Quick & Easy Recipes for Disaster

In Avatar Emergency, Gregory Ulmer takes up the task of inventing the conceptual apparatus that mediates access to digital media. He calls this apparatus electracy. To accomplish this task, Ulmer pulls together disparate theoretical strings, some of which are of particular interest to my project. Paul Virilio provides motivation in the “general accident”. Paolo Virno suggests a method in the “common places” of language, which Ulmer updates to the electrate apparatus. Immanuel Kant provides the content of the system by likening the immediate, convicted experience of reflective judgment to the faculty of taste, which I use as a point of departure, a conductive bridge to the tropic figure of food. In my artwork Quick & Easy Recipes for Disaster, a hybrid media installation involving Internet and augmented reality components produces randomly generated impossible recipes, in both textual and 'cooked' 3D model form. Participants in the installation view the food online as a typical recipe blog post, and as a 3D model tracked and projected onto a plate. The conceptual circuit of the piece is completed by the gesture of the participant who consumes the food by taking a 'food pic' of it and sharing it to social media. Quick & Easy Recipes for Disaster is an aesthetic system that attempts to put into practice the conceptual apparatus of electracy and to understand the nature of the experience of social media and the Internet.

Chapter 1

Disaster

In Avatar Emergency, Gregory Ulmer takes up the task of inventing the conceptual apparatus that mediates access to digital media, which he calls electracy. “Electracy is to digital media as literacy is to alphabetic writing” (Ulmer, 2012, p. xv). To accomplish this task, Ulmer pulls together various theoretical strings that at first may seem unrelated, but which harmonize when united in their shared context. A few of these ideas are of particular interest to my project. The first is Paul Virilio's “general accident”, the accident that follows from the invention and proliferation of global communication technologies, just as derailments follow from the invention of the locomotive (Virilio, 2007). The threat of this accident is the impetus that animates both Ulmer and myself in our undertakings. How can this disaster be averted?

While Virilio completely distrusts technology, others put their faith in it. Evan Williams, co-founder of various blogging and social media sites such as Twitter and Medium, describes 'the democratization of knowledge' as a core idea of the Internet, and by extension social media (Williams, 2013). Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, describes the mission of his company and social media app in terms of 'openness' and 'transparency' (Zuckerberg & Vogelstein., 2009). In response, social media has largely been theorized in relation to its ability to act as a support for these goals and values. The optimistic form of this way of thinking social media is exemplified by writers and thinkers like Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Zizi Papacharissi, and Mark Zuckerberg (Fuchs, 2012). Zuckerberg in particular provides a concrete example of the future practical applications of this ideology when he describes eventual developments that will allow direct experience sharing through a kind of technologically mediated telepathy (Davies, 2015). A core assumption of this theoretical interface is that experience is something that can be quantified and separated from the embodied context, tying the ideal of 'openness' to a postivist ideology, i.e. so-called 'experience sharing' presumes it must be possible to sufficiently approximate the phenomenon of experience so as to transmit it between consciousnesses. On this techno-optimistic side of things, a technological determinism understands advances in technology as necessarily 'rational' and as a continuation of the Enlightenment project. What could be more enlightening than writing directly on the soul of another, without the messy ambiguities of earlier communication technologies like writing?

On the opposite side of this same coin, others see the effects of the Internet and social media on democracy and the public sphere as ambiguous if not outright detrimental. Regardless, these technologies are still considered in relation to their ability to augment a strictly literate conceptual apparatus. Geert Lovink expresses the spirit of this position succinctly: “Social media as we know them right now are not discursive machines. The Internet in general might be, in theory, but the current social media architectures do not facilitate extensive exchanges.” (Lovink & Ryan, 2015) The implication is that network communication technologies have the potential to enhance democracy as such, but are currently designed in such a way, or are too controlled by private and government interests, to be able to contribute positively to the development of a literate, discursive public sphere. Instead, these technologies are used to generate empty spectacle and opaque surveillance, a technological dystopia.

