Methods of Ontological Remix: An interview with Kira deCoudres

Kira deCoudres is a fascinating young artist who is one of our 5CollDH fellows and a Hampshire College alum. Her fellowship project titled, Methods of Ontological Remix, is a thesis project exploring current potentials of posthumanism. Through writings, multimedia work, and an experimental lecture series, the project will demonstrate non-traditional methods of creative bodily disruption. In less than 140 characters, she describes herself as “director & cultivator of media, digital, & tech ecologies.” During this interview, we talk about many things that are pleasantly bizzarre. We start with the ontological parallels between the Contact list on our phones and the contact of a mouth touching another mouth. And by the end of the conversation, we are talking about the dilemma of the artist’s mental space which undulates between unparalleled genius and absolute stupidity. Somewhere in the middle, we mention that Hampshire College invited their first non-resident scholars in residence: plasmodial slime molds known as Physarum polycephalum. This interview was a welcome explosion to the channels of my mind that would prefer to close off paradoxes, and parallels and juxtapositions that make “possible” an even more electrifying word

Sheila: So how did you come across this ontology or what drew you to the exploration of this ontology?

Kira: Well, it was mashup of my previous interest that had accumulated during my time here at Hampshire. So I’ve always been interested in how we perceive things, the functions and the mechanisms that allow us to navigate in the world. And so when the opportunity to merge my interest in the arts and audio editing came up, I was happy to take it. I’ve always been a radio person and I always did it on the side. I take it very seriously. But it wasn’t until I became more involved in philosophies that I saw audio editing as a kind of practice of change.

Sheila: Can you talk more about that?

Kira: So I started to make connections when I was remixing audio as just something that I did for fun and realized it was a philosophical idea of putting it into action. It was representing change, especially of remixes that weren’t cleaned in my view, I tend to be interested in things like a glitch. I like when machines make errors and stutters and skip and loop over and over again. I love the loop.

Sheila: I’ve recently found myself drawn to the concept of glitches. Probably because Professor Parham has also been working with the concept. While thinking about the concept of glitch, I fell sick. And a thought came to me: Maybe sickness is a glitch.

Kira: Yes. It’s a system error.

Sheila:It is. It’s a system error.

Kira: Yes. For the same reason, I made that connection too. Like, “wait a second! glitchy machines…glitchy bodies…we are the same…?”

Sheila: Body machine, machine body. How do you deal with that tendency to philosophize machines and their parallels with bodies?

Kira: I think it can debilitate you if you let it. One of the goals of my project (which sometimes successful, sometimes not quite) has been to reframe “glitch” across biological and digital medias as a kind of art form. So that’s hard to do, right? It’s hard when you’re sick or your body isn’t doing what you want it to. It’s hard to go, “Hey, this is an artistic expression of my inner mechanism.” It’s hard to do that. It’s a break in your expectations of what you want, of what society wants from you, functionally. But that’s what I’ve been trying to bridge when I’m looking at glitch arts and remix that celebrate those kinds of near quirks and errors; I try to draw those into bodies. And so in that way, it integrates some disability studies there; embracing different identities and bodies and functions.

Sheila: So are you saying that with your project, there’s an aspect of expanding the exploration of the glitch in machines to more of the glitch in the body? And if not an aspect, at least a hope

Kira: Yes.

Sheila: Can you say more about that?

Kira: You said it perfectly.

Sheila: Really? I guess I should rephrase that into a question. How has your personal experience of glitch affected your realization of that machine-body parallel?

Kira: Actually, a lot of my project has been built around my experiences. Two large facets of my projects “Becoming Crashed” (which is about car crashes) and “Becoming Ill,” (which looks at disease) are both experiences that I’ve had. Within this project, my hope has been to make a philosophical scaffolding from itself to understand some of the changes that our body has endured.

