Brefiew: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious by N Katherine Hayles

Welcome to another briefiew (brief review)!

N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics was hugely influential on my dissertation and thinking, and I still cite her regularly in my classes and texts. Here her ironically titled book re-members (that is, embodies again) how humans (and data) both “lost their materiality” in our minds, and then she shows us that this is dead wrong, and that there are major stakes in that misperception. Her 2017 Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious differentiates between a thinking that describes “thoughts and capabilities associated with higher consciousness such as rationality, the ability to formulate and manipulate abstract concepts, linguistic competencies, and so on,” and “cognition” (2), which is the nonconscious capacity for processing information, the latter gained through biological sensation or perception, or technological sensors, mechanical feedback, or data received from external sources, among other things. Cognition, in other words, is a “much broader faculty” extant on some level “in all biological life-forms and many technical systems” (14).

Hayles wants to have the humanities engage with and better understand “the specificities of human-technical cognitive assemblages and their power to transform life on the planet” through a more coherent “ethical inquiry” (3-4). She wants us to look more closely at what and how those systems act, cognize, and think, what we do with and as them, and why. Hers is an important premise and fascinating study of the “supporting environments” humans are “embedded and immersed in,” which “function as distributed cognitive systems” (2).

I found myself alternatively nodding and shaking my head while reading. I agree that we must pay more attention to the things that think and cognize, and the ethical questions at play; though I also believe the distinctions more blurred and subtle (and sometimes non-existent) than laid out by those Hayles cites (book forthcoming – though mine is entirely about art!). Still, this is precisely because it is such an interesting topic, with too much to debate. And Hayles’ her bringing these ideas into the humanities is unmistakably important, and her modes of storytelling around them are as funny and smart as ever. If you haven’t yet read  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, I would start there – not because you need it to understand Unthought, but because the first is her strongest manuscript, by far.  If you enjoyed that, or have more interest in the later/recent book, I do recommend it. It’s not as easy of a read, but it is more than worthwhile, and may yet prove to be the game-changer the first was.

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Exhibition Review of ‘This is Bliss’: Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds, Milwaukee (updated!)

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

Milwaukee artist and teacher Jon Horvath opened a moving and complex exhibition last night, his first with The Alice Wilds – one of the newest galleries in town, whose roster of artists and well-curated shows have already made it a destination.

Horvath’s story goes something like this: about four years ago the artist found himself driving through Idaho, and could not help but exit when an interstate highway sign read “Bliss.” What he found is a town with a rich and complex history – part of the Oregon Trail and first railroad system in the continental US, an inspirational space for Ansel Adams, Evel Knievel, and J.D. Salinger – now mostly abandoned and forgotten. All that is left, Horvath explains, is “one school, one church, two bars and two gas stations” serving about 300 residents.

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

On first entering the exhibition, we encounter the hand-written-esque sign pictured above (top), setting up a tension between celebration and critique: for what once was, for what currently is, for the potential of what is yet to come. Bliss’ story, we understand almost immediately, is the story of America: its promise and its loss, our nostalgia for possibilities which are still possible but further away, our regret for the halt – nay, backwards movement – in progress.

The first room, then (second picture, above – click for large view), is a portrait of portraits, moments and places, people and objects, caught over four visits Horvath paid to the town of Bliss in the months that followed. He learned much of Bliss’ lore in conversation with a resident who was watering a patch of corn in his garden, on his first trip, and consequently collaborated with other Bliss-dwellers on follow-up narratives and images.

This room is by far the strongest on the exhibition. Horvath’s eye is refined and subtle, where he cares for and is generous with his subjects, conveying both pride and humility, hope and not-yet defeat. Each image, and their installation together, moves and is moving, invites us not to look on as voyeurs, but rather see ourselves in the photos, as part of them and that life, here and now.

