»Every relation entails a translation or
distortion [of] the constituents [of the thing].«
(Harman 2015: 69)
What is the essence of identity? What constitutes the essence of a thing? Is it the functional context in which it sees itself embedded? Is it about immanent markers of identity? Or is it much more about correlational aspects of existence? The fact that we always »construct« things only with direct reference to our respective situation becomes clear at many points in the processual present: as long as I have no use for a certain device or for a thing that remains indeterminate, it does not exist for me either. It may then be present, as a physical entity that I can trip over, that demands space, but it is, to use Martin Heidegger's words, not at hand.
My once so useful reading glasses, which always provided the necessary perspective, are now an abstract relief, or rather they now possess a relief-like quality; this has been wrested from them. The object, i.e. the glasses, was subjected to the systematic-calculating logic of , measured, gutted and ultimately translated into a »new« no less physical form, which, although it may not seem so, is fundamentally part of the experience of the glasses. The relief was thus inherent in the glasses all along, slumbering as unactivated potential under the solid surface - which always seemed identical to itself - and could only be brought to light because the measures of machine perception were in turn allowed to »turn freely«, the human corrective was reduced as far as possible to the impulse-giving, advisory role of the discourse partner. What I now hold in my hand is not so much an object as a process, which I am only able to approach heuristically through selective objectification. A process that, according to an explicit thesis, requires a human observer to step outside himself in order to be understood. Abstracting from oneself, enduring the machine-induced irritation, is an important part of understanding. But what does it mean to understand this process? How is it even possible to throw my own everyday modes of perception over the proverbial heap in order to grant an advance to a different logic of execution? An explicit thesis could be that the enables entry into the process that is the thing itself.
What about the role of the human being in the face of the increasing computerisation of the living world? Christian Doeller's work CYTTER (or the CYTTER.datalab) playfully finds new answers to the pressing questions of peculiar agency and sustainable interpretative sovereignty in techno-social power structures. The objects fed into the system are measured according to a system-immanent logic that differs from the human-intuitive conception, sometimes seriously. A colour code reveals the function of the individual elements: blue for , yellow for , red for . This colour coding is arbitrary in that it does not directly interfere with functionality, but merely encourages an unfolding narrative on the part of the human observer.
The identity of objects is only revealed to us with direct reference to our own existence. We recognise a game cube with its six sides and the obligatory eyes as a component of many games because we are used to reducing it situationally to its function for our particular execution. In many ways, a conceptually well-embedded cube disappears behind an overarching narrative. Would I now have to call the artefact I hold in my hands after it has been translated / distorted by the CYTTER a cube as well? Or would the possible cube have negated itself with the decontextualisation? In any case, the glasses I entered only provide the necessary perspective in a figurative sense.
Where does nothingness begin? It begins with the expectation, the expectation of an (indeterminate) something. At the same time, everything that is to be recognised must first be defined and contextually outlined. At the beginning of recognition, therefore, there is a no less complex process of translation, as exemplified by CYTTER. But from the beginning: first a brief outline of the meaning of flowing time as well as the basis of what is to be understood as translation in the course of this essay.
The concept of translation is as old as life itself: the biochemical process of (endo)symbiosis can be understood as tantamount to the offer of interdependence from one side and the agreement of the other to actually enter into a union of this kind. What finally unfolds is a basic communication in which (optimally) both sides benefit, or at least neither side is adversely affected. (Cf. Margulis 2018) The collaboration of two (or more) molecules, for example, may result in the emergence of an entirely new entity that itself follows a different logic, »as when hydrogen and oxygen interact to form water.« (DeLanda 2011: 1) These emergences have their origin in relational events. Thus, it could be said that chemical reactions and their respective »end products« truly express without exception the fundamental importance of relation for phenomenal being.
The same applies to the objects that provide the source material for the processual installation of CYTTER.datalab: in the course of the performative installation, these (supposedly) clearly describable, visually recognisable objects are (counter)understood as mere snapshots of a much more far-reaching process. ) heuristic that makes it possible to establish a narrative that arranges itself along a usually linear timeline. Via the (re)path of digital genesis, it becomes possible to approach the pressing mystery of existence; what it means to recognise things for what they are is ultimately always accompanied by claiming contextually constituted interpretive sovereignty. »It is necessary that what is should be determined in some way so that it can become, and then be determined in some other way. This must be this and not that or anything else, so that this can become that or anything else.« (Meillassoux 2014: 99) The context in which a thing as such tends to present itself is thus permeated by a fundamental contingency that goes hand in hand with a continuous actualisation in which translation - as a potential (not yet realised) - must always already be thought of. For »if something is, then it must be contingent.« (Ibid.: 102)
In a different and yet similar way, James Beniger's (1986) thinking focuses primarily on control, but he means a form of intersubjective processing (of data) (the situational transfer together with adequate adaptations, i.e.: translation), which in its consequence leads to the result that we have »learned« to interpret as a network for the purpose of (hierarchical) control. Control, in Beniger's sense, is ultimately a way of describing the organisation of living matter. To now transfer this principle of the living to non-living (in borderline cases even non-material) actors is a relational act; a kind of meta-translation.
