Transcript Hazra

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CN: What is your first association with witnessing?

AH: In Sanskrit there is the word Sakshi. Sakshi means at a literal level ‘the person who witnesses’, the witnesser. At his moment I cannot go to the exact etymological roots of this word. This will be interesting though. Linguistically it resonates with shakshar, which is the word for signature which breaks up as ‘shuar’ which is self’ and ‘ahshar ’ which means letter. Phonetically they are kind of similar: shaksi, shakshar. These are connections that one glimpses that may not be historically correct, but one gets a sense anyway. However, a signature is a kind of a presence, the presence of the written hand, it is a document, it is a question of authority, the stamp of presence. Witness, the conceptual matrix around witnessing has a legal and jurisprudence elements; questions of truth, regiments of truth, trust, veracity, inscribing your body in truth. The moment one says, ‘I witnessed it’, you are kind of inscribing your body in the process. That is why in an earlier timeframe the camera image was seen as, people thought it had a certain indexicality to truth, because you would have had to have been there - to be a witness- to have been able to film it. To me this is really interesting about witnessed presence; that is the relation between truth and embodied presence. And doing so, it brings up questions around knowledge and the body and how to approach what we understand as knowledge. The classical hard empirical approach is that knowledge is only true knowledge when it is experienced though your own sense organs, but in our present context our relationship with knowledge formations is immensely mediated through multiple layers of intervention.

CN: As a witness you have an authority and responsibility?

AH: You then bring in an ethical dimension to witnessing.

CN: Actually I think also historically, we have had millennia of experience with witnessing each other and from that we shaped communities; we shaped law; we shaped social structures of contracts of business. So actually in all those things, like in business where you make contracts in front of a third party like a bank or so, the witnessing is used a lot to establish truth and trust. But it has always been embodied. Where now we are in an era where there is a lot of witnessing happening mediated by technology, where one can question where is the embodiment. What do you think?

AH: True. That brings us into the question of, perhaps what really is more critically important here, is the question of the ethics of responsibility than the importance of embodied presence. One can perhaps think more about that if a certain presence, if an embodied presence, does not allow one to take full responsibility of that very act of presence than it kind of destabilizes and upsets the entire value of presence. Where as if a certain presence, even if it is not kind of embodied in a physical sense, is possible to generate a certain ethical response, than it points in a more productive direction even if it was not framed within an embodied presence; because in contemporary context there is more and more a question of trust when distances and disembodiment is an integral and accepted factor of disembodied communication. The question of trust becomes more important, where the implicit consensual nature of the transaction is more heightened. Those situations are becoming more difficult, where you can literally open your door, walk down the road and go see for yourself. So when seeing it for one self is not a possibility, then how does one witness? And then how does one negotiate one’s responsibility?

CN: How do you do that?

AH: It is again that intangibility of… one has to continually, I would not want to use the word ‘faith’ but one has to posit one’s confidence in the productivity or the eventual productivity of engagement. Because trust in any sort of transaction is in a way reposing one’s faith or one’s believe in that productivity of the transaction. You believe the transaction, whatever it is. It can be various degrees. It could be collaborating on a paper, or asking someone a technical query, whatever, unless and until you assign a certain degree of concreteness to it, it ceases to have any value, meaning, anyway.

CN: So you argue that when you have to face disembodied presences or when you project your own disembodied presence somewhere, it is actually a choice to trust the transaction? It is position you take, until it proofs to be wrong?

AH: Yes and I think it is always - because we don’t diet, it is kind of false consciousness - and often the way we negotiate is that we segregate and compartmentalize. Say in an online for a, an online message board you ask a very specific software query, then you invest a certain amount of trust on this expert/geeg who is responding, on his claim for expertness in that particular section of a domain…it might be lingo scripting or whatever… and than you mentally structure your mind so that you decide internally that you are not going to invest that same trust in his judgement on ecology for example.

CN: So it is really contextualized?

AH: Contextualized, yes, and that is a pragmatic way to deal with the multiple variables. Temporization becomes very critical as well, which again brings us to the question of trust.

CN: So time is very important? Where before place was the beholder of trust, now it is time, through its synchronicity and a-synchronicity?

AH: Which is also then the strategy that can be abused, which you repeatedly come across. And precisely it is the way credibility and in a way reality is build up through time. As you say, as is emerging from this conversation, time becomes more of a grip on reality than space. You assume that phenomena x, be it a person’s online presence or be it a certain thing that keeps on happening, if it keeps on happening you assume that it must be of a certain quality or structure. It is not ephirimal; it is not something passing, and than you can ascribe a certain quidity.

CN: Lets pursue the concept of time in systems. Sakshi, witnessing and being witnessed, is part of many systems that actually write on our bodies, influence our identities, and invade in our knowledge and experience. However systems do not age, their timeframe is different from human timeframes; they do not get tired after 10 hours. What so you think, can they be part of our community?

