Obituary for a Sunset (in India)

This story takes on events surrounding the Vedanta Sterlite protests that took place in Thoothukudi and attempts to place it within the larger partly fictionalised narration of India’s turn towards technocratic governance and the process of colonising its own people. What is the role of surveillance in the face of ethno-nationalism? I attempt to chart a partly fictional historicized narration of the events leading to the formation of a new embodied relationship with technology. Rather than follow the tenets of Will Reason and Understanding that were the formal grounds for the European enlightenment, this text takes Survellience, Access and Financial Rational as the tenets of a second newer operational management. While systematic colonisation of territory and land-resource were some of the outcomes of the first European Enlightenment, this updated version of it hinges on user-data and the re-birth of ethno-nationalism. How may we have gotten to where we are?

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Obituary for a Sunset (in India)

 

In the final few moments of the movie Otokoppi, set in pre-technodermy earth around the year 2018, we see five characters organising townspeople to stand in unison against Vedanta Sterlite. The corporation had severely contaminated ground water and was responsible for leaking extremely poisonous gases into Thoothukudi Town. We see the characters brave through torture, run from militia, goondas and organised crime as the five finally run into the town-square to meet the newly organised townspeople to finally take down the corporation, they stop abruptly and stare with opened-jaws. The suspense is at its hightest as the perplexed audience waits for the camera to slowly pan and reveal to us what the characters see, we are struck in terror, in awe: this was only the start to a long and painful history – the square is emptied of protestors.

While the characters in the movie had no idea of what is in store for them, the audience knew only too well. In reality Otokoppi’s attempt at forecasting techno-colonialism hadn’t been reserved for Thoothukudi, but had for other parts of the India. If only the poorest in Assam had been warned about ethno-nationalist techno-states; roughly fifty years later technodermy took over governance.

For now, however, Sterlite Copper had to count their days.[1]

May 22nd was slated to be a day for massive protest against the Thoothukudi Collectorate and Vedanta (Sterlite Copper’s parent company). Anticipating the inability to adequately control the enormous sea of protestors, Section 144[2] was imposed in Thoothukudi. And when the protestors did not abide the rule, the crowds were lathi charged and finally shot at by army snipers. A total of seven people lay dead. In the face of this brutality Vedanta had to shut down Sterlite Copper and conduct an undignified exit from Tamil Nadu.

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The biggest merger of all time has taken place in India: an overtly centralised ethno-national state that has embraced techno-colonialism now aims to provide Access (user access to information, vendor access to user-data) and Surveillance[3] in over people for the sake of its own dubious cultural financial supremacy. While religion has always been a close confidante of finance, market logic has most often superseded it. For the time since India’s independence, a ruling partly has found ingenious ways to convert cultural war-cries into the magical sound of fresh 2000 rupee notes being printed.[4]

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Developing surveillance technology and biophysical tools were amongst the most important aims of the present version of the nation state, for it was seen as the only way to achieve the goal of gaining authority. Coupled with the mission toward digitising financial exchange, tools such as surveillance, access had to be trademarked and used to gain sovereignty over peoples governed by analogic capital and socialism. A two-fold  updating programme was required: some places on Earth (mainly economic non-centers such as land between metropolitan mega-cities) had to still be integrated successfully and linked to centrally operated governing machinery. Further sovereignty situated outside the geographical domain that went beyond the standard nation-state structure required consolidation.[5]

Though this was a logistical nightmare, the cloud needed to travel.

Market rational has been characterised as knowledge which is obliged to oppose the shared and common resources whenever the latter has presumed to speak about things on this earth. Within the nation state-corporate nexus socialism is understood within the realm of the irrational, coercive, and altruistic. The impetus to increase shareholder value in the free market is considered constructive; charming citizens use impartial tools and to engage in entrepreneurial growth. Citizens require identification through biometrics first and only then, maybe, the state recognition will follow.[6]

The terrestrial, the bodily, the cloud and the user are inextricably linked; one cannot exist without the other. The need and ability to cognitively and practically manipulate environments had to be inculcated and ideologised as inevitable first, and then as fact. There would first be data gathering systems, then a data organising systems and finally a data trading systems. Attempts to digitise the country and formalise informal markets is underway, but bad planning, incomplete software and tendencies towards non democratic means of coercing people to embrace ‘access’ (a stand in for precision surveillance) are seen as ‘necessary side-effects’. While the problem with Aadhar and Digital India initiative are plenty, they have given us an idea of how cloud-based infrastructure directly affects physical infrastructure – the experience of it and the conversation around digital privacy (India drafted its first privacy bill in 2017 and are yet to draft an anti-troll bill) and control have only just begun.

