Yesterday, the Department of Visual Studies hosted a conference on failure in the arts and failure as a part of artistic practice. While I think there are a number of crucial, interesting topics to be discussed under this general rubric, I don’t think the presenters succeeded (ahem?) in bringing them to light, or turning a critical eye to the way they regard success and failure. By this I mean — all the presenters are situated in a certain relation to others in the academy or professionally; and all the presenters are positioned in other privileged positions. Interestingly, their bios did not outline in detail the ways in which they have failed in the past, but rather their successes — why we should listen to them as voices of authority, but perhaps not voices of authority on the topic of failure.

I think one of the things most confusing to the folks I was sitting with during the conference was the complete absence of any discussion about failures that are ultimate, that you cannot get up from and dust yourself off from, or that deal you the sort of blow that makes things impossibly difficult for you. As graduate students working on MFAs, trying to figure out what to do with them going forward, it’s actually kind of offensive to suggest that all failures are things we can get up from. There is a certain threat of failure from which we are acutely aware that either we cannot recover from, or a recovery might require more effort and resources than would be a change of course entirely. While I am sure the latter kind of failure would teach me something, I can’t say that the former kind of failure offers too many opportunities for learning.

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So, in thinking about what I ought to do as a project for my wearable media course, I’ve been thinking a lot about how what we wear deeply influences the way people read our gender identities. Also, the committee for the DSM-V has been publishing proposed changes to the DSM-IV’s gender identity disorder (GID) section on the web. There are a lot of issues surrounding the creation of these diagnoses and identifying GID as a mental illness at all. There’s also the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which requires the patient to “live cross-gender” for a certain amount of time before hormone therapy or surgery can be prescribed.

Ultimately these diagnoses and requirements and standards are gatekeeper tools which are, more often than not, tyrannical and harmful to the patients they’re supposed to be designed to help. They force folks into boxes, discredit them when they don’t conform (especially with regard to who they date and how they behave in society), and generally make it difficult — cost-wise, time-wise, and physical-safety-wise — to get the care that they need. They’re historically a source of pain for many trans people, and present major roadblocks to a variety of cross-sections of the trans population.

Another source of inspiration for this project is Constraint City, which is a vest that constricts when the wearer is near more closed wireless networks. It can be worn while walking through urban environments, allowing a new kind of consciousness of things you cannot see. (And it hurts.)

My thought is that I should create a user interface that “assists” the wearer in “living cross-gender.” The garment itself will be a kind of corset — already a kind of torture device — that you can set up to be male-to-female or female-to-male. (There are only two kinds of transsexuals, don’t you know.) Depending on a number of feedback sources that determine how “well” you are living in the “opposite gender,” the vest will constrict you (if you need “help”) or loosen. Depending on your gender setting, it will either constrict the waist (to “feminize”) or chest (to “masculinize”).

Possible metrics for “success” include: feedback from others, posture, voice pitch, mannerisms, way of moving, talkativeness, and perhaps others. The vest will also track the amount of time you spend successfully living “cross-gender,” and perhaps report out to a website that will allow you to keep track of the time you spend. This information will, of course, be public, and kind of embarrassing.

So the SOCVest is public, humiliating, painful, and essentializing. Sound familiar? I thought so. I plan to use it for a performance about my own medical care and medical history. The document will remain on the SOCVest website for all to see.

Feedback would very much be appreciated, maybe I will post some sketches of the vest design.

Last weekend I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which is a small but important book about the way in which we become spectators when presented with photographic representations of war. While the photograph is still an enormously powerful, pervasive medium, and indeed one of the primary ways we see the things that happen abroad, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which we “see” things that happen abroad in other ways. Sontag discusses films very briefly, and mentions video games but once. (She is, after all, probably best known as a critic for On Photography.) But I also noticed that, in the later part of the essay, she critiqued her own view that we become desensitized to violence through overexposure to images of suffering.

