Ramon Amaro is shaking our perceptions. What if we don't understand darkness as an absence of light, for example? Now that machines are reproducing our shortcomings, his mission has become increasingly urgent.
Ramon Amaro has found a spot in his agenda for our Skype appointment, in-between writing a piece about data interpretation, preparing a lecture for the transmediale festival in Berlin, working as head of the Visual Cultures faculty at Goldsmiths, and completing his project for the Triennale di Milano, Darkness, as a First Act of Creation.
Amaro’s CV shows a similar flexibility. He studied mechanical engineering and computer technology, obtained a master's degree in sociology, and received his doctorate in philosophy and black ontologies in London, where he still lives. He also initiated the Techno Resistance and Black Futures Festival, and developed the research theme of burn-out for Het Nieuwe Instituut, seeing the phenomenon as an indicator of self-exploitation that cannot be separated from the overriding capitalist frameworks of our society. Every single thing Amaro does involves a different kind of ‘subject-making’. Whether lecturing, presenting or curating, he always shows a snapshot of his thought process.
"If I were to sum up my work, I would say that it is about personal transformations. I attempt to resist the temptation of our usual reliance on coherence to form a relation or a perception, instead, breaking and disrupting it."
Amaro weighs his words as his mind accelerates. The nature of his work is serious, but at the same time his approach has something blistering, radiating a belief in imagination's ability to flip our outlook on the world.
The last time we spoke was during the preparation of the Uncertainty Seminars, an experimental art programme at Stroom Den Haag about doubt as a starting point for creativity. Amaro presented a heavily philosophical essay about the apparent contradictions in experiences of colonial history in the present. Just as our sensory perception of reality keeps shifting, he made his recitation vibrate, as it were, with a collage of film material and hypnotic soundscapes. 'None of what you see is exactly what it seems’, it echoed. Nobody knew if this would work for a live audience as well as it did, and even whether Amaro would be able to be there himself remained uncertain until just days before. Now he is smiling - the care and patience you provide the people with whom you work are elementary. Give plenty of space, but also a gentle framework to ensure that they can maintain their own conditions. In Milan, he aims to do exactly this.
Darkness, as a First Act of Creation takes darkness as a starting point for creation. The western principle of light as the origin of life is reversed to temporarily shake our perceptions. What if darkness was not defined by an absence of light – the Black body not as a non-white body – but rather as dark matter, the immeasurable counterpart of matter that must exist in order to explain our solar system? What if darkness is a condition for the realisation of ourselves?
"Perceived in this way, the individual doesn’t start from a point of absence or deficit, but already from a point of totality and transformation," Amaro says. "In my work, my primary concern relates to the origin of the self. How do we perceive ourselves, how do we self-organise, and how do external technologies influence how we organise our own bodies?
"It is also key to my understanding of the relationship between race and machine learning. All those categories, such as sexuality and gender, are external barriers that start to frame who we think we are. Even if who we think we are differs from that framework, a gap or a sense of shortcoming arises. Digital technology works exactly like this. As a racialised body, I don't have to be present to be understood as a category. In machine learning, just as with data privacy and discrimination, you don’t have to be present for the 'machine' to observe you, to produce a type of output and to create expectations of you based on bias or predefined definitions."
What if the Black body was not defined as a non-white body?
"I see my work in theory being just as immediate as a protest. What it requires is a shift in individual understanding. This shift is also essential in the relationships between the individual and the collective. It requires a constant awareness of your assumptions, and knowing how they affect your interaction with the world. If capitalism, racism, fascism and misogyny can operate like a machine to force a 'slow burn', then we as humans do ourselves a disservice to say that we cannot operate as a machine to alter that perception. What is the counter of a 'slow burn'? That would be a slow value, a slow respect, a slow love. But as long as we stay passive, we never even approach those opportunities.
"In a sense, I try to break our human perceptions by talking about the perceptions and shortcomings of algorithms as a kind of alien. Peel off how they are designed to show how our own perception operates. However, we continue to be surprised when technology produces something that matches our social perceptions."
