Critics Page In Conversation
Alexander Galloway with Andrew Woolbright
Andew Woolbright: Your book Protocol is about many things, but maybe most directly about the history of control and the shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control. Can you explain what led you to want to write the book? And those historical differences, which I think are incredibly important?
Alexander Galloway: Maybe the best place to start is with the idea of control. I was borrowing that idea from this little five page essay by Gilles Deleuze called "Postscript on Control Societies," which has become maybe the most widely read text by him, I would say these days, it's been really influential. And he's trying to—he relies on Michel Foucault—he's trying to work through a historical change that he sees might have happened, I don't know, during the middle of the twentieth century. At some point, power and organization changes away from being primarily about rarefied centralized places where people who have power, and lowly peons and peasants who are on the bottom of the hierarchy don't have power. This is sort of a vertical shape, a pyramid shape. This changes to a new era where things were horizontal and they were multiplexed and multiple, decentralized and distributed. That's what leads to this idea of control. For Deleuze control was about sculpting and molding behavior rather than repressing or stifling behavior. One example that he gives is the freeway. And you know, the freeway is all about motion and speed. Yet your behavior is sculpted by things you can't do. You have to stop at the right time, and not speed and do all these other things. I think he's working off of cybernetics, and other kinds of changes that happen in the twentieth century, where people are more interested in fluidity and motion and dynamism and complexity, rather than repression, conformity, and standardization. These were some of the things that motivated Protocol—to try to show that that new mode, the control mode, is just as competent at organizing bodies and objects and societies, as the old mode was. Right? It just looks really different. It has different values and different affordances.
Woolbright: I think I remember you saying that it's an illusion that the internet or protocol structures are really distributed or truly decentralized because of DNS and other systems that actually are forms of soft control.
Galloway: Yeah, and a lot of—you know, this book is now, gosh, I guess twenty years old, or something, more or less—so a lot of this stuff would have to be updated. But in the nineties, there was a rhetoric of like, you know, "the internet is a rhizome and the internet is radically distributed and it's horizontal, it breaks down all of the walls and limitations, and it's chaotic and uncontrollable." I tried to study some of the protocols to see if this was true—protocols are just the technical standards that underlie network communication—and also try to understand the philosophy of those standards. It is true that the way the Internet Protocol works is pretty weird and new and different, compared to older forms of infrastructure. But as you suggested, I was comparing IP to another important technology, which is called the Domain Name System, which is just the way that you match an IP address to a name. You might remember your phone number, but your phone number is a number. Your computer also has a number, an IP address, but it's easier for human beings to remember names than it is numbers. And so that's why you could have a domain name, instead of a number. The DNS system is much more like a decentralized or a pyramid shaped structure. The contrast between IP and DNS was really interesting to me. So maybe it depends which part that you're looking at. If you're looking at one part it might look more centralized, if you're looking at another part... Although, frankly, that era has come to an end, I think. Now we have platform capitalism. A lot of what happens on the internet actually happens within walled gardens– proprietary spaces. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, you know, now we have all sorts of companies who are just strictly internet backbone companies, like Cloudflare, and companies like that, that provide all these sort of services at the infrastructural level that really change the sort of stripped down raw nature of how bits moved around in an earlier era of the internet. You know?
Woolbright: Can we talk more about those walled gardens, because I'm interested in some words that get brought up in Foucault's language, that you reference, of this self-discipline– this sobriety and sense of good citizenship that’s been created by them.And how you think that these backbone companies are able to articulate personal sobriety in what we take from and what we draw from?
Galloway: Yeah, I think that's right. Anarchic isn't the right word. But there's a more unregulated structure at the heart of protocol, compared to proprietary structures, which tend to have more expectations about what takes place in those spaces. Here's a dumb example: sending an email using the POP or IMAP protocol, versus sending a DM on a social media platform. The DM is going to go from point to point within a proprietary walled garden. To me, that's a significant shift. And yeah, you know, there can be like subtle or not so subtle regulations, or expectations around the kind of content that will appear on proprietary platforms. It could just be something as simple as no nudity on YouTube or whatever. But it could also be about the algorithm highlighting and featuring certain kinds of content over others. So, yeah, there's a certain sobriety, there's an expectation about cleaned-up behavior. I think the age of protocol basically ended. Or at least it dramatically receded since maybe 2005 or 2008, after the transition into platform capitalism.
Woolbright: And that's the phrase you use specifically. I know you talk about periodization, and the way Deleuze and Foucault periodized history in this very helpful way. And I remember you having an issue with post industrial society, or that term is—is platform capitalism what you prefer to use as the language for it?
