Resisting Paradise

curated by
Marina Reyes Franco

June 9 - July 6, 2019

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Deborah Anzinger
Leasho Johnson
Joiri Minaya

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apexart - San Juan

Resisting Paradise

“This may be obvious to some, but it is important to remember that the use of paradise is neither ambivalent nor static even when it fixes the region outside time and space; paradise is always on some level signifying colonial, sexualized, racialized, and gendered space/object/desire.” - Angelique V. Nixon, Resisting Paradise

In June 2018, “Discover Puerto Rico” was announced as the name of the island’s new destination marketing organization and overseer of its tourism “product” and national “brand.” After 82 years, Puerto Rico was embracing the same slogan that marketers used in the 1930s to promote the island, then under direct colonial rule by the United States. Since Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States in 1898, fantasies of exoticism, abundance, and misery have coexisted with the US need to justify intervention. The year 1937 marked a departure from previous approaches to poverty and underdevelopment in Puerto Rico that focused on the economic problems of the locals. It was then that Gov. Blanton Winship responded to Stateside backlash against his administration’s massacre of pro-independence civilians with a transformative advertising and propaganda campaign aimed at selling a pacified, glamourous island.1 Then, as in our debt-ridden, protest-heavy present, tourism was promoted by those in power as the only way up. Their messaging incorporated images of white-skinned, dark haired women as an embodiment of Puerto Rico’s role as exotic other under the United States flag; it equated products such as rum and coffee with the identity of the islands, and presented the convenience of modern travel to a tropical setting that happened to be far from WWII’s geography of conflict.2

Deborah Anzinger, Coy, 2016, Acrylic, styrofoam, Aloe barbadensis, and mirror on canvas, 72 x 54 in.

These marketing strategies have shifted very little in the intervening decades. Then, like now, we were in the midst of an economic depression, yet there was also a revolt against the creation of a resort-centered identity and its accompanying depiction of the island’s inhabitants as humble servants. Early on, Puerto Ricans understood it as a neo-colonial enterprise that would foster dependence on the United States. In her columns in La Democracia, journalist Ruby Black wrote about her contempt for Winship and compared him to author Sinclair Lewis’ fictional character George Babbitt: a man absorbed by “fishing, golf and tourism.” “Hunger, rum, death, blood,” she wrote, “Babbitt the tourist has us imprisoned in chains of trout, with walls of golf balls.”3 As the rumbles of independence spread through the region in the mid-20th century, the industry kicked into full gear, intertwining national identity with corporate branding. Nations throughout the Caribbean have befallen a similar fate in which the drive towards a version of development that is bent on accommodating foreigners becomes a historical trap, and what we prize about our islands is destroyed. Now they have to compete with each other for tourism dollars or defy interpretation.

Though geographically close, Caribbean artists are often unable to travel and show within the region. Intra-regional exchange is challenged by variations in language and colonial history, while flight routes prioritize the convenience of visitors coming from the United States or Europe, mirroring the migration patterns of many post-colonial subjects. Resisting Paradise presents an opportunity to establish a much-needed regional dialogue. The exhibition features works by Deborah Anzinger, Leasho Johnson and Joiri Minaya, showing how Caribbean artists are taking control of the narratives and images that convey ourselves to others. The artists, hailing from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic and its diasporas, work at the intersections of tourism, sexuality, gender, environmental concern, music, and the internet. Through their work, these artists reference shared histories of invasion, slavery, and economic exploitation of natural resources—forces which, in turn, translate into the commodification of Caribbean bodies in a Western imagining of paradisiacal tourist destinations. The show’s title draws inspiration from a book by Bahamian writer Angelique V. Nixon, which discusses the perils of living in a crafted, imagined paradise, and the powerful ways in which cultural workers resist and transform those given narratives.

The shared Caribbean experience of the plantation-to-resort economic development model makes evident the transition from slavery to a service economy under the visitor economy regime. This term is used to denote economic activity generated by people who visit a given place; it permeates all aspects of life, transforming a society to serve the tourist experience. Resisting Paradise explores what happens when tourism also applies to bodies—when sex and desire are also a currency. The projects of colonialism and empire have left an undeniable mark on Caribbean culture by shaping the way we relate to ourselves, each other, and to nature itself. In their work, these artists envision new paradigms of life in the region and its diaspora by challenging preconceived notions of what it means to be Caribbean: a colonial, racialized, sexualized subject.