AH: I think the way it works is that the way your given online experience is not just the manifestation of the system itself, which can be an automaton with no fatigue and its own timeframe, but what you experience is a very complex living breathing social system which is all the time interfering with the algorithmic system. It s very difficult to isolate, it is like a feedback loop where you are not sure what the structure of the loop is. It is a multidimensional loop. For example, the way viral video’s propagate, its actual users, say 200 users, all log on to a particular video on Youtube, it generates a certain traffic and than the traffic seems to become like self perpetuating, traffic generates more traffic. It is as if the users, the human subjects, manipulate the algorithmic system to generate a phenomena which is somewhere in between. This is very interesting how the social system and the algorithmic system and the biological system all collaborate.
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This is something I am getting more and more interested in. There is this recent work that I just finished and it will be online very soon. I became interested in this Google ad, the text ads and the adverbs; it has been such revenue for Google. The way the project started is that sometimes I would look at the Google ads that would pop up. If there is a genient then Google show ads of genient on the side. Sometimes when I was reading my mail I would look at the ads Google is throwing up. If it is a very practical thing, like when your next flight is, then Google would show ads related to air flights and bookings and so on. So that is very predictable. But if you are having a discussion about literature, how literature and film, something which is not practical and task orientated, then what happens? Like when you are discussing James Joyce. And then there are all these other instances. A friend of mine had put up a small video on YouTube, which had some clips and it was like a collage. On the keywords, when they were uploading it, they had put all the keywords that made reference to the various video clips. Now YouTube has all these bots, which are crawling all over and which do a keyword search and all these kinds of metric based searches. And even though there was no actual copyright infringement, because it encountered a certain configuration of keywords, which the bot was trained to identify as infringement, YouTube sent them a letter saying ‘You can’t do this, you have to take it down’ and they had to take it down. They could not fight it, because Youtube is a big entity. So I was interested in this entire question how discursive formations get formed and get solidified through these kind of algorithmic routines. So the work I finished recently is that I selected two texts. My starting point was Derrida’s glass, and reading Hegel en Genet parallel. Left is Hegel’s text and next to it is Genet’s text, high philosopher and gay literature. So I Her chose Levi-Straus, extracts from his ‘Meta- meaning’. And the other text I chose was TinTin, the comic book. And I chose a particular text where TinTin goes to the Inca’s. And obviously these particular two texts were chosen and there were particular reasons for it; there was an entire colonial anthropology context with it. So what I did was that I emailed sections f the text to myself, I created multiple Google accounts and I kept on emailing over a month and then I collected thousands of Google ads and then I mapped on the Google ads from these two texts onto a Moebius strip. Which like what we were talking about which is a loop but which loops back on it self. So when you se it, the work is basically photographs of these Moebius strips. So when you see it, on one side you start with Google ads, which are supposedly triggered by the texts of TinTin and as you cross the surface you get to Google ads from texts of Levi-Straus. So for me these are ways to think about how algorithmic pattern recognizers have the dark possibility of in a way shaping and streamlining the way you engage with the work. And I think it is all the more crucial now, to be very, very aware of how these manipulations operate.

CN: We have biological, social and algorithmic reality now. We are confronted with each other’s presence. They generate different growing patterns. Biological and social structures have evolved like this. But with the algorithmic reality very few people can manipulate it. However the naïve use, changes these systems dramatically. So on one hand there is the image of the algorithmic reality very complex, and on the other hand there are the millions of people who use it. So how do we witness the system and how does the system witness us? It is complex and multidimensional, and also it is simple, if it works I will use it.

AH: The more you are aware of how the mediation is actually happening, you are in a more empowered state. The embodied reality is in itself, this fetish of constantly generating body data about yourself, you are no longer satisfied with just your sensorial data about your body, but you want to generate this data stream and create for example a database of your sleep patterns. This generates two different kinds of body images. You have your own corporal, haptic and sensorial image of yourself resting sleeping and a certain sense that you have when you wake up from sleep. And you have the other image that is extracted from how your Ipod was extracting your sleep data. And you never know at what point you are slipping from the one image to the other. What I feel we kind of loose sense of… there is no sharp line anymore. The more it is necessary to know that a bar graph is not just a bar graph, it is a complex play in the way it moulds our body image

CN: If you go back to your definition sakshar, the signature is the auto self, the writing of the self. So we have become more elaborate in writing the self in more than one language, while you now describe a disruption, something that is uncomfortable?

AH: As long as we are aware that ‘no writing’ is a kind of a transport in writing of the soul. As long as we are aware that a person can forge his own signature, that a person can have 500 different ways of signing and then that is a more productive and real approach than to have this notion of the automatic most original authentic signature of someone.

