4. Contributory research and social (self) sculpture

Noel Fitzpatrick, Anne Alombert, Colette Tron, Glenn Loughran, Yves Citton and Bernard Stiegler

Anne Alombert, Noel Fitzpatrick, Glenn Loughran and Vincent Puig, Contributive Research, Social Sculpture, Art & Technology, Serpentine Galleries (September 2018)

Contributory research can be considered as a form of social (self)sculpture, if we view culture, arts and knowledge as transindividual processes through which groups sculpt themselves by sharing common practices. We could also speak of a form of gardening: culture understood here as a form of permaculture. Research methods in the sciences, (including human sciences) and arts, insofar as they are based on the constitution of open research communities extending well beyond the world of academic research, need be re-examined with regard to education. The event of the Anthropocene demands a new ecology of educational subjectivity, which takes into account its technical conditions.

Between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, these technical conditions led to the generalization of proletarianization (loss of knowledge through its exteriorisation into artifacts), of which the infrasomatization mentioned in chapter 3 is the most advanced stage. Thus a key question to be addressed by contributory research is proletarianization which is tied to the question of a new relationship to technics, based on the goal of de-proletarianization,that is, a relationship in which people are not mere users, but in which they understand, practice and transform technologies.

In a disruptive period, all types of knowledge and art have to be thought again from scratch. We need to provide therapeutic prescriptions for the disruptive technologies which first appear as toxic. The perspective opened up by contributory research aims to revisit the notion of ‘social sculpture’ within the contemporary technological context and the framework of digital studies.

1. Context: disruption and algorithmic governmentality, an “anti-social sculpture”?

Whilst the term ‘social sculpture’ (used by Joseph Beuys) within an art historical context may be contentious and dated—mostly because of its inheritance in separating an active master-sculptor from a passive sculpted-matter—there is a need to revisit what is meant by ‘social sculpture’ (or rather terms such as ‘social self-sculpting’ and ‘social plastic’) through contemporary modes of technical and technological mediation of the world.

Beuys coined the concept of “social plasticity”, where modeling and transformation are becoming a total action, through the idea that each one considered as an artist, as a “creative power”, could participate to the “social sculpture”, to the shaping of the forms of the world in which they live and they are involved - each one participating to the production of symbols, and to the production in general.

In a philosophical context, the use of the word sculpture can be traced back through Heidegger to Aristotle and is related to the term technē, where to sculpt means to take form, to shape matter. If we include social behaviors as a form of ‘material’, we can better understand that the concept of social sculpture is close to the notion of culture and education, as the forming and shaping (cultivation/gardening) of behaviors in society through the sculpting of the retentions (habits or memories) and protentions (expectations or desires). At the same time, we must take into account that students and individuals are not objects, they are subjects. While the process of education may be able to re-orientate their desires towards less pernicious consumption, it cannot entirely form their behaviour, otherwise, it would obliterate their agency and thus their educational capacity.

For centuries, the retentions and protentions of individuals have been sculpted by social organizations (rituals, political, religious, philosophical or academic and educational institutions), through the practice of knowledge (know how, theoretical knowledge, and know how to live) or arts (technical arts, arts of living, creative and performing arts). Such knowledge and arts are neguanthropic practices through which individuals take care of their collective milieu and learn to live together by sharing common retentions and protentions – through the memory of a singular past and the projection an unpredictable future.

In the disruptive period, social organizations through which individuals transmit, practice and transform their knowledge and arts seem to be outpaced by radical and permanent innovations. Such practices become obsolete and are replaced by marketing injunctions, implemented into algorithmic technologies operating in real time, at the speed of light.

Indeed, the current functioning of the digital technical system in the service of consumerist data economy leads to the capture and the control not only of attention, but also of retentions and protentions of the users of digital devices, connected objects and “social” networks, through the collection of their ‘personal’ traces or data, and through the automatic generation of their profiles. The algorithmic environments suggest to them programmable and standardized behaviors and steer their drives towards mass market commodities: the constitution of mimetic and consumerist crowds and the exhaustion of libidinal energy thus leads to the production of psycho-social entropy.

The development of new forms of supports for knowledge (mechanical, analogical, digital) and modes of production (consumerist economy, attention economy and data economy) have transformed traditional practices of knowledge and social organisations. The Cultural industries (described by T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer) and mass media based on analogue technologies have modeled consumerist behaviors. Data industries and social media that are based on digital technologies have resulted in ‘algorithmic governmentality’ (described by T. Berns and A. Rouvroy). This transformation has led to a new epoch of proletarianization (loss of know-how, know how to live and theoretical knowledge) and, ultimately, have led to a new form of ‘anti-social sculpture’.

However, there are multiple forms of (technical) communication possible that are not at all related to ‘algo power’ (for instance decentralized peer-to-peer architectures). It is only because of the recent rise of Facebook, Google, Uber, Amazon etc., that this ‘algo’ problem has started to appear. Therefore, algo governance, no matter how dominant at the moment, should not be accepted as our inescapable fate.