This idea is problematic on a number of levels. First, she writes that it is difficult to say with any certainty that image-glut does, in fact, create the kind of callousness that critics claim it does. Second, the virtualization of war is a phenomenon restricted to those for whom war is not real and immediate — that is, spectators in the West. Sontag makes a point of calling these claims “platitudes” and tearing them apart as ungrounded and provincial. The effects of these kinds of images need to be reassessed.

Of course, my thoughts turned to video games. Much is often made, in the mainstream media, of the damaging effects of video game play on the minds of youngsters — the desensitization to violence and suffering can now be taken to a new level, where the player is virtually involved in the violence, instead of just a spectator. (But is not the video game player still a spectator, in some way? And how is viewing art on a wall not in some way interactive, perspectival, and affective? This relationship is complicated.) And within the game studies community, many scholars have written on the propaganda value of a good, clean first-person shooter, the gore turned down and the stakes lowered through the very nature of the gamic medium.

But I think in many ways a new generation of first-person shooters is problematizing the assumed relationship between the video game, the gamer, and the suffering of others. I’ve been trying to come up with useful cases, and I think we could examine the controversial “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) as a starting point. [Basic spoilers follow.]

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Recent discovery: the need to write really involved blog posts that take multiple days to write. I spent a couple hours yesterday and at least an hour the day before trying to flesh out this post I’m working on about Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and video games, but it’s just not working out. I think it’s been making me feel a little batty. Or maybe that’s just because I spend most of my time in a black-walled room typing on a computer.

I guess also my brain has been moving very fast. It’s time for me to get down to business and start doing some coding for the (still) unnamed Red Light, Gren Light project. I’ve also been thinking about the social coding — as in, do I let campus security know what I’m up to, and that while what I’m doing is kind of disruptive, it’s “art” and “harmless.” Reading the books I got about campus architecture don’t make me feel very good. They sort of politely skim around the topic of control. Nobody wants to be overt, but also nobody wants to be critical.

I’m thinking about reading Lefebvre anyway, this is about not-just-architectural space, the construction of hybrid space in between physical and social space. Though I am sure the architecture has a great deal to do with it. Did you know  you need to sign up to use the open field next to the Center for the Arts? I understand this is the case. There is no other gathering space in the Academic Spine. Or campus, really. What does that do to you? My architecture books aren’t saying anything but I have my suspicions.

I think tomorrow morning I will be going to the University Archives. For now I am going to make broad gestures at this blog entry that might turn into a really serious paper at some point.

By now I imagine most people who are interested in what I write about have seen Clay Shirky’s recent blog post, A Rant About Women. While the title of the blog entry itself is a bit of a misnomer (I don’t think Shirky is really ranting about women so much as he is ranting about femininity) it’s also a bit of a hot-button topic for a lot of people. I’ve read several smart critiques of the general thesis, but I haven’t seen a critique from the specific angle I would like to tackle. The assumptions that Shirky makes about the way society should be are a little bit frightening, but I’ve been thinking more and more about where these ideas come from, and some of them are more well-formulated than others, but I’m going to give it a go.

The one thing I’ve not been seeing explicitly is the idea that Shirky is taking issue with femininity. In her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano discusses how our entire society — many feminists included — treat femininity as something to avoid. This is manifested in many ways. Consider how it’s generally okay for little girls to play with action figures, but when a little boy wants to play with a baby doll, suddenly red lights go off in his parents’ heads and the boy is punished. Or consider that when women were first allowed to enter the working world they were expected to assimilate with men. Or consider that because I’m a trans man I get certain privileges over trans women, like acceptance in more cis queer circles or the freedom to not worry about violence constantly.

What Shirky completely misses in his post is that he’s becoming part of this problem — the oppression women (all women) face in our society is not just income ceilings (or being locked out of employment altogether) or socialization into subservient roles, but that anybody who conforms in any way to that notion of femininity is viewed as weak, inferior, and, often, problematic. By saying that it doesn’t matter that his blog post asks women to be more like men, Shirky is essentially cosigning the erasure of feminine identities, which is completely and utterly unacceptable.