Joiri Minaya, Siboney, 2014, Video, 10 min (still)

Deborah Anzinger’s recent body of work aesthetically erodes understandings of land and bodies by using plants, styrofoam, mirrors and synthetic afro-kinky hair to explore the intersectionality between race, gender, sexuality, ecology and the environment. For Anzinger, the project of colonialism—the foundation of capitalism—has affected how people relate to each other and to the lands that they inhabit, and these inherited understandings must be reshaped. Her pictorial approach in Coy is characterized by the use of sensually suggestive shapes and evocations of landscapes in which various kinds of penetrations are happening. While some of her brush strokes resemble marks made by digital interventions, they are careful manual constructions revealing a worldview where the natural and artificial are equivalent. The mirrors she embeds in her paintings likewise offer a disruption of the subject/object binary by implicating the viewer in their reflection. Anzinger’s abstractions—in referencing nature and the artist’s own body—are a statement of their agency and potential. Her video The Distraction of Symbolism delves deeper into her assertion of the plantation as the birthplace of our current economic regime—the place were both land and body were exploited—by placing her own pregnant self among images of rivers, plants and sinkholes, while a dialogue addresses the issue of water shortages and lack of access to natural resources.

Leasho Johnson’s monumental wall piece Death of the Sound boy digitally integrates and modifies scenes from a series of 19th century tropical landscape paintings and etchings by artists such as J.B. Kidd, William Clarke, Richard Ansdell and Marcel Antoine Verdier, whose picturesque works about the conditions of life, labor, and nature in the Caribbean were meant to convey pro-colonial messages to Europeans. These artists depicted black identity through the lens of the oppressor, creating works that were often misinterpreted as factual verification of how things were in the past, serving to manifest, preserve, and promote racist perspectives of history. In his piece, Johnson digitally constructs an even more fantastical landscape by sampling fragments of the other artists’ work in a digital collage, and drops his avatar into the mix as a figure of carnal resistance. Sound boy in the work’s title refers to the Jamaican term for disc jockeys, which emerged within the country’s reggae/dancehall scene of the late 1970s. Johnson has long referenced dancehall music and its influence on culture within his work. In the context of this piece, the invocation of the sound boy—a figure that metaphorically kills his opponents in battle—addresses otherness, violence, and the normalization of death in relation to blackness. In the mural, the avatar—a cross between a Dunny Doll, a black face character, and the Venus of Willendorf—poses in daring, provocative ways that reclaim power over its own body and bring contemporary dancehall fearlessness into an otherwise oppressive scenario.

Leasho Johnson, Death of the Sound boy, 2019, Wallpaper, spray paint, Dimensions variable

Joiri Minaya’s works explore the objectification and interchangeability of women’s bodies and landscape in visual culture, and patterns that provide camouflage and hypervisibility. Often, her works make a link between the pictorial representation of brown and black women from tropical geographies, and the way their bodies are still represented in contemporaneity as a continuation of the same male, foreign gaze. Minaya frequently incorporates contemporary “tropical” prints within her work, which reference the scientific drawings used to classify and facilitate the study of the tropical colonial possessions. The video Siboney documents the arduous process of Minaya painting a detailed mural in a museum featuring a tropical pattern inspired by a found piece of fabric. Throughout the process, the artist’s own reflections on her actions appear as captions. The breathy, sensual version of the song “Siboney,” as performed by Connie Francis, plays as Minaya pours water over her white dress and rubs herself against the painting, undoing it. The installation #dominicanwomengooglesearch is the pixelated, printed result of searching for Dominican representation online. The work consists of several cut-out images of body parts, including some stylized with tropical-patterned fabrics, which are suspended from the ceiling. The fragments—many originating from websites where women offer their company to foreigners—lend themselves to individual study and make a point about the objectification of these bodies. When considered as a whole, however, the parts reconfigure themselves in strong, assertive stances that own the gaze that’s laid upon them. In Minaya’s photographs Container #2 and #3, the artist poses in stereotypical fashion whilst wearing a full body suit printed with “tropical” designs that, in Glissantian fashion, renders her opaque to the viewer’s gaze.4 In Minaya’s work, the women look back and hold the power to refuse themselves to the viewer.

