AUTOICON: the digital-body
As participants in a networked society, our own memories can not be so easily disentangled from that of the devices, software, and services we use. Our user data has become an informational document of our experiences; its accumulation, categorization, and commodification has been valorized above all. The bodies through which we interface with these technologies may wither while the archive, the database, is maintained. At first glance, Donald Rodney’s AUTOICON looks like a prescient embrace of this inevitability and the capacity of digital space to offer a life beyond death.
AUTOICON is an interactive CD-ROM based media work consisting of a Java-based AI and neural network that allows users to interact, converse, and collaborate with it through a simulated, systematic dialogue. The responses can be in the form of text, audio clips, videos, and images; these are drawn from documentation on Rodney including interviews, his body of work, his medical data, and popular media. A generative montage machine serves to collect and collage the produced material according to a rule-based system drawn from Rodney’s own creative process.
Conceptualized from his hospital bed shortly before his death from sickle cell anaemia in March of 1998, AUTOICON was completed by a close group of friends and collaborators collectively referred to as ‘Donald Rodney Plc’. Rodney had dealt with his disease for a large proportion of his life; he was diagnosed at an early age and knew that his condition would steadily grow worse until his death. Playfully imagined in the face of his own mortality, AUTOICON was to be a digital body - a living, evolving presence that would stand in the organic Rodney’s absence.
AUTOICON materializes Donald Rodney in/through data, a process of digitalisation made manifest in our own moment of machinic surveillance, algorithmic data collection and prediction, online identity construction and digital death. Rodney’s work helps us to consider the consequences this process has had for the body and our relationship to it as well as how digital memory is conceived, constituted, and what it has the capacity to be used for.
On booting up the AUTOICON executable, the viewer - or user in this case - is met with a chat window situated on a repeating background created from a stark DNA sequence, a product of a blood test Rodney underwent. The basic form of interaction consists of the user typing in the chat window and receiving responses from the AUTOICON. These are a simulated, systematic dialogue; AUTOICON asks you questions and uses keywords to continue the conversation. It’s almost always asking you something back.
The responses can be in the form of text, audio clips, videos, and images. These, and the keywords used to pull them, are drawn from documentation on Rodney (interviews, his body of work, his medical data, and media material). There’s an attempt to capture Rodney’s style of conversation, with the back-and-forth working as a catalyst to creative diversions and tangents.
Over the course of these interactions, the montage machine constructs layered collages out of the material generated. In the now-defunct web version of AUTOICON, a web crawler would have additionally scraped the internet for results and pictures. Constantly shifting assemblages of image and text are produced according to a rule-based system drawn from Rodney’s own creative process.
AUTOICON follows on from several aspects of Rodney's practice, especially thematic threads laid out in a number of his later artworks. Medical and scientific iconography feature prominently in Rodney's body of work, a result of the extensive medical information he accumulated over the course of his battle with sickle cell anaemia, including photographs, x-rays, and DNA sequences. A document of his close relationship with hospital care and technology, Rodney’s experience with disease and his deteriorating physical condition would often act as the subject of his work as well as a metaphor for broader issues concerning contemporary British society, race, and politics.
In The House of My Father (1996-7) is a photograph of Donald Rodney’s hand in which sits a small sculpture of a house constructed from pieces of the artist’s own skin that had been removed during the course of an operation he had in order to combat his disease.
Rodney’s hand lies on a hospital bed and there’s a marked vulnerability and closeness to the photograph. There’s a fragility to the house Rodney’s built, the structure that he sees himself living in - a sense that’s multiplied by the photograph’s severe cropping: this is only a piece of him, broken and fragmented from the whole.
Another of Rodney’s works that shares thematic concerns with AUTOICON is Psalms, a modified electric wheelchair controlled by a neural network and equipped with sensors, a video camera, and a gyroscope. The wheelchair autonomously navigates the gallery, attempting to perform a series of repeated sequences as another occupant of the space.
Psalms, like In The House of My Father, was made for Rodney’s last solo exhibition, 1997’s ‘9 Nights in Eldorado’, dedicated to his father who had died a few years prior. Rodney himself was confined to the hospital at the time of his father’s death and unable to be at his side. Where In The House of My Father displays an intimate representation of and literal construction from Rodney’s body, Psalms visualizes that body’s absence through its own presence in the gallery space.
As it makes its programmed loops across the exhibition floor, the wheelchair is not easily ignored or dismissed, its movements a stand-in not only for Rodney's own limited bodily autonomy, but also a critique of the effective and exclusionary invisibility faced by many whose bodies are diagnosed as non-conforming. Psalms is a specific presentation of Rodney’s own mortality, the point at which he will no longer be there.