Galloway: I wasn't even really aware of it at the time, because the platform stuff was really just beginning in the 2000s, in the early 2000s, in the way that we mean it today. There was a little glimmer of it. People were aware that it was happening, you know. There were more proprietary systems like Macromedia Flash and those kinds of things-
Woolbright: Forgot about Flash.
Galloway: RIP. I sort of have this crackpot theory—and it's not mine, I'm borrowing from others—but the crackpot theory is that oftentimes, when you get a new medium, the first initial phase will be a modernist phase. Meaning, you'll get a few years of people doing medium specificity things, where they'll be like, "Hey! You know, there's this new thing called HTML. What happens if I just, like, break half the tags? What will it look like?" You know? And so there's a ton of art making, from the late nineties and early 2000s, that fits into that sort of self-referential, or, let's-experiment-with-the-tools kind of era. Maybe that era doesn't need to last forever. Eventually the new medium becomes more normal and familiar. It becomes an intuitive tool or material that you use, freeing people to do other things. So the post internet aesthetic stuff was very, very different. It was not particularly modernist in the way that I was describing.
Woolbright: Can you go further? Like as different toNet.art?
Galloway: Yeah, exactly. Net.art, I mean it in the specific sense. Consider jodi.org, the art duo. My heroes! Their work is highly aesthetic, very kinetic. There's lots of color. I think of them as reinvigorating a modernist impulse. Their aesthetic comes from revealing and fucking with the tools themselves. So, anyway. Yeah, it's a crackpot theory, it probably doesn't really bear itself out. But-
Woolbright: No, I love that. I mean, I think it's really helpful and I know a lot of work is going into it now of trying to define technology and addressing it etymologically back to techne so that we're not caught up in aesthetics or to use Sianne Ngai’s thinking of gimmicks. You know, like not caught up in the aesthetic of the thing, but dealing with the periodizations. I think that's amazing.
Galloway: You can see it in video art too. You know, the first Portapak stuff, where people were just like, hey, I'm gonna put the camera in my studio and just let it run for a while.
Woolbright: Do you feel comfortable stepping out to suggest how you would define the difference between that and post internet art? Like what has post internet lost that net art had? Is it maintaining the aesthetic without the recursive inward turn of the apparatus?
Galloway: It might be a completely natural progression, a sort of accumulation of instincts and intuitions. One of the things I love about post internet aesthetics is what we used to call "dirt style." You know, sort of clashing, colliding, getting a sort of frisson out of sort of smooshing and mixing things together that wouldn't necessarily go together. It can be very sensuous, you know, like, a lot of the post internet stuff is very sensuous. And so yeah, maybe there is a sort of evolution.
Woolbright: I really liked, in Protocol, how you spoke about smooth space. I’d like to talk about that and how it might relate to that frisson or that tension?Or the ironies that you can kind of delight in, is that a form of smooth space?
Galloway: Yeah, the smooth. The concepts often come in pairs. Deleuze and Guattari have this idea of "striated" space, and they often reference geology and rocks. Striated literally means the layers of earth and rock. If you were to slice through a hillside, you could see the layers. That's what they would call striations, or striated volumes or striated spaces. By contrast, the "smooth" phases are like sand dunes or the ocean or something. It's a space that has form, and you can experience it, it has real qualities and intensities. But it is not immediately subject to rigid, repeatable structures; it's more liquid. Smooth spaces are sometimes hard to come to terms with. Going back to Protocol, there's one kind of person who will say: "Well, structure is just walls, right, so if you break down the walls, then you're necessarily breaking down structure." I get that. But in parallel with that, I wanted to describe a way in which things like water, liquidity, sand moving in a windstorm or something, that these things also have a form, also have a structure, also have a way of sculpting and inflecting things. It means talking about speed, intensity, pressure, motion, transformation, right? What if you assume that something is inherently changeable, rather than inherently solid? I think those are some of the things that smoothness opens up. There's a danger though, right? And Deleuze knew this—but there's a danger, which is that the pure smooth is like white noise. Right? It's like static. And this static can be just as violating, debilitating, and oppressive, you know, because that's the point where meaning completely breaks down. It's pure entropy. Maybe the most interesting place to be is one or two steps back from the threshold? Where you have the benefit of dynamism and change and the nihilistic impulse, but you've pulled back a step or two, so you actually still have access to qualities and intensities and real experiences.