Looking into and reflecting upon our Caribbean selves can be like trying to see yourself in an infinity mirror: our reflections are ever smaller, each reflection adding length to the path the light must travel before exiting the mirror, receding into infinity. This warped reflected self is akin to our idealized version as subjects in paradise, bought and sold to us over and over from colonial times to the present; something to aspire to, to shape our behavior by. Seeing ourselves as how we think others perceive us and performing those identities back into the world can be a maddening experience. Learning the meaning of images in an increasingly mediated world is important; deconstructing the images that have informed how we present ourselves to the world is a political act.

Marina Reyes Franco © 2019
apexart Open Call Exhibition

1. The Ponce Massacre occurred on March 21, 1937 when police opened fire on a peaceful civilian march organized by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party to commemorate the abolition of slavery and protest the incarceration of the party’s leader, Pedro Albizu Campos. A federal investigation found Gov. Winship guilty, but neither he nor anyone in the police force was charged. M. Townsley, “Puerto Rico and Winship,” Steve Hannagan, May 10, 2018, Accessed May 15, 2019 http://stevehannagan.com/2018/05/10/puerto-rico-and-winship/.
2. Dr. Hilda Blanch, “La imagen de Puerto Rico 1928-1941” and “La propaganda de Puerto Rico en los Estados Unidos (1929-1941),” La voz del Centro, Jul. 22, 2018, Accessed May 15, 2019 http://www.vozdelcentro.org/tag/dra-hilda-blanch/.

3. Dennis Merrill, Negotiating Paradise (Durham: University Of North Carolina Press, 2009), 183.

4. Édouard Glissant (trans. Betsy Wing), Poetics Of Relation (Ann Arbor: Univ. Of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-194. Special thanks to Pública, Naima Rodríguez, Natalia Viera, Michy Marxuach, La Esquina, Oswaldo Colón & Glenda Ortiz, Gache Franco, Oswaldo Colón Ortiz, Independent Curators International, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and their CPPC Travel Award, in particular María del Carmen Carrión, Kimberly Kitada, Renaud Proch, Holly Bynoe, Natalie Willis, and Nicole Smythe-Johnson for facilitating the research.


Resistir el paraíso

curada por
Marina Reyes Franco

9 de junio - 6 de julio de 2019

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Deborah Anzinger
Leasho Johnson
Joiri Minaya

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apexart - San Juan

Resistir el paraíso

“Esto puede ser obvio para algunos, pero es importante recordar que el uso del paraíso no es ambivalente ni estático, aún cuando fije la región fuera de tiempo y espacio; el paraíso siempre, en algún plano, significa un espacio/objeto/deseo colonial, sexualizado, racializado y con género.” - Angelique V. Nixon, Resisting Paradise

En junio 2018 se anunció que “Discover Puerto Rico” sería el nombre de la nueva organización de mercadeo de destino y supervisor del “producto” turístico y marca nacional de la isla. Después de 82 años, Puerto Rico estaba adoptando el mismo eslogan que los publicistas usaron en la década de 1930 para promover la isla, entonces bajo dominio colonial directo de los Estados Unidos. Desde que Puerto Rico se convirtió en una posesión de los Estados Unidos en 1898, las fantasías sucesivas de exotismo, abundancia y miseria han coexistido con la necesidad de Estados Unidos de justificar su intervención. El año 1937 marcó un alejamiento de los enfoques administrativos anteriores a la pobreza y el subdesarrollo en Puerto Rico que enfatizaban los problemas económicos de los locales. Fue entonces cuando el gobernador Blanton Winship, ante el rechazo del Congreso estadounidense a la Masacre de Ponce, respondió con una transformadora campaña de publicidad y propaganda dirigida a vender la isla como pacífica y glamurosa. En ese momento, como ahora, el turismo fue promovido por los que estaban en el poder como la única manera de superarse. Sus mensajes incorporaron imágenes de mujeres de piel blanca y cabellos oscuros como la encarnación de la otredad exótica de un Puerto Rico bajo jurisdicción estadounidense. Equiparaban productos como el ron y el café con la identidad de las islas; y presentaba la conveniencia del turismo moderno en un entorno tropical que estaba lejos de la geografía de conflicto de la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Deborah Anzinger, Coy, 2016, Acrylic, styrofoam, Aloe barbadensis, and mirror on canvas, 72 x 54 in.