Sheila: I’m fascinated by the changing nature of our bodies and our Selves. A few days ago, I interviewed Jocelyn Edens who works with the interface of visuality. In one of her curated works called “Codes of Conduct,” she’s basically talking about how we have embodied some gestures that are related to technology e.g swiping and scrolling. And now, instead of just being things we do on our phones, they have meaning outside. And your body that keeps those gestures, encode those gestures and so in the relationship between us and phones, we have that “code of conduct” Our conversation got me thinking more about how bodies adapt to utilizing things around them in very short periods of time. And then, it made me think I don’t even know how much code my body has accumulated over my existence, or how much our bodies have accumulated since the beginning.

 

Kira: Being human is interaction. And with any kind of interaction comes mutation. Interacting with your phone—being the example that you gave—comes with a behavioral change of swiping; of enacting a physical movement and then retaining the memory of that. In my work, that’s when I become really interested in repetition and in audio, especially the loop of audio. But experientially, it could be trauma. And so which memory accumulations and repetitions are comforting like a lullaby or something familiar like brushing your teeth? It’s a practice, it’s a habit. On the other hand, which repetitions are painful, traumatic, triggering? It’s something I haven’t found an answer to because I just can’t figure out where that line is

Sheila: Once, my friend wanted to show me something on her screen, and instead of moving the computer to face me, she swiped and she thought that the document would move to her right and shift to face me. (laughs) And that was one of the first places I’ve seen the “code” try to work outside its place of conduct. It was like her body already thought for her before her mind followed

Kira: Right. To a significant extent, I talked a little bit about that with the chapter on “Becoming Crashed.” For the project, I had to think about the relationship between our bodies and vehicles. Our flash bodies are kind of fused to this metal auto body and we’re comfortable navigating the worlds with this thing. And it’s only when we crash into something that that habit of sitting in a car and being comfortable is disrupted. All of a sudden, we are wondering how we believe that cars will arrive safely. I mean, I also find it curious that we call car crashes “accidents” even though they happen so frequently. So I think you only realize the dissonance between body and machine when your expectations and anticipations become disrupted by some sort of force, some sort of remix process.

Sheila: Do you think the introduction of these technologies is a disruption. By disruption, I don’t just mean the sexy way that “disruption” is used in millenial marketing but a disruption, like an interruption, to people’s old habits?

Kira: The introduction of any different mode, whether it be a language mode or a behavioral mode or technological mode, is diversifying of fields of existence in terms of operation. On one hand, there is a conservative way to look at it like “we need to preserve the way we are in our organic selves” and then there’s “We need as much difference as possible.” But that doesn’t mean I think the two are opposite sides of the coin

Sheila: What is your stance?

Kira: I don’t know. I ethically contradict. But I do love spectrums. I love when we have as many options as possible. And I think, my project attempts to look at the inevitable pain and the inevitable need to brace for impact of new things that will disrupt habit. So where do I stand?

Sheila: Well, you don’t have to pick a stand. It’s more like what are your thoughts, you know, how do you go back and forth between those spaces?

Kira: I think I don’t endorse becoming diseased or crashed or raped or any of these really ugly processes that change who we are in those experiences. I’m not advocating for,I’m not encouraging it. I do anticipate it though; maybe that’s part of being traumatized….looking for danger around the corner. But I figure if you can take a range of what’s happening in the world and gather as much information as possible, you can predict and potentially prepare yourself for the inevitable change.

Sheila: Right. So basically, the idea that is that our human souls won’t look for disruption that hurts but that doesn’t mean it won’t come. So how do we stay conscious in a way that doesn’t debilitate us but then be conscious enough so that we’re not totally surprised by disruptions?

Kira: I think existence in that way should be on a sliding scale where when you can, and should, extend yourself out and try to be open to taking in as much information as possible. When you get overstimulated and overwhelmed with the world, there is also very much value to being introspective and to turn again and almost turning off the outwits that allow information to come in. I think in that way, I’m constantly pulled between protection and being totally open and vulnerable.

Sheila: When you do that gesture of whipping your arm around while you say “open and vulnerable”, it reminds me of your bat picture.

Kira:Yes.

