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  • Nora N. Khan

Mirroring, Recognition, and Possibility

by Nora N. Khan

 

I rarely write about myself and, for years, took that as a point of pride. I’m the daughter of parents from Bangladesh, who came to the U.S. to study after one of the bloodiest, still-unacknowledged genocides of the 20th century. My mother is a writer, and my father is a theoretical physicist and analyst. A script plays out here: “Of course they appreciate what I do; they made it possible for me to do it.” Theirs is a very complex, at-times awful story of intellectual, moral, and general life struggle and, at times, triumph—a story I cannot even begin to write well about. It is my parents’ story, and their parents’ story, both expressions of the arching over-story of their generations, and though I know many parts of it, it is not entirely mine. I live out their story’s warps and byroads, and then I wave away the demand to narrate this story the “same as the stories of so many others.” The last time I wrote even a bit about origin was for college admissions, like so many others in the early 2000s. I wrote then, adeptly enough, from a shared, expected cultural script; I knew I never wanted to do that again.

 

With some shame, I recognize the double erasure here; in refusing to write at length about myself, I dismiss my origin as a nonfactor, as unimportant. I try to remove origin from my interests, marking the story of origin, of the trials of one’s mind and body in diasporic experience, as somehow not deeply tied to the themes I write about: artificial intelligence, machine vision, pattern recognition, mediation, alienation, exile, memory, affect, the digital self. The ways simulation, as a form of vicariance, allows us to mentally engineer new worlds that we construct in the world around us. The infinite life possibilities that the digital world and technological systems both afford and crib through their design. As though our creation of and relationships to technological systems were not deeply tied to the politics and social fabric we’re in, the different points we inhabit, each of us a specific node of historical and genetic legacy! It’s almost funny to write out, identifying a clearly artificial gap allowed in one’s—my, that distancing again—critical apparatus. I also recognize this binary as inherent to the ways we theorize and speak about technology as a culture, in the West—speaking here as a person floating in a Western diaspora, with that still-unwritten origin story.

 

If there was a first refusal, it was this rejection of easy binaries. In avoiding writing about the self, there is a refusal to let oneself be poured into a mold, to let the story, however minor, be slotted into a pre-made frame with a few dashes of color—Bangladesh in place of X, war in place of Y, struggle of this tone in place of Z’s struggle of that particular tone. Writing itself allowed for refusal of binaries that flattened, drained, and cheapened the collective over-story. I was stirred, studying cultural theory and postcolonial theory, watching, over fifteen years, binaries of self versus other, native versus stranger, rigor versus memoir, dissolve, be overturned. The binaries gave way to theories that challenged us to look at it all in narrative analysis. I read Lauren Berlant, Sianne Ngai, and Martha Nussbaum. I thrilled at the ways they integrated study of affect and cognitive studies into their analyses of technological and cultural systems.

 

Two years ago, I pitched a book proposal about hybrid styles of language needed to move with technological change. I argued that we need prose that draws promiscuously from theory, speculative fiction, religious and culture studies, poetry, and computational studies to truly describe AI or machine learning (ML). Metaphor and metonymy are the primary devices, slowing me to make analogues to describe technology’s psychological and embodied impacts. Of course, it has also become a book about family, exile, and war.

 

I have struggled to integrate these two poles: the body and the mind, the complexity of one’s experience as a diasporic person and the cold, chrome-tinted, elite discussions of philosophy of AI, where people and the material of their lived experience are often absent, disappeared, secondary, anecdotal. People become afterthoughts, hapless victims, unwitting stars of an epilogue on technology’s aftereffects and ‘real-world’ impact. Early on, I was drawn to writing on technology as rooted both in rarefied logic and in the mess of the body. It was grounded, if at all, by a childhood in which video games, the early internet, and weird, dissonant web forums were not just an escape but a place to think freely, to imagine a future for myself in which the present’s pain was vanquished.