Estas estrategias de mercadeo han cambiado muy poco en las décadas posteriores. Entonces, como en el presente, estábamos en medio de una depresión económica, pero también hubo una revuelta contra la creación de una identidad anclada en los resorts y la representación de los habitantes de las islas como humildes sirvientes. El turismo era una nueva industria, pero los puertorriqueños ya lo entendían como una empresa neocolonial que fomentaría la dependencia de los Estados Unidos. En sus columnas en La Democracia, la periodista Ruby Black escribió sobre su desprecio por Winship y lo comparó con George Babbitt, un personaje de ficción del autor Sinclair Lewis: un hombre absorbido por “la pesca, el golf y el turismo”. “Hambre, ron, muerte, sangre”, escribió; “Babbitt, el turista, nos tiene encarcelados con cadenas de truchas, dentro de muros de pelotas de golf”. Cuando los rumores de independencia y el pensamiento poscolonial se extendieron a través de la región a mediados del siglo XX, la industria se puso en marcha, entrelazando la identidad nacional con la marca corporativa. Muchas naciones del Caribe han sufrido un destino similar, en que el impulso hacia una versión de desarrollo que se inclina por acomodar a los extranjeros se convierte en una trampa histórica, y lo que valoramos de nuestras islas se está destruyendo. Ahora tienen que competir entre sí por dinero del turismo o desafiar toda interpretación.

Aunque geográficamente cercanos, los artistas caribeños a menudo no pueden viajar ni mostrar dentro de la región. El intercambio intrarregional es desafiado por las variaciones en el idioma y la historia colonial, mientras que las rutas de vuelo priorizan la comodidad de los visitantes que vienen de Estados Unidos o Europa, reflejando los patrones migratorios de muchos sujetos postcoloniales. Resistir el Paraíso ofrece la oportunidad de establecer un diálogo regional muy necesario. La exposición presenta el trabajo de Deborah Anzinger, Leasho Johnson y Joiri Minaya, y muestra las formas en que los artistas caribeños están tomando el control de las narrativas y las imágenes que les representan. Los artistas, provenientes de Jamaica y República Dominicana, y sus diásporas, trabajan en las intersecciones del turismo, la sexualidad, el género, la preocupación por el medio ambiente, la música e Internet. A través de su trabajo, estos artistas hacen referencia a historias compartidas de invasión, esclavitud y explotación económica de los recursos naturales, fuerzas que, a su vez, se traducen en la mercantilización de los cuerpos caribeños en una imaginación occidental de destinos turísticos paradisíacos. El título de la exhibición se inspira en un libro de la escritora bahameña Angelique V. Nixon, que analiza los peligros de vivir en un paraíso imaginado tan elaborado, y también las formas poderosas en que los trabajadores culturales se resisten y transforman esas narrativas.

La experiencia caribeña compartida del paso del modelo de desarrollo económico de la plantación al resort hotelero hace evidente la transición de la esclavitud a una economía de servicios dentro del régimen de la economía del visitante. Este término se utiliza para denotar la actividad económica generada por las personas que visitan un lugar determinado e impregnan prácticamente todos los aspectos de la vida, transformando una sociedad para servir a la experiencia turística. Resistir el Paraíso explora lo que sucede cuando la economía del turismo también se aplica a los cuerpos, cuando el sexo y el deseo también son una moneda de canje. Los proyectos del colonialismo y el imperio han dejado una huella innegable en la cultura caribeña al configurar la manera en que nos relacionamos con nosotros mismos, con los demás y con la naturaleza. En su trabajo, estos artistas imaginan nuevos paradigmas de vida en la región, y sus diásporas, al desafiar las nociones preconcebidas de lo que significa ser caribeño: un sujeto colonial, racializado y sexualizado.