Sheila: Can you talk about how that project started

Kira: The bat project was fun among many other things, but I just had fun. I was very interested in bats. I had little radar monitors. I would go out and try to trap bats based on their sonar echolocation.

Sheila: What did you use? What equipment did you use?

Kira: Just a simple recorder. I tried to get in touch with somebody at UMass who has a whole setup and does some sort of study about bats where it’s almost like a nature radio scan for bat activity. Also in Ohio State, they have nature camps with floating drones that will hover above an area, over a pond. It’s there just to record the bats swooping down, which gives them really good high definition footage. After, they look at the footage and go, “Oh, bats are incredible! This is how we should be making aeroplanes ” And that’s biomimicry: looking to nature to build technologies that appropriate them in that way.

Sheila: Can you briefly explain what the bat project was?

Kira: Yes. I was doing a bio art residency and the only parameters for doing any project was you have to use biology in some way. So I was interested in bats, and interested in the structure of wings in addition to how bats perceive and echo locate and navigate the world. What it would mean for humans to do similar perceptual functions as bats? And I ended up using bamboo. I took a machete and sawed down bamboo, drenched it, then went to like the local butcher and got a cow stomach.

I had only two cow stomachs, but cow stomachs have four chambers and each chamber has a different texture. Looking back, I’d probably use a different part of animal organ. But this was the first time that I had been challenged to create in that way and to do something very physical and very carnal and meaty and smelly in a way. It was hot and I was working with cow stomach.

Sheila: Were you alone, doing this by yourself?

Kira: Yeah.

Sheila: Amazing. How did you get access to that?

Kira: My summer after my first year, I was interning at a radio station. Part of my job was going to a Deep Listening conference at that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. There was this woman, Pauline Oliveros who proposed this sonic meditation practice. It’s all about tuning and becoming aware of things by listening. So I was there on behalf of the radio station and that’s when I ended up meeting many influential people there, including Adam Zaretsky. He was my introduction to Bio Art. I invited him and interviewed him at the radio station and we stayed in touch and I kept following his projects. He would also send things that he knew that I was interested in. And once, he said, “Hey, if you can figure out a way to cover for airfare, you can come and be part of this bio art residency.”

Sheila: Nice

Kira: Yeah, so I saved up and went

Sheila: Do you speak Portuguese?

Kira: No.

Sheila: So how was it living in Portugal?

Kira: A lot of people speak English, but some don’t and the residency is outside of a small town so a lot of it was gesture-based

Sheila: Did you laugh a lot?

Kira: Yes.

Sheila:…when people don’t speak the same language, you tend to laugh a lot.

Kira: Oh, yeah. I was laughing most of the time there.

Sheila: That’s great. It really is wonderful. I wanna go back to Zaretsky and that interview you had because it came up in your presentation. During your lecture series, you mentioned that there was a heated conversation somewhere

Kira: Yes. So it was a really important moment for a lot of different reasons. One of them was it was the beginning of my introduction to bio art and biological tinkering, and hacking, and that kind of thing. It was my introduction to post-human philosophies and encouraging disability studies or accepting different forms even if it includes more like a human with octopus legs. It opened me up to bizarre conceptual thinking that had become crucial and the most fun part of my project is in that way. It was also important because it was at that time that the Bio art school of thought and the Transmission art school of thought, were in a room… and it was by my doing. Even though that interview took place a few years ago, it has been re-published. When I listened to it again this past year, I thought “Oh my goodness, these two schools of thought have very similar ideologies and interests and practices.”

Sheila: What would you describe as the ideology that centers both?

Kira: The celebration of transmission. The celebration of change. The ideology is getting ideas out there, sharing and networking. I do see my project situated between the two; taking ideas of pilot radio practices and biohacking. Maybe it seems unrelated, but in my eyes, they are honestly paralleled. All of moving through the world of producing through the world.