With collection and dissemination systems partially in place, data collection and storage platforms are slowly being already de-regulated, and the authority of the digital order along with it.[7]

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Meaning assumes different roles: prior to the advent of surveillance-governing, meaning found its origins in understanding human conditions and/or the decline of nature. Prior to that religion was paramount and everything was ‘pre-decided’. While this idea still persists, financial rational had to separate itself from reason and allow for alternative meanings to emerge. While this very new information system proposed an equal techno utopia for everyone, it founded its spatial dominion through premeditated and systematic surveillance.[8]

People ended up trading a digital commodity they didn’t even know existed via social media platforms and self-quantifying apps. Some believed the trade was justified, others not. And for whole hoard of people, it didn’t matter. But the playground for money has already moved towards immateriality.

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Time’s arrow has no direction, and in that lack of definitive direction is to be found all the significance of contingency, process and history. Post-modern sciences initially inherited this lack from older technologies (such as the natural world) and turned it into a method for the study of humanity. This non-linearity has been the undercurrent mode of thinking of technoscience and the subsequent theory of human growth. But this non-linearity has little to do with sequence, cause, duration and chronology of temporality. It does however require spatial dominion of its implementation. What also got exported out of the network, the cloud and to land with little access to the internet were their struggles and contradictions connected people could not resolve, such as the battle between State and access, the struggle between private property and various versions of collective ownership, surveillance and anonymity, the tension between the rule of code and the rule of the human desire. Terrestrial problems follow us to the cloud and get amplified there. Digital cosmopolitism (or the idea of the cloud as a unifier) was not primarily an effort to impose some consensus on the rest of the world; it was an effort to find consensus by the staging of unresolved terrestrial debates in a network – comprising the humans and its personal and impersonal cloud, and the projection of a flattened atmosphere.

The question of techno-science’s interface with the wider population is no longer of interest to philosophers and theorists alone, the fate of human existence coupled with the question of the future has assumed an intensity like never before. The dialogue between coders, biophysicists, non-human digital users and society is to understand what it means to be human as well as the responsibility for the natural world that we share with other sentient beings.

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In 2018 a group of farmers from Kanchipuram district met with a team of world renowned biophysics’ engineers to solve a peculiar problem: the farmers claimed something was wrong with the air leading to crop failure, while their own bodies were emitting a strange smell. While their collaboration did not yield results, this is hardly surprising. That the conversation took place at all points to the increased understanding that the modern sciences simply could not keep up with the changes taking place due to algorithmic governing systems. This included partial and sometimes total algorithmic high speed trading without human interference; this also included the creation of AI systems whose sophistication was not completely understood by their creators. For one the biophysicists could not fathom how air, a non-liquid substance, could contain a pH number. The farmers were dismissed.

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Since then, studies have shown that the atmosphere did receive a pH number due to certain chemical changes in the human epidermal layer. In a bid to have a robust workable surveillance system that could account for every human, excessive technologies employed to do that job have changed the nature of human skin upon interaction with it. Changes in the epidermal layer were exteriorised though emission of certain gases that later condensed into tiny liquid molecules suspended in the air. Air indeed now has a pH of -13. (The movie Otokoppi mentioned in the beginning of this text attempted to capitalise on this period of change, where nanotechnologies began its movement of getting imbibed into the human epidermis.)

The tendency to now treat skin as geography is rife with national cartographic initiatives, spatial data infrastructures, and the development of epidermal geographic information systems (EGIS). Remote sensing has now taken on an entirely new agenda; knowledge gathering and production have never been so tightly interwoven.

A newer epidermal politics will be born out of skin-based technology. What we have now is the site where big data meets our largest sensorium (the epidermal layer), codifying the senses. Preservation here is in the form of live taxidermy, which is tech’s ability to map living skin in real time from one codification to the other: thermodynamic skin allows for specimens to be located through the understory of think urban cover, while computer vision places great importance of skin recognition for facial and body surveillance tools.

The economy is also shifting: Skinscaping is now a service industry comprising architects, designers and construction companies, and provide high quality workmanship in calibrating invisible and the visible infrastructure that operates on human-skin. Since physical infrastructure, where natural (humans and ecology) gathering is constructed partly forms the armature of society; its non-physical element (digital and cloud based technologies) is actively shaping this armature. Smartness is the computational glue binding the physical and the non-physical.