In transition from this room to the back (a much more intimate space, which I will write about in a moment) is a series of painterly or graphic boards with inspirational quotes from the likes of Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. I’ll admit, I wonder what their significance was, specifically in relation to Bliss and its story. I found them to be interesting and inspirational, yes, but also a bit overdetermined in relation to the rest of the exhibition, which was more subtle and thoughtful. Perhaps that was Horvath’s point? Maybe they were ironic? He is too smart of an artist to dismiss this series as simply “off-topic,” or “failed,” so I welcome feedback in the comments, if anyone has them. They make me think, and ask questions… is that enough? I’m going to reach out to Horvath, and will follow-up if and when I hear back. (His response now below!)

From Jon Horvath, via email to me:

Happy to address your questions about the paintings, as I fully acknowledge how they may appear like an unusual departure from many of the other works in the project.

The paintings are given the broader title of “Senior Class Quotes.”  On the second day of my first visit to Bliss in 2014 I was invited to attend the high school’s graduation (I was quickly and warmly introduced to the town by the local residents).  That year, Bliss graduated a total of seven students and at the graduation ceremony was a digital slide show that contain[ed] inspirational quotes selected by each of the graduates.  As you touched on in the article, themes of idealism and the failed/unexpected outcomes that are often close behind are very present in the larger Bliss project.  So, for me, I wanted to take the occasion to honor the hopefulness of these graduates at a critical transition point in their lives by turning the digital slides into something more concrete in the form of the paintings.  The background imagery of each painting is a close recreation of the graphic imagery that each student used within the video editing software.

So while the paintings do possess the possibility of some irony, I’m less interested in concentrating my efforts on that and more so attempting to honor this moment of sincere thoughtfulness on the part of the graduates.

The last room felt like it was more about Horvath’s personal relationship with Bliss, and is for this reason my favorite on exhibition. Look at that relationship between hair and water, above. Just look at it. Better yet, go to the exhibition and spend time with. I stared at it for quite a while, with wonder.

An artist book (which I purchased), a photo catalog, receipts from his diner visits, some bottles and trees… This was where I briefly chatted pleasantries with the artist while my daughter ate cookies. But I was admittedly distracted by the imagery around me, and eventually told Horvath I had to spend time with it.

You should, too. Both ‘This is Bliss’ and The Alice Wilds are very much worth your time.

This is Bliss is on view at The Alice Wilds in Walker’s Point from September 15 through October 21, 2017.

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On Geek Girls: some thoughts with my 11-year-old

This post is written in collaboration with (mostly by) Sidonie “Nonie” Ridgway Stern. This photo was her first selfie. “Daddy, I look so dorky!” she crooned. God, I love her.

Yeh, so occasionally my daughter and I are going to post some reviews of movies, comics, art, coding, and more, from a tween’s (and her dad’s) perspective. This is the first!

On Geek Girls…

  1. What is there to know about geek girls? We are girls, and we are geeks. Do the math. Or… we could do it for you!
  2. Geeks come in different forms. I like: coding, playing guitar, basketball. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Ms. Marvel and Moon Girl. My dad!
  3. We don’t have a single appearance. Most days, I just want to wear sweatpants. But then, I like dressing up in a skirt, blazer and bow tie, too (see below).
  4. I am not your stereotype, and no geek is. Braces, glasses, etc… Yeh, some of us have those things. And so do some of you. I am unique! Heck, those glasses in the photo above? NOT prescription. Just for fun / to get used to them for when I’m older (both my parents wear glasses). Yeh, OK, I have braces.
From left to right, that's Nathaniel Stern, Jack Cooney, and Sidonie Ridgway Stern. Photo by Mary Catherine Cooney. First day of school, Fall 2017!
From left to right, that’s Nathaniel Stern, Jack Cooney, and Sidonie Ridgway Stern. Photo by Mary Catherine Cooney. First day of school, Fall 2017!
  1. blah blah blah
  2. As we type this, we are hanging out with our screen-devices in bed, preparing to watch old episodes of Supernatural, then read some Heroes of Olympus. It’s nearly Friday; our brains are mush…
  3. Next up: we will review something. Something new. We’ll see…
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how to write an artist statement, part 2

I wrote this post on how to write an artist statement back in June 2009, and it is still, to this day, in the top five of visited pages on my site every month. In short, I recommended any given statement for a work of art include three things: what the piece is, what we see or experience, and what is at stake in that experience, for us to practice beyond our initial artistic encounter. I expounded on this a bit more, then went on to offer seven additional guidelines for your text, which should, I recommended, be 300-500 words.