Joiri Minaya, Siboney, 2014, Video, 10 min (still)

El trabajo reciente de Deborah Anzinger erosiona estéticamente el entendimiento de la tierra y los cuerpos al usar plantas, espuma de poliestireno, espejos y cabello afro sintético para explorar la interseccionalidad entre raza, género, sexualidad, ecología y el medio ambiente. Para Anzinger, el proyecto del colonialismo—la base del capitalismo—ha afectado la forma en que las personas se relacionan entre sí y con las tierras que habitan, y estos entendimientos heredados deben reformarse. Su enfoque pictórico en Coy se caracteriza por el uso de formas sensualmente sugerentes y evocaciones de paisajes en los que se producen diversos tipos de penetraciones. Aunque algunas de sus pinceladas se asemejan a marcas hechas por intervenciones digitales, éstas son cuidadosas construcciones manuales que revelan una visión del mundo donde lo natural y lo artificial son equivalentes. Los espejos que incorpora en sus pinturas también ofrecen una interrupción del binario sujeto/objeto al implicar al espectador a través de su reflejo. Las abstracciones de Anzinger—al referirse a la naturaleza y a su propio cuerpo—son una declaración de su potencial y agencia. Su video The Distraction of Symbolism profundiza en su afirmación de la plantación como el lugar de nacimiento de nuestro régimen económico actual-—el lugar donde se explotaron la tierra y el cuerpo—al ubicar a su propia figura embarazada entre imágenes de ríos, plantas y sumideros, mientras que el diálogo aborda el tema de la escasez de agua y el acceso restringido a los recursos naturales.

La mural monumental de Leasho Johnson, Death of the Sound boy, integra y modifica digitalmente escenas de una serie de pinturas y grabados de paisajes tropicales del siglo XIX de artistas como JB Kidd, William Clarke, Richard Ansdell y Marcel Antoine Verdier, cuyos pintorescos trabajos sobre las condiciones de vida, trabajo y naturaleza en el Caribe estaban destinados a transmitir mensajes procoloniales a los europeos. Estos artistas describieron la identidad negra a través del lente del opresor, creando obras que a menudo se malinterpretaron como una verificación objetiva de cómo eran las cosas en el pasado, sirviendo para manifestar, preservar y promover perspectivas racistas de la historia. En su pieza, Johnson construye digitalmente un paisaje aún más fantástico al samplear fragmentos del trabajo de los otros artistas en un collage digital, soltando a su avatar en la mezcla como una figura de resistencia carnal. El Sound boy del título hace referencia al término jamaiquino para disc jockeys, que surgió dentro de la escena reggae/dancehall del país a fines de los años setenta. El dancehall y su influencia en la cultura es una referencia recurrente en el trabajo de Johnson. En el contexto de esta pieza, la invocación del Sound boy, una figura que mata metafóricamente a sus oponentes en batalla musical, aborda la otredad, la violencia y la normalización de la muerte en relación a la negritud. En el mural, el avatar—un cruce entre un Dunny Doll, un personaje de blackface y la Venus de Willendorf—posa audaz y provocativamente, reclamando poder sobre su propio cuerpo y llevando la intrepidez contemporánea del dancehall a un escenario por lo demás opresivo.

