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Hope in and fear of the new

Cat Jones: SXSW Interactive

After residencies at the Institute of Art and Olfaction in LA and with neuroscientists in Adelaide and travelling between botany, neuroscience, touch and scent via shamanic body illusions, Cat Jones is developing Somatic Drifts, a one-to-one experience that will preview at Hawke Centre Gallery, Adelaide, co-presented by ANAT, 20-25 July.

Map Your World, The Revolutionary Optimists, Kolkata Map Your World, The Revolutionary Optimists, Kolkata
In the space of two years between 2013, when I first attended, and 2015, content acceleration at SXSW Interactive has moved from innovative to exponential and something to write home about.

SXSW is a machine controlled by business; its body, its blood flooded with marketing psychology. The likelihood of brainwash is frighteningly real. Along with cranial lavage, you will need the stomach to attend. It’s also a bloodbath of free, independent thinking. You may leave as I did with a strange mix of adrenalin rush, rising nausea and the sense of hopelessness that any of us, individuals or groups, are free or have the capacity or sway to make social change anywhere in the world or that technology in any form ever was or ever will be good. Corporations have us, and our governments, well stitched up.

Although harder to find in 2015, it’s fascinating that there are gems of unique art and culture framed in this entrepreneurial context. There are conversations that coalesce activism, the senses, community, story and so much more. SXSW Interactive is a week of pure intellectual rigour, conceptual genius, leaps of faith, technical adventure and disruptive reality checks. I haven’t found such a combination anywhere else. In a minefield of charisma, brands, NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and festival loot, let’s touch on a sprinkling of 2015’s offers dealing with some of our oldest compulsions: immortality, spirituality and revelatory technology.

Martine Rothblatt: immortality & AI selves

Martine Rothblatt is CEO and Chairman of United Therapeutics, author of Virtually Human: The Promise—and Peril—of Digital Immortality (2014) and of The Apartheid of Sex: Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (1995). In her interview keynote for SXSW Interactive, part of the Art, Science and Inspiration program, she described her personal quest to alleviate the suffering of transplant patients along with a recount of other super achievements (like the world satellite radio Sirius XM) and of philosophies being forged by her scientific and technological inventions.

The project closest to her heart is based on xenotransplantation: a limitless supply of organs for immediate human transplant, created from genetically modified pigs—and prompted by her daughter’s then incurable lung disease [subsequently cured by Rothblatt and her collaborators]. Rothblatt reports that transplant survival with her new model has gone from hours to eight days. She suggests that once one month is reached, a year and longer will be not far behind.

Her side project is the creation of a digital clone of the human mind made from accessing mannerisms, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, ethics and values gathered from our digital traces—social media, emails. Google is currently writing mindware from this information. Rothblatt has created a proof of concept, BINA48 (2010), an artificially intelligent mind clone of her wife that inhabits a head and shoulders robotic bust of same. Where these projects and Rothblatt’s philosophies converge is in immortality where networked artificial intelligence enters a constructed living body, to replicate someone who has or already exists.

Reflecting our progress towards Singularity, our vocabulary of terms like “software-mind” is shifting to objectify the human and preference non-human in terms like “brain-based original” and “human-level consciousness.” Rothblatt is also a lawyer. The keynote brought to the fore Rothblatt’s agitation for philosophies and legal steps to provide identity law for future forms of life. A person can be natural or juridical (like a corporation). Wild law extends this premise to the Earth as a legal person with rights of jurisprudence. In Virtually Human, Rothblatt advocates for machine law and the machine as an identity.

I come out of this session, like many others, mind racing, exhilarated by human intelligence and accumulative knowledge yet sort of shattered: not really understanding tomorrow, alienated from fellow humans, asking why we desire the things Rothblatt proposes. I feel the incongruity of a new generation gap to come. Someone online asks, “Who pays to maintain this virtual self after the person it was created for dies?”Are these constructions responsible for their own survival or will they be wards of state? What are the economic drivers? At what point is the non-human reclassified as human? Questions to add to those for SymbioticA’s Neolife Symposium 1-3 October this year.