 

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Finding AAPI and Asian diaspora artists who use their work as poetic research platforms to analyze, deconstruct, and defy simplistic, brutal binaries has been the primary way for me to mirror and approach this conflict. These artists argue as much for the intellectual and theoretical understanding of the body, and its memories, as the work of the mind—and, further, for bringing necessary doubt and skepticism to the critical analysis of systems, whether historical canons, museology, or machine learning. Analyzing a system of knowledge and narrating its construction reveals its gaps; the gaps in the system help us understand the gaps in narrating ourselves. I can recognize their intellectual, aesthetic strategies: not evasion, but insistence on dimension and depth; not overt didacticism or accusation, but mirroring logic back. They have helped me better understand the study of technology—how it is conceived of, engineered, and created—as indelibly tied to a deep understanding of the body, unmanageable, wild, processing system decisions.


I was honored to hold conversations earlier this year with two Gold Prize awardees: WangShui and Gala Porras-Kim. In both conversations, I was stunned hearing them trace their rigorous processes and pose scarily precise questions that both anticipate the future and reframe the past. I was delighted to find aesthetic strategies and design strategies that centered refusal.

 

Porras-Kim is profoundly acerbic, funny, sending opening salvos to cultural institutions, in dry form letters, questioning their claims to sovereignty over living cultural ‘artifacts’. How do we view a museum that claims ownership of rituals and stela that were once only overseen by gods? What dominance can an institution claim when its foundational logic is bankrupt? As a public intellectual and artist, Porras-Kim uses her (rapier) intellect and wit to poke hole after hole in the claims of cultural institutions rooted in, well, you know. We carry her questions through each room of her shows, asking How can a museum be otherwise? How might we read artworks otherwise? Our eyes move from the objects and art to the frame, to the room around, the works’ placements and their positions. We scan the architecture of the museum and the language it uses to code and sort. We look more closely at those small, accreted violences of taxonomies, deeply familiar to us.

 

Mindful Witness, Hyphal Stream, Fundamental Attribution Error, Blindsided. WangShui’s work titles have always paused me in my tracks. They read as distillations of archetypes of a world right off screen, or our own. Working backwards from their breathtaking and confusing paintings through their process, we learn of a generative practice on every level. When we get up nose-close to their LED sculptures, the resolved image dissipates into pixels; they describe this as play with “two points of perception … To me, that is the liminal space where so much of our understanding and perception of the world is actually happening. It’s not at the place where we can recognize and see the direct image; it’s usually around the more peripheral spaces that … are actually the places where things happen.” WangShui refuses any simple typecasting as an ‘AI Artist’ using technological tools to merely reveal; they insist AI and ML are more like foils. They train ML on their own paintings, siphoning its material as data; they hand-scratch aluminum, paint, and draw from the ML’s resulting images. They source its evolving learning, translate those images, paint, document, and feed the data set, in an analogue of recursion, from AI out to the surface, where they cut and etch and bounce light off it, reworking the depth of screen.

 

They seem more interested in the irony or tragedy of our living out passed-down myths and tropes about how we should live and be, while advanced technology allows us to mirror and track and recognize those tropes across media with ease. In one series, algorithms trained on data from archetypal scenes from reality television give rise to archetype essence paintings: the artist creates a live simulation in which abstract models, stand-ins for the maligned heroines of reality TV, bend, posture, and relax on a set that’s unedited. The challenge is cognitive, and astonishing: we see transfers of mediated women, refashioned into models of women sitting in models, and we easily recognize their gestures in our reptile brains. Patterns of archetypes root in our body through decades of television; we are still in our bodies, in our archaic social settings, sifting through archaic cultural myths, archaic gender and racial constructs. The real subject, as for many of us in the diaspora, is the drama of perception, mediated through systems—hegemonic culture, media, AI, art.

