Art, Apparatus and Neural-Digital Entanglement in Cognitive Capitalism
SFSIA 2024 | New York City

in collaboration with Creative Time and Montez Press Radio
June 17 – 26

Faculty include Defne Ayas, Davide Balula, Suparna Choudhury, Stephanie Dinkins, Thyrza Goodeve, Lyle Ashton Harris, Isaac Julien, Liz Magic Laser, Reza Negarestani, Warren Neidich (founder/director), Alison Nguyen, Diane Severin Nguyen, Barry Schwabsky, Martha Schwendener, Mindy Seu, and Anuradha Vikram.

This year’s SFSIA program, “Art, Apparatus and Neural-Digital Entanglement in Cognitive Capitalism,” will map the history of artistic forms of resistance beginning with photography, through cinema, video, and other digital technics, in order to find clues on how to combat the threats that may result from new neural and brain-based technologies at our doorstep. We will throw a wide net around notions of the mind, brain and consciousness of our time, in order to capture the contemporary discourse and consider potential new forms of practical insurgency.

In “What Is an Apparatus?” and Other Essays (2006), Giorgio Agamben defines an apparatus as a kind of network established between “a heterogeneous set that includes virtually anything, linguistic and nonlinguistic, under the same heading: discourses, institutions, buildings, laws, police measures, philosophical propositions and so on.” Additionally, he describes the apparatus as always having a “concrete strategic function” that “appears at the intersection of power relations and relations of knowledge.” The proletariat working on the assembly line producing material objects has transitioned to the cognitariat swiping screens to produce data. Digital capturing apparatuses directed at our emotions, creativity and mental capacities have joined and subsumed the analog dispositifs focused upon the working body and its surplus value already in play. This collected data (or ‘big data’) sold to corporate, policing, and military clients is not passive or without repercussions. For example, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has shown the ways that ideology is embedded in software. Could the same biases and forms of subsumption already present in digitality be carried over into these proposed neural-digital applications?

Just as the early theorists of cognitive capitalism realized the coming digital economy would create a crisis for labor and the production of subjectivity, so too another crisis is brewing exemplified by neural-based apparatuses that focus upon the brain’s variation and plasticity as a locus for capitalist speculation. OpenAI and Neuralink are just two examples of corporations already producing these technologies. While large language model-based chatbots such as ChatGPT are predicted to take over the majority of cognitive labor, deep learning text-to-image generators such DALL•E are equally poisoning the epistemological well and making many creative practices obsolete. As described by Slavoj Žižek in Hegel in a Wired Brain (2020), the “‘Wired brain’ refers to a direct link between our mental processes and a digital machine, a link which, while it enables me to directly trigger events in reality with a mere thought . . . also enables the digital machine to control my thoughts.” In other words, if a brainwave can be decoded to aid a paraplegic person to direct a cursor on a screen to move a robotic arm, then certainly in ten years the reverse will be true; electrical impulses designed to mimic brain waves emanating from an external machinic entity could penetrate the skull to redirect neural patterns in the brain.

As Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), there is phylogeny (evolution), ontogeny (development), and also sociogeny; we are born biologically human but we can only experience ourselves in the context of sociological and linguistic structures. As Sylvia Wynter states in Towards the Sociogenic Principle (2001), “in the case of the human species, the sociogenic principle, as the information-encoding organizational principle of each culture’ s criterion of being/non-being, that functions to artificially activate the neurochemistry of the reward and punishment pathway, doing so in the terms needed to institute the human subjects as a culture-specific and thereby verbally defined, if physiologically implemented, mode of being and sense of self.” This is even more true for the becoming neural plastic brain in which sociologic and linguistic techne also engage in shaping the brain’s architectonics, or what Bernard Stiegler calls instrumental maieutics. This process is still ongoing in relation to a plethora of new apparatuses in which not only are more and more external relations digitally-mediated, but the very structure of deep learning networks are based upon the anatomy and physiology of the biological brain to process information.

While this model of the brain can be increasingly understood as a neural-digital entanglement, the emancipatory capacities of these technologies and their social cultural import also cannot be denied. Artists, curators and theorists have also produced a network of cultural dispositions based on their own emancipatory procedures and elaborations that have kept pace and pushed back against this evolution of despotic techne. Harun Farocki’s concept of operational images, or image data created by machines for machine usage in which human agency disappears, as developed in Eye Machine I-III (2001-2003), will be especially important to our discussion, while the analysis of 3D and IMax films, virtual reality and artificial neural networks will help us generate new understandings of sensation, perception and cognition in relation to viewer identification, subjectivity and ideology. Additionally, we will look to the work of Issac Julien and others to understand the power of decolonizing and queering cinematic apparatuses to alter historical narrations.

“Art, Apparatus and Neural-Digital Entanglement in Cognitive Capitalism” has been organized in collaboration with CTHQ, Creative Time’s gathering space for art and politics, and Montez Press Radio, an experimental broadcasting and performance platform, in New York City.