But that’s for individual works of art. What about your overarching artist statement, for a series, body of work, or, yet more difficult, your practice overall?

The answer is simpler than you think. Do a statement like this/the above for three or four pieces, individually, then look for overlaps in the stakes between them, in order to write around them. And edit this all down to fit it into one page, maybe 700 words or so.

Too often, artists begin writing an overall statement about their work in a vacuum, or rather, regarding their personal relationship to their art, instead of their viewers’. But “I’m interested in,” or “my work explores,” and “I research and relate….” are about your practice or what you want your work to do. Very often, such statements only describe the last piece you made, the work you wish you were making, or the processes you used to produce them. The experience of viewership of extant art is a very different thing. And writing a material and/or relational experience for us is precisely how you invite audiences in to material and/or relational art.

Your statement should rather start with something similar to the above. “I make x, which do y, and z is why that is important.”

Then… wait for it… …

For example, in [title of piece] … [summarize one artist statement you already wrote. What it is, what we experience, why that’s important. Refer back to this post when writing!].
Or with [do that again, for another piece].
And in [one more time, another piece].
Overall, the work… TA DA!!!

And so, write the immediately above first. Take your individual works for what they are, and do – even ask others what they are and do for them – before you write around them. And be as concise as you can in this.

But Nathaniel, you may say, your artist statement is SUPER long! That’s true. Yet it follows that same format; it just does so three times in a row, for lots of work, with transitions, so that those web surfers looking for specific pieces I am known for will be able to search for them and know they’ve come to the right place. Remember: I have a 20 year artistic research practice, across printmaking, writing, installation, interaction, networked art, sculpture, performance, and more – and some folks only know one or another of the media I work with, depending on their field. Most people who come to my site already know something about me, and are looking for a specific piece, and I make sure they can find it. I wouldn’t put that entire long statement on an exhibition, or send it to a residency. I would choose three pieces, and perhaps write around those, again. And I recommend said same for all my students and peers, in a given space.

Remember: writing, theory, philosophy and storytelling tell us the stakes of what we do and are, what we might be in the future. Art brings those stakes into the room, as material form, or experience. And so you must always include what your art is, and how we engage, so as to have us regard its import. And then write-with that story, think and share, again and again.

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The Facebook

So, I finally bit the bullet and made a Facebook “fan” page, since I have my new book coming out this Spring. Any advice? Should I “invite” friends to “like” it? What else should I do? It feels… weird. Thanks! (PS please go and like it.)

https://www.facebook.com/nathanielestern/

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How to make the cover / header image smaller in WordPress 2017 theme

I just figured out yesterday how to make the cover image / header image smaller in the WordPress 2017 (Twenty Seventeen) theme, and I’ve already had a number of people ask me how!

It’s pretty simple. And you don’t need to modify the theme, or make a child theme. Simply go to Customize>Additional CSS and copy and paste the below


.has-header-image.twentyseventeen-front-page .custom-header,
.has-header-video.twentyseventeen-front-page .custom-header,
.has-header-image.home.blog .custom-header,
.has-header-video.home.blog .custom-header {
height: 30vh !important;
}

You can change that number 30vh for different heights. That’s it!

I did two more things for my blog.

First, I didn’t like the “POSTS” heading on my page, since my main page is posts, so I also added this, below the above, in the same box:


h2.page-title
{
display: none !important;
}

And finally, I then felt the padding was a bit too much with that heading gone, so I also put this in, to remove space:


h2.page-title
.site-content
{
padding: 0.75em 0 0 0 !important;
}

Please note that with this last bit, the spacing will also change, and a bit differently, on individual post pages. I liked 0.75em best across both, and of course feel free to change that – just be sure to look at the main page and your individual post pages before finalizing!

This looks good on computers, phones, and tablets :)

Enjoy!

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