 

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Writing about technology allows for indirect writing about the body, the self. Whether in a book or an essay or an interview, I can carry one throughline like a golden thread connecting it all: I have the discernable, mappable logic of the system. I relished the analogues between cultural systems, political systems, identity systems, art as a system, with technological systems. Yes, the body keeps the score, as does the technological body, the digital body, the quantified body, the surveilled body. These bodies kept the score through genetics, and prediction, tabulation, and archiving.

 

My writing mentor and thesis advisor in college, Jamaica Kincaid, would often describe the ways that one’s history comes back in one’s writing, no matter how one tries to write away from it, or out of it. Your mother comes back in your earnest weaving of a future, fictional world. Your father is in all your prose and particularly in its avoidance, your narrator’s inability to look directly at things and state the truth. Even as research on epigenetic and traumatic legacy—war, violence, in and outside the home—remains in progress, I do believe there’s an epigenetic haunting, that our actions in the present express generations of decisions and small- and large-scale violence embedded in our DNA.

 

The body is always there, haunting the conversation, the simulation. Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien’s practice mines public sites, monuments, and iconography, and their histories of speculation and extraction. They locate the ghosts embedded in scenes passed daily, peeling away murals, resituating sculptural forms, reworking and refashioning them directly in the materials that made their representation of power, hierarchy, and dominance possible. The histories range from the ambient and understood—such as the general encroachment of real-estate developers on the immigrant communities of the Lower East Side in New York City—to the direct—as in monumental sculptures outside a train station in Marseille, which figure the colonization of Asia and Africa as natural claim to spoils and riches, humans and harvests. In waves move bile, the artists refigure the supine woman of one Marseille sculpture, posed there as the subject of colonial conquest in Asia, as Ahp, a monstrous, mythological, ‘self-segmenting’ figure, a disembodied head with entrails hanging from her neck. We walk around ‘her’, and her forms, thrumming with her power, in place of gazing briefly at her assumed submission.


In their research for The Angry Christ (Plot and Plantation),  Camacho and Lien mine a chilling Modernist mural by Alfonso Ossorio, painted in a chapel for industrial sugar workers on the sugarcane-plantation island of Negros in the Philippines. Surfacing the ideological core of The Angry Christ requires an aesthetic, political, and theoretical reading rooted in the full history of the plantation. They find the mural profoundly unsettling, its composition placing the bodies of those viewing it directly in the line of Christ’s judgment, potentially identifying with damned, masked faces howling on opposite walls. The artists imagine its affective resonance on the sugar workers who’d have congregated in the chapel, stirring their religious fear and discipline of self. In their own mural, they surface the sugarcane workers who work the land with blades, their hands emerging from the central panel. Christ’s face is pushed to the edges; there is a sensation of the seeds of a worker-driven resistance and revolt hovering in the space between the panels and our own.


In the most-pristine future virtual world, as we play, we find embedded memories of limbs and bodies in rivers we’ve heard about and seen on maps. In a turn to systems and rhetoric and criticism of the promises of Silicon Valley are memories of waves of grief, humiliation, which one worked so hard to distance, abstract, and theorize as part of a simulation that one has just happened to be woven into. I can’t write about screens without the body being close behind. I can’t understand algorithms or machine vision without understanding human eyes learning to see through their lens. 


Mire Lee’s leaking, dripping, entrail-heavy sculptures remind one of bodies turned inside out. Her use of animatronic sculptures means her work is sometimes oddly placed in the context of ‘art and technology’ and new media conversations, but she insists her work is “in fact fairly analog.” Her sculptures interrupt visions of technological frictionless embodiment with the sag, sweat, and smells of decaying bodies. She processes clay and silicone through machines and incorporates, in her words, “crude” motorized elements in part because they resist her management. Steam machines fill the rooms of her New Museum exhibition, creating an atmosphere of anticipation and dread. We peer into fleshy holes and passages, and down the mouths of hoses. One can watch rods, pistoning motors, little pumps thrusting, and imagine being in a processing plant in the future or present, or on the inside of a beast, or a person, fully engulfed. The body remains, and surges into the present, rotting, falling apart; we’re a crude assemblage of viscera chunks, interrupting any quantified planning for self-perfection or self-betterment.


