Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

Enigma Symbiotica

Enigma Symbiotica is a multi-year project on the enigmatic riddle of our symbiosis with increasing technologized modes that are rapidly accelerating our demise. In this video, I begin to crack the code of the ideology of globalized neoliberal techno-capitalism, a modernist project that extends colonial violence. I want to agitate, hack and glitch the contemporary ‘Cult of the Techno-Logic,’ to infect others with a renewed Refusal to collaborate in their own destruction by generating a differential, creative imaginary for our shared future.

I lived in the Bay Area of California until recently, and due to my proximity to Silicon Valley, and in the name of research, I willingly subjected myself to the outrageously hubristic gatherings, conferences and trade fairs of the emerging technology sector. I was repeatedly exposed to an augmented rhetoric reifying the most violent elements of the modernist project. Speech performatively revolved around ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation,’ while practices deeply extended historic and present day colonial violence and Enlightenment progress narratives that embed refuted concepts of Western superiority. It would have been funny, except, rather than an extremist fringe, these mostly sincere participants are creating the technology that runs our world.

As was most visible in the deeply unethical biocolonialism of the ‘Human Genome Diversity Project,’ this sector obfuscates practices of brutal exploitation, extraction, and exclusion. The militarization of artificial intelligence, robotics and synthetic biology; the growing ecological crises caused by industrial processes; the further shuttering and criminalization of activism that is now subject to a technologized panopticon of totalizing surveillance; the increasing virtualization and subjugation of labor; and the exploitation of every arena of resource extraction around the world by globalized capital emerge from a techno-logic that provides the conditions for rapid climate change, species die off, and the paralyzing spectre of the sixth extinction.

I want to glitch this system, and with this video am launching a multi-year project titled Enigma Symbiotica–a series of live performances, interactive electronic installations, digital works, inventive workshops, artists talks, presentations, open-source interventions, DIY engagements–an extended dialogue about the development of technology going forward.

In Enigma Symbiotica I connect concepts of the enigma and symbiosis to unpack the puzzling and contradictory way that humans seek increasing technologized interactions with the world in ways that are manifestly accelerating our demise. An enigma can be defined as something puzzling, inexplicable, contradictory, or difficult to understand. It can contain a hidden meaning, be a riddle, or provide speech that obscures. Symbiosis is most often defined as ‘a close relationship between two organisms from different species’ in order to ensure survival. Symbiosis is often seen as beneficial, but can also be parasitic, to the point where one member benefits while the other is actually harmed, killed or obliterated.

My initial foray into this subject is through the Enigma Machine, a cryptographic machine used by the German military in WWII to encrypt and decrypt their secret communications. Developed for commercial use by German engineer Arthur Scherbius in 1923, by 1926 it was being adapted for military use by the Nazis. The German military continually increased complexity by adding more rotors and wheels and eventually a plugboard. In short time, the machine was able to generate 159 quintillion possible permutations per message, making it increasingly difficult to decrypt or crack the code. In spite of this, in 1938 Polish mathematicians had cracked the code of the Enigma Machine with a process they named the ‘bomba.’ The complexity of the machine continued to increase, and the methods the mathematicians had devised became obsolete. At this point, they shared their work with codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England. There, Turing further developed the ‘bomba’ into an electromechanical ‘bombe’ machine that could again crack the code.

In this project I am following the work of the Polish mathematicians and Turing to crack today’s code of our symbiosis with technology and the underlying ideology of globalized neoliberal techno-capitalism. Like the code of the Enigma machine, the code of ideology is infinitely resurrected, and must be cracked and deciphered anew again and again.

In the video I reference the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) synthetic biology project BioDesign, publicly revealed in their declassified 2010 budget (the actual budget line is shown in the video). News headlines at the time reflected alarm about the creation of new, synthesized life forms. Wired Magazine commented on the problematics of disrupting evolution (Drummond 2010) and Popular Science reacted to the potential for cross contamination, new hybrids and wide spread global die off (Starr 2011). Within a framework of extensive investment in emerging technologies, DARPA is investing heavily in synthetic biology. In 2010 they gave us BioDesign, in 2012 they created the Living Foundries: Advanced Tools and Capabilities for Generalizable Platforms and Living Foundries: 1000 Molecules programs (Pallotta n.d.). By 2014 they had introduced the Biological Robustness in Complex Settings program (Building the Foundation for Future Synthetic Biology Applications with BRICS 2014) and the full Biological Technologies Office (DARPA Launches Biological Technologies Office 2014). This acceleration in the synthesizing of bio material to create brand new, novel, alien life forms that have never existed before on Earth for the sole purpose of increasing the efficiency of killing existing life forms demands new commitments beyond our own grief.

In the video I also reference bionic bugs or beetle cyborgs, and biobotic processes of inserting implants into the living pupae of insects. The Integrated Bionic Microsystems Laboratory of North Carolina State University developed Early Metamorphosis Insertion Technology (a comprehensive diagram of this process is available here) to couple or fuse living biological organisms with electronics. Insect-machine interfaces are the new “mobile information gatherers” (Alper Bozkurt 2009, 1728) and the money, again, is provided by DARPA, specifically “the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (DARPA HI-MEMS) Program.” (Alper Bozkurt 2009, 1727) I also reference Long