e-flux journal issue 101: “Navigation Beyond Vision”

e-flux journal issue 101: “Navigation Beyond Vision”

e-flux journal

Sergei M. Eisenstein, from his book Notes for a General History of Cinema, 1945–46. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), Moscow.

June 20, 2019
e-flux journal issue 101: “Navigation Beyond Vision”

guest-edited by Tom Holert and Doreen Mende

with James Bridle, Jennifer Gabrys, Tom Holert, Matteo Pasquinelli, Patricia Reed, Nikolay Smirnov, and Oraib Toukan

Today one may complain that life has been reduced to points in a matrix of relations—cities, territories, and historical narratives prematurely refined into categories of known and unknown, real and virtual, concrete and abstract space. And yet, when needing to locate a crucial resource (or oneself, for that matter), who can afford not to search the grid for what everybody knows to be there?—the Italian restaurant, the emergency room, the ancestor, the terrorist. This is not simply about seeing; by definition, navigation organizes timescales and orders of magnitude that cannot be visualized simultaneously. Furthermore, in attempting to map and record various terrains and domains, contemporary navigators are themselves mapped and recorded at the same time. Super-modernity’s expansive enclosures of global infrastructure, time-zone logistics, and data behaviorism become external abstractions as much as computational and territorial facts.

“A computer animation is less a reproduction and more a production … or creation of a model world,” said Harun Farocki in a lecture only a few weeks prior to his untimely death in 2014. In this lecture, titled “Computer Animation Rules,” Farocki seemed to suggest that navigation poses a contemporary challenge to montage—the editing of distinct sections of film into a continuous sequence—as the dominant paradigm of techno-political visuality. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to underestimate the influence of cinema on the televisual imagination of twentieth-century spatial-political life. If montage is the core formal device for concatenating space and time into a continuous causal sequence, then for Farocki, the computer-animated, navigable images that constitute the twenty-first century’s “ruling class of images” call for new tools of analysis. Drawing on Alexander Galloway’s concept of “actionable objects” in gamespace, Farocki began to ask: How does the shift from montage to navigation alter the way images—and art—operate as models of political action and modes of political intervention?

If Google Maps seeks to map urban environments, and global finance seeks to map affective responses to possible events, Farocki appears to have employed the question of navigation to ask: What are the interfaces of navigation that transcend the realm of the purely technical, even as a form of visualization that paradoxically supersedes the spatial and temporal constraints of images completely? How do navigational paradigms in virtual and offline environments increasingly inform the politics of the image? If navigation puts ontological pressure on the static frame of a photographic or cinematic image, then how are our concepts of political action, visual literacy, and collective intervention also pressured to surpass or perform model worlds?

Rather than finding orientation by way of images in the real world, today images may mutate into a sort of interface—an operational tool reaching beyond visual-cognitive persuasions, beyond representation, beyond “the image” itself, enabling seemingly boundless and borderless mobility between spaces, scales, temporalities. Navigation now begins where the map becomes invisible or indecipherable, operating on a plane of immanence in perpetual motion. Navigation, instead of framing or representing the world, continuously updates and adjusts multiple frames from viewpoints within the world. Navigation in the digital realm is the modeling and mapping of an elusive environment—in the service of orientation, play, immersion, control, and survival.

The ensuing existential condition or techne could be named “navigational.” As a techno-ontological predicament, the navigational is operative in virtual and offline environments, as well as in the deep-layered relations of power and desire inherent to orientation and movement. Consider, for example, people who visit distant “home countries” based on DNA test results, just as many in those countries, moved by hope or violence, flee to foreign lands. Thus, the “navigational” condition implicates metaphysical as well as political, economic, ecological, cultural, and legal mobilities. Freedom-of-movement rights, land and trespassing restrictions, immigration laws, GPS regulations, and international trade protocols all codify and enforce (and constantly transform) the navigational condition, which in turn informs this emergent politics of the image.

