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Review: AUTOICON: The digital body – a work by Donald Rodney

Images of Donald Rodney’s AUTOICON CD-ROM

Stephen Weller, Stuart Hall Library volunteer reviews the recent lunchtime talk: AUTOICON : The digital body

Prompted by the unique audio-visual collections available in the Stuart Hall Library and Iniva’s involvement in the intersection of art, technology, and the internet at the end of the 20th Century, I developed an interactive talk focused on Donald Rodney’s AUTOICON. An interactive CD-ROM based media work, produced in part by Iniva in 2000 but conceived by Rodney and completed by a close group of friends and collaborators following his death from sickle cell anaemia in March of 1998.

Whilst familiar with Rodney’s practice, I first learned about AUTOICON when researching for a blog post on subjectivity and the body in internet art. AUTOICON consists of a Java-based AI and neural network allowing 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. AUTOICON was conceived as a digital body – a living, evolving presence that would stand in the organic Rodney’s absence.

What I was hoping to glean from a reading of AUTOICON was how it can illuminate the process of digitalisation and the consequences it has had for our relationship to the body. I organized the discussion to consider the work within two main contexts. First in its original setting as a part of Rodney’s artistic practice and; second, projected within our contemporary moment of big data, algorithmic collection and prediction, mass machinic surveillance, and online identity construction.

AUTOICON in its Original Context

Rodney’s memorialising act of digital integration was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s project of the same name. Prior to his death, Bentham, philosopher, founder of Utilitarianism, and the inventor of the Panopticon, organised the preservation of his skeleton which has sat on display in the main building of UCL since 1850. 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?’

AUTOICON was also 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 and gender. Comparatively, AUTOICON foregrounds Rodney’s lived experience as integral to its goal in creating an active, digital manifestation of his presence, identity, and creative process.

Included within the work are memories and obituaries contributed by Rodney’s collaborators. Here, 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 post-death. Here, Rodney’s work is able to converge with contemporary meanings concerning the digital-body politic.

AUTOICON and the Contemporary Moment

Contemporary participation in the data archive can be read as a part of and a performance of the body – one that is automatically analysed, 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.

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 rules for preservation. The internet has become a site of digital mourning, with the capacity to fix certain aspects of encrypted identity in place. There is an arresting effect in death and more specifically in memorialization. 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 that creates a figure but emotion, experience, and personal recollection.

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, a loving image that is only possible as a result of its production by those who would miss him the most.

Discussions

As the talk got underway, I was thrilled – and a little nervous – to discover that Gary Stewart (Head of Multimedia at Iniva from 1995-2011) and Diane Symons (Rodney’s partner and trustee of his estate) were in attendance. Following the presentation, and after everyone had a chance to use the AUTOICON program for themselves, discussions flowed as questions were asked not just of me but of Diane and Gary’s experiences with the work and with Rodney more generally.

Gary described his and Iniva’s participation in the 80s and 90s computer art histories and digital cultures that informed a great deal of the work and ideas behind AUTOICON. After I talked about my actual, somewhat uneven and difficult experience of using the AUTOICON CD – due to its relative age and the opaque quality of its keyword-driven responses – Gary mentioned how the project was also frustrating when it was first completed but that it mirrored Rodney’s back and forth, tangential style of conversation. I explained that, for me at least, this sense of illegibility became important to my understanding of the work.

Sepake Angiama, Invia’s new Artistic Director, commented how the talk had led her to reconsider how intimacy is held onto when interfaced and distanced by screens and networks, and this fed into our discussions regarding digital death and social media memorial pages and privacy policies. Diane expressed her hesitancy to be involved in the AUTOICON project during its construction but said that she now thought of it as a success if it was still relevant to contemporary discourse and that this was a way of bringing Rodney and his work with us after his death.

I am thankful to everyone who came and it was great to meet Gary and Diane and have them involved in the discussion. It was a fantastic opportunity to share in Rodney’s work and memory with people who were close to him.

Biography

Stephen Weller is an Art History graduate living in London. His interests include playing video games, making digital art, and dance music. He hopes to pursue a PhD exploring the intersections of identity, technology, and online visual cultures.