As an alternative to these opposing dystopian and utopian approaches, Ulmer suggests that we instead treat the threat of disaster as indication that we should take seriously the challenge of the technical equipment and invent the conceptual practices and skill sets necessary to use it. This is the motivating question of electracy. Electracy refers to exactly that apparatus, that combination of technical equipment with conceptual practices which affords thinking and decision-making in the now-time of dromosphere. As a guide to this process of invention, we can look to literacy. Just as literacy provided a practice for an Aristotelian metaphysics of the written word, electracy must provide a practice appropriate to an image metaphysics. We can understand image metaphysics by analogy: where the metaphysics of literacy operates on ratios of subject-object and true-false, electracy operates on affect, desire, a ratio of attraction-repulsion.

Food for Thought

The thrust of Virilio's warning is the impending dissolution of the public sphere, the disappearance of the possibility of considered discourse, the precondition of democratic society. The Internet mediates and so collapses time and space into “now”, a condition he calls dromosphere (Virilio, 2007). In partial antidote to this, Ulmer refers to Paolo Virno who positions the “common places” of language as a site of Marx's “general intellect”, a collective intelligence that subverts the alienation of capitalism (Virno, 2004). Ulmer updates this for an electrate context, conducting the commons of language (Aristotle's topics) to the commonplaces of pop culture – tropes. Tropes are part of the speed mechanism of electracy which make it useful in the dromosphere.

The race course holds three sites and moments of danger and opportunity: the starting line, the turn (bend), and the finish line. Here is the entire map (choragraphy) of concept avatar. The charioteer stands in for any pilot (Arjuna in his chariot with Krishna), with the vocabulary of navigation, cybernauts, cybernetics helping translate practical reason into flash reason … The crisis opportunity happens in the turn. Such is the event addressed in the Allegory of Prudence: to map the turn in the dromos of becoming. Narrative and argument both provide training maps institutionalized within the historical apparati of orality and literacy. These designs are too slow, and must be gathered into a trope (turn) in electracy (Ulmer, p. 88).

Trope is the updated decision-making unit in an image metaphysics. The permanent crisis state requires this update because the institutional training invented through orality and literacy do not afford the speed required to act in this condition (dromos). Crucially, electracy does not replace, but instead supplements practices of literacy, just as literacy supplements orality. They each build upon the other, providing affordances that the others lack. Electracy describes a conceptual apparatus, which implies both practice and equipment. The equipment of electracy is the technical component that allows the practice to be undergone. What does this equipment look like?

Tropes, commonplaces and commons gain some concrete practicality by way of Ulmer's reading of Immanuel Kant's description of reflective judgment.

The judgment of 'beauty' assumes the existence of some 'common-sense' forming a community of persons sharing not any specific 'taste', but the capacity to experience beauty … To convey the immediate and spontaneous certainty of reflective feeling, Kant associated it with the sense of taste (Ulmer, p. 21-22).

Taste is the experience of the operation of the attraction-repulsion ratio that forms the logic of electracy. Michel Serres describes how taste and language are two tongues of the human organism (Serres, 2008). The mouth is the organ of judgment, of reasoning. Sapience and sapidity both stem from the from the same Latin root: sapere, which means first to taste and second to have wisdom. The tongue of language speaks and performs analysis, while the tasting tongue senses and so receives. The tasting tongue is capable of receiving and so has access to the aesthetic. For these reasons, the sense of taste forms the concrete basis with which we can undergo electracy. Ulmer uses concept avatar as a term for the practice of undergoing electracy, which is a process of consultation with disaster. With orality we speak and listen, with literacy we read and write. With electracy we work in the aesthetic: we make and sense (receive). The relevance of the technical equipment is that computation and global communication technologies make possible the manipulation and dissemination of the aesthetic in a way not possible before, opening up the practice of electracy similar to how the printing press opened up literacy. We are here beginning to feel out an opportunity for an aesthetic system which deploys an electrate trope to think communication technologies in a way that can overcome the disaster of the “general accident.”

Chapter 2

Ingredients

Food is one of the tropes of the Internet. As the New York Times reports, sharing photos of food, whether cooked at home or bought at a trendy restaurant “is a growing phenomenon”(Murphy, 2010). A cursory search on the social photo sharing web application Instagram for the “food” hashtag returns tens of millions of results (Figure 1). Lots of people who use the Internet use it to share photos of their food. Some of these people also use it to share and find recipes. Searching for “recipes” on the popular social bookmarking web application Pinterest generates an effectively endless scroll of enticing dishes and desserts. Aesthetically, food transcends trope and becomes a major genre of Internet content.