Leasho Johnson, Death of the Sound boy, 2019, Wallpaper, spray paint, Dimensions variable

Las obras de Joiri Minaya exploran la objetivación e intercambiabilidad de los cuerpos femeninos y el paisaje en la cultura visual, y los estampados que proporcionan camuflaje e hipervisibilidad. Otras establecen un vínculo entre la representación pictórica de mujeres mulatas y negras de geografías tropicales, y la forma en que estos cuerpos todavía son representados como una continuación de la misma mirada extranjera y masculina. Minaya a menudo incorpora estampados “tropicales” contemporáneos en su trabajo, que hacen referencia a los dibujos científicos utilizados para clasificar y facilitar el estudio de las posesiones coloniales tropicales. El video Siboney documenta a Minaya durante el arduo proceso de pintar un mural en un museo inspirado por el estampado tropical de un tejido encontrado. A lo largo del proceso, las varias reflexiones de la artista aparecen como subtítulos. La versión sensual de la canción Siboney, interpretada por Connie Francis, suena mientras Minaya vierte agua sobre su vestido blanco y se frota contra la pintura, deshaciéndola. La instalación #dominicanwomengooglesearch es el resultado impreso y pixelado de la búsqueda de la representación dominicana en Internet. El trabajo consiste en varias imágenes recortadas de partes del cuerpo, incluyendo algunas estilizadas con telas con estampados tropicales, que están suspendidas del techo. Los fragmentos, muchos de ellos originados en sitios web donde las mujeres ofrecen su compañía a extranjeros, se prestan para el estudio individual y recalcan la objetivación de estos cuerpos. Sin embargo, cuando se consideran como un todo, las partes se reconfiguran en posturas firmes y asertivas que poseen la mirada que las acecha. En las fotografías Container #2 y #3, la artista posa de manera estereotipada mientras usa un atuendo estampado de cuerpo completo que, de manera glissantiana, la hace opaca a la mirada del espectador. En el trabajo de Minaya, las mujeres miran de vuelta y tienen el poder de negarse ante el espectador.

Mirar y reflexionar sobre nuestro ser caribeño puede sentirse como un intento por verte a ti misma en un espejo infinito: nuestros reflejos cada vez más pequeños, cada reflejo agregando longitud al camino que la luz debe recorrer antes de salir del espejo, retrocediendo hacia el infinito. Este reflejo distorsionado del yo es similar a la versión idealizada de sujetos paradisíacos que nos venden, y compramos una y otra vez desde los tiempos coloniales hasta el presente; algo a lo que aspirar para dar forma a nuestro comportamiento. Vernos a nosotras mismas como creemos que los demás nos perciben y performear estas identidades de vuelta al mundo puede ser una experiencia enloquecedora. Aprender el significado de las imágenes en un mundo cada vez más mediado es importante; deconstruir las imágenes que han informado cómo nos presentamos ante el mundo es un acto político.

Marina Reyes Franco © 2019
apexart Open Call Exhibition

curated by Harris Kornstein and Cara Rose DeFabio
May 4 - May 25, 2019

American Artist
Tega Brain & Surya Mattu
Demian DinéYazhi'
Robbie Barrat
Faith Holland
Xandra Ibarra
Jenny Odell & Joe Veix
M Eifler aka BlinkPopShift
Mimi Onuoha
Caroline Sinders
Stephanie Syjuco

apexart - San Francisco

fail fast! fail big! fail often! fail better!

In our increasingly digital world, tech failures seem to pop up all the time and just when we least expect them: an app suddenly crashes, a screen cracks, a video glitches, an ATM displays an out of order message, a text message never goes through, or that spinning wheel of death won't stop twirling. Indeed, we often take technology so much for granted that we only really notice it in the moments when it breaks down.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, and also more embedded in our political, economic, and legal systems, seemingly small errors can result in huge consequences: a distorted data set prompts an extended jail sentence, a hacked voting machine sways an election, a poorly-inspected flight navigation system results in a plane crash, a biased algorithm rejects a job application, an imperfect facial recognition scanner misidentifies someone at a border checkpoint. In cases from the mundane to the momentous, failure frequently signifies that something deeper in the system has gone wrong.

SYSTEM FAILURE is a fatal error notification, an invitation to examine the systemic injustices in built technologies, and a warning that we must personallyy scrutinize the idea of failure itself if we want to be productive creators and citizens. Presented in San Francisco, a hub of technology and diverse artistic and social movements, this exhibition explores intersections of failure and technology through creative practice in three interconnected nodes.

Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Unfit Bits, 2015, Metronome and fitness tracker, Dimensions variable

First, in the ideologies of success fostered within start-up culture—fail fast! fail big! fail often! fail better!—and how industry jargon like iterating, pivoting, and innovating uncritically leaks into everyday discourse and civic institutions in the Bay Area and beyond. Second, through the ways in which technology actually fails and fails us, particularly those moments of breakdown that both reflect and shape inequities and injustices already present in our world. And third, in rejecting success altogether by designing tools, techniques, and tactics that were never meant to function properly, thus reveling in the joys of living outside the expected norm.

As any programmer knows, quite often failure isn't a bug, but a feature of a technology. That is, while genuine mistakes do get made, the biggest problems are often those that are built right into the system, due to faulty methods, short-sighted variables, or unreasonable arguments. By focusing on failure, this show aims not to point fingers or dwell in defeat, but instead to build accountability for the systemic errors that occur at all levels of our sociotechnical stack.

Failure is central to any creative or learning process, as often the best insights are borne out of accidents and an ability to refine an idea over time. But Silicon Valley's culture of disruption intensifies this drive toward imperfection, reifying approaches to creativity into corporate slogans like Facebook's infamous motto “move fast and break things.” In a tech economy of seemingly endless venture capital, this high-octane risk taking earns creators points and funding for taking the biggest and boldest step, even if that takes them right off a cliff. But in an industry and society already built on an uneven playing field, we ask: who really gets to fail? And who bears the consequences of an economy and culture that is constantly reinventing itself and can't sustain its own successes? 

Stephanie Syjuco, Spectral City (A Trip Down Market Street 1906/2018), Digital video, 13 min (still)

In this vein, Jenny Odell and Joe Veix's wry digital collages take Silicon Valley culture head-on, compiling graphics found in publicly-available slide decks of failed startups, playfully poking fun at technologists' attempts to change the world through corporate pitches.

Stephanie Syjuco's Spectral City (A Trip Down Market Street 1906/2018) reimagines the Miles Brothers' early film, shot traveling down San Francisco's central business corridor just before the Great Earthquake, through the present-day virtual gaze of Google Earth. Devoid of humans but full of glitchy digital artifacts, Syjuco's video brings into sharp focus a ruptured urban geography that is coming apart due to the influx of tech dollars and the displacement of long-term residents.

In recent years, tech has produced some high-profile blunders: artificial intelligence (AI) assistants that can't parse speakers' accents, real names policies that unfairly impact queer and trans people, algorithms that incorrectly identify dark-skinned faces, corporate leadership and engineering teams made up predominantly of white men, and major breaches of user data and privacy, to cite only a handful. As a number of researchers have recently demonstrated, such as Saufiya Umoji Noble's Algorithms of Oppression, Virginia Eubanks's Automating Inequality, and participating artist Mimi Onuoha's “Notes on Algorithmic Violence,” up-and-coming technologies like AI, big data, and machine learning often hard-code inequities into platforms by using biased data, incorporating racist and sexist cultural assumptions, and excluding diverse developers and users at all stages of production. Indeed, often relying on technology as a problem-solver, or giving it too much credit as a tool for social change, can be flawed premises in the context of big tech's “there's an app for that” ethos. As critics like Zeynep Tufekci and Evgeny Morozov have argued, tech's ideology of “solutionism” offers a technocratic belief that complex social, political, and economic issues can be solved by technology itself rather than through public debate or collective action.

Xandra Ibarra, Aquí la gente no se corre, no se viene, ni se va from the ongoing series Sharp Tongue, 2017-ongoing, Digital prints, Dimensions variable

Engaging directly with these micro- and macro-level failures are artists like Mimi Onuoha, whose work Us, Aggregated uses reverse image searches to understand how machines “see” and categorize us. Onuoha uploads personal family photographs to Google's Search by Image feature, effectively highlighting the dubious assumptions at play when technologies algorithmically classify visual similarities and differences that are more complicated to a human eye. Similarly, Caroline Sinders asks “what is feminist data?” Bringing a pedagogy of praxis directly into the gallery, her Feminist Data Set invites us to scrutinize the very training data that algorithms are built on, and to contribute to a corpus of information that will ultimately be used to build a more equitable AI system.