Bentham's Auto-Icon and Rodney's Avatar
Beyond the development of Rodney’s own practice, AUTOICON’s memorialising act of digital integration was directly inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s project of the same name. Prior to his death, Bentham, philosopher and founder of Utilitarianism, organised the preservation of his skeleton which has sat on display in the main building of UCL since 1850.
Following his dissection (this, along with the donation of his organs, was in order to facilitate medical education), Bentham’s skeleton was to be stuffed with hay and clothed, his head mummified, and then the body was to be placed and positioned within a viewing case. The mummification process went awry, however, leaving the skin on Bentham’s face discoloured and bloated - the head was replaced with one made of wax instead.
Bentham had envisaged the display of ‘Auto-Icons’ as replacing other monuments of remembrance such as paintings or statues. In his accompanying manuscript ‘Auto-Icon; or Farther Uses of the Dead’, he asks, ‘Is not identity preferable to similitude?’. In his act of appropriation, Rodney likewise brings the living into contact with the dead. Simultaneously - and not without a sense of ironic humour considering Bentham’s status as the inventor of the Panopticon - Rodney embodies himself through his medical information and biodata rather than wax or hay: out of a network of observation, definition and, for a great proportion of his later life, confinement.
AUTOICON was equally conceived of as a response to mid-90s’ conceptions of the internet as a location within which self-representation could be explored, stretched, and designed. In the creation of an avatar, virtual identity was run through with notions of escapism, not least from the confines and complications of race or gender. Mike Philips, a key collaborator on the project, would refer to these ambitions as ‘ghostly and hollow… for the most part just pixels, vague representations that could not feel nor be felt’. In its reframing of a medicalized, scientific iconography and image of the body, AUTOICON foregrounds Rodney’s lived experience as integral to its goal in creating an active, digital manifestation of his presence, identity, and creative process. A captured, categorized and depersonalized image, an index of the body awarded truth by the clinical nature of a medical record, is co-opted, its objectivist representation used contrarily to present a deeply personal subjectivity. Without Rodney’s disease, his digital body would not exist.
Just as in Psalms, Donald Rodney’s physical absence defines the work and yet AUTOICON is full of his presence, a means of conserving his identity and continued demand for political and emotional engagement. Included within the work are memories and obituaries contributed by Rodney’s collaborators. Rodney’s close friends produce an image of him that only they could make possible - they grieve his loss and celebrate the time they spent with him. These recollections, alongside the intimacy of hearing Rodney’s voice taped from interviews, serve to trace the living/lived body; Rodney’s data trail, his body documentary, is transformed into an image of affection.
In a process of digital mourning, Rodney is remembered and celebrated, and through this, the abstract, conceptual, and technological approaches taken in AUTOICON aim to materialize Rodney’s digital corporeality. A communicative act post-death, projecting Rodney’s work into a present moment where social life is exceedingly digitally monitored, configured, and stratified offers the opportunity to interpret questions and incongruities surrounding the contemporary digital-body politic.
Algorithmic Legacies of Discrimination
Information technology, identity and modes of self-expression form a knotted relationship in the contemporary digital economy. In an environment of algorithmic profiling, surveillance and machine learning, ‘who we are’ / ‘who we can be’ is actively reconfigured according to the latest trends in user data.
This abstraction is awarded truth as an indexical trace of you and your information, empirically observed and transcoded. This has often been referred to in media and academia as a ‘data double’, a ‘digital twin’, or a ‘data shadow’, and represents an impulse to reduce identity and experience to a machine-readable set of data points. As a result of his illness and perpetual hospital stays, Donald Rodney’s life was necessarily datafied in a symbiotic relationship with technology. Our involvement in an online space codified by digital surveillance technologies leads ours to be also, at every level.
Increasingly, digital devices, software, and services prioritize a recognition through data, collected into datasets and read as patterns of identity formulated and defined by algorithms and neural networks. Technology privileges a perceived norm when it comes to its configuration, calibration, and testing and the desires of this instrumentalized categorization find their root in histories of discrimination and eugenics.
In the early 19th century, new regulatory sciences were brought upon the body in order to define the criminal and the deviant - the paradigms of physiognomy (the practice of assessing a person's character or personality from their outer appearance) and phrenology (the measurement of the contour of the skull to predict mental traits) relied upon taxonomic archives of images of the body to authenticate their claims. Photography came to - as Allan Sekula puts it in his essay ‘The Body and the Archive’ - establish “the terrain of the other”, to reduce nature to abstract, mathematical truths that were supposedly already embedded in the body, waiting to be derived and possessed.