»As speed increases and seeks to replace 'control' of the environment, the real time of interactivity finally replaces the real space of physical activity« (Virilio 2015: 134). Paul Virilio's view of the present as a state of affairs determined by (process) speed is also significant in the context of CYTTER.datalab: for example, the time that the system takes or has to take in order to reach an intermediate result is like a slow motion that enables a particular reflection on the discursive construction. The discourse here is a negotiation between human-profane sense-making and techno-logically measuring sensing.
The origin of the life-form of the present is thus to be sought more than ever (as it were, always already) in the relation. The relationship between social and technical reality sees itself as largely hybrid, so that the discourse that seems necessary to conduct must be considered ontologically relevant. A different relationship between the actors involved would result in a different (physical) configuration of the present. Thus, the objects so centrally asserted by object-oriented ontology are merely expressions of a certain relational interplay: the fact that they know how to assert themselves in their respective places is largely due to their mutually individuating tendency: they can never achieve a truly individual state in purely logical terms.
In Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, the following lines can be found: »The structure of the Being of Zuhandenem als Zeug is determined by the referrals.« (Heidegger 1967: 74) In other words, the utility is determined to a large extent by the environmental parameters to which the stuff is exposed, with which it can/must interfere in order to ultimately find a niche in which it knows how to produce its effect. In the context of CYTTER, the evaluation of presence and accessibility changes insofar as the generated data sets condemn the input object to »mere« presence, while at the same time rendering it as accessible for the further process under the sign of a sophisticated techno-logic.
Sensing & Sense-Making /
Behaviour & Experience
»We [...] only experience ourselves 'in time'«
(Steiner 2014: 162).
The epistemology of sensors or (actuator) sensor systems, i.e. the question of how they perceive the world, enrich it with (subjective) meaning and thus participate (equally) in the genesis of the (human) lifeworld, is becoming increasingly urgent in the face of a largely hybrid present. In contrast to human individuals who construct a consistent narrative along the linear timeline, this connection is by no means so obvious in relation to technical systems. The principle of the encyclopaedic database, in which spatial as well as temporal relations generate differentiated meanings, is the prominent principle of a digitally structured context - and thus also that of the technological parts of the (life) world. (Cf. Manovich 1999) The synchronisation between these two fundamental principles, the narrative and the database, is also dependent on manifold translation processes. According to Juri Lotman (1990), the »semiosphere« thus created - on the side of human understanding - is to be understood as a constantly hybrid state - a veritable »continuum« - in which meanings tend to oscillate and in which no static can be discerned: everything ultimately remains in an originally relational processuality. CYTTER illustrates this fact impressively: it is always possible to add another feedback loop, to render the translation even more extreme. No two translations behave the same; not even those of CYTTER. The »predetermined breaking points« - especially the low-tech parts of the technical system that are susceptible to wear and tear - provide a certain degree of execution-oriented contingency that ensures that no two results behave absolutely the same. We are always dealing with unique specimens, even though the respective result is not completely arbitrary, i.e. follows a comprehensible path.
The subjective reference of the use of information, among other things, also calls for »sense-making«. Making data, once acquired, versatile also means enriching it with (subjective) meaning. The close connection between »action« and »meaning« (cf. Dourish 2001: 107 f.) is a guarantee for a development that can claim to be »progress«. Sense-making also and especially has a temporal component that ultimately recurs to a consistent narrative: experiences made become the basis on which, in turn, new information can be categorised and incorporated. At the same time, new data always carries with it the potential to shake this foundation, so that it can be divided into a time before and a time after the respective sense-making process. Sense-making is thus closely linked to the topos of interpretation, which in turn is an important component of (successful) translation. Interpretation can thus be understood as »making narrative sense of what one is supposed to be up-to-date with.« (Couldry & Hepp 2017: 114). When I try to relate the two situational ends of the excerpted process sequence of the CYTTER.datalab (i.e. my glasses and the relief) to each other, I, as a deficient human being, am dependent on coming up with an interpretation in the form of a story. The heuristic brevity of the sequence is so revealing because it allows for an understandably consistent narrative (in time). The more convoluted a context of meaning is presented, the more likely problems of comprehension arise, which can extend to resignation: »To the extent that we lack ways of making sense of [the temporal] change (of configuring it with our other ways of making sense of the social world), a problem of figurational order arises.« (Ibid.: 120)
Translation also has a prominent place in relation because it is a necessary part of symbolic interaction. The anticipation that is necessary in the use of symbolically composed (medialised) communication requires (at least) two-stage translation: first, a situational target state must be defined, then the path to this state must be transmitted in decoded form; the effect of the entered »data« on the recipient must always be taken into account. A first translation. Finally, the evaluation of the effects must have a corrective effect on the initial input; this is the second translation, which can be successively followed by several such iterative cycles.