If navigation puts ontological pressure on the static frame of a photographic or cinematic image, then how are inherited concepts of political action, visual literacy, and collective intervention also pressured to surpass or outperform model worlds? How does the operative and performative character of immersion in computational environments—navigating with and within images—impact the function and the status of the visual as such? Has navigation ever been a visual technology at all, or has it always compounded cosmological, mathematical, conceptual, and sensorial orders of magnitude into aggregate spatial orders that surpass the visual entirely?

Don’t get us wrong—it is through navigation that we are also misled, often to terrifying degrees. The promise of pathfinding implied in the invocation of navigation may suddenly become a reality of catastrophic disorientation. Any knowledge that is operative in navigational measurement and movement is prone to be radically limited by culture, history, politics, and technology. The more a navigational attitude becomes structurally inevitable in digital oceania, the deeper a belief in mobility and progress will install itself, all the while dulling the ability to come to terms with the stasis and regression that accompanies it. Against the backdrop of platforms that swell into worlds, disorientation may have become much more than a structural liability or security threat. It may instead be an ethical resource that we are only beginning to explore.

In oscillating between technical, ontological, political, and metaphorical senses of “navigation,” our shifting uses of the term could already be disorienting. Hopefully, this sense of obfuscation nevertheless originates in strategic theorization: from principle to paradigm, from description to definition, navigation is mobilized to serve different causes and ends in each contribution to this issue. Clarity of vision and reliability of data become delusional once navigation is rigorously dislocated by agents breaking away from secure pathways of movement and exploration. Perhaps stressing the insecurity and indeterminacy of navigation—particularly in a technological environment saturated with artificial intelligence—can provide alter-navigational practices and epistemologies to those otherwise vulnerable to navigational rule.

This issue represents the first continuation of the conference “Navigation Beyond Vision,” organized by the Harun Farocki Institut (HaFI) and e-flux, held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin on April 5–6, 2019. Participants included Ramon Amaro, James Bridle, Kaye Cain-Nielsen, Maïté Chénière, Kodwo Eshun, Anselm Franke, Jennifer Gabrys, Charles Heller, Tom Holert, Inhabitants, Doreen Mende, Matteo Pasquinelli, Laura Lo Presti, Patricia Reed, Nikolay Smirnov, Hito Steyerl, Oraib Toukan, and Brian Kuan Wood. A second part of the issue is forthcoming.

—Tom Holert, Doreen Mende, and the Editors


Jennifer GabrysOcean Sensing and Navigating the End of this World
If Google Earth or a satellite view of the garbage patch proves to be an impossible undertaking, it is because the plastics suspended in oceans are not a thick choking layer of identifiable objects but more a confetti-type array of suspended plastic bits. Locating the garbage patch is on one level bound up with determining what types of plastic objects collect within it and what effects they have. Yet on another level, locating the garbage patch involves monitoring its shifting distribution and extent in the ocean. The garbage patch is not a fixed or singular object, but a society of objects in process. The composition of the garbage patch consists of plastics interacting across organisms and environments. But it also moves and collects in distinct and changing ways due to ocean currents, which are influenced by weather and climate change, as well as the turning of the earth (in the form of the Coriolis effect) and the wind-influenced direction of waves (in the form of Ekman transport). As an oceanic gyre, the garbage patch moves as a sort of weather system, shifting during El Niño events, and changing with storms and other disturbances. Ocean sensing then requires forms of monitoring that work within these fluid and changeable conditions.

Patricia ReedOrientation in a Big World: On the Necessity of Horizonless Perspectives
There are those who champion, or who actively seek to amplify, the navigational turbulence produced by this decentered human position at the planetary scale, making for an urgent battle over claims on orientation. Such tendencies thrive among several techno-neoreactionaries, who, in denying absolutely any form of planetary navigability from a resituated human position, ultimately advocate for the stripping of humanity’s cognitive-political agencies to transform given frames of reference. Paradoxically, what is often perceived as a form of techno-fetishist futurism is nothing but an unimaginative conservatism that celebrates the preservation of existing frames of reference. These existing frames are defended as if they are an immutable fact of nature, a world “naturally” oriented by nineteenth-century navigational frameworks, now augmented by twenty-first-century AI, smart cities, and iPhones. Implicit endorsements for dehumanization can be found in this destructive negation of these capacities. At this juncture, it becomes evident that the struggle for orientation at nth-dimensionality coexistence demands intervention on this artificial plane, in order to dislodge naturalized conservatisms that are often disguised as blinking futurity.

