ATC Revisited: Kris Paulsen

09 Feb, 2018

ATC Revisited: Kris Paulsen

Recap by KC Forcier, the 2017-2018 Graduate Liaison for the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium.

“Indexical Ambivalence” - BCNM Alumnus Kris Paulsen Redefines Indexicality for the Digital Age

The advent of digital technology raised questions about what sort of contact was possible when communication was now mediated through the abstraction of zeroes and ones rather than analog waves of light and sound. Through her research on telepresence in art, Ohio State University Associate Professor in the History of Art (and Berkeley Center for New Media alumnus), Kris Paulsen addresses these anxieties about communication and touch via the interface.

In a compelling ATC lecture last monday, Paulsen returned to a seminal piece of networked art by another BCNM scholar - Ken Goldberg’s Data Dentata (1993) - to consider touch in the digital age. In Data Dentata, a work inspired by the Internet “handshake protocol,” Goldberg and Richard Wallace devised a set of gloves by which remote users could seemingly grasp one another’s hands. A user in New York City placed her hand in a telerobotic glove, which would sense her movements and cause a connected glove in Anaheim, California to grasp the hand of another participant. The project raised questions about the nature of touch and connection via the Internet.

To take up these questions, Paulsen provided a re-reading of linguist Charles Sanders’ Pierce’s idea of the “index”, which has generally been understood as a sign with a material connection to that which it represents, such as a footprint, a death mask, or a photograph. Theorists of photography have long used Pierce’s concept to explain the special connection photography seems to have to reality, a connection which seemingly disappears in the digital age when the photograph is no longer based on waves of light touching a chemical emulsion. Paulsen argues that touching, resemblance, and physical connection do not actually play a part in Pierce’s definition of the index; it is rather a relationship between sign and referent that is filled with doubt and uncertainty, and requires a hypothetical leap on the part of the interpreter. The index, Paulsen argues, is not based on materiality or physical touch, but on doubt and interpretation.

With Data Dentata, a leap of faith is required to interpret what the user is feeling as a genuine handshake. (Moreover the telerobotic mit apparently contained a flaw whereby it sent back one receiver’s own electrical pulses back to him, rather than those representing the handshake of another user - an incident which underscores the doubt inherent in this telepresent touch.) But this is why Paulsen believes artworks investigating telepresence, such as Data Dentata, do in fact exemplify the Piercian index, which always requires interpretation and inference. The digital revolution has not undermined the index, Paulsen argues, instead it has called attention to the true identity of the index.

Monday’s talk draws on the research in Paulsen’s book, Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface (MIT Press, 2017), which was recently awarded the Anne Friedberg Award for Innovative Scholarship from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. The book examines the ways in which artists have called attention to the distance created between subject and object by tele-technology such as television, satellites, and drones. The artists Paulsen analyzes are indeed deeply ambivalent about telepresence. Though these technologies confound connection, some of the artworks she examines suggest a reciprocal awareness of the other is possible, that it is possible, as it were, to touch back. Nevertheless, this relationship is problematically asymmetrical. Paulsen concluded her discussion of indexical doubt and mediated touch with comments on drone warfare, a technology of telepresence in which the potential for doubt is deeply troubling. The distance between subject and object introduced by telepresence potentially undermines our sense of social responsibility to the other.

2017 ATC Kris Paulsen