In the very early development of machine learning, in the proverbial awakening of artificial intelligence in the seventies and eighties, scientists were teaching the algorithm mostly to be 'themselves'. "Now we’re telling the algorithm, ‘Don’t be yourself’," says Amaro. "'Be like us!' But we don't want to deal with the problems of 'us'."
These problems result in technologies that mirror and reproduce social and cultural inequality and exclusion, the same way – and often because – they are deeply embedded in commonly used instruments and statistics. Specifically, for instance, there is the inability of algorithms and facial recognition software to properly perceive people of colour. In the USA, digital surveillance, racial profiling and predictive policing contribute to a statistically lower life expectancy for Black people due to police violence. It prompts people of colour to relate themselves and their bodies to technology from wildly different perspectives and realities than white people, for whom machine learning and the data revolution in general do not have to effectuate built-in discrimination.
The stakeholders and money flows that drive the industry also play a role. Marvin Minsky, one of the early fathers of artificial intelligence, already saw the field being taken over by commercial and military objectives. This has been the case more than ever in recent decades. In the most advanced technologies that humanity has ever produced, we now see the shortcomings of modern civilisation much starker than its noble ideas. That's why Amaro explores ways in which we can decolonise technology through intellectual and artistic imagination.
"It's about looking at the algorithm differently. Not as stability in itself, but more like the Wizard of Oz; one character after the other in the story realises the shortcomings that they felt were stemming from their own experience. In the end, they discover that the almighty wizard is just sitting in a hidden simulator that makes him look much bigger. They pull that curtain aside and you see them go, 'Wait a minute, if he can sit in that machine, we can sit in that machine'. But they had to experience that internal shift of perception first. That is why I try to strip down our perceptions of machine learning, so that we see what it actually is – the Wizard of Oz, sitting at a table with a bunch of maths. When you strip those perceptions down, you give way to other thoughts and actions.
"From a technical point of view, there is nothing stopping anyone from starting a crowdfunding campaign to cut the main fibre optic cables at the bottom of the Atlantic with a submarine and industrial-sized bolt cutter. Of course, it might be repaired, but my point is that we tend to underestimate our ability for action when we perceive the monster to be untouchable. If you have a burnout you also have to face all of your own perceptions – you have to reach a point where you stop seeing the structures that you're in as the only possibility. Really weigh everything again. No matter what decision you make afterwards, you are a different person when you get back from that. You make different decisions. That is the transformation."
Amaro likes to imagine that the developers of artificial intelligence were guided by the same philosophy. There are already start-ups working on technologies to map police violence. Internet activist Kim Dotcom says he is working on a whole new encrypted web. "It does require us to break free from our own western, colonial concept of hope, that ends up being a romanticised utopia. I think about hope in terms of 'Black radical tradition', where hope is always infused with trauma. Hope is not necessarily winning, it is just refusing to lose.
"In the first place, you already expect something to happen. Adaptability is inherent in the human condition. You’re not expecting some fictive imaginary success. That is not cynicism, it is about dealing with the situation when it actually happens. Hope then becomes the question, 'What can I do to lessen the blow?’ Secondly, when things appear to be stable, it is important to focus on the value and generative potential in that situation. Thirdly, you have to take full responsibility to try and enact a better space for yourself and your environment."
Drawing from these thoughts, Darkness, as a First Act of Creation is based on the metaphor that darkness has the power to generate new things. There, too, we find Amaro’s encouragement to see the opportunity to change our assumptions of darkness and trauma inherent in social and technological developments. Not to look away, but to assess them differently. Dare to pull the curtain.
Of course, it’s never seamless, he says. "It always depends on context, on history and on trauma. But combining those three elements, you build your own state of being. That is why I mention the idea of a slow love, a slow optimism. If we do not start from absence and deficit, but from the sense that the other is already a totality, already whole, it will be enacted in everything we do."
Text: Ilga Minjon
Ilga Minjon is curator of visual arts at Stroom Den Haag and a lecturer in Society & Change at Design Academy Eindhoven