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Orthogonal Methods Group (OMG)

Matters of Facts was a series of workshops, talks and screenings developed by the Orthogonal Methods Group (OMG) to explore the relationship between facts, computation, algorithms, poetics and politics. The series explored the ways in which particular forms of knowledge present themselves as part of a search for truth and/ or as a justification for particular actions in the world. This series posed questions and provided a platform for conversations on the role of mathematics, measurement, language and statistics in describing reality and shaping society, particularly in relation to the role of computerised algorithmic mediation and governance in people’s lives today.

Taking place over the course of a week, 22–25 October 2018 at Grazer Kunstverein and IZK, TU Graz Matters of Facts brought together academics and non-academics from various fields, within diverse formats and working methods. The following texts document three of the workshops that took place as part of this series.

1. Engineering Fictions #3.18 by Jessica Foley

Each Engineering Fictions session takes a word, concept or phrase as a point-of departure for interdisciplinary conversation, writing, reading and listening. EF#3.18 was devised in correspondence with the IZK’s research project The Incomputable, and took the word ‘incomputable’ as a starting point. As catalyst for the session, I had two things I wanted to seed with the group. Firstly, I wanted to consider what it feels like to be ‘incomputable,’ and secondly, I wanted to test out ways of voicing that feeling of incomputability. I wanted to use the Engineering Fictions session to help isolate instances in my own life and/or in the lives of others where I have experienced or witnessed what it is like to be ‘incomputable’.

The first example that came to mind was a fictional one, drawn from a Little Britain sketch featuring the character Carol Beer (played by David Walliams) and her catchphrase ‘Computer says no’. This catch-phrase reflects a particular attitude whereby humans working in institutional conditions seem to surrender their agency, empathy and altruism towards others to computerised information systems. I wanted to see if we could use this catch-phrase in the session to prompt thinking around the (often absurd) experience of incomputability.

The second thing I wanted to explore was ‘voice’ and how and when voice might resist, contest or exacerbate apathetic computer-says-no-like attitudes in everyday life. The issue of voice in research, particularly in science and technology research, is not often addressed, but the politics of voice has a significant role to play in the ascendency/ dominance of scientific methodology and knowledges over other forms and modes of knowledge production and dissemination, and this in turn has significant implications for society and culture.

The intention of any Engineering Fictions session is not so much to generate answers, rather the aim is shape and formulate thoughtful, embodied questioning through simple (though by no means easy) methods of conversation, reflection, improvisation and writing. The focus is upon enlarging our sense of the charge and realities of words and the work they do in the world, and to become reflective and reflexive in our own use of language, ideas and knowledge. It is nothing short of a (very gentle) cliché busting, stereotype exploding apparatus to support processes of enstrangement and apperception in small, interdisciplinary groups.

Each session develops according to five phases:
1. ATTUNING (foiling*, gathering, drinking, nibbling, meeting, sitting, waiting)
2. SEEDING (offering, proposing, thinking-out-loud, questioning, improvising)
3. CONVERSING (listening, thinking-out-loud, feeling, speculating, improvising, questioning, reflecting, laughing)
4. WRITING (constraining, responding, articulating, exploring, dreaming, enstranging)
5. SHARING (reading, listening, attuning, apperceiving)

The following people assemble around the circular table of the IZK, having laid down their bags and coats, fixed themselves coffee, fizzy water, bread sticks and other nibbly treats, and settled into their seats: Daniel Hofstadler, Joshua Varughese, Hannes Hornischer (Artificial Life Lab of the Institute of Biology, Uni Graz), Constantinos Miltiades, (Institute for Art and Media, TU Graz), Christina Simmerer (Grazer Kunstverein), Dejan Markovic (IZK, TU Graz), Linda Doyle, Tom O’Dea, Cliona Harmey, Fiona McDonald, Dennis McNulty, Fiona McDermott, Jessica Foley (Orthogonal Methods Group, CONNECT).