While it is still early to understand what the effects of such a mutation, we have to recalibrate what we term identity politics. How we are experiencing this landscape has now become tantamount, especially when it enters our bodies, operating in and through our epidermis? And more importantly, if this a monetary exercise, can skin now be considered property? If so, whose is it?

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[1] For 20 years the residents of Thoothukudi along with activists from Tamil Nadu and all over the country had been sporadically fighting Sterlite Copper. Following a gas leak the company appealed to the central National Green Tribunal and had a state closure-order overturned. In 2018 the plant closed citing a 15 day scheduled maintenance. Sterlite Copper was made to pay the state government a 100 crore fine for the environmental damage caused, for residents’ compensation and medical expense. However the state has since distributed only 7 crores.

[2] Refers to intent of deliberate disturbance of peace and prohibits assemblies of more than four people in public.

[3] Surveillance is of two types: first is a one-on-one policing where individuals are confronted by the state. Autonomy reflects the individual’s fragile and tumultuous relationship with the state.
A second kind of surveillance is a more global one where surveillance is actually reducing (at a rapid pace) individual autonomy. Government and corporate actors need data (as per the platform economy). People here are not people, but data sets. Individuals are ‘users’ whose decisions can (and most often is) recorded and are fed into prediction algorithms for state and corporate ends.

[4] In 2016 the Indian government decided to ban two currencies, the 500 and 1000 rupee notes, overnight in a highly publicised move to weed out hoarding cash and counterfeits that funded illegal and terror activities. The repercussions of this move have been layered and far reaching: The enormous informal market and small-scale middle-men are alleged to have borne the brunt of demonitisation; It is widely speculated that large businesses families were told of this move beforehand; The government soon rolled out new 2000 rupees notes: it seems hoarding just got easier.

[5] though facebook’s offices are within the jurisdiction of US territory, the company’s real operation follows no geographic constraints or nation-state laws

[6] In July this year, a staggering 40 lakh people were left out of the Nation Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The govt. proposed that in the event those omitted were to be branded illegal immigrants, keeping record of their biometric details would help control their movements. These people, largely Muslim, will not be forced to take part in the optional Aadhaar ID process.

[7] The railways ministry is considering disinvesting of IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) data though at the moment it has been put on hold while the govt decides what to do with the data.

[8] The internet was proposed as the great unifier, cutting class and caste lines by assuring everyone similar if not the same content. Platforms, too: as intermediaries connecting vendors and users, platforms enable groups to interact at a fraction of the cost physical infrastructures demand. Technically anyone with the means and access to the net can avail these platforms. Concomitantly, a relatively newer raw material as data has emerged with the means of wealth generation moving from production of information to ownership of this information. In short, the health of platforms hinge on data collection.

Drawing on a 1:1 Scale III

This project spanned two years where I attempted to articulate ideas around the personal and the universal, the subjective and the objective and the overlaps that are created. Each version of work produced under this title addressed these ideas from a different angle, and using different mediums.

III

Over 2012-15 I collected objects from my hometown in Chennai and the spaces I traveled to. These objects came in the form of natural residues and metallic junk. This material becomes a form of data to further think on geographical situatedness (location) and well as informational situatedness (where we think we stand within our real); the global-local conundrum that is at the core of our local institutions.

Allowing contours of the objects to overlap allows land, too, to overlap, partially replicating these objects on paper – as distance, as thought, as movement, using its physicality as a metaphor. The act of collecting itself, instrusive and definate, situates the subject/the collector on the surface area on and off the ‘collectable’/the object. I see these images fluctuate between drawings, maps, diagrams and informational charts.

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Drawing on a 1:1 Scale II

This project spanned two years where I attempted to articulate ideas around the personal and the universal, the subjective and the objective and the overlaps that are created. Each version of work produced under this title addressed these ideas from a different angle, and using different mediums.

II

Many of the ideas that the performance came from, have been articulated in a text that published in Open! In the article I address the multiple open ended positive feed back loops within which our sense of time, our sense of self, our practices, potentiality and territory function. Each feed back loop is represented by a diagram. The basic premise of the article is that nothing exists in isolation; it exists only in its relation with other things. This is where a thing’s potential lies: within the boundaries of the orbit that it takes (that is, its periphery) and in its intersections with other orbits, between the inner and the outer and the elaborate mimicry that is played out within their relations.

http://www.onlineopen.org/drawing-on-a-1-1-scale

Drawing one a 1:1 Scale I

This project spanned two years where I attempted to articulate ideas around the personal and the universal, the subjective and the objective and the overlaps that are created. Each version of work produced under this title addressed these ideas from a different angle, and using different mediums.

