Sleight of Hand

by Liat Berdugo MFA 13 Digital + Media

The following text originally appeared in Formative & Persisting: How The Thesis Lives On.

My thesis investigation—and my continued work today—interrogates our attitudes and beliefs towards technology. Often, these attitudes and beliefs tend to be polarized between extremes: either techno-utopianism on the one hand, or luddism on the other.

My thesis investigation asked: What are the forces that polarize these sites of opposition? I opened my thesis with what I called “the vows and reneges of technology”—that is, what technology promises us, and what it simultaneously takes away with those promises. These were dialogical argument between obstinate factions, cast as black and white so that my work could take on the gray area in between. I work from the technological, but more so I work from the logos of the tehkne: from a principle of art that creates its own ground between rival systems of thought.

My investigations also took on many other smaller questions. For example, I have a section on “Humor and Incongruity,” which asks the question: “Why is ___(this piece)____ funny?” In my work I tend to use humor as an entry point—a hook of sorts—so I wanted to understand it more. I also have a section called “Everything for Claire,” which asks the question: “Who is my ideal audience?” My ideal audience is my friend Claire, who lives in Nebraska. Over the course of my thesis investigations, I discovered that when I make work for Claire, if comes out well; when I make work for others, it comes out rather poorly. I started making everything for Claire—and this section unpacks how “Claire” might actually be a symbol for something larger than herself.

Many of the questions I asked in my graduate inquiries are questions I continue to ask in my practice today. In some of my work, it’s easy to see the direct connection. For instance, my work Unpatentable Multitouch Aerobics is a complete aerobics routine compiled from the patented multi-touch gestures from iPhones—such as zooming, swiping, rotating and panning. The work interrogates intellectual property, and asks how we are to re/act in the face of the commodification and privatization of our own bodily gestures.

Some of my current work has expanded to investigate the economies of technology. Under the moniker “Anxious to Make”—my collaborative practice with artist Emily Martinez—I focus on the so-called “sharing economy” and the contemporary artist’s drive to overproduce in the accelerationist, neoliberal paradigm. Our book, titled How to Make Yourself into a Commissioning Body in 5 Easy Steps, prods at this overproduction. It uses a distinctly analog algorithm, made literally out of paper, to walk artists through common blockages and offer solutions that can be commissioned through the sharing economy, gesturing toward an endless productive duplication. I continue to blur the lines between the digital and the analog.

Recently, I have also begun embracing writing as a regular part of my practice. I feel this must be noted as a direct extension of my thesis investigations.

Even when the subject matter of my work is not about technology, the modes of investigation that I developed in my thesis work seem to carry me through difficult subject matter. In a new project called Shooting Back at Shooting Back, I interrogate the camera as a tool in zones of conflict. I draw from the video archives of B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO that distributes cameras to Palestinians living in high-conflict areas. This work pulls together hundreds of clips where the camera of the Palestinian is met by an Israeli filming back. After all, there are two kinds of shooting: shooting with a camera, and shooting with a rifle. In this relentless exchange of rifles against rocks, cameras against rifles, and now the infinity mirror of cameras turned against cameras—everything begins to fold in on itself. What will be the impact of this surveillance, and its simultaneous, echoing countersurveillance? What will that impact be here in the US, where #blacklivesmatter footage is met with police body cams?

A closer look at The thesis experience at RISD