Clumsy Volumetrics

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Clumsy Volumetrics

Helen V. Pritchard


Opening the on-line Possible Bodies Inventory, we encounter an abundance of items — shifting numbered entries of manuals, mathematical concepts, art-projects and micro-CT images of volumetric presences. So-called bodies in the context of hardware for scanning, tracking, capturing and of software tools for data processing and 3D-visualization. Working on-and-with the Possible Bodies Inventory is an inquiry on the materialization of bodies and spaces, in dizzying relation with volume practices. As discussed throughout this book, the volumetric regime directs what so-called bodies are — and how they are “shaped by the lines they follow”.[1] As Sara Ahmed outlines in her queer phenomenology, orientations matter in how they shape what becomes socially as well as bodily given; that is how bodies materialize and take shape.[2] Many items in the Possible Bodies Inventory evidence how the orientations of 3D practices matter significantly in materializing spaces for bodies that are inhabitable for some, and not others.[3] Rocha and Snelting refer to this as the the “very probable colonial, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal, ableist and positivist topology of contemporary volumetrics.”[4] Indeed the Possible Bodies Inventory demonstrates how the inherited histories of colonialism stretch into 3D practices to shape and direct bodies: “colonialism makes the world ‘white’, which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach”.[5] This orientation starts within the worldsetting of x = 0, y = 0, z = 0 and spreads out across 3D space; the mesh, the coordinate system, geometry and finally, the world.[6] However, what are the orientations that spread from this computational world-setting to shape spaces? How does it also reinforce what is already made reachable or not, livable or not, from what Louis Althusser calls the zero point of orientation, from which the world unfolds?[7] As Possible Bodies observe in Item 007: Worldsettings for beginners:

Using software manuals as probes into computational realities, we traced the concept of “world” in Blender, a powerful Free, Libre and Open Source 3D creation suite. We tried to experience its process of “worlding” by staying on the cusp of “entering” into the software. Keeping a balance between comprehension and confusion, we used the sense of dis-orientation that shifting understandings of the word “world” created, to gauge what happens when such a heady term is lifted from colloquial language to be re-normalized and re-naturalized. If the point of origin changes, the world moves but the body doesn’t.

As Possible Bodies feel-out, in their software critique of 3D graphics software Blender, in volumetric regimes, when worlds are set, the possibilities for bodies are narrowly scripted — computationally pre-determining the objects that stay in reach. And like in the physical world these “orientations become socially given by being repeated over time”.[8] Indeed, as Item 007 shows, volumetric world-settings are an attempt to fix in place how the world unfolds from a zero-point orientation. An orientation which shapes and is shaped by a certain kind of body as a norm and what Ahmed calls less room to wiggle — “[l]ess wiggle room: less freedom to be; less being to free”.[9] So, in volumetric regimes — when worlds are world-set in ways that computationally shape the body to the world, through directions between fixed points, what about the bodies that don’t fit or don’t follow the set directions?

Ahmed suggests that “clumsiness” might be the way to form a queer and crip ethics to generate new openings and possibilities. Clumsy referring to when we wiggle off the path, are out of time with each other and become in the way of ourselves:

Bodies that wriggle might be crip bodies, as well as a queer bodies; bodies that do not straighten themselves out. The elimination of wriggle might be one form of what Robert McRuer calls “compulsory able-bodied-ness,”[10] which is tied to compulsory [cis-gendered] straightness, to being able to follow as closely as you can the line you are supposed to follow.[11]

Making the affinity present between queer and crip, Ahmed notes, clumsiness is not always a process which brings us together or attunes us, it can also be the moments – the desiring moments – when we bump into the world. Clumsiness is a powerful political orientation, one in which our ways of relating to, and depending on, each other are reconfigured, promising as McRuer notes, possibilities to “somehow access other worlds and futures”.[12] By awkwardly reaching towards some of the items at the inventory, can we orient volumetric practices that make wiggle room, deviate from straightness and open up new liberatory paths? Informed by the difficulties of following the paths of queer life and world-declarations, might we form paths of queer desire for bodies? Such desire might pass through tentative processes to de-universalize, de-centralize, de-compose and re-visit tools and practices in order to better understand the conditions of their mutual constitution. Paths made through workarounds, interventions and hacks of volumetric hardwares and softwares that deviate from social-givens.

Queerness matters because it affects what we can do, where we can go, how we are perceived, and so on. Yet we also know about creative wiggles, wiggling off paths when our bodies don’t fit and the queer wiggle of wiggling in cramped spaces.[13] Ahmed writes that for queers “it is hard to simply stay on course because love is also what gives us a certain direction” creating orientations of desire that generate new shapes and new impressions.[14] However, although love might give us a certain direction, it can take a lot of work to switch orientations. Turning towards a queer ethics of clumsiness for volumetrics then might take some work to make room for non-attunement, not seeing this as a loss of possibility but as opening new paths; making accounts of the damages done to bodies who stray from the world-settings of volumetric regimes; and unfolding new ways which bodies shape and are shaped by calculations.