In the interactive chatbot Sandy Speaks, American Artist creates a living memorial to Sandra Bland, a young African American woman whose 2015 arrest for a minor traffic violation and tragic death by hanging in Texas sparked national outrage. As viewers ask questions of a fictionalized Bland (whose responses are based on Bland's own social media posts), the piece indicts not only the deep injustices of policing and prisons, but also the limitations of corrective measures like body cams to capture the whole truth, as well as of witnessing and responding to racialized violence via social media.

In a more playful register, Tega Brain and Surya Mattu's Unfit Bits critique the compulsion to track all aspects of our behavior and movement, which provides employers and large corporations with the means to constantly surveil our health and whereabouts. By offering DIY techniques to fool fitness trackers with dummy data, this speculative piece acknowledges both the nefarious and ubiquitous uses of surveillance and how technologies can be outsmarted by taking advantage of obvious loopholes in their design.

Robbie Barrat, AI Generated Nude Portraits, 2019, Images produced by a GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) (detail)

In Sharp Tongue, Xandra Ibarra creates an indecipherable code for encrypting gossip, leaving only a graphic notation of sentence structures and symbols that blackboxes their meaning. In a digital culture in which we are constantly hailed to publicly post personal information, Ibarra's work establishes an archive of opaque thoughts and feelings that refuses to be made transparent or subjected to communal scrutiny. Finally, in nahasdzáán bi'th ha'ní, Demian DinéYazhi' gestures towards settler colonialism's extractive relationship between technology and the environment, ultimately offering a meditation for healing played on an iPhone that can only be heard by the land in which it resides.

Many artists, activists, and theorists similarly propose tactically employing forms of failure not only to proactively avoid the harms of technology, but also to create new ways of living outside of normative ideas of success rooted in white supremacist, capitalist, ableist cis-hetero-patriarchy (to paraphrase bell hooks). For example, in books like The Queer Art of Failure and The Undercommons, Jack Halberstam, Fred Moten, and Stefano Harney propose choosing to engage modes of noncompliance, refusal to participate, ignorance, and illegibility as ways of weaponizing failure to thwart surveillance or co-optation by dominant culture. Such techniques, which include common technical approaches like hacking, obfuscation, and pushing systems into overdrive, may be short-term, impractical, or otherwise fail to work, but all help redefine the metrics of mainstream success while calling out games that are already unwinnable because they're stacked against us.

Along these lines, Faith Holland's Queer Connections riffs on the gendered and sexualized nature of “male” and “female” cords and connectors, inventing erotic pleasures of technologically incompatible pairings. Similarly, Robbie Barrat's AI-generated nude portraits display an uncanny quality, gesturing towards the limits of computers truly learning how to paint the nuances of the human form (as well as the limits of an art historical canon that favors certain types of nude bodies), while acknowledging the chaotic beauty of their attempts. M Eifler aka BlinkPopShift also uses AI but in a completely novel way; watercolor portraits are fed through a facial recognition neural net, but return only low confidence scores, pock marking the portraits with bright green loci of failure.

M Eifler aka BlinkPopShift, Low Confidence AI Acne, 2019, Watercolor on graph paper with custom software overlays, 8.5” x 11” each

Ultimately, SYSTEM FAILURE suggests that critically examining the forms of failure is key to understanding technology's impact on our lives. Sometimes it's a failure to launch, to land, or to take root. At other times it's a failure to hide, to see, to comply, or to surrender. Or even to adequately bend or break. And too often, failure is exemplified in an inability to perceive the smallest of details and an unwillingness to envision the bigger picture.

If we are truly to make good on the repeated promises to “do better” in tech and society, we must not only learn from past mistakes but prevent future errors. We must audit our collective data, networks, and algorithms at every level, taking care that our actions do not negatively impact our most marginalized neighbors. We must redefine success for ourselves, while ensuring that it doesn't come at the expense of someone else. And we must create safe spaces in which being imperfect is part of a process of learning and growth that is available to anyone, not just those who are deemed too big or too powerful to fail.

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