The prominence of foods, their production, and their dissemination via the World Wide Web has even been ensconced as part of the software infrastructure that underlies it – the .recipes top-level domain launched in 2014 and as of this writing, .food has made it through a legal battle over the rights to its management and will join the ranks of TLDs soon (ICANN, 2013 & 2014). It is apparent that food, as a cultural artifact, has a privileged place among the uses and communications of the Internet. What is it about food, or what are the cultural conditions surrounding it, that make it so powerful and persistent in this mediated context?

This connection between food and the Internet may at first seem puzzling. After all, food is experienced through its flavor, aroma, and texture. What can be gained from the mediation of this sensational substance via the Internet, which as a medium is predicated on sight and sound almost exclusively? In his essay Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption, Roland Barthes constructs a linguistic framework in which we might begin to think the relation between food and the Internet.

For what is food? It is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior. Information about food must be gathered wherever it can be found: by direct observation in the economy, in techniques, usages, and advertising; and by indirect observation in the mental life of a given society (Barthes, 2013, p. 29).

Food is more than its material substance in itself, but consists of the media, culture and social contexts in which it appears and is consumed. The experience of food transcends the specific materiality of foods themselves. So to consume food we do not necessarily have to eat it – that is just one modality of a multimodality that constitutes the category of food. Advertisements don't sell the steak but the sizzle (Ulmer, 2012). The Internet allows food as a cultural signifier to be, shared, liked, favorited, hearted and tweeted. In this way, the Internet is a site of hyperconsumption, augmenting the capacities of food to be experienced on a myriad of dimensions. Food, as a category that includes the digital, imagistic and textual abstractions of what we might call food's nutritional dimension, goes hand in hand with the Internet, demonstrating the network's capability in communicating aesthetic, affective information. Taste, as an aesthetic concept is oriented toward the judgment of food, and so the experience of food plays out on the attraction-repulsion axis of image metaphysics. Social media demonstrates through food its technical potential as an equipment for the electrate apparatus.

Preparation

The abstraction of food as digital files and signals allows the networked experience of food to enter into the spectrum of food consumption. Our inquiry would be incomplete however without considering that consumption implies preparation. Food gains its powers of social and cultural signification in relation to how it is or is not cooked, prepared, transported, stored and served. Food may be consumed raw, directly from the earth, as fruit plucked by chance from a thicket, or it may be consumed as a result of millions of dollars in advertising, industrial and logistical infrastructure targeting a specific demographic who, it has been predicted through market research, will crave a particular configuration of hydrocarbons and minerals, or anywhere in between these. The experience of food is not dependent solely on its material or the mediation of that material, but also the social, cultural, economic and logistical systems that interact with it. We can generally refer to this category of food experience as 'preparation'.

Just as the consumption of food occurs on a spectrum of abstraction and mediation, so does its preparation. The consumption and preparation of food is always mediated. One can plant tomato seeds and grow them in a garden, but where did the seeds come from? Even if they didn't come in a package from the Lowe's garden section, even if the DNA sequences stored in the gametes that joined to create the seed weren't engineered and owned by an agri-business corporation, if the seeds were gathered from a plant, that plant is the result of hundreds of years of selective breeding and human cultivation. Similarly but to a much greater extent, supermarkets, restaurants, bodegas and food trucks mediate and abstract the preparation of food.

Social media and the Internet enter into this media system by distribution of recipes (or '.recipes'). The process of preparation is abstracted to a genre of writing and photography, shared and liked by the hybrid technical and cultural processes of the web. The food we make and the way we make it is in part the result of algorithms that decide what recipe shows up when and where, when we search for 'recipes' on Pinterest. The recipes themselves describe a kind of algorithm – a set of procedures – for transforming raw ingredients into food as a cultural signifier. Data is food and algorithms are us. To paraphrase Lisa Gitelman and Virgina Jackson, food (data) is interpreted. Food (data) needs to be imagined as food to exist and function as such. Foods (data) are always already “cooked” and never “raw” (Gitelman & Jackson, 2013).