I think danah boyd raises a great point, too, when she points out that diversity isn’t just about arranging “diverse-looking” people in a room and calling it a job well done. (Also if we were all self-aggrandizing jerks nothing would ever get done! Too much infighting!)

I’m starting to do my homework for designing and implementing the Red Light, Green Light game I’ve blogged about here in the past. At the moment I’m putting together a reading list about architectures of control, but I’m having a hard time finding any information specifically about designing campuses in response to the Kent State massacre. Since UB’s North Campus was built post-Kent State, I suspect that I might even be able to find specific information about the design of this campus as a response to that event.

The idea of putting together a bibliography for a game is kind of odd, but it makes sense if you want to make an effective intervention. I think it would be beneficial for players to have a resource to be directed to after the fact. And also something to prove that I’m not just a “fun” designer. I think I will make the bibliography available via AAAARG, both for political and practical reasons.

Anyway, if anybody has any ideas about additions to the bibliography for me to check into, please let me know. I’d really appreciate it.

Oh, and also, we can play Name That Game, since I’m not yet sure what to call this exercise.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the commitment to non-violence, and what that means when squared with the idea that oppression is violent. I think it’s very easy to point to the successes of non-violent movements, and I think that it’s also really wonderful that non-violent resistance to oppression has worked in the past. However, I also have mixed feelings about how resistance to oppression has changed tactically since the advent of social media.

On the one hand, social media enables non-violent protesters to circumvent institutional media, thereby allowing them to depict, say, police brutality at a protest from their own point of view. However, these points of view often only get picked up by people who support them in the first place. They are merely preaching to the choir.

Which is to say nothing of the fact that non-violent protest seems to be losing traction in many ways. People are jaded with the format of most protests — although this does offer exciting opportunities for people working on social media projects to use their technologies to respond to this need — and very little is sensational about people with signs marching on anything these days. On the other hand, many experiments with using social media to intervene in situations has been largely very ephemeral, which is a big complaint about social media-related justice work in general. And the internet in general.

So what are we to do? I think it’s a many-faceted problem, but I also don’t know about ruling out a certain degree of militancy in responding to certain situations. I don’t think armed conflict or violent aggression is, in fact, the solution to every problem, nor am I advocating meaningless violence. However, in cases where all legal and civil resistances have failed, sometimes you have to raise your fist. Stonewall was a riot, not a candlelight vigil.

So I’ve started reading Homo Ludens finally, because I have to (sometimes I think it’s kind of awful that I have to be made to do these things, but I think I would eventually, it’s just that things get done faster when someone is there to man the bellows) and I’ve been thinking a lot about how Huizinga talks in his introduction about the mysterious impulse of living things to play, and I kind of wonder if this has something to do with the way the brain works — in ways that we’ve come to learn now, post-Huizinga. Since he writes about the performative creation of art, religious ritual, and the phenomenon of flow, I can’t help but wonder if maybe there is something about play that is related neuropsychologically to our need for religion.

I think I just wanted to jot that down because I just got really excited about it. Back to reading.

I really meant to write a bunch over break, but after going home, I found it very hard to. I think it has a lot to do with the state of being home, and also the difficulty I had in terms of access to technology while I was home (this was partially intentional).

Home was alright. It was kind of refreshing to see people and play at how my life used to be. It also reminded me that I am glad my life is the way it is right now, not because I dislike anybody at home, just that home is not home anymore. Buffalo has been so nurturing to me in the past four months, I can’t even begin to say. It’s not like Ann Arbor was for me — actually, in contrast, Ann Arbor was kind of stifling. I mean that on a number of levels. I can’t tell you how weird it is to think about my life a year ago, let alone ten. I guess I am just not ready for Michigan again. I guess I’ve fallen in love with Buffalo (sorry, Michigan).

I got a lot done over break but I still have a lot to do — I just bought a pile of books for the comparative literature class I’m taking this semester. The syllabus is packed with books I’ve been meaning to read, and now I get to, and talk about them with a bunch of other people who want to read them, too. I have a lot of things to read and write about and consider and plan. Now I have a great lair in the back of the VR lab to do my planning in. I am thinking about getting a chart-making surface to hang back there, so I can make flow charts and to-do lists and other things that make me look enormously productive.