 

Sheila: I’ve been thinking a lot about the transformative moment where I found the joy of parallels and the power of juxtaposition…the opportunity to know meaning can be produced by anything placed side by side. For instance, the parallels between the word “network” and the entrepreneurial idea of networking: Going out there and networking with people ( which often leads to people sharing their contacts with each other) is in a way like sharing data. It’s like what if you have a conference where you just kissed people and then you passed saliva around, right?

Kira: That’s contacting very literally.

Sheila: Yeah, exactly. That’s contacting at a very literal sense but then with that joy of finding parallels came a fear that anything could be anything. Is it ever dangerous to say because I can find some similarity, then that means I could say something is like something else? How do I make those similes and metaphors with a knowledge that because something is like this, it doesn’t mean something is not this? Do you encounter that in your work and how do you think about that?

Kira: Perhaps this is too simplistic of an answer but it has to do with perception. It has to do with what you’re calibrated to distinguish as different versus the same. What you put together and why? It has to do with your history (or experience) with interactive things that are seen as similar or different.

Sheila: That makes sense. I wanna also bring up something that might be of interest to you. Recently, I had a conversation with the director of Hampshire’s gallery, Amy Halliday and she told me of how the gallery has invited these algae to become “scholars in residence.” Apparently, the way they network is really interesting, and efficient.

Kira: I saw great articles about that.

Sheila: Oh, really?

Kira: Hampshire College hosts Resident Algae. I’m like what?

Sheila: (laughs) I love your college

Kira: i mean it sounds silly, but then when you look into carefully , you see something there

Sheila: Exactly! Isn’t it wonderful to have opportunities to remove humans from the center of the universal existence? I feel this is a moment where I can learn that: because someone can understand the language I’m speaking doesn’t mean that I always have the best thing to say to you. And then again, if a person understands the language and misunderstands me, is that even understanding per say?

Kira: Yes, then what you’re pointing to is that how do we connect with the algae, how do we communicate with the experience (and wealth) of the knowledge and the wisdom that the algae has?

Sheila: But are we going to be able to take something useful from that wealth? Because I find that we easily humanize things to contain them as truth… Like, for instance, when talking about “Blade Runner” there’s usually a reference to the moment where the machine sheds a tear; people reference that as one of the obvious moments of the machine’s humanity. But the fact that we have to depend on the machine to shed a tear before realizing the machine is in pain is still putting our experiences at the center of existence. Are we capable of not doing that?

Kira: Yes and no. The move to deanthropocentrize— to get away from human-only practices— often involves disregarding humans completely, right? And saying, “Yeah, let disease run us into extinction and let something else come and to take these resources that we’re relying on and exploiting, using up” But it’s not ever that simple; the ethical conundrum with that is that we are technically allowing the whole entire species to die out.

Sheila: Right.

Kira: I don’t know how to deal with all these things.

Sheila: I know. It’s really hard to think about….So I suffer from stomach issues and I get these overactive bacteria who now live within me.

Kira: Yeah. Oh, so gross (laughs)

Sheila: (laughs) Exactly, it’s so gross and they just refuse to leave my system. They found a place they love and they call it their own. And it’s funny because I remember you pointing out that foreign organisms don’t come into our line of sight because they hate us. No. They’re just passing through and they’re just looking for….space? It’s like immigration to an extent; they’re just looking for a place to survive. Now, I bring this up because that little realization made me explain the pain into a less vile and vicious version of itself where I felt personally haunted.

Kira: That’s exactly how I felt with the Lyme spirochetes. I have Lyme disease and at first, I thought; “They’re literally killing me.”But then later, it became; “They’re thriving. Who am I to come before them? They’re incredible.” They’ve been around for thousands and thousands, thousands and thousands of years, who am I to come like, “You hurt me. I’m tired.”

Sheila: It’s quite comic actually. I threw a hypothesis at my friend the other day: “What if we are parasites in someone else’s stomach? What if the world is one large stomach and we’re all just parasites within it?”

Kira: Honestly, some of the people who look at climate change think that. They think we are parasites to Mother Earth. We are just like depleting everything, chopping down things without regard for the long-term global geographic national picture.