Matteo PasquinelliThree Thousand Years of Algorithmic Rituals: The Emergence of AI from the Computation of Space
What people call “AI” is actually a long historical process of crystallizing collective behavior, personal data, and individual labor into privatized algorithms that are used for the automation of complex tasks: from driving to translation, from object recognition to music composition. Just as much as the machines of the industrial age grew out of experimentation, know-how, and the labor of skilled workers, engineers, and craftsmen, the statistical models of AI grow out of the data produced by collective intelligence. Which is to say that AI emerges as an enormous imitation engine of collective intelligence. What is the relation between artificial intelligence and human intelligence? It is the social division of labor.

Nikolay SmirnovMeta-geography and the Navigation of Space
In Boris Rodoman’s map-like diagrams we are confronted not only with the features of the objects being mapped (a landscape, the author’s experience, or his interests), but also with the mapping procedure itself as a fundamentally important and basic feature of the human mind. The common link between a cartoid that depicts a model of a landscape and a cartoid that schematizes the interests of its author reveals the very procedure of mapping as primarily a cognitive process. Moreover, by charting and mapping himself and his own interests, the researcher makes visible the processes of constructing the subject. In other words, through his geo-cartoids, Rodoman reveals the action of forces and flows of power that construct the subject in many respects as a random assemblage. Rodoman’s geo-cartoids contain an implicit critique of the Russian landscape and the powers that constitute it (hyper-centralization, the influence of administrative divisions, and so on). His para-geographical cartoids do the same kind of work concerning the construction of subjectivity in modern society.

Oraib ToukanToward a More Navigable Field
There is a fracture in the depth of field at which images of suffering are being viewed. The question is not how suffering is represented to us, but at what depth these images can be navigated—in their singular form, and as powerful expanses of understanding. Taking the Palestinian quest for representation as an example of an historic flow of images striving for clarity, I ask: Can another depth of field be utilized that better embodies the mechanics of the digital gaze? If so, how does the gaze get channeled digitally?

Tom HolertShips in Doubt and the Totality of Possible Events
Parmigianino’s painting suggests that finding orientation should be conceived as a fundamentally tactile, sensuous, nonvisual matter (and, considering the pedophilic gaze impelled by the picture, a rather disconcerting one too). The boy’s hand, more than his vision, is the navigational device par excellence. It also serves as a precedent for another infamous hand of a boy with “a passion for maps” some four centuries later. Charlie Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 Heart of Darkness, recalls his childhood dreams of “blank spaces on the earth.” “And when I saw one that was particularly inviting on a map,” Marlow muses, “I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’” Both hands, first in the sixteenth-century painting and then in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century novel, point to an evolving set of protocolonial, colonial, and neocolonial gestures that continue to inform geopolitical visual cultures. The hand is used as a scaling device, allowing one to literally touch the cartographic representations of often vast geographical areas, thereby making available an individual bodily experience of exploration, travel, and possession. In the mind deformed by colonialism, the touching of the map anticipates the grabbing of the land.

James Bridle—Failing to Distinguish between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky
Resistance and refusal must remain as possible responses to the technologically augmented assault directed at individual autonomy today—the off switch must still be within reach. In my research into autonomous vehicles and machine vision, I have tried to develop several strategies for human-scale opposition to exploitative automation, such as the Autonomous Trap. This trap is constructed by drawing a pair of nested circles—one solid, one dashed—on the roadway. From the outside, the pattern denotes a right of way. From the inside, it means no entry. Thus any car, programmed to obey the rules of the road, may enter, but cannot leave, like a demon trapped within a magic circle.

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