I have a lot of goals this semester, and a formidable course load. Oh, but I can’t wait. What’s even more exciting for me is that I know where my thesis is going…hee!

Last night I had dinner with Josephine, Dave, and their daughter Lucy. Josephine and I talked a little bit about the neurological implications I discuss in my paper on neurotheology’s social and scientific impact on theories of the evolution of consciousness. Then we talked about A Cyborg Manifesto and feminism (and -isms in general) as a purported totality — and how that’s fucked up. And I started to think to myself, there are other technologies out there to create “alternate” realities, in our brains. We’ve been doing it as a species for millennia. This idea isn’t too out there, and it happens all the time.

In the sense that the individual nature of consciousness and the isolated conscious experience of reality is “alternate,” we are constantly experiencing a kind of alternate reality. I guess this also came up last night when I was out for a cup of cheer with Danielle, and we talked about how important it is to validate the personal experiences of others, especially when you’re talking about privilege and oppression. Our realities are alternate realities in the sense of her experience of oppression as a black woman, and my experience of oppression as a biracial transgender human. I find this sense of “alternate reality” not very exciting, but the idea of social technology to expose such alternate realities to one another pretty rad.

Of course, another thing I couldn’t help but think of is psychedelic drugs. While there are certain legal, personal and health-related risks and downsides to doing a project using psychedelics as practice, I also would be afraid of such an adventure turning into something very trite. I would want to do a project of this sort falling somewhere between an erowid.0rg-type study and free-form creative sessions. Also, I would want to create some kind of tangible output that isn’t just a video of someone tripping. (How do you make someone feel like they are there? In a psychological sense.) Also, I would not want to trigger anything psychologically negative in myself or others. This seems risky on a number of levels, and would require an enormous amount of planning and execution. And legal disclaimers. (Though, from an amateur chemistry standpoint, it could also be totally rad.)

Finally, though, Twitter peep @mcburton proposed lucid dreaming as a possible alternate technology to create, explore, and document alternate realities. And I think this kind of goes back to the original concept — that we already contain alternate realities (and maybe each of us contains several, or more than several, legion, realities), the challenge is merely becoming conscious of them and then imparting the knowledge of those realities to others.

So the idea is — I learn to lucid dream. I document the process of learning to do so, and then use my lucid dream state to create an open-source virtual reality that others who are interested in lucid dreaming can also access via their lucid dreams. Maybe I will make a version of my virtual space using Unigine or something, too…although I don’t really want to, it’s hard to say how else to impart my vision of “my” alternate lucid dream reality to other users. I worry that a visual representation that you can walk through and see is a little too literal. I guess if I did it textually it would also raise the issue of continued isolation within our own interpretations of reality. In a perfect world, I think I’d like my open-source lucid dream engine to have its own wiki where other lucid dreamers can “build” on stuff, post it, and that would allow other users to visit it.

I guess it’d be a little like a meat-based MOO. MMOO?

This, ultimately, also goes back to my idea of hacking the body, optimizing human experiences to be the most pleasurable and fulfilling, through a variety of technological and social (which are sometimes interchangeable) methods. Also, what happens when someone is able to induce an experience of a fictional place in a dream state that is tangibly similar to someone else’s experience of that fictional place, and we construct it together?

Some other questions for consideration:

  • How will MMOO be run? Will there be a government? Am I willing to take on the role of an administrator in my virtual world?
  • What, if any, are the ethical considerations to managing someone’s dream experience?
  • How do you even find other people who can lucid dream? Or alternatively, how do you convince your friends to learn how to lucid dream so they can “play” in the virtual space? (I’m sure I have some takers, heh.)
  • When documenting MMOO, how much information is too much information? Is there such a thing? Would a 3D virtual representation of MMOO kill it?
  • Is it possible to network brains?

Your feedback, potential answers, and further questions are appreciated.


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