Jessica begins to seed the session, presenting and narrating a slideshow on the active and passive voice in research writing, and opening up discussion around the politics of voice and to consider how we might begin to ‘voice’ experiences of incomputability with greater awareness and technique.

The group responds to the ideas shared with them via the slideshow and narrative, discussion opens up and different points of view are brought into relation.

Materials: Blank Pages, Pens, People.

Writing Constraint #1: Popcorn (abbreviated)
A round-table group exercise for generating a pool of vocabulary and producing collaborative writing, adopted from theatre group Wreckio Ensemble, NYC (www.

Each person is given a blank page. In response to the ideas seeded by the catalyst of the session, each person in the group writes a word in the centre of their individual blank page. Next, each person passes their sheet to the person on their left (or right, you decide), who then adds a word to the page in response to the word(s) they read written there. The aim here is to make fast associations, to add words spontaneously and without too much thought, like popcorn popping. Pass the pages around for two or three cycles until each page is filled with associative words. These words are a pool from which each person can draw on in their writing. Once each person has their original individual page returned to them, the next writing exercise is introduced.

Writing Constraint #2: Anonymous Anecdotes (of Incomputability)
Each person takes a blank page of paper and a black pen. In block capital letters, each person writes an anecdote or instance or example of when they have experienced or witnessed a moment of incomputability. When have you come against or witnessed the ‘computer-says-no’ attitude? What were the circumstances? What was at stake? How did it feel? Once everybody has written at least one anecdote on their page, they lay it face down on the floor at the edge of the room. The pages should be laid out so that everyone forgets where they put their page down.

Writing Constraint #3: Epistolary (Letters of Incomputable experiences)
From the line of anonymous pages containing the anecdotes, each person selects one page, making sure it’s not their own, and reads it. Then, based on the anecdote they have just read, each person composes a letter to someone (real or fictional) whom they think should know about this particular incomputable anecdote. It could be a letter of complaint, of confession, of friendly warning, of alarm, of idle chat.

Once all the letters are written, the group comes out of the process of writing and begins to turn towards listening. Whomever feels willing to reads aloud the letter they have composed. Those who do not read their letters offer other thoughts on the ideas shared and the process undertaken. The letters and written materials produced are gathered up by the catalyst as possible seeds for future writing and conversation. If people wish to keep their writing and notes, they are welcome to, and are invited to send on any of the writing they might wish to commit to the Engineering Fictions glossomatic.

2. Diagram Reading Group by Dennis McNulty

Diagrams act as important mechanisms for storing, transmitting and examining concepts and information. In this sense, they could be described as 'cognitive prosthetics'. Diagrams are commonly used in many fields of research, especially in the sciences and engineering. The Diagram Reading Group (DRG) uses a close reading of diagrams as a means by which to engage with disciplinary norms and biases. The DRG engages with questions such as:

What is a diagram?
What are diagrams for?
How do diagrams work?
How is space represented?
How is time represented?
How are processes represented?
How are relationships represented?
Is the diagram legible to the uninitiated?
Are there disciplinary standards relating to diagrams?
Are there standard protocols for creating or reading diagrams?
How are diagrams similar and dissimilar to language?
Can we think about a taxonomy of diagrams?

As with the more traditional humanities-style reading groups, the DRG provides a platform for discussion and interpretation. Perspectives are exchanged. Assumptions are challenged. Further questions emerge.

A room conducive to conversation.
A laptop and projector.
Enough chairs for all the participants.
Some refreshments.

It should be noted that what follows are guidelines. The DRG is concerned with things that are 'hidden in plain sight' such as norms and biases. Its goal is to create a situation that supports a conversation that might reveal these latent aspects of familiar visual codes. There are no hard and fast rules as to how this might be achieved but the tips below have been garnered through practical experience and as such, may be of some use.