Breaks in technology are an analogue for the breaks and stumbles in relating one’s unspeakable origin story. Any prefabricated approach to compute, to capture, to distill the story, the body, its complex affect and history into an easily replicable formula finds a revolt. A house of mirrors, an endless field of games, a lack of an ending, a refusal of final form. I can only move along an asymptote to describe the logic of an algorithm shaping our daily psychological experience. I can only move along an asymptote to describe an origin story. The two efforts run parallel.

 

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I recognize the tussle between artifice and the ‘real’ in my bones, my heart, and my mind when looking closely at Tishan Hsu’s work. I read recaps of his now well-known biography: the early success, the retreat from the art world, the transplant surgery. When I read of the ways Hsu refused to center his identity, I chuckle, because his works—visionary, yes; prescient, yes; foretelling our moment for decades—express, to me, a core of how diasporic Asian Americans experience identity as fundamentally mediated. Mediated, through cultural systems, through information networks, through data gathered on our experience, our jobs, our places in hierarchies, our existence as guided and translated through machine learning. Mediation, through the cybernetic and algorithmic systems ‘we’ have had such a central part in coding, designing, and manifesting. Mediation, through the thankless labor that underpins machine learning globally. We are mediated by each system, through which we see ourselves, find ourselves mirrored, and then split. We recognize our ‘given’ places in the system, and we work, still, to articulate the nuance of that place, the poetry and agony of that placement and in doing so, move away from the fixing.

 

Tishan Hsu has consistently foregrounded the emotional and psychological impact of spending thousands of hours of life before screens and interfaces—of televisions, smartphones, computers, and all the ambient, touch-responsive surfaces created through ‘soft design.’ He creates massive screen-like structures, not to fetishize the screen or interface as a totemic channel, but to allow instead for a malleable surface that the body can protrude through and interrupt. Each generation of surfaces—scrims, vinyl, canvases—allow for mutations; the scrim, the surface, allows for consideration of memory, grief, and the technological work of the body (Hsu famously considers himself a type of cyborg). The body as a cybernetic system: Norbert Wiener's fever dream.

 

Hsu turns us relentlessly to the texture of the surface, the interface as the place we can consider the human evolving in relation to technology’s evolution: generations of machines, learning, generations of algorithms. As his techniques have evolved with digital and imaging technologies, his themes have expanded; he considers exile and origin in mournful juxtaposition with the evolving perfection and promises of technological growth. And it is exquisite, and excruciating, that as our sense of loss deepens, the machines become more agile and their scale expands. As our sense of exile from self and claim to our own histories takes a psychic and somatic toll on the mind and body, we are further imbricated in systems of capture and control. The loss is doubled; then, the loss scales. The body keeps an impossible score, processing through affect and senses first, and through the intellect, striving to catch up with the impact.

 

All Hsu’s ‘screens’ strain, seem on the cusp of bursting. Barely healed wounds threaten to open, puckering smaller swathes of artificial-seeming skin, overlaying the screen surface. Mouths emerge, gasping for air. Small nubs of skin, maybe spine, possibly small knuckles, pierce through LCD-like membranes. Nets of metal mesh stretch and give way to glimpses of scenes. Eyes gaze from a warped face that stretches the screen open, a little offering from beyond.

 

Several reviews describe Tsu’s works at times like incomplete portraits, a reflection of the ‘fractured’ and ‘scattered’ experience of an Asian American person in diaspora. For instance, in one, Hsu’s Boating Scene is “always an incomplete picture,” in which “history becomes a diffused thing, with scattered components hinging the personal and the political.” In Boating Scene 1 2 3 (2021), we find an elegiac, distorted image of a lake, a boat, a family, maybe, in the boat on the lake. It is difficult to discern what kind of boating scene it is—an easy day of rest, or a moment of tension? SIM cards, some painted blood red, are embedded. One can read this as a diffused history, but the portrait also forms a system of memory, retrieval, and the precise way memory works—as a ghost, contorting, refashioning itself with each retelling. The thread of old SIM cards holds the memory of thousands of international calls and texts: a removed voice, in a place, on the edge of retrieval.