Woolbright: Could that also be, I mean, and maybe some ways, I’m wondering how you feel about it, this gets into a language of animism. Or the role of coincidence, or encouraging spontaneity within the structure. But yeah, so it’s not just—what is it? Is it apophenia? Or where you see patterns where they’re not there? Shapes within the white noise?
Galloway: Yeah, exactly. Within the smooth space. And where do those patterns come from? I don't know. It must be from human consciousness at some level. But yeah, I love that moment where you see the form, even when the medium is chaotic. We're meaning-making organisms. We can't not do it.
Woolbright: We’ve talked before about a shared love for William Gibson, and I love the quote you included in Protocol, that the future is already here, but it's not evenly distributed. And thinking about how power never fully disappears. It just becomes maybe more proprietary. And I'm trying to think of where I want to go with that. I probably just want to talk about William Gibson for a second.
Woolbright: I've always appreciated his ability to form abstractions within a very technical language. I like how many things are, in his books, described as being made out of polymers. And it's like a polymer is a perfect word that can visually read as almost anything. It's like when you encounter a ghost made of polymer, or a cyborg made of polymer, or your arm shifts into a polymer, it's like a wonderful way of giving you a specific that you can't picture.
Galloway: Yeah, yeah. Plastic. Yeah. Heather Davis has some great writing about plastic. In a sense, plastic is a "smooth" material. Even at the skin, at the outer surface of the plastic, there actually is no skin. Davis talks about how the molecules at the outer surface of the plastic are identical to the ones in the middle. So there's no distinction between the membrane and the contents. So the materiality itself is overturning a lot of classical distinctions. Of course plastic also doesn't degrade naturally and is poisoning all of us.
Woolbright: It's like an unintended consequence of monad structures, I guess, or something.
Galloway: Yeah, exactly. Deleuze and Guattari were also obsessed with crystals, for exactly that reason: crystals grow. Just think of salt crystals or something. They grow from a primary seed, and iterate in an almost mechanical, repetition mode. It's sort of horrific, right? It's not alive, yet it is alive. It's growing. Crystals are sort of undead.
Woolbright: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting, and I wonder—I feel like you do it to a degree too, or maybe that's what we're all having to do, is finding the things that terrify us, the moments of sheer sublime of these technologies, and then trying to learn from it to counteract them. Like the self iteration is like the protest movement, but it's also the algorithmic code that's making policy alien to us, or uncontrollable to us.
Galloway: Sometimes it's good to touch the bruise. But sometimes it's also good to try to invert the valences, to invert whatever is pathological or socially corrupting. If you can invert the valences, if you can change some key axes or key elements, then sometimes—you know, this is what Fredric Jameson always says—that sometimes even the most horrific things, if you flip them over in the right way, they will invert and reveal hidden utopian potential. Now, maybe that doesn't always work. And maybe it's messy and hard to figure out. But, I love how there's always an element of hope even in the most depraved, annihilating things.
Woolbright: Within that, those switching valences, or touching the bruise, are there moments that you can think of lately that have been, not encouraging, but surprising, exciting moments within your own coding, or within art and culture? Or within digital culture that you find to be surprising?
Galloway: I came up in a time when there was a lot more energy around openness and freely-available things. You know, Linux and open source tools. There was a time where you basically could do everything you needed using freely-available things. That's really changed. I mean, even in really simple ways, like just the fact that the vast majority of things now happen on phones, rather than on desktops or laptops. That seems like a very small issue. But phones are insanely locked down! It's not even close. You have virtually zero access to the OS level on a phone. You have to go through so many checks that make it so you can't access hardware level things. Or if you can, you're accessing it in very, very controlled ways. That's a bit discouraging. It makes it harder if you like to make things, or if you like to hack things, or tinker with things. Okay, whatever, you can jailbreak your phone. In general I'm pretty soured and grumpy about AI, because the discourse around AI leaves out so many important things like labor and unpaid value and things like that. But it also struck me recently that we're probably at the beginning of a new era of just ubiquitous asset creation. This could be really good. Okay it might all sound like Musak, it might look like shit, but we're likely at the start of a new era of amateur, vernacular, digital creation. It could be everything from fan fiction, to what Hito Steyerl means by the "poor image." That's what I'm getting at. AI is going to give tons and tons of people access to poor image creation. I bet a lot of good stuff is going to come out of it. Yeah, it'll be trashy, and it'll be weird, and it'll be remix-y. It'll be very vernacular and oriented around low-culture. But that's often the best stuff.