The DRG seems to work best with a group composed of people drawn from different disciplines. If it is possible to assemble a group composed of researchers working on a variety of topics, prospective participants should be asked in advance to choose a diagram that is significant for them in relation to their work, one they would be interested in discussing at the DRG. If the group is more homogeneous, participants should be asked to choose a diagram from outside their field but which is nonetheless significant for them in their research. With the goal of the session in mind, the most important thing is that each participant chooses a diagram they have a relationship with and are invested in.

Each participant should send a copy of their chosen diagram to the organiser in advance. Other than this, the participants do not need to do any preparatory work. If participants send more than one diagram it’s up to the organiser to make the call as to whether to include them all or make a selection.

It’s a good idea to provide drinks and snacks to create a friendly atmosphere. Once all of the participants have arrived, the organiser makes a brief introduction, welcoming them and setting out the form the meeting will take.

The diagrams are projected one by one in a random order beginning with the diagram proposed by the organiser. The participant who has the chosen the projected diagram explains it to the group. From a practical point of view it is helpful to find a way to clearly indicate which specific aspects of the diagram are being discussed to avoid potential misunderstandings. If the participants are comfortable to stand beside the projection and point to specific parts of the diagram as they discuss it, this can be helpful. Otherwise, a laser pointer can be useful.

Following this brief description, the other participants are then free to comment on any aspect of the diagram or ask the diagram-presenter questions to clarify any aspect of their description. Typical jumping off points for the conversation include: the diagram’s form, the degree to which it resembles previously discussed diagrams or deals with similar material in a different way, the ways in which the linguistic and visual elements interact or differences in interpretation. The questions laid out in the first section of this text might also act as useful prompts.

It’s up to the organiser to decide when to transition to the next image. Often the discussion around a particular diagram will tail off naturally. The main and most useful effect of ordering the diagram sequence randomly is that participants are relieved from any pressure and/or anxiety that might be associated with the countdown to presenting their diagram. Ideally, the group should have the opportunity to discuss at least one diagram chosen by each participant. The organiser should keep this in mind in terms of monitoring the amount of time spent discussing each one.

For the organiser, it’s worth keeping the DRG's goal in mind as the session progresses. This should guide all of their choices. If possible, they should ask questions that act to gently reveal norms or biases. If the DRG participants are drawn from a mix of disciplines the DRG can also encourage interdisciplinary discussion. The diagrams act as catalysts for discussion. They may be significant in their own right but in this context their role is to act as a door to collective self-reflection.

3. Logic Gate Session by Tom O’Dea

Trying to develop and algorithm that describes the basic steps of a workshop highlights both the similarities by which each works and the difficulty of describing cleanly the messy, contingent and human ways knowledge is produced. The part that is not easily defined is the part that is created in the relationship between each participant and each other, with the group, the context, the tiredness, hunger, anxiety, comfort, familiarity, contentment. Trying to find an algorithm or diagram to define the functioning of such complex group relations is endlessly complex – it is not only difficult to compute within the digital machines of computers but it is just as hard to diagram and to describe in conversation or on paper.

Algorithms for Graz
Function discuss(thing) RETURNS END
Function sort(thing)
Function display(thing)
Function write(thing)
Function read(thing)
thing workshop
thing participants REQUIRES workshop
thing participant REQUIRES participants
thing group REQUIRES participants
thing algorithm
thing diagram
thing text
thing voice
thing event
function Participants()
DO sort(participant)
IF participants
function EngineeringFictions ()
DO workshop.Participants()
DO discuss(voice)
FOR participants
Function wordlist
DOONCE participant.text = DO write(text)
DO write(text)
DO sort(text)
IF text = participant.text
DO event.text = write(event)
DO sort(event)
DO letter.text = write(letter)
FOR participant FROM participants
DO discuss(letter)
DO discuss(workshop)
function DiagramReadinggroup ()
DO workshop.Participants()
DO discuss(diagram)
FOR particpants
DO display(diagram)
DO discuss(diagram)
DO discuss(workshop)
function LogicGateDiagram ()
DO workshop.Participants()
DO discuss(algorithm)
DO group = sort(participants)
FOR group
DO sort(participants)
DO discuss(algorithm)