As outlined in the work of Wendy Chun, Simone Browne, Safiya Umoja Noble, and others: algorithms encode these legacies.
The link is methodological: the assumptions that underpin the contemporary datasets and research approaches mean that existing and historic unequal power relations are reproduced and reinforced by new technologies. Machine vision perceives in patterns, not uniqueness. Ignoring difference in order to filter out noise and deviation means that a body is only recognized, only authenticated, so much as it repeats a standard derived type.
This amplifies the discrimination behind the algorithm, the neural network, machine learning. In Wendy Chun’s conception this is where pattern recognition becomes pattern discrimination. The era of big data - in its goal to predict and possess the future - is organizing itself through methods of the past, predicting a future of that past: closed off, it wants no disruption, and to perceive no nurture only nature.
Data Body Preservation
Contemporary participation in the data archive can be read as an involuntary performance of the body - one that is automatically analyzed, redefined and shared in opaque ways. This is a cyclical process: in the personalized technological milieu, your data is collected in exchange for access to platforms, media, and modes of self-expression online, leading to an inseparability of self expression and subjectivity from data surveillance.
The nature of where and how this data is produced and captured is dynamic - creating or arresting a picture of a whole is difficult and problematic. The production of many mutable and temporary data assemblages across various networks has meant a shift or an evolution in the concepts of online individualism away from visual or auditory representations and towards mass collections of fragmentary data. If we return to the spectre of the data double, it’s more apparent that there are multiple and shapeshifting doppelgangers, not an entity but a process in the data flow.
In the shift from the contained material body to another of information, what does it mean when our personal content, our data, continues an independent existence after our physical selves have passed? When the networked computer and the companies that own the network are agents in the act of remembering, memorializing, and mourning? What is the human to be held onto in this reproduction?
The proliferation of the internet into everyday life has had ramifications for our cultural relationships with death, with social media pages especially becoming tangled up in the processes of preservation, evident in the multitude of memorialization and death policies developed by social media and other major data-driven tech companies.
Through the tracking and storing of our data, we can supposedly be ‘remembered forever’, or at least for however long the companies who own our data determine that we’re worth remembering. In this way, the internet has become a complex and ambiguous site of digital mourning. There exists a body of information that isn’t buried along with you but continues on ‘living’ at the leisure of communication giants, the profile (the face) may be scrubbed on request but ghosts of experience remain to haunt the neural network. At the level of personal loss, however, there lies an arresting effect in death and more specifically in memorialization, with the capacity to fix certain aspects of informationalized identity in place. In much the same way we might pour over a photo album or look through someone’s old belongings as a way of remembering them, it isn’t the data itself that creates a figure but our own experience, emotion, and personal recollection.
Opacity and Frustration
When I was conceptualizing my analysis of AUTOICON I was hoping to easily fit it around aspects of the contemporary digital body-politic. I approached it with binarily opposed questions about figuration and abstraction in data to see whether it was able to offer clarity and coherence in its rendering of Rodney.
When I first had the opportunity to get the CD-Rom version of AUTOICON out of the Stuart Hall archive, I encountered it with a certain sense of reverence and also, to be honest, morbidness. I had already read a significant amount about Rodney and AUTOICON specifically and I approached the CD as if it were a corpse (twice over: the networked web version is no longer online).
My first interactions with the AUTOICON were in earnest, I spoke to it as if it were Rodney and attempted to talk in the way I thought it wanted me to. Soon enough I grew frustrated by aspects of the work that I saw as outdated and rudimentary, and began to game the interaction: I could see the folders in the backend of the CD and I was using filenames almost like cheat codes to produce specific responses, images or videos.
I was attempting to gain access to the body at the heart of the work, to acquire and know it fully, and I was frustrated when it didn’t yield. I felt like it was withholding; that it had information left unseeable to me. But this frustration eventually became self-reflexive: I was not looking at and interacting with a stark reproduction, a fully comprehensible and transparent Donald Rodney. A sense of illegibility became important to my understanding of the work.
AUTOICON is suffused with a meta awareness of formal codes which it manipulates into art; data collection is divorced from its intended uses, maneuvered instead towards creating a heightened sense of intimacy between the work and the user. By going against an impulse towards reduction of subjectivity to quantification in data, AUTOICON is a bespoke archiving of the body, personality, identity, and memory of Donald Rodney. I wasn’t there to exhume a corpse or to rescue an idealized image of Rodney from his untimely death - or to reduce him to a CD-ROM.
Experiencing AUTOICON is much more about having the opportunity to share in Rodney’s collective memory, a loving image made possible only as a result of its production by those who would miss him the most.