As the disobedient action research of Item 007 demonstrates, in computer graphics and other geometry-related data processing, calculations are based on Cartesian coordinates, consisting of three different dimensional axis: x, y and z. In 3D-modelling, this is what is referred to as “the world”.[15] The point of origin literally figures as the beginning of the local or global computational context that a 3D object functions. But what is this world that is set and how does it shape or is shaped by so-called bodies? In a discussion of facial reconstruction by forensic science, Vicki Kirby, drawing on Bruno Latour‘s work on scientific reference, suggests we would be wrong to assume that the relationships conjured in 3D modelling are simply an illusion or mirror.[16] Instead, Kirby demonstrates that there is a relationship between 3D models and the physical world, what she calls communicative intimacies and peculiar correspondences, that are conjured between a 3D modelled face and the data gathered from a fragment of a skull.[17] That is to say there is often some resonance between data collected in one site and modelled or visualized in another, which opens up the possibility for agency in 3D. Forensic science practices are based on techniques that pre-date computers, but that are refined by the use of ultrasound data from living people, computed tomography (CT scans), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and Kirby shows how:

data taken from one temporal and spatial location can contain information about another; a fragment of skull is also a sign of the whole, just as an individual skull seems to be a specific expression of a universal faciality. In other words, there is no simple presence versus absence in these examples.[18]

Kirby proposes (following Latour) that this is because the world, as a more-than-human assembly, has the capacity to produce nodes of reference, or evidence, that effectively correspond.[19] That is, the world is present in 3D scans and models. Kirby suggests this means we need then to consider the possibility of the peculiar correspondence between the physical world and 3D models not as loss, or reduction of nature/world but as its playful affirmation.[20] This recognition does open up the powerful possibility for a 3D practice which is understood as inhabited by the liveliness of the world. However what Kirby does not acknowledge is that because the world is present in 3D practices, they are also already materially oriented towards social givens of what faces (or forests) are. This is particularly poignant in the model of an “evolutionary” body type facial reconstruction documented in Item 086: The Truthful Hairy Hominid. The item shows us documentation from an excursion to the basement of the Natural Sciences Museum in Brussels, highlighting the dependence of 3D practices of facial reconstruction on scientific racism. This is also evidenced in the research of Abigail Nieves Delgado, who through a series of semi-structured interviews with experts in facial reconstruction, shows how “when reconstructing a face, experts carry out a particular way of seeing [...] that interprets visible differences in bodies as racial differences”.[21] She suggests that this analysis highlights that facial reconstructions should be understood as objects that allow us to trace past and present pathways of racial thinking in science. Delgado shows how the scientists and modellers she interviewed see skull shapes as part of specific narratives about purity, mixture, nation and race, narratives that reiterate the violence of scientific racism. Delgado argues that “by looking at facial reconstruction, we also learn that to stop reproducing race means to stop seeing [and modelling] in racial terms”[22] — a way of seeing based on racialized categories that have become embedded within scientific practices as neutral. This normative seeing is held in place by 3D volumetrics and facial reconstruction practice. So, whilst we might recognize that the world is present in 3D models and this opens up possibilities for encountering the liveliness of the world, we also need to recognize these same models are informed by the inherited histories of the sciences in which they operate.

Alongside the violent directive softwares and hardwares of the industrial continuum of volumetric regimes, the Possible Bodies Inventory also holds and sorts propositions that hold the liveliness of the world, its shaping capacities and find ways to remake volumetrics, destabilizing the inherited histories of colonialism, ableism and racism within the sciences that inform 3D practices. The queer and crip volumes are full of the pleasure, tenderness and excitement of opening worlds. Hacked scanners, misused models, lumpy bodies all create glimmering deviations, which rotate as alternative volumetrics. These inventory items generate the proposal of working with other references within 3D modelling, held in tension with the technical aspects of 3D modelling. Or as Snelting discusses:

we might use awkwardness to move beyond thinking about software in terms of control using awkwardness as a strategy to cause interference, to create pivotal moments between falling and moving, an awkward in-between that makes space for thinking without stopping us to act.[23]

This pleasurable, loving, reorientating between falling and moving in the Possible Bodies Inventory includes inventory items that make present volumes generated by human and more-than-human bodies such as scanner, flowers, plants, trees, human gestures, minerals and anatomy. Working on and with these inventory items is alike to what Jas Rault and T. L. Cowan describe as entering into a collective deep queer processing — “the possibilities for understanding process as a sexy, sometimes agonized but always committed, method, an orientation towards unruly information”.[24]