I

Video projection of large white paper 6:59 min; Performance for the duration of the video

With this project, I began my interest in finding very precise but generic concrete actions that can be abstracted into being emblematic of larger conditions the human takes part in. Repetition then takes the action forward, linking it with the generic. For example in the work Drawing on a 1:1 Scale, I was interested in ways we digitally and geographically exteriorise identity: multiple selfies were set in a 360 degree rotating landscape. An additional gesture performed live was me attempting to draw the landscape horizon embedded in the moving background. A voiceover spoke about the collusion (in content) of three forms of thinking: a religious who did not want to be named (I interviewed a hindu monk), modern science-philosophy (from the work of Thomas Metzinger) and ‘inwardness’ as a philosophical undertaking (the work of J. Krishnamurthi). I included some of my own thoughts in this amalgamation as well.

To think, is to reason, and it is not location specific. While the means can be local, the ends of thought/action/deliberation cannot. Rather than to neglect a concrete starting point, it is to realign the tendency from the constant return to the site/individual as a binding distraction into an enabling form, where the horizon doesn’t end at the locus.

For this specific piece, more than create an abstract drawing, I was interested in creating a drawing of abstraction – a drawing of the forces that create the individual, along with its own time and space. How to create a map of digitality – something that operates in 1’s and 0’s? Can this be a mapping of the disembodied self?

 

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Thinking Feeling Reason

essay for Makhzin edited by Ghalaya Saadawi, Mirene Arsanios and Iman Mersal

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It is the contention of many philosophies, regardless of their location, that when a state of ‘no thought’ is achieved, there is the end of time—an inner time— and with it, the process of becoming ends too. This is akin to being One with consciousness.[1] It also means the end of identity: when the subject does not identify with being Harsha or Sandhya, or whomever. This positive emptiness is what thought tries to achieve through introspection, by stopping itself in its tracks in order to effectively destroy itself. When moving alongside thought in real time has been mastered, it is possible to stop thought itself: to be able to reach a point where the subject severs itself from its constructed identity.

What constitutes the ability to think of thinking? The “catching oneself” in the act of knowing is the re-affirmation of the humanness of the human. To catch oneself from time to time isn’t enough: we want to be eternally caught. But we are also afraid of being in a state of the eternally caught. It is thus this pull of oppositional needs that sets the human apart from other forms of being. As much as we want to be human, we also do not want to be merely human.

In our continuous striving to find a working definition of the human, we largely construct three categories: the human, technology and the natural ‘everything else’. Are we all three? Two? Only human? The Virtual Reality (VR) Goat Simulator formalizes this quest through technological abundance. Nothing is lost here: the subject can choose to be a techno-goat-human, reminding itself that it was once less human and hence more animal, retaining its techno-human sensibilities.

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I am reminded of an old story about a newly-wed couple and their male companion. They were passing through a forest infamous for its dacoity. As expected, the dacoits descended upon them and in the ensuing battle, the two men got their heads chopped off. The newly-wed bride was distraught. She pleaded to the gods for help. One particular god appeared before her and assured her that the two men would live. As the bride dried her tears, the god went on to attach the heads back onto the bodies, except they were now interchanged: the wrong head went to the wrong body. Who was the groom now? The one with the head or the one with the body? After much debate, it was settled that the groom resided in the head.

In this situation, the ‘I’—the subject—remains intact. It was, after all, the head that contained the mind, and the mind was all there was to the human. But this is perhaps too convenient an explanation. Of course, the ‘I’ doesn’t reside anywhere—within the body, or without. It is not a unique, essential, invariant entity like a spirit or a soul. The self is simply an experiential construct that disintegrates completely when we fall into a coma or a dreamless sleep.

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Let us try to unpack the conditions that bring about the construction of identity, the generic experience of it, the waning of agency, and its subsequent reaffirmation. Are these created by the subject to keep itself at bay? Is it a reaction to the big data explosion, or a combination of political, societal and technological forces that render the subject helpless? It follows: Are we losing our collective willingness to reason? That is, are we no longer willing to see the operation of construction, disintegration and affirmation at work as a self-sustaining loop? Instead, are we allowing ourselves to be content with what can pass off as the will to reason (the irreducible individual as the basis for thought)? Or, is it the desperation of being unable to reasonably decode the very operation at play? The construction of “community”, and therefore of the
“individual”, suddenly seems much larger than otherwise thought.