Rothblatt rolls out her vision as if it’s natural evolution. She makes sense, she’s rational, progressive, she’s emotionally connected, she has a family, is a political activist, founded a religion. We are frogs taking a swim in a satellite-connected waterhole of her making with very high sides, set over a flame.

Spirituality Through Interactive Technology

I found comfort at the Spirituality Through Interactive Technology panel, an intriguing gathering of cross-disciplinary humans in the audience: health practitioners, filmmakers, scientists and spiritualists. The session led with the premise that traditional interactive media has a bias for thinking from the perspective of the other, highlighting instead early trends that make space for “internal immersion” through self-perspective—that VR experiences in this vein are described with the word ‘presence’ and that VR is being used in new ways. And that presence and the intensity which people experience through these new experiences is producing happiness and empathy.

The conversation extended to neuroscience research by Olaf Blanke into perceptions of presence and other recent research suggesting that the brain is an embassy of the digestive system, not the centre but a creation of a more ancient system and placed at the periphery—our heads. There are after all more nerve cells in the digestive system than there are in the brain.

The session was run by interactive story architect and choreographer Michel Reilhec and Opeyemi Olukemi, Manager, Interactive at Tribeca Film Institute. Artists from the TFI program ANAGRAM (UK) hosted their own panel, with a pen and ink artist, on the junction of VR and physical artforms: How to Play with VR, Physical Spaces and Ink. The panel featured insights into Door Into the Dark, an immersive experience in personal documentary storytelling [in which lone participants become profoundly lost in the ANAGRAM installation, wearing a sensory deprivation helmet, travelling along a rope, cued mostly by touch and audio instructions. Eds].

Technicians of the Sacred: The New Native Apps

This session was convened by Wendy Levy, filmmaker and Executive Director, New Arts Axis, an organisation dedicated to facilitating creative innovation for arts, culture and human rights. Levy was previously in Australia for Hive Labs 2012. The panel focused on projects that bring tribal wisdom to the technology table, featuring two maps for action projects.

Save Wiyabi Mapping Project “aims to decolonise the anti-violence movement” and uses “digital feminism and technology.” Lauren Chief Elk, co-founder of the project, describes limitations in the collection of ethnicity data by USA authorities that document deaths. In the recent past only two data points were collected—a single ethnicity (Latino/Hispanic) or none. Death reporting is also governed by jurisdiction; there is no centralized data consolidation point. This creates a dark sinkhole for the visibility of genocidal femicide. The project is a map and database of missing and murdered Indigenous women that now invites global submissions. Australia is missing.

Another project, Map Your World is run with Google Maps and Earth. Presenter Eric Doversberger, Production Manager, People Analytics explained that the tools are open source with resources for project setup available, aiming to empower groups to create private or public maps populated with multiplatform story content. For example The Revolutionary Optimists, initiated by Indian lawyer turned social activist Amlan Ganguly. This has children in Kolkata conducting interviews about the health of water wells—location, colour, smell and who’s getting sick. In the beginning, they worked predominantly on paper. They collected so much data that they were able to make reports and petition for new wells. Another project led by Chief Almir, of the Surui tribe of the Brazilian Amazon, used the Map Your Indigenous Community to map traditional land. The model aims to close the gap between elders and young people and offers children new skills. A key outcome is Chief Almir’s ability to track and pinpoint illegal deforestation.

October each year is Map Your Indigenous Community Month. The project team will be visiting Australia to run workshops and talk to communities. Perhaps of interest for Australia’s war on terror and ‘lifestyle choices’?

SXSW, Austin, Texas, 13-22 March

After residencies at the Institute of Art and Olfaction in LA and with neuroscientists in Adelaide and travelling between botany, neuroscience, touch and scent via shamanic body illusions, Cat Jones is developing Somatic Drifts, a one-to-one experience that will preview at Hawke Centre Gallery, Adelaide, co-presented by ANAT, 20-25 July.

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 17

© Cat Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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