One of these orientations towards unruly information is Item 035: Difficult Forests by Sina Seifee, Difficult Forests turns us to moving coordinates, colors and what Seifee describes as Memoirs.[25] In 2013 Seifee travelled to the Amazon region in Colombia with the Kinect as a recording device. The Kinect was hacked to work as a kind of LiDAR to create a series of digital memoirs spelled out as systematic screen glitches, technological relationships and life histories:

The representation of the journey — itself as complex problematic event — together with the horde of visual artifacts tell a set of interfacial stories with my co-travellers. This project addresses the splicing of direct and tactile human perception of reality with another reality, one that is mediated and technical. It is an aesthetic dream, dream of isomorphism between the discursive object and the visible object in the Amazonian forests.[26]

Difficult Forests generates queer traces of desire, the images and text creating different routes to get to this point or to that point. Here deviating in the forest resets stability and make new co-ordinates of points between so-called bodies — they wiggle from the 0,0,0 of worldsetting. Seifee discusses how sometimes the Kinect is held by him, sometimes by his companion or the 3 year old with them. Destabilizing the imaginary of the lone able-bodied cis male scientist who scans the forest under difficult conditions, the different paths become queer intergenerational “multiple world-declarations”.[27] Using the hacked Kinect to generate measurements from a zero point that is never still, Item 035 opens up the possibility for the movement between points to be queered, to be reinhabited and change course, whilst not letting go of the possibilities of volumetric knowledge production. The Kinect extends the reach of the body, whose bodies reach and the forest. Seifee documents this extension of reach in the images and text, recording how the body becomes-with the difficult forest as it takes in that which is “not” it. What Ahmed describes as the “the acquisition of new capacities and directions — becoming, in other words, “not” simply what I am “not” but what I can “have” and “do”. The “not me” is incorporated into the body, extending its reach”.[28] These more-than-human capacities and directions shape forest, scanner and body. As Seifee notes, “The forest recorded and screen captured while walking in a “directly lived” space — in sweat, heat, fatigue and mosquito bite”.[29] The result is a corrupted Kinect scan of the forest, where the mapped surfaces of leaves float around a body without stable ground, as the forest unfolds. It asks us to consider the practice of 3D scanning as a practice of memoir in which the world is made present as a shaping that unfolds through surface encounters (rather than linear methods of collection).

In these memoirs Difficult Forests seems marked with details that are the “indelible and complex entanglements of nature/culture”.[30] The memoirs of Difficult Forests, are more-than-human and dazzling with the reticulant agency of the forest. As Seifee notes, “the Amazon rainforest still resists to remain a radical nonhuman surrounding on the surface of the earth”.[31] The memoirs problematize the overlapping surface and jungle, yet the result is not a visual without reference — both scientific and affective. The images correspond to a set of measured points and the forest is still present in a felt shaping way. We witness the dense and lively agency of the forest and the human-machine scanners in this unstable scan. Difficult Forests reminds us that there is a possibility to conjure a looser translation between local and global coordinates one that stays with the openings 3D offers but also proposes new ways of seeing with 3D. It reorients the translation between the local and global (data) that emerges from 3D scanning in inventive ways — making room for deviations from set paths between points and bodies that emerge as different shapes.

Sina Seifee, Difficult Forests, 2013

Scanning differently is also explored in Item 33, Pascale Barret’s work This obscure side of sweetness is waiting to blossom.[32] Item 33 is a flowering bush made present as a 3D printed object through unconventional uses of scanning devices, point clouds and surface meshes. If we tenderly hold Item 33 in our hands, we can feel out the unfinished 3D printed edges and uncontainable volumes. The awkward lumpy mass of scanned leaves and 3D printing support structures enacts a clumsy wiggling from what has become an accepted path of 3D practices — in which objects are often presented as smoothed-off naturalized accounts or miniaturizations. Whilst still drawing lines between points, this inventory item proposes to us the possibilities for working with practices in ways that inhabit space-time of bodies-plants-scanners in a much different way. In contrast to the practice of 3D modelling which aims to capture data to recreate or reflect fixed bodies in fixed “nature”, such as the 1:1 copy of a flower or leaf, this work allows an orientation in a world that is in excess of the scanner and is not made of straight lines or entities with hard boundaries. Rather than using the scanner as apparatus of colonial capture Item 33 advocates for what Jessica Lehman calls the need to recognize volume beyond volumetrics. As Lehman outlines, “[v]olumes are irreducible to and in excess of the apparatuses of their capture, whether big science or state power”.[33] A materiality that is more-than just resistant to or compliant with volumetrics. Indeed, the amalgamated movements of scanner, bodies and the plants that are shown within the 3D print make explicit the more-than-human and reticulant materiality of volume, a volume which does make present the world but is also in excess of scientific reference. An orientation towards other ways of understanding the materialization of data, practice, movement, bodies, and scanning. A volumetric practice that might provide (situated, temporary) truths about lives.