CN: So you say two things: on the one hand we should allow multiple identities and scriptures, multiple kinds of writings in one person. And when there is no writing finally the soul gets to write.

AH: No what I am saying is that there is no notion of this soul writing, there is no notion of this one signature which is the true and most effective manifestation of one’s inner presence. What I am saying is that that notion in itself is problematic and possibly a mirage. That perhaps does not exist, that there is one true whole Abishek, or Caroline, which is the essence or the core of your presence. That is perhaps a problematic assumption.

CN: Lets go deeper in this. In other interviews I have also been speaking about learning, adapting and social engineering. In many interviews and texts the uniqueness of human beings, humanness and being is put forward and is put forward centre stage. On the other hand people can nearly adapt to anything. So why preserve human beings? You now say, this whole human being is a fairy tale anyway. This is counter experience of many millions of people for many centuries. People did feel present. Because people needed presence to be able to fight a tiger, to swim a river, to come home with a fishing boat or to build a house to be protected from rain, so there is a lot of survival – and presence is about survival - in which it is not about multiple identities or anything like that, it is just about doing the things one needs to do to live.

AH: What are the thresholds? What is the ultimate indivisible component of an entity? What is the threshold at which a certain entity ceases to be itself? That is I think an extremely complex question. When does a given think X ceases to be, stops to be that thing?

CN: I know hat you mean. But there are also technologies. You can say that about anything.

AH: You can, you can. But what I am saying is that that is one very physical aspect. You can chop of one’s legs, you will survive and you chops of your head you won’t. There are physical tangible limits to it. But the thing is there are possibilities and there are configurations of the body, which not yet have been explored.

CN: explored?

AH: With which we are not familiar yet. The classis neuro-cognitive scientist thought experiment is the brain in a vet. What happens to our notions of self and being if you put your brain in a box of nutrient and blood vessels and carbon dioxide is been taken out, but there is no body? So what happens? Is it still a person? Is it just abstract thought? Is it just a question of neurological impulses? So my response to this would be that often our notion of humanness and indivisibility of our own body, and there is a certain practical aspect to it because as a bat you can flap your wings and use radar to fly and as a human you can not, but often our notions of the body are conditioned by commonsensical everyday body experiences.

CN: And using technology is a great opportunity for exploration, as our sense of place has changed dramatically since the mobile phone was introduced. Lets go back to your practice as a designer. Till 50 years ago people were mostly working locally. As a designer you would be based in this environment and you would also see the users of your work in this environment. Today with global economy we have very diverse networks, many people have relatives in other places of the world, this has changed dramatically. What are the consequences for you as a designer? What can you design locally and/or globally? And as an artist how do you find a place in this?

AH: For example, sometimes when I am asked outside India, what is Indian art? What is India design? Charles Eames chooses the pot as Indian design. For me this question to define Indian-ness is like a trap. You get locked up in the prison house of your own representation. And this is then mediated by an entirely set of other discourses and assumptions.

CN: Are you saying you have to deconstruct your own local identity, as it is perceived?

AH: Yes and often one’s own perceptions of one’s self is often a complex constructed entity.

CN: Could you design for Brazil for example, since you have never been there?

AH: Yes and No. Depending on how you formulate your design problem and approach.

CN: What would be easy and what would be impossible?

AH: This is again an issue where time becomes very crucial. If I have to design a very specific thing like an online paying bill system in a kiosk in an urban environment with specified number of users per day, specific operating hours per day so the headquarter can know what the kiosk is doing and the kiosk manager is doing his job. This is a complex procedure and they need an effective online interface through which they can do this. This is something, which is possible to be done at a certain degree of ‘success’ if you follow certain procedural and engagement aspects. But again here time is crucial. Often what happens in an actual context, there are all these usability guidelines which tell you how to make a billing system, and often the speed of today’s transactions, there is no time for the software developer, and the interface developer and even the person who is doing the copywriting in the ways the words are phrased in the screens, to all spend a week together, watch how the kiosk manager manages his kiosk. Perhaps the job gets done, he will manage to send his data. However if that aspect of time of engaged interaction would be there, a more nuanced response to this could have been possible. This question of time then becomes very important. People shape their own presence in time and you cannot know this at the other end of the world. As a midway solution questionnaires are used, but often things get lost.

CN: This is clear. Experience of time determines how you perform your own presence and this is determined by the local place, the local relations, local possibilities to act. But what about culture?

AH: My initial thoughts are that the question is again an order of magnitude of time. For an effective or moderately functional response to the bill-payment context or problem there is an x amount of time needed. The bill-payment interface may be quite effective and the kiosk manager may be happy with it, but even then the designers and programmers may not have any clue to what really are the usage patterns. For example they do not know the intangible usage patterns of a typically Brazilian teenager and to how that usage pattern perhaps reflects on other aspects of the social context in which the Brazilian teenager is located in. To get a sense of that one needs another temporal engagement there. It demands a much more sustained long during engagement.