Woolbright: Yeah, I think it's really exciting to think about that too. Which for me, maybe, you know, this is like the most optimistic take of it, but it wouldn't be that the vernacular glance or the, you know, everyone having the ability to make things, it may make the splits more visible or more noticeable between those who love and want to participate in dominant culture and those who feel alienated and want to mess it up. And I don't think that's like an artist/not-artist thing. I think that there are great things made by people that want to make something goofy and weird. And then there are people that sincerely want to chase an idea of beauty, or form of acceptance within celebrity or what Berger would define through his talks on glamor. And I'm hoping, you know, again, the most positive read is that AI could bring more into the camp of weird, alienated, you know, like culture is something to be countercultured as much as we can.
Galloway: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Woolbright: It could also just be the ability for everyone to make a meme faster, that makes fun of something. You know, or have that availability to be transgressive at a faster speed to keep up with dominant culture. I'm interested in how you shift your own interests, then, into your writing, and your translating, and kind of proselytizing for Laruelle. And how I feel like there's a thread there, of being interested in understanding these control societies, and protocol and hacking culture and finding ways to find smooth spaces, and then going directly to Laruelle. Could you describe your interest and how you came across him? And then also get into what he meant by the non philosophy a little bit? As difficult as that is.
Galloway: Yeah, so we talked about Deleuze already. Deleuze was the gateway drug, unfortunately. I'll admit I have a weakness for "extreme" philosophy and theory—so, it's a little convoluted. There's a story about Deleuze, that to understand Deleuze you have to understand the concept of immanence. It's about qualities and affects and intensities and experiences and expressions. Following that path, I found my way to some other French thinkers who were lesser known. I found myself reading other people who were also committed to philosophies of immanence. One of these figures is Michel Henry. He writes about phenomenology, and Christianity and other things. Later I eventually found François Laruelle. He has an unusual intellectual project, I won't even call it "philosophy," because he has explicit reasons for why it isn't philosophy! What he's doing is different from philosophy. Sometimes he calls it "non-standard philosophy," or sometimes he calls it "non-philosophy." An analogy that he often uses is that of Euclidean space and non-Euclidean space. So Euclidean space, right—if you accept a certain number of axioms, then there's this thing called Euclidean space. But what if you remove an axiom? Or what if you remove three axioms? Space will look pretty different. Maybe parallel lines don't converge in non-Euclidean space. This is similar to what Laruelle has done. He was able clearly to define the fundamental conditions of philosophy, and then perform surgery on it, changing and removing philosophy's fundamental axioms. As a consequence, we're propelled into a weird scenario where none of the rules are the same. And that's when it becomes non-standard. So anyway, I tried to follow that rabbit hole as far as it would go. And it was exciting, you know, as a scholar, because so much of French theory has been completely picked over. They're practically publishing Foucault's laundry receipts. You know? I wasn't the first to come across Laruelle, by any means. I owe a lot to Ray Brassier, who's an incredible thinker and philosopher. Brassier worked on Laruelle early on, I think even in the nineties, the late nineties. But it was a joy for me to discover Laruelle, who had been publishing since the 1970s. And to discover that he was almost entirely untranslated in English, at least at the time. It's rare to find figures like that. At the same time I never wanted to become a card carrying non-philosopher; that was not what he was all about for me. It was really about trying to think immanence as intensely as possible.
Woolbright: I know it's going really deep into the forest of it, but could you describe an example of an axiom he's able to rework and what a non-standard philosophy response would look like? I know it's asking philosophy to illustrate itself, but...
Galloway: Sure, let me reconstruct it. One of the basic conditions or axioms for philosophy—and honestly, he calls it "philosophy," but what he really means is simply the normal way of being a human. Like it's very low level. It's not just philosophy proper, like the books that are on the philosophy shelf in the bookstore. It's not philosophy in a narrow sense—
Woolbright: It's like an orientation. Just how we word it.
Galloway: Exactly. It's like human consciousness, in a phenomenological sense. Human consciousness is oriented toward something that you perceive or think about. And that thing has a relationship back to you. It's a simple subject-object dynamic. It can kind of go two ways. Maybe it's not equal, but there's a bilateral or bi-directional quality to subject-object perception. Laruelle removes this in the non-standard method. For example he'll talk about uni-directionality. And he means uni-directionality in a really militant, extreme way. Are there scenarios where things only go one direction and never ever, ever go the other direction? Laruelle wrote two whole books on photography, because he felt that there's a way to understand photography as a form of radical receptiveness. Sunlight hits the photochemical paper, but the paper never hits the sun. You know? It never goes back the other way. Laruelle was drawn to that form of non-human, non-intellectual, non-conscious form of pure sensitivity, like in photochemical paper. That's one way that he talks about radical uni-directionality. Another way is through religion and mysticism. You can't look at the face of God—things like that.
