Nervous Systems: Quantified Life and the Social Question / Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin / March 11‒May 9, 2016 / Opening: March 10, 2016, 7pm

The nervous system has become the chief motif of the technological era. Corporations speak of “smart nerves” and “synaptic real time connections” as managerial solutions to everything from government and business to natural ecologies, powered by networked data-infrastructures consisting of millions of sensors. Today’s agitated state apparatuses and overreaching institutions act according to the fantasy that given sufficient information, threats, disasters, and disruptions can be predicted and controlled; economies can be managed; and profit margins can be elevated. This new belief in technological solutions, fostered by data analysis, reality mining, pattern recognition, and forecasting increasingly dominates all aspects of contemporary society.

Nervous Systems is an exhibition that asks how our experience and understanding of the “self” and the “social” are changing as part of these processes. Co-curated by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective and Anselm Franke, head of the HKW’s Department for Visual Arts and Film, from March 11 to May 9 (opening March 10) the exhibition explores the impact of data economies and the quantification of life. Here, “nervosity” refers not so much to the rationalizing promises of human‒machine integration, but to the “nervousness,” that haunts today’s systems and data-driven rationalities and ideologies themselves.

Contemporary public discussion tends to frame questions around new technologies in terms either of emancipation, egalitarianism, and empowerment or of repression, surveillance, and state power. Neither techno-utopian nor entirely techno-dystopic, this exhibition instead looks at the relation between individuals and the vast networked infrastructures of data collection, and the way that abstract laws of the market and finance capitalism translate into subjective experience and embodied activity. It asks how the enormous amount of data on human behavior produced by today’s network infrastructures affects and transforms this behavior. It also reflects on how this is integrated with bureaucracies to form a single web of wealth extraction, now increasingly based on the free labor and attention of their users, the self-quantifying self.

Nervous Systems also reflects on some of the darker paradoxes of the “self” that have arisen within the context of our new centers of wealth, knowledge, and power. Intimacy contrasts with alienation; self-interest can become self-exploitation; and we comply with our own objectification as we willingly produce the raw data for mining and predictive analysis. Nervous Systems leaves us with an intentionally open question: Does this dream of system- and self-management yield monsters we have yet to understand?

Through artistic works and thematic collections of artifacts organized in a spatial Grid, and an area called the The White Room that allows visitors to actively explore and experiment, the exhibition looks into the human aspect of these questions. It follows historical threads over the past hundred years and offers contemporary narratives that shed light on quantified life and its vast, ubiquitous infrastructures.

The Grid
Can our inner thoughts be transmitted by our eye movements? Can our future actions be predicted by our current behavior? Julien Previeux’s film Patterns of Life enacts more than a century of evolving technologies in tracking human behavior, from re-organizing the factory floor to today’s “activity-based intelligence” in the “war on terror.” This is but one example from 28 works shown in the Grid tracing the inversions that mark the relationship between man and machine. Historical artworks call for a reinterpretation of early conceptual art’s concern with quantification, its “aesthetics of bureaucracy,” and the deconstruction of the self in light of current data collection and self-quantification. The exhibition includes contributions by media historians and writers, reconstructing the history and present rise of data technologies and portraying the world they bring about, addressing issues such as pattern recognition, the genealogy of quantification, anomaly detection, cartographic objectivation, and the epistemology of the “nervous” network, among others.

The White Room
The White Room is a live installation by the Tactical Technology Collective. During weekly White Room Sessions, visitors will be able to explore their data traces and digital shadows with workers at the Bar, who will offer a program of consultations, group discussions, and hands-on demos, as well as guidance through an alternative “App Center” that allows experimentation to continue beyond the exhibition. Eye-opening, hands-on “Data Detox” workshops focus on the devices we use every day: How do they work? What individual data traces do they capture? Where do these go, and what kind of control can one regain? Topics include Travels with Tor, Hack your Handy, and The Google Diet.

The White Room focuses on the Now, combining selected artworks, digital products, investigations, and activist projects, falling into one of four broad themes: Open-the-Box; Nothing to Hide?; Big Mama; and Normal is Boring.

Tactical Tech is a collective of practitioners, technologists, and activists who work to demystify the politics of data in an international context. Since its founding in 2003, Tactical Tech’s work has supported thousands of human rights activists worldwide to use information and technology in their work.

Contributions and works by Vito Acconci, Timo Arnall, Mari Bastashevski, Grégoire Chamayou, Emma Charles, Mike Crane, Arthur Eisenson, Harun Farocki, Charles Gaines, Melanie Gilligan, Goldin+Senneby, Avery F. Gordon, Laurent Grasso, Orit Halpern, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ben Hayes, Douglas Huebler, Tung-Hui Hu, On Kawara, Korpys / Löffler, Lawrence Liang, Noortje Marres, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Henrik Olesen, Matteo Pasquinelli, Julien Prévieux, Jon Rafman, Miljohn Ruperto, RYBN.ORG, Dierk Schmidt, Nishant Shah, Eyal Sivan & Audrey Maurion, Deborah Stratman, Alex Verhaest, Gwenola Wagon & Stéphane Degoutin, Stephen Willats, Mushon Zer-Aviv, and others. And in the White Room: Jacob Applebaum & Ai Weiwei, Aram Bartholl, Tega Brain & Surya Mattu, James Bridle, Julian Oliver & Danja Vasiliev, Veridiana Zurita, and contributions by Open Data City, Peng! Collective, Privacy International, Share Lab, Malte Spitz and others.

An exhibition by Haus der Kulturen der Welt in collaboration with the Tactical Technology Collective, co-curated by Stephanie Hankey, Marek Tuszynski, and Anselm Franke.

Image: Vito Acconci, « seedbed », performance 1969 / copyright the artist

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