CN: Are you saying that sustainable things only get shaped in time, also when designing technologies?

AH: Indeed.

CN: Tell me bout authenticity. We are now talking about use. I was also talking to Aditya, you know him, who made a really nice distinction between being a user and being in communion with. So for example the way we have personalized our mobile phones, one could say we live in communion with our mobile phones. They have become part of our identity. While a kiosk you use to get money.

AH: There are again two different aspects here. There is the question of authenticity and I will respond to that first. It is again is an ambivalent aspect because the traditional and commonsensical thinking about authenticity is that there has to be a certain kind of unexplainable bond or tie to the soil of the land, to where you are coming from, to be really authentic, which is again the problematics of representation.

CN: Maybe of existence?

AH: No, often it has more to do with the politics of representation.

CN: That is a choice you make?

AH: No, I am saying the popular notion of the authentic is locked into a certain idea of the true representation of a given culture. Whereas authenticity has to do more with the degree and intensity of your engagement rather than with the supposed organic ties and organic binds that you have.

CN: One can be as authentic in Facebook as one can be if one has lived for 80 years on the same piece of land. Authenticity has do to with time spent, endurance and engagement. What is engagement?

AH: At one level it is an intensity of dialogue, sustained interaction, it is a question of granularity, where you are not flipping through, you are not doing a keyword analysis. You are actually interested in the comma, the semicolon and the dot and where the page number is etc, to take a book metaphor. And that is what engagement at one level really is. Often what happens is a lack of engagement and you are in too big a rush to extract patterns and then formulate your own…

CN: So does this mean that you actually agree with the distinction that Aditya made between being a user, where I have an awareness of what I am going to use, and being in communion with, being engaged with?

AH: Perhaps I would use the same words, but there is a different order of engagement. I get a sense of where Aditya is coming from, where the mobile phone becomes an extension almost of your own presence and your own body; it is like a part of you. Where in the other case the Coca Cola can for example you use and than through away.

CN: You refer to another level of engagement?

AH: What I am saying is that I might not necessarily agree with the text, I might have violent disagreements with the text, I might kind of ‘That is not me what the text says’ and I am pursuing the book metaphor, ‘What the text says, it is miles away from what I as a person really think and believe to be.
But yet, if I am saying I am trying to engage with it, I am trying in a way to bring myself apart, almost vanish my own presence and try to engage with the text on its own terms. It has a parallel with Aditya’s words of user and communion in the sense that there are different orders of engagement all together.

CN: And you are actually interested in a third?

AH: But what I am saying is that in the user and the communion the relation of the object to the self is very clear. The one is dis-engaged; the other is an organic representation. But in the question of engagement, the question of self is in not so a direct relationship. You might be with something you do not engage with, that might not be psychologically or spiritually close to you as a person and you might be really engaged with something that is also psychologically very distant from you. From the standpoint of your relationship to you self both are equally distant. But where as with text X you are not engaging, you are not doing a close reading and with text B you are engaged in a close reading.

CN: So going back to the witnessing, and the shakshar and shakshi, how is witnessing related to engaging? In your work your act of witnessing is part of your engagement with your work. How do you express your witnessing?

AH: I have to think more. Here is entity X, someone, and here is system Y, and you are witnessing the system, the act of engagement is a way or a process to be aware and to externalize yourself, to create a third point and watch yourself watching.

CN: So engagement consists of creating a third point and an effect is the vanishing self. What is culture in this context?

AH: So what is it to be self-reflexive? How do you witness yourself witnessing? And is that than the central argument of consciousness?

CN: I really look at witnessing and how the social structures evolve between the social, the biological and the algorithmic reality as we framed it now. There is a witnessing happening and you can clearly see how from the biological reality a social reality evolves. From the social reality over the last few decades an algorithmic reality has evolved that deeply invades in our lives. It changes how we see each other; it changes how we interact.

AH: Which is perhaps a manifestation of a self reflexive turn, because one could say the algorithmic turn is a way to or a response to the witnessing act we were missing, that we try to extract a vantage point which will then give you a pattern which is not visible to you when you are inside the system as a ‘participant-witnesser’. Only when you try to extract yourself outside the system, and at a third witness at perhaps a different level of reality and watching the system and the participants in the system witnessing each other, only then will these larger structures of data and patterns emerge.

CN: So self-reflexivity is very crucial here as it is in how language evolves, how social structures evolve. So if systems will be part of our communities they will have to be self reflexive, to be able to fail, realize they fail and adapt their behaviour. We have to round up now. Is there anything you want to add?

AH: It is interesting to me how many of the crucial aspects of thought, language, consciousness, awareness of the world, keep on coming back through our discussions.

CN: And time is of a different order. Lets continue the conversation. Thank you.

Abhishek Hazra , CN