Woolbright: Shifting gears a bit, you're currently, or maybe most recently, kind of getting into what you call the "uncomputable"? Or, I mean, do I have that timeline correct?
Woolbright: And, you know, this space where, you know, maybe going back to—I know you have suspicions of the word digital, but you know, like, digital, originally meaning counting beyond your fingers or actually, I think it's counting within your fingers. You bring up weaving as others have, but also these moments in history, or these events of surprise that have a relationship, past logic, past reason? Can you talk about some nice surprises?
Galloway: That book comes out of a desire to mash together different practices. You brought up the idea of the trickster. I wouldn't necessarily think of myself in those terms. But the spirit might be there: surreptitiously borrowing from certain places in order to reorient things in other places. I guess I'm sounding very elliptical. Let me explain. In practical terms, the book is structured around several case studies where I discovered weird computational things from the historical archive, and then rebuilt them using contemporary tools. I don't know if I have the right name yet for this practice. It has something to do with "reenactment," but reenactment has a very specific meaning in the art world. So maybe that's not the right word. But that's sort of the idea. For instance, if there was an algorithm that was lost a hundred years ago, could you reenact it today? What would it look like? The book revolves around three primary reenactments. As you hinted, one of them is about weaving. I'm pretty convinced—and a million other people have said this before me—but I'm convinced that there's a fundamental relation between the computer and the loom. So there's Ada Lovelace, and more recently, people like Sadie Plant have drawn out these connections. So weaving was one site for me. Another came from discovering an unusual mathematician from the 1950s named Nils Aall Barricelli, and restaging some of his artificial life experiments. Barricelli was doing what we would now call evolutionary algorithms, where you start with a series of genes and you allow those genes to propagate and mutate. He was sort of lost to history. But I was captivated by Barricelli. John von Neumann invents the modern notion of cellular automata. And then immediately Barricelli starts experimenting with von Neumann's computer in Princeton, NJ. Part of what makes Barricelli special is that he made posters, he made graphical output! The images are in the archive, and one of them is a nine-foot tall digital image. From the early 1950s! It's totally unprecedented. Sometimes I call it the first digital image. I'm sure there's art historians who will correct me. But if it's not the first, it's certainly one of the first. Yeah, so, these are some of the projects from the book. I tried not assuming that the computer simply meant iPhones or Playstations or whatever. Can we expand the concept instead? Can we see computational phenomena in other places? That's the idea of the uncomputable. Maybe there's a threshold between the computable and the uncomputable. What would it mean to ride that threshold?
Woolbright: Love that.
Woolbright: I like getting out of the literalness of like Boeing man or things that are made from directly computational methods.And you also talk about an interest, more broadly, because I love how you're able to articulate these specific events, and then across all of your work, get really into detail. But I feel like there's this larger interest in multiplicity in arrays and integers and the way those things, and maybe your, this latest realm of uncomputing is allowing you to go straight to that philosophy.
Galloway: I have an unhealthy obsession now. I want to try to figure out a very simple question: What is the digital? The best way to answer it is what you just suggested. Unfortunately, I think we have to go to the integers. You used the word "monad" before—I think that's a good word. "Unit" is another one. And these units or monads get put together in sets. Basically I'm trying to learn arithmetic! I think arithmetic is the ur-science for the digital. This is interesting because arithmetic is as old as time. It goes back to the Pythagoreans and other ancient sources. That's all fun, too, because it opens the historical timeline. Like, completely open.
Woolbright: And there's also, it's like the woowoo question, to use your word, which I love is, yeah, did we pull the language of arithmetic down from someplace? Or did we invent a language that is synchronous with the universe itself? You know, like, which came first?
Galloway: Okay, so you know, the ancient Greeks made a firm distinction between arithmetic and geometry, right? Those were the two paths for them. If you wanted to do math, you could follow the arithmetic path or the geometry path. So there's the old joke—if anyone asks "is mathematics invented or discovered?," you can always answer that arithmetic was invented but geometry was discovered. Ha!
Woolbright: Okay. That's a good distinction. Very good.
Galloway: It's a good way to avoid answering the question.