It seems necessary to create processes of collective individuation which enable individuals and communities to socialize or sublimate their drives and to renew their libidinal energy, by inventing new ways of living or by making singular works of arts (scientific discoveries, technical inventions, artistic performances, social projects). Such processes lead to the production of psycho-social neguanthropy, i.e psycho-social diversity, novelty, transformations and bifurcations. The urgent question now is how social (self)-sculpture as a subversive-creative force relates to the hegemony of the large corporate platforms.

2. Therapeutic propositions: digital studies, contributive research, practice based research and socially engaged art, towards a new social self-sculpture in the digital milieu?

The question is the following: how to develop such capacities of transformation and bifurcation in a context of digital automation and generalized proletarianization? In order to do so we have to change the paradigm, passing from technologies of control and algorithmic injunctions at the basis of data economy, to technologies of spirit and capacitation, based on contributory economy (defined in chapter 6).

In the digital development of artifacts, an alternative should be to “found a new algorithmic sovereignty” based on “a new right of work”, which itself is distinguished from labor. Work is thus defined as capacity to de-automatize and to bifurcate. This is what Beuys described as “the creative power of man” and as “the capacity of man invested into work”.

In order to update a social sculpture in a digital society, we have to establish the capacity to model and to shape the digital systems that are composing our contemporary tracks, memories and relationships, and the media of our knowledge. To shape and to design the society, by individual and collective contributions is a way toward a “design of existences” or a social design, which open the possibility to model and to shape the future.

The digital and algorithmic environments have to become contributory supports of knowledge (know how to make, know how to live, theoretical knowledge) and art, and the participants have to become social sculptors of their digital and algorithmic environments, collectively practicing digital technologies through new knowledge and arts. It thus seems necessary to develop new social organizations likely to give knowledge and art their therapeutic role in society, which is to help human individuals to adopt their new technical milieu. This is the aim of digital studies, contributory research, practice based research or socially engaged art.

The aim of digital studies is to understand how digital technologies impact (both in negative and positive ways) the construction of knowledge (disciplinary epistemologies) and aesthetics (cultural production). Both art, be it applied design or fine arts, and knowledge always require technical supports in order to be conserved, transmitted, shared and transformed, and the transformation of these supports always affects these arts or knowledge. It thus seems necessary to conceive, produce and experiment contributory digital devices and platforms, especially shaped for the transmission and sharing of knowledge, that is, which enable the “learners” to participate actively in the collective production of knowledge or art, and not simply to receive them from an exterior source and passively consume or contemplate them. The development of such contributory devices and platforms (annotation or categorization tools, qualitative algorithms, deliberative social networks) requires from us to redesign the network architectures and data formats and to introduce digital hermeneutic functions into current web formats and digital tools, enabling “contributors” to express, deliberate, confront and discuss their point of view and practices.

Contributory research is based on the articulation between the action research method and contributory technologies. In this case users are not merely responding in the form of comments and sending their big or small interactive signals such as likes or pictures and videos. Contributions are substantial pieces of work that are fully integrated into the collaboratory hermeneutic effort and thus differ from comments in the margins. Researchers from different disciplines work in close cooperation with inhabitants of their territory (territorial collectivities, educational institutions, businesses, charity sector, elected representatives, citizens, etc.). Contributory digital platforms make such exchanges possible because they facilitate the progressive publication of hypotheses during the research process, and their public discussion and critic: all stakeholders can take an active part in the research and become researchers. Academics, activists, designers and coders learn from the users and inhabitants, just as the latter learn from the academics, through a process of collective capacitation. The aim is to identify the fundamental (political, juridical, health, psychical, economical) questions raised by disruptive technologies or digital infrastructures, to scientifically address such questions, and on this basis, to produce and experiment “therapeutic” hypotheses to resolve the concrete problems in the territory, which thus becomes a “learning territory”.

Practice-based research is a method of research where the research activity is based upon the practice, and the artistic practice is understood as a form of knowledge production. Such a mode of research or knowledge construction sits between the division of knowledge between ‘know how’ and ‘know what’. The research projects construct their methodology as part of the very process of the project, the question is not resolved through the work itself: the focus is on research question being asked rather than the work itself, the work consists in the negotiation and in the collective (re)formulation of the research questions. The projects all accomplish a mode of disclosure of the research: these modes of practice/disclosure are forms of gestures which are therapeutic and ultimately neganthropic.

Socially engaged art should not be understood as a singular autonomous practice within the commodified art world, but rather as a strategic element in social movements, alongside critical research, public activism, and networked communications. The notion of ‘event work’ (Brian Holmes), counters the transgression of disciplinary enclosure inside the university. The aim of an event work is to articulate artistic strategies with other strategies, such as critical research, communication, activism, intellectualism, the political, in order to face contemporary challenges. The notion of event work thus names the relationship between event and work, insisting on the social transformation and collective individuation implied in working activities, and on the bifurcations, which can be produced by such activities. In such a context, the role of the artist is not to make ‘objective’ works of art that spectators can contemplate but to create new situations in which the public can engage. There is a need to open new ways of doing, living and thinking. The artist has to be understood as a relational actor in the world, producing situations and opening improbable bifurcations, rather than an autonomous actor in the world, producing objects (cf the concept of the artist as proposer).