Chapter 3

Chance

Food, as a general category that includes its mediation, preparation and so cultural signification has emerged as our tropic figure, ripe for recontextualizing. It's qualities are competent to the task of acting as metaphor and relay to the affective and aesthetic dimensions of Internet and social media. How can we mobilize or arrange the technical equipment available in a conceptual practice of electracy to make the conductive leap? We receive the ready-made system from Duchamp by way of Ulmer: the bachelor machine. The operation of the bachelor machine is “randomized selection and remotivation”, a practice that puts the artist in the role of spectator, exemplified by Duchamp's ready-mades (Ulmer, 2012, p. 46). Art making becomes an act of reflective judgment (taste). Derrida points out the relationship between Fall (avatar descent), Zufall (accident), and Einfall (inspiration) (Derrida, 2008). If it is in the relation between things that meaning arises, then the combination of the unexpected is a practice of ideation. Randomness is never without meaning and is in fact the operation of logic in electracy, and the point of departure in flash reason.

I apply the conjunction of food and random selection as discursive operation in electracy in a random recipe generator titled Recipeater. I gathered lists of ingredients of various categories (vegetables, meats, breads, cheeses, spices...), as well as lists of kitchen implements (ovens, tongs, meat cleavers, rice cookers...) and verbs related to cooking (heat, slice, melt, saute, fry...) together into a JSON file, a machine-readable text format. I then wrote a program that takes a group of ingredients from this list and combines them with various implements and actions and writes the resulting algorithm into a poem that matches the genre form of the recipe (Appendix A).

I'm not the first to apply computation to the composition of a recipe. IBM has recently and famously made a large step in this field with the application of the Watson supercomputing technology platform to the problem. They describe the result as “Cognitive cooking” with “Chef Watson”. Watson is billed as “technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data”(What is Watson?, 2015). Underlying this statement is an assumption of the rawness of data (“unstructured data”). Watson assumes that there are hidden, objective facts waiting to be uncovered and put to use, lying dormant in the piles of images, videos sounds and text that are recorded and stored in computational media. Chef Watson applies these techniques to the kitchen. Provided a list of ingredients lying latent in a refrigerator or pantry, it computes an ideal way to combine these ingredients into a delicious meal (Hamblin, 2015). By contrast, Recipeater specifically works empty of intention, destructing preexisting understandings of what food is and is not. Random chance itself is significant in this case in its obtrusive arbitrariness. Novel combinations of incongruent ingredients, implements and procedures dance together, like “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella” (Lautrémont, 1972, p. 177).

Interface

Generating recipes in a combinatorial bachelor machine appropriates the preparation of food and that process's spectrum of abstraction as a tropic figure of the operation of electracy as a logic of inspiration and invention, but it leaves something to be desired: consumption. After all, what is the point of the millions, billions of possible recipes implied by the algorithmic operation upon the database, if no one ever gets a taste? In what way can this impossible, abstracted food be consumed? We require technical equipment that mediates between the edge and center of the representation so as to allow consummation of the meal. We require an interface.

EntréAR is the interface that allows for consumption. It is an augmented reality app which in the gallery installation is running on a tablet handled by the participant. The app takes the textual recipes and performs them, algorithmically, digitally, abstractly, producing a 3D model of the proposed dish implied by a recipe. Although the processes undergone are gesturally based on their nominal models (the “chop” process breaks a model into cuboid chunks, for example), they are inherently limited by the edges of the data-model abstraction of the base ingredients. The model is then projected into the space of the gallery, mapped to a plate printed with an image used as a orienting device for natural feature tracking (a technique used for 'marker-less' machine vision). So, the app literally acts as the mediator between the viewer (or perhaps participant) and the textual form of the recipes generated by Recipeater. The participant then consumes the food by taking a photo of it and sharing it to social media channels such as Instagram. EntréAR plays on the “interface as window” conception of the AR camera, as transparent window onto a hidden reality, or portal to a fantastic unreality, by confusing and obfuscating the visual field. This is distinct from the ways other artists have used augmented reality in the past, such as Mark Skawrek's tactical media artworks like arOCCUPY (2011) (Figure 3). Skwarek's work depends on the transparency of the interface, reading it as a window onto a more real truth, through the opaque, reflective surface of corporate power.