The subject has always prided itself on its uniqueness. What happens when a sustained lack of autonomy and the yearning for subjective agency come together? The melting of this singular uniqueness (first as agency, and then slowly as idea) and the simultaneous creation of a digital identity, have created in us a peculiar sense of agency: a generally anonymous, but highly subjective, digital being persistently looking for a positive form of engagement with itself; looking to create meaning using itself.

The conviction that with the widespread use of the internet a better form of democracy will be brought about has been discarded, is being discarded. There is, in its place, a helplessness in the face of dense oligarchies. Nostalgia for an old kind of subject–subject interaction and subject–government interaction can also be seen. Sayings such as “We are like drops individually, but like an ocean collectively,” begs the question of whether putting the body/ies out there is as effective a form of protest now as it once was.

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One intention could be to allow for a systematic reduction of the human into the status of an object, but retain the object’s subjectivity by forming a relationship between the knower and what is known. To us sapient beings who are aware of having a conscious state, aware of the feeling of the feeling, our consciousness is the ability to not attend to many things in order to capitalize on our actions and direct them. The aim is to focus attention away from a centre and redirect it to its peripheries. Consciousness is making itself conscious of being aware of consciousness.
While this can be construed as an act of “inwardness”, it is perhaps more useful to see it as a balancing act between how we see ourselves and what modern science tells us about ourselves.

Rather than understanding this as an exercise in self-reflexivity, we must seriously consider whether a demystifying experience can be extracted from the confines of a purely subjective logic, and allow for it to aid the process of reason. If perception of experience is to be reasoned with, there must be a way in which it enters our range of knowledge and understanding as an object available in thought, corresponding to the external world.

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More and more, imagination, creativity and the individual—spaces that were once understood as infinite, and once relied upon for their association with the infinite—are now being reconfigured in their relation to finite categories: the fields of constraint within which they exist, and which allow them to create themselves. These spaces can now be quantified and measured as algorithms. It seems that there is a drive to measure the extent to which the infinite operates. Is the play now being transferred onto that space between the subject actualised through data, and the subject as ontic? If so, should they still be seen as two separate categories?

With the increasing reality of data as information, data as knowledge, and data as proof, there is also a simultaneous reaction to this trend: the subject finds it difficult to comprehend “where” something is happening. What do I think anymore, if nothing is in my hands? Instead of turning to the endless “sayings”, lines from fortune cookies, various gurus telling us to “live freely”, and purposeful organics to give us the impression that thinking is underway and that meaning is being made, I would like to suggest a working realignment: to find a better mode of engagement, we need to find a better way of experiencing ourselves and our relationship to what the external is. [2] Meaning, we see things, we experience, we identify and are identified with, and we also believe these are inseparable from each other in such a way that to divorce one from the other would create an abyss within our very understanding of ourselves. However, can we also see that these experiences of, which form the base for our identity, are not open-ended, but allude to the idea that they cannot be accounted for. Their status as being open is their very function.[3]We have to consider extracting and demystifying experience from within the confines of irreducible singularities, and allow for it to aid the process of reason.

1-Many philosophies (Buddhism, Sufism, some strands of Hinduism among others) seek total transcendence, i.e. being One with consciousness; where the thinker is the thought. There is a slowing down of time when observation and transformation occurs along with the thought in real time. To morph is to change forms, shape and structure from the inside-out, and from the outside-in, simultaneously. Where attention is given to the flux, a spotlight is cast on the movement of thought, in pursuing the image that arises, and embodying that image. Like the job of the amateur scientist, the job of watching oneself in the process of flux is to watch what happens in between thoughts and in between movements, between the inner and the outer and the elaborate mimicry that is played out within their relations.

2-(Part of this text was produced in collaboration with Misha Stroj titled “Every Meaning Happens For A Reason”, and part is from an on-going project titled “How Would We Know It If We Couldn’t Feel It”.)

3-Brassier quoting Sellars, Nihil Unbound.

Name Names Herself

text, video, performance, drawing

Text/Poster: Name works in the archiving section of a museum documenting information about a (newly discovered) specimen. As she carries out her work, she realises that in order to define the specimen she has to first define herself. The project directly looks at the conditions that make the human, human – identity, alienation, abstraction, and conversely the ‘everything else’. How does the production of subjectivity of the character allow that of the specimens’ to be created? Are the distinctions that clear?

Video: attempts to articulate how we look at hope/hopelessness as axioms, with people scraping out scratch cards, alluding to financial anticipation in its most exciting form: will I win something?

Performance: I drew along with the scraping action in the video, as a gesturing of recording financial anticipation. A drawing emerges.

name names herself text

 

click here to read poster

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Installation view