Woolbright: Yeah, it's perfect. And again, with everything, it is a very complicated subject that you're able to make very clear and articulate so well. Lastly, within all these very serious issues that we feel translated outside of philosophy into literal events, like I think of a point where he talks about there's no more vapor wave or, no, not vapor wave, vapor theory. Sorry.
Galloway: Vapor theory. I'm against it.
Woolbright: I know. Which I'd like to hear a little bit more about that. But I think that there's a physicality to all this philosophy that we feel of like politics and policy. And again, this sobriety and good citizenship and these less visible but growingly pervasive enforcements. And I'm wondering, one: why no vapor theory? Just articulate that further. And what can be done within context collapse? And what can be done in maybe piracy or like, I don't want to say productive piracy, but humanist piracy, or collective unconscious piracy, or-
Galloway: The "vapor theory" comment is just me being grumpy about a kind of general de-skilling. When people just shoot from the hip—which is okay too I guess sometimes. That said, I'm excited by the kinds of new genres and aesthetic techniques that have been invented on platforms like TikTok. Like the return of the jump cut is a really big deal. You almost can't have a TikTok video that doesn't end with a jump cut. I find this super cool, and interesting, and weird. Also the use of spatial montage—frames within frames. People don't talk about this enough, but a lot of those techniques are avant garde techniques. The jump cut for years was an avant garde technique. It wasn't that long ago that if you used a jump cut it meant you were being experimental, you were trying to break continuity. It's wild that these techniques from the avant garde are now totally ubiquitous. I guess it's easy to complain "oh, kids these days," or whatever. But there's an incredibly high level of creativity, I think. But no, you're right, there's gonna be a new era that's about piracy and breaking things. Maybe it's also about the online-offline threshold, and tarrying with that threshold. I'm also thinking about material necessity. There's a joy in piracy, of course, but it also comes out of a practical necessity, namely not being able to pay for anything! People need stuff. So to the extent that there's ongoing immiseration in the world, I think like, yeah, piracy forever.
Woolbright: I think that's a really good point that's difficult, is taking it back into the sphere of being an artist. Which is like, so much of art is about limitation. It's about confronting a real wall, whether it's like, I can't afford this, and I have to make a decision within what I can afford, or there's a temporal component or something. And the AI is allowing for this boundlessness, that I think that then is going to be some type of thing that needs to be addressed. It's not a grumpy negative, but it is like, how do we see the boundaries enough that we can critique the boundaries? Or how we can use those effectively? And I am wondering if we can find ways to use proprietary platforms and platform capitalism as a boundary to form a modernist or recursive response to it. I feel like it is needed but I don’t know how to antagonize it from within, which seems to just produce more content for the platform, but I feel like it’s necessary to figure out how to end the sobriety and the professionalization or product orientation of self we are all being configured into.
Galloway: Since platforms are relatively locked down at the level of material infrastructure, it's harder to hack and experiment at the level. The intervention turns more affective, becomes more about genre and style. So you can't really hack Twitter, but maybe you can perform strange things within the channel. Meme culture is a great example. Thinking about AI—it's not going to take long for the sort of culture produced by AI to be instantly legible as its own genre form. Maybe that's already the case. There's only so many times you can feel surprised by an image of an astronaut riding a horse. I mean, it's a classic type of kitsch. Maybe it can be exciting and weird, and it's fun to see strange things mixed together. But I suspect that AI will mostly produce a kind of bland, middle-brow culture. It will become extremely easy to spot for most people.
Woolbright: I will say as a negative grumpy thing, it feels like it's a good citizen version of piracy and stealing. It's a stealing that doesn't even feel like stealing anymore. It's like a borrowing or its own kind of sober piracy that seems glossed over in a way that seems repulsive.
Galloway: Yeah, that's super smart. You're right. Piracy might be re-defined as "oh, it's me getting things back from ChatGPT." That's not really piracy anymore. You know what it is? At best, it's clawing back some meager scrap of value. Because those AI models are all trained on shit that we made. It's all stolen from us to begin with. I don't mean to sound hysterical. But it's all stolen value. Stolen JPEGs. Stolen websites. Stolen emails. It's all stolen.
Galloway: It's all the online content that we all made over the last twenty years. The content gets curated and cleaned up. They rely on content moderators who aren't paid very much. They have to go in and make sure there's no beastiality porn or whatever. It's a complicated process that relies on both machines and workers. But the gist is: Google and Microsoft didn't make that training data. And they couldn't make the training data. If they could do it without us, they would, believe me! We made the training data over the last twenty years. So, yeah, maybe it's very cynical, but perhaps using those tools is a way to claw back some little scrap of value that was ours to begin with. It's like "Alien vs. Predator," whoever wins we lose.