 

Tishan Hsu’s masterful Breath 7 and Watching are instantly recognizable as integration through and despite ‘scattered’ individual elements. In Breath, a death mask emerges from a screen as a bed, potentially a gurney, or a surgery bed. The body swells up from beneath the screen as under a caul, causing tight ripples, and waves of distortion. Skin seems to gather in puckered hills. An X-ray of hips and joints emerges in the bottom right. The scene is a complete narrative, which the mind works to resolve. In Watching, a small panel of the screen shows an image from what resembles a machine learning classifier: a line of terms—object detection, biometric identification, behavior analysis—that last, crucial word moving from data gathering to corporate intent, cut off by a burnt edge limning the screen. 


The body in Hsu’s oeuvre is in a legacy of body horror; Cronenberg comparisons come easily. I see the body emerging in Hsu’s work as a reflection of our psychological tussle with new generations of technologies, of unseen, designed-away forces designed for cognitive targeting, with the body manifesting longing and struggle of integration with and against known but ever harder-to-see forces, and harder-to-articulate impacts. 


Each of these remarkable artists takes incredible pain and effort to see and reveal what is designed to be invisible, at the edge of sense and perception. As they each demonstrate,  the body and its cumbersome, inconvenient history lurks within and beneath beautifully crafted systems. Context remains; multiplicity remains. A system’s efforts to streamline, distill, and essentialize makes the body known to itself, and makes the loss known to us. In gathering digital detritus, we find the gaps in the data archive, and then, in our own. Interruptions will remain a feature. The body ages, it gets sick, it breaks. It self-repairs. Its own intelligence interrupts carefully laid, well-engineered plans, insisting on memory and the collective’s stories as more than ghosts.


 

Nora N. Khan is an independent curator and writer of criticism on digital visual culture, the politics of software, and theory of emerging technology. She is co-curator, with Andrea Bellini, of the next Biennale de L’Image en Mouvement hosted by Centre d’Art Contemporain Gen.ve. Her books include Seeing, Naming, Knowing and the forthcoming AI Art and the Stakes for Art Criticism. She has served as editor at Rhizome, Topical Cream, and HOLO, and as professor in Digital + Media at the Rhode Island School of Design.


  1. WangShui, “Certainty of the Flesh,” a conversation with Nora N. Khan, moderated by X Zhu-Nowell, Guggenheim video, https://vimeo.com/779294328/a159a11d0e. Also referenced by Anuradha Vikram, “WangShui: Uncertainty in the Network,” ArtPapers, Spring 2023, https://www.artpapers.org/wangshui-uncertainty-in-the-network/

  2. In “A Museum for the Afterlife: Gala Porras-Kim + Mariana Fernández in Conversation,” a conversation I moderated at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Porras-Kim described the works that had been recently installed at MUAC in Mexico City:

  3. Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien speak beautifully on their close-reading of the Angry Christ mural in this co-written essay: https://www.eva.ie/littledidtheyknow/the-angry-christ/.

  4. Mire Lee, speaking to Cassie Packard, ”Mire Lee on the cannibalistic imagination,” Artforum, July 06, 2023, 

  5. I add the caveat here of the catch-all that Asian American forces us to take on: its futile attempt to capture thousands of cultures, languages, spread across billions of people with overlapping and contentious histories. Asian American gives way more and more, in daily used language, to phrases and identifiers that are more specific: Chinese American, Korean American, Bangladeshi American, Thai American, Indonesian American, and so on. I use the term with this understanding in play.

  6. Franklin Melendez, “Tishan Hsu: Body Currents,” Flash Art 339, Summer 2022, July 6, 2022, https://flash---art.com/article/tishan-hsu/.

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