Such experimentations, hypotheses and models, which already take place in different territories, should be exchanged, shared and discussed between these different places, thus creating an international network of research composed of diverse localities (defined as an “internation” in the introduction). The aim of the proposed network is to organize collective reflection and deliberation on the economic, epistemic, political and social consequences of the contemporary industrial transformation, and to experiment new economic and social model, based on a rational appropriation of technological innovation by local populations, and oriented towards the production of neganthropy.

The project of the Internation is an attempt to put in place a contributory economy of localities, giving value to the practice of singular knowledge through which individuals and groups shape new technological supports and new modes of collaborations - for the social sculpture of the future.

3. Examples of contributory research projects, practice-based research projects and socially engaged art practices

. Projects of contributory clinic and contributory urbanity in Plaine Commune

The project of contributory clinic brings together academic researchers, doctors, childcare workers and parents in order to invent new therapies to fight against child’s surexposure to screens. The aim of this project is to connect the academic knowledge concerning the constitutive role of technical supports in psychological and cognitive faculties, the professional knowledge concerning the nocive effects of screens for child’s development, the practical or educational knowledge of parents and the technical knowledge of designers, in order to conceive and develop new educational practices and new digital tools likely to support child’s development and attention capacities. The contributory clinic should become a place where other parents, childcare and education workers can come to capacitate themselves in order to address this new problem of public health.

The aim of the project of contributory urbanity is to launch a program of contributive research with teachers, students, architects, designers, urbanists, etc. in some schools of Seine-Saint-Denis (in the North of Paris) in order to develop on this territory a culture of BIM technologies and a critical/pharmacological approch of smart cities. The goal is to develop new practices of architecture, urbanism, construction with young generations thanks to the adoption of BIM technologies through the practice of Minecraft. If BIM technologies can be “absorbed” (understood and practised) by the inhabitants (and especially the young generation) in a contributive way, this could be the opportunity for the inhabitants to take part actively in the digital transformation of their cities and territories, and to imagine new sustainable urban development, whereas the current models of “smart cities” tend to exclude the inhabitants of the processes of conception, management and construction of the city. Video games and BIM technologies could thus open new possibilities for contributive architecture or urbanism, associating inhabitants (young generations) with professional architects, urbanists, urban managers, etc. in the territorial development, in order to renew the urban jobs and the “urban engineering” (transformed by digital technologies) and to create a shared urban knowledge on the territory. This project brings together the academic knowledge concerning the history and economy of cities, the professional knowledge concerning digital technologies of urban construction and management, the educational knowledge of teachers, in order to give students the opportunity to understand and practice digital technologies of urban construction and town planning, and to concretely contribute to the digital transformation of the city.


. Real Smart Cities project in Ecuador and Galapagos The Real Smart Cities Project (This project has received funding from the MSCA-RISE programme under grant agreement No. 777707.) develops a critic of the development and implementation of the technologies within the urban landscape or so called Smart Cities. The project is divided into three work packages, the first one concentrates on the Transdisciplinary Study of the Digital Episteme and the second one Data City: Big Data, Open Data, and the 3rd focuses on Citizen Participation and Territorial Experimentation. Alongside the territorial experimentation in Plaine Commune mentioned above the Real Smart Cities project is carrying out contributory research in forms of experimentation in the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador and on the Galapagos Islands. The experimentation in Guayaquil consists of building on the socially engaged practices previously in place with the staff and students of the Univeridad de las Artes (UArtes) supplementing the activity with researchers from other members of the project. These projects includes forms of digital capacitation in the women’s prison, local radio projects in Nigeria and questions of capacitation with the local population on the Galapagos Islands. The socially engagement processes underway in Guayaquil were grouped into a symposium exhibition ‘Guayaquil Archipelago’ which took place in the city of Guayaquil in the 2019. The thematic of the symposium, exhibition was the Archipelago, Archipelago as a morphology of the city itself, the City of Guayaquil is an archipelago of inter-connected islands but also an archipelago of islands of social exclusion, poverty and digital exclusion. The symposium exhibition acted a mode of disclosure of archipelagic thinking where islands become relational rather than insular. The challenge became how to rethink the network through the archipelago, an archipelago of relational possibilities, a condition of possibility of openness as forms of locality. The second phase of the experimentation was the engagement with public encounters with arts on the Galapagos islands, Real Smart Cities with Uartes hosted a two day event on the island of San Cristobal where the problematic of locality and the Anthropocene were posed as series of interventions with the local population. The context for the interventions was one the one hand tension in relation to the imposition of global imperatives on the locality of the Galapagos itself and the need to have clear modes of local capacitation. The participatory methodologies of mapping were used to represent the local populations relation to digital technologies, San Cristobal poses the intriguing question of digital exclusion through the limitation of access to internet technologies. Both projects with Guayaquil and the Galapagos are on going.