Woolbright: Yeah, that's dark. What are you coding? Are you coding anything, working on anything interesting in your own projects?
Galloway: Well, I wrote 49,000 lines of code for a computer game, does that count? It's a game called Kriegspiel, originally designed by Guy Debord. It's a hole that I've poured every free hour of my life into over the last few years. And I think maybe five or six people have played it—ha! But it's fun for me to work on, and I've learned a lot about programming along the way. I think of myself has having a fiduciary responsibility. I'm trying to reenact and keep alive this weird strategy game that Guy Debord made in the 1970s. So that's what I've been working on. I'm just trying to make sure I don't get sued by the Debord estate. Or get de-platformed from the App Store.
Woolbright: Is it a fun game? Is it fun?
Galloway: It actually is! I'm glad that you asked, because that part really surprised me. Game design is a skill. It's an art form. You have to be good at it. It's not obvious that everyone would be good at it. But it turns out Debord was good at game design. It's not a twitch game. It's not a Candy-Crush-bright-colors kind of a game.
Woolbright: So it's not an addiction, or it's not-?
Galloway: Yeah. It's not a serotonin-hit or adrenaline-hit type of game. It's more leisurely and thoughtful. You have to be in it for a couple hours, or maybe a couple of days. You can play it by correspondence, a bit like getting a text: you can make a move, and then go about your day, and then make another move a couple hours later. The game itself is very spatial. It's about lines and arrangements, and motion through a landscape. In a sense, it's a bit like chess. But chess is very rigid and has a smaller board. Kriegspiel is a little bit larger and requires more dynamic, spatial relationships. But no, I was surprised. It's actually pretty fun. It's replayable too, which is usually a good indicator of balanced game design.
Woolbright: Super impressive. A fun game that's not addictive.
Galloway: So anyway, that's what I've been working on. I love coding. And I teach coding too. So I like to keep my hand in the game, in a manner of speaking.
Woolbright: Last question. Is there anything that feels exhilarating or a new frisson to you? It can be within film culture, an artist, an artwork, or just something that has you excited about a potential, something that feels new?
Galloway: For context collapse? Whoa, that's a tough one. I'll have to think about that. Yeah, I mean, the one thing I'm so fucking sick of is...what could we call it? The "infinite possible worlds" stuff?
Galloway: Like, what's the Everything, Everywhere, All At Once movie? Or Cloud Atlas. Or, there's a million examples of this sort of like-
Woolbright: The multiverse?
Galloway: Yeah. The multiverse-as-genre. Ugh. Let's put a stop to all of that.
Galloway: Yeah. The fucking multiverse.
Woolbright: I mean, I think a lot of people have been thinking a lot about the multiverse. Just like why now? Why is it a thing? Beyond the ability to have a reason to pastiche nostalgia in, you know, or like, proprietary copyright?
Galloway: Reuse intellectual property.
Woolbright: Yeah, reuse everything. But it also, I don't know.
Woolbright: Yeah, nostalgia. And it seems appropriately nihilistic that there's got to be a better world out there somewhere.
Galloway: Extremely postmodern?
Galloway: A lot of people assume that postmodernism ended. I am not one of those people. I think we are still in deep, deep postmodernity.
Woolbright: Yeah. Yeah. Just maybe more unaware of it.
Galloway: And the Trump years, frankly, are really good evidence of that, you know?
Woolbright: Yeah, yeah. Completely.
Galloway: Everyone stopped reading Jean Baudrillard in the 2000s. Although I've noticed a glimmer recently. People are returning to that stuff. Debord as well. For a while people had stopped reading Debord, as far as I could tell. But now people are more interested in that kind of material. We're in a time where people really want ways to help understand the kind of disingenuous trickery and illusion that accompanies the hyperreal. The spectacle is real. It's more palpable and intense now than it's ever been.
Woolbright: Totally. I mean, we might have talked about it last time we talked, but I've been really fixated on, similarly feeling like we're postmodern, but there's been, and I think this is my generation, this really onboarded, new sincerity that happened after 9/11 that's just been like, I think everyone has …
There's a camouflage to perceiving ourselves as postmodern. Transforming us all into sincere emo kids; and that doesn't kill postmodernism. It just makes it silent and it makes us susceptible to being swayed by passionate intensities.
Galloway: So how would you characterize the new sincerity now? Like, has the sincerity been eaten away?