Sheila: It’s really interesting to start thinking about existence without morality.

Kira: Yes.

Sheila: Also very challenging. None of us knows right or wrong or good or bad. We’re just trying to understand “Other.” Or understanding that “Other” is worth thinking about. So what do you hope the rest of your project may become? Since it’s not thoroughly physical, what do you hope to explore with this ontological exploration? Or, what do you hope to move on to after this ontological exploration?

Kira: I would be happiest if I can take this structure that I’ve set up for exploring these kind of changes and existence and perceptions, and see that the frame of exploration is applicable to an endless amount of other experiences that I encounter.

Sheila: And what would you describe as your blueprint for exploration?

Kira: Identifying change, identifying processes (i.e the things that are at play behind change) which can be political, or mechanical. And then finally, embracing for impact.

Sheila: So to bring this conversation back full circle, to digital humanities, why did you think the 5CollDH would would be a good environment for your project to thrive within?

Kira: I’m so glad you asked this because it was a question I was asked by the Hampshire College admissions when they were interviewing me about that project. I said, “The Five College Digital Humanities are very much the people who are not just using tools and like using technology and digitizing things, but they are addressing the critical component of looking. Looking at why you’re using these technologies and how we’re using these technologies. That’s the humanities part of it. It’s that it’s not blindly or absentmindedly devouring technologies.”

Sheila: Absentmindedly is a great word. Especially at this point of the conversation where i understand that there is always an impact that must not really correlate with the intention of sharing or looking. That I can understand that things I share can also infect or affect. So it’s not just what is tangible or what is in my flesh body (to use your term) that can affect my environment or my space…and I think that’s part of the reason there can be humanities in the digital and vice versa. I love the humanities at the end of digital humanities because then it goes both ways in terms of like the human is digital and the digital is human. And there’s also the battle to find a way not to make parallels that undermine/dilute either half of that word. A battle to contain both as dealing with some kind of symbiotic tug of war.

Kira: Exactly. Well, and you put it beautifully. They inform each other.

Sheila: How was the fellowship a resource for you?

Kira: I’m gonna be totally bashful with you, but having the conversations with you have been so helpful. Sitting down and saying, “Yeah the body is weird, right?” ; having the channels open for that connection; and just knowing that other people are recognizing the same processes and using the same tools and still sharing technologies for similar ends. That’s incredibly empowering. To know that people are thinking about the use of those tools ( and not only consuming the same tools), has been validating. It has helped me feel like my work is a part of a larger project and a larger ideology of engaging and learning and sharing.

Sheila: Having ears that can hear you is such an important part of this kind of work. I always say, one of the many things any artist has to struggle with, is to go between the line of “am I crazy or am I just incredibly smart” because…

Kira: We’re both.

Sheila: Eventually, you sense a lot of both. If you’re going to survive, you sense a lot of both. If you ever think you’re just incredibly smart, you will fail because that’s egotistic. But if you think you’re terribly dumb, you’re going to be so stifled. You’re not going to create anything. So you need to find a balance. But it’s also realizing you may have already stepped over the line of genius or madness before recognizing where you are and deciding if you need to go back.

Kira: I have to carefully consider the context and spaces that I thrive in. Who’s calling me crazy? Who’s saying that I’m smart? Who’s affirming my identity, my embodiment, my navigation to the world and who’s cutting it down? For what’s worth it, I’m constantly confused and have self-doubt and undulate.

Sheila: Yes.

Kira: Undulate between feeling insecure and unsure and proud and strong.

Sheila: But that undulation is promising because if you undulate and you go through the first wave of undulating, you’ll have an experience of what it is to be down and then grow up and then come back down. So you always have some sort of hope that you could get back up but you also have some kind of caution that you probably could get down. So like undulating is a great kind of way to be.

Kira: It is. It is very much a rollercoaster and I think it can be thrilling and exciting and exhilarating and it can be scary and hard

For more information on Kira’s work, please visit here

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