In comparison, EntréAR acts not as window but simply reiterates itself, its own mediation. There is no material food present at the table to annotate or interrogate. On the other hand, it also does not visualize a virtual world beyond or behind the real. It becomes what Alex Galloway calls an unworkable interface – one that is incoherent within itself, unstable (Galloway, 2012). It is aware of its betweenness, its alongsidedness. Unlike Galloway's examples of Rockwell and MAD however, EntréAR both enacts the interface and believes in it. Clearly there is no material food on the plate that the tablet stands in front of, mediating. It believes in the interface insofar as it does not betray anxiety about it. With the object of mediation removed, there is only the process of mediation itself to be objectified. The interface stands on its own and is enacted, not bypassed and invisible but plainly opaque, giving itself to the viewer in an act of disclosive withdrawal. The food recedes such that the interface can emerge in a figure-ground reversal.

The 3D ingredients that are processed and presented in mediation are composed from actual groceries scanned by way of photogrammetry. This 3D scanning technique involves taking a number of photographs from all angles around an object, and then reconstructing the three dimensional shape of the object in digital space using triangulation. If a particular part of the surface of an object can be identified uniquely in at least three images, the relative transformation of the camera used to take those images as well as the location of that part of the object can be determined. The system of capture reinforces the objectified betweenness of interface. It is in the mediation between camera and object, literally along the edges of projection, the imagined spatial distance between virtual objects, that the scene is reconstructed. The ingredients used in the recipes performed by EntréAR are 'born digital' as it were.

The complete installation, titled Quick & Easy Recipes for Disaster, which involves EntréAR, and Recipeater playing out in the gallery space, bears comparison to Gordon Matta-Clark's FOOD the artist-run SoHo restaurant (Matta-Clark, 1972) (Figure 4). In some aspects, Quick & Easy Recipes for Disaster is a remediation of Matta-Clark's urban intervention. FOOD was distinctive for its innovative menu and interior design, both of which reflected its artistic investigation into the form, material, and mediation of food as it was in the milieu of the New York restaurant of the early 1970s. Matta-Clark and guest artists like Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage designed meals that probed the boundaries of what is and is not food, transcending the instrumentality of the meal. Recipeater takes that one step further, erasing the lingering phantom of the intention of the artist from its arbitrarily composed recipes. Just as Matta-Clark laid bare the process of preparation behind the restaurant dish at FOOD with its open-plan kitchen that was visible from the dining area, I make the process of mediation of food visible by short-circuiting the loop from food object to image object.

The installation and décor of Quick & Easy Recipes for Disaster features two primary zones – a dining room, and a waiting area/living room. The furniture chosen is stark white, and geometric, referencing the blank rectilinear space of the gallery more than anything else. These components add together to muddle and conflate the social, coded spaces of the mediation of food – the prototypical restaurant and home kitchen. The performance of the space furthers this goal by mixing the tropes of restaurant culture – the participants 'order' their food – with those of Internet mediated home cooking – the food served at the restaurant is made according to recipes shared on an automated recipe blog, shown on a television screen in the installation space.

With our interface established, the participant can now consume the food – by taking a photo of it and sharing it to social media. The mediated experience is put back into circulation with the algorithmic, emergent sublime of the Internet. The physical consumption of food is repressed in favor of its mediated counterpart, foregrounding how social media acts as prosthesis of desire. Social media allows for hyperconsumption, an overflow and transcendence of food as object of desire in itself. The food, in the process of mediation, along the edges of the network, grows and becomes more than itself, reproduced, doubled, instantiated, multiplied, recursively factorialized.

Quick & Easy Recipes for Disaster is an attempt to put into practice the aesthetic logic of electracy, to question what it is to understand and think with the mediation of social media and the Internet. The interconnected algorithmic processes build and perform a space that demonstrates the inventive aesthetic capacities of art as an electrate apparatus.

References

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