Both the degenerate Kinect scans of Difficult Forests and the knobbly 3D print of Barret’s encounter of the blossoming bush are “volumizations” of how moving towards and getting close to objects with computation is difficult yet also shapes us — difficulty shapes us. The items makes-felt what Lauren Berlant describes as the unbearability of being oriented by objects:

The critical object is unbearable much like the object of love is: too present, distant, enigmatic, banal, sublime, alluring and aversive; too much and too little to take in, and yet, one discovers all this only after it’s been taken in, however partially, always partially, and yet overwhelmingly even at the smallest points of genuine contact.[34]

Indeed, the directing capacities of many items within the inventory bring attention to the impossibility of resolving ambivalence in our knowledge practices.

The Possible Bodies Inventory is a proposal to consider computation as a shaping force on bodies as well as shaped by those bodies — but importantly as this tour has shown the room for bodies to shape volumetrics may be constrained by inherited histories and social givens. These inventory items open new paths by their wiggle work orientating away from the inherited constraints, rethinking what it means to compute volumes — generating queer and crip ethics to orient practices. As inventory items Difficult Forests and This obscure side of sweetness is waiting to blossom hint, 3D practices such as scanning might make possible smallest points of genuine contact with the materiality of the world, without demanding a stabilizing resolution or normative relations. These two items propose a type of pleasurable queer processing, a clumsy computing that works against the muscular straight lines and modes of reduction for efficiency within volumetric practices. Making-possible the presence of the world without overstabilizing paths or resolving the difficulty of contact. Generating volumes that work-with rather than against the body in motion — queer wiggles that move us towards other bodies, objects and political transformations even in tight, hard to reach spaces.

Pascale Barret, This obscure side of sweetness is waiting to blossom, 2017

Notes

  1. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press, 2006), 133.
  2. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
  3. See also for example Romi Ron Morrison, “Endured Instances of Relation, an exchange,” Possible Bodies, “So-called Plants,” and Jara Rocha, “Depths and Densities: A bugged report,” in this book.
  4. Jara Rocha, and Femke Snelting, “The Industrial Continuum of 3D,” in this book.
  5. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 87.
  6. Possible Bodies, “Disorientation and its Aftermath,” in this book.
  7. Edmund Husserl, “Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: Second Book Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution,” Vol. 3. Springer Science & Business Media, 166, cited in Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, 8.
  8. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 77.
  9. Sara Ahmed, “Wiggle Room,” Feministkilljoys (blog), September 28, 2014, https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/09/28/wiggle-room/.
  10. Robert McRuer, “Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability,” Vol. no.9, NYU press.
  11. Ahmed, “Wiggle Room”.
  12. McRuer, “Crip Theory,” 208.
  13. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 77.
  14. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 19.
  15. See: Possible Bodies, “Disorientation and its Aftermath,” in this book.
  16. Vicki Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies: Life at Large (Duke University Press, 2013), 78.
  17. Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies, 26.
  18. Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies, 26.
  19. Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies, 81.
  20. Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies, 20.
  21. Abigail Nieves Delgado, “The Problematic Use of Race in Facial Reconstruction”, Science as Culture 29, no. 4, (2020): 568.
  22. Nieves Delgado, “The Problematic Use of Race in Facial Reconstruction”.
  23. Femke Snelting, “Awkward Gestures,” in The Mag.Net Reader 3: Processual Publishing: Actual gestures, eds. Alessandro Ludovico and Nat Muller (London: OpenMute Press, 2008).
  24. Jas Rault and T.L Cowan, “Heavy Processing for Digital Materials (More Than A Feeling): Part I: Lesbian Processing”, 2020, http://www.drecollab.org/heavy-processing/[1]
  25. See: Sina Seifee, “Rigging Demons,” in this book.
  26. Sina Seifee, “Difficult Forests,” 2016, http://www.sinaseifee.com/DifficultForests.html.
  27. Possible Bodies, “Disorientation and its Aftermath”.
  28. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 91.
  29. Sina Seifee, “Amazon Talk,” FULL SATURATION in Kunstpavillon München, 2014, https://seifee.com/post/138661817448/amazon-talk.
  30. Myra J. Hird, “Feminist Engagements with Matter,” Feminist Studies 35, no. 2 (2009): 329-47.
  31. Seifee, “Amazon Talk.”
  32. Another take on this item can be found in Jara Rocha, Femke Snelting, “So-called Plants,” in this book.
  33. Jessica S. Lehman, “Volumes beyond Volumetrics: A Response to Simon Dalby’s “The Geopolitics of Climate Change,” Political Geography no. 37 (2013): 51-52.
  34. Lauren Berlant, “Conversation: Lauren Berlant with Dana Luciano,” Social Text Journal online (2013), https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/conversation-lauren-berlant-with-dana-luciano.