and more data to reach some infinite form of pure algorithmic rationality, but must be reconciled as a generative process from the get go. Paraphrasing Wendy Chun, our collective takeaway was that there are no technological solutions to political problems, but rather, there are bigger ways these issues need to be addressed. We avoided speculating too much on utopic solutions, but did discuss efforts that are working to counter the effects of black boxing, such as IBM's “data science for social good,” which avoids obscure computational processes like deep learning and neural nets in favor of ways of programming that allow for the most transparency or control of the human operator. The importance of education was also foregrounded; in order to avoid the type of mysticism that masks operation and leads to a total elimination of the human subject, the practice of crafting computational intelligence as an ideology should be challenged and re-considered constantly as it develops through and with its modes of technological implementation.
PW Where is your work taking you next? What materials are you most excited to work with next and with whom?
RU I am (literally this week) moving back to New York City for the summer to work with Harvestworks on some various projects they are working on. I will also be using my time for my own research, as well as taking advantage of the perks of being in the city over the summer (lots of gallery shows!), and performing at a few venues in Brooklyn during the summer. I am excited to “come home,” so to speak, for a little while and reconnect with friends, and I am always on the lookout for more opportunities for collaboration. I hope to spend sometime this summer working on my music production as well, and have been forming future plans of some kind of audio-visual electronic media album release.
Back in Durham this coming fall, I will continue my course work and dive deeper into my research, which involves the connections between contemporary digital visual culture and theory and philosophy of technology, specifically technologies of vision, power, and surveillance. I am also on a science fiction kick now (this is always true for me) and have had some interesting conversations with people speculating on the fictional or not-so-fictional futures of blockchain technologies and platform based alt-economies. I will also continue an experimental performance interface building project I have in the works right now with one of my colleagues.
Finally, I would like to place a bigger emphasis on curating and organizing experimental performance spaces in Durham this next year. For better or worse, I am not surrounded by the same sheer quantity of venues and institution as I am in NYC, although the passion is there. I think smaller places like Durham actually have incredible potential for vibrant DIY efforts because everything is much more affordable and accessible than it would be in a major city like New York. It would be a dream to have a regularly occurring experimental electronics event, like a small scale Confetti Machine. Of course, I am always interested in ways to bring together people with alternative ideas of electronic performance in a very inclusive and intentional way. If anyone in Durham area happens to be reading and has similar dreams, please let me know and lets make it happen!