Woolbright: I think that, I mean this is pulling it straight into art, right, but I feel like art education has become this pedagogy of chasing authenticity endlessly. Like, every position has to be something that my students have felt since childhood. And they have to prove to me and everyone around them that they will never change style, they will never change interest, they will always be this way. There’s an earnestness that is promoted as early as sophomore year that they've always been this way. And I'm just like, you know, what happened to the role of ambivalence? I think of Susan Rothenburg who talked about picking a horse because she didn’t care at all about them. Like, I have to start from a place that I have no feeling about to make art.
And I'm worried about that level of professionalization. And then also, everyone within the same conversation believes in fluidity, believes in identity fluidity, believes in all these things, but then when it comes to their own practice, that does not get into the studio at all. And it turns into, I have to define my style so I am legible and everyone knows that legibility. How can I concretize my thoughts into a form of what is basically communication theory–getting my ideas and research across to the largest audience possible in the quickest method possible. It’s the studio as an advertising pitch room–sincere self-marketing and self-exploitation presented as earnest good will instead of what it is.They also feel that their practice has to somehow be a complete embodiment and illustration of politics, of their politics. And it's like yeah, I feel like my generation is responsible for making emo kids, but I feel like we now have to unlearn the emo to get back towards forming a kind of antithesis to dominant culture.
Galloway: Although, I have to say, emo music is my guilty pleasure. I was very happy with the emo revival. My weakness is listening to bad emo.
Woolbright: No, totally. I mean, I was there for all of it and I listened to it with a lip ring and the hair. But I'm just saying at a certain point, you have to know that that's its own strategy. I just want everyone to know that it's a very American way of looking at art through some idea of the authentic or the sincere which I think somehow leads back to Protestantism and the Puritanical past of much of our country. It's a type of proving to the world that your belief is real, and it's okay that you don't have a job like everyone else. And the only way to prove that is to self-mythologize or to turn yourself into a product where the politics, the aesthetics, and even the interests and hobbies all align.
Galloway: Yeah. Well, as someone from the Pacific Northwest, that is a deep part of the culture. Wallowing in one's own emo sincerity. But I don't know. I want to say that art making requires a susceptibility to being promiscuous, needing things to mix and morph, colliding things together. This doesn't mean you can't have a craft or a commitment or a focus. But I feel like aesthetics really needs mixing and crossing boundaries. You know?
Woolbright: I know Sianne Ngai says that an aesthetic has to be shared to be an aesthetic. They have to be introduced so they can be corrupted and changed. And I think that that brings it directly into painting.
Galloway: I was just thinking about painting too.
Woolbright: So many painters become obsessed with German painters–like Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen and Markus Lüpertz and Jutta Koether and Rosemary Troeckel, you know, obsessed with them. And I think part of it is that they, we all know that Jutta Koether has a freedom that we don't have, that like Kai Althoff can be a DJ for three months and not make a painting, and then he can make a drawing, and then he can make a sculpture, then he can take time off and travel. We know there's like a la bohème or like an idea of moving through the world that they have, that we've professionalized out of existence. And so I think that, yes, their paintings are great, but it's also the ability that Jutta Koether has to just DJ a show next month and it has nothing to do with her art practice.Not everything has to be the vertical integration, you know?
Galloway: Does that come from social democracy? Being able to live on the dole?
Woolbright: Yeah. It has to. I mean, absolutely it has to–material conditions, you know.
Galloway: It's not in the American way.
Woolbright: But I’m also interested in how you think proprietary platforms and the walled gardens are a part of that.
Galloway: On this point we must be very cynical and direct. The cloud, platforms, the walled gardens—they're all a form of neoliberal privatization. Sometimes it's about exploiting the commons. Sometimes it's about expropriating individual property and value and giving it to corporations. Which we then have to pay rent to access again.
Woolbright: Everything costs so much. But that's why this issue is going to be about the Lower East Side, which is how the Lower East Side stays strange.
Galloway: It really does.
Woolbright: It's amazing.
Galloway: Yeah, I mean, the center of gravity will move a couple of blocks to another part of the neighborhood, then maybe it'll come back–
Woolbright: But it's incredibly stable in being what it is. And that's what, I mean, there are all kinds of political reasons for that. The community holds onto property. It's exciting to see a space that is always maintained as a community and everything else becomes hip and affordable until it's not. People get priced out of everything when they are chasing after the cool place to be, and the Lower East Side has been, for like thirty years now, just consistently what it is. A place to try to do things outside but within the material conditions.