In this sense, perceiving always means making a fundamental distinction, distinctions between affordances that exist simultaneously and contingently to each other. In this respect, humans and technical systems are very similar: a technical sensor can communicate a qualitative difference in the here and now, similar to how the receptors of the human body transmit current data from the environment to the brain. »[T]he mind functions no differently than a calculating machine,« Merleau-Ponty (1966: 34) says with direct reference to the work of Edmund Husserl. What seems to be true at first (naïve) glance, however, turns out to be a fatal misjudgement on closer inspection: where in humans the sense-making process helps to transfer what is perceived into a (sense-making) narrative that helps them to adjust their behaviour in relative resonance to what they have previously experienced, on the side of technology there is the purely encyclopaedic recording of data points; one looks in vain for a superordinate temporality with reference to machine behaviour. (Mechanical) behaviour is ultimately dependent on a (pure) observational performance from the outside, whereas (sensual) experience has a temporal-relational component that refers to the reflexive mental life. This is the basis for anticipation, which in turn influences a necessary change in behaviour.
The sense-making process is conveniently divided by McCarthy & Wright (2004) and Wright et al. (2008) into six discrete yet significantly interrelated phases: 1. anticipating, 2. connecting, 3. in- terpreting, 4. reflecting, 5. Interpreting, 4. reflecting, 5. appropriating, 6. recounting. (Cf. McCarthy & Wright 2004: 124 ff.) This form of (human) sense-making enables (social) subjects to embed their experiences in a narrative and thus to enter into a circular learning process in which the respective stages are directly related to each other and thus know how to mutually condition each other.
Whether I still recognise my object exposed to the CYTTER after it has passed through the installation depends largely on how much I am prepared to engage with the logic of execution. In the end, it remains irrelevant whether I fully understand the immanent set of rules of the CYTTER; the narrative that knows how to settle on the basis of this digital-cultural phenomenon is the necessary baseline - the keynote - to uncover a process of sense-making, as it is always at work in situations of everyday perception.
As Graham Harman's initial quotation already suggested, what constitutes the perceptual world as such is a discourse between things: »Crucial to everything is [...] the dispute between hidden objects and the distorted or translated forms in which they appear to other objects [including people, J. K.]« (Harman 2015: 148). (Harman 2015: 148) Even if object-oriented ontology (OOO) has some shortcomings, such as the bad habit of putting objects at the beginning and always referring relations only to them instead of, on the contrary, letting objects emerge from relational processes, it still seems extremely fruitful and consistent to give both distortion and translation their prominent place - albeit with a different impetus.
Where in the everyday context: »'Data' must be rendered 'actionable' [...], which means selecting and excluding, 'rul[ing] out, render[ing] invisible, other potential futures'« (Couldry & Hepp 2017: 136), ambiguous alternatives must (be able to) be thought of as a vanishing point in the context of artistic research, as exemplified by CYTTER.datalab. Where the volatile domain of the social is to be brought into an objective data form, there is also always the possibility of misinterpretation or the danger of misunderstanding or even situational incomprehensibility. (Cf. ibid.: 131) An emancipatory practice can thus only be about detecting these moments of non-functionality and placing them in a reflexive-productive manner against the (Western / Eurocentric) idea of absolute objectivity. And it is precisely this state of affairs that is so succinctly addressed by the culmination of CYTTER. Our everyday perception is put to the test, it is countered with a technocentric kind of sensing, so that coagulated modes of perception can be broken open and the constructed parts of our common (life) world can once again be fed into the discourse as active potentials.
»Words like 'touch' or 'movement' are made for people [...], for people and their human world and their human bodies« (Krafft 2020: 57). A system as represented by the CYTTER, on the other hand, inevitably creates its own idiosyncratic ways of accessing the world, or rather it worlds in a different form. And through this exemplary unfolding experience of contingency, it is possible to make one's own, seemingly self-evident, modes of perception fluid, to put them to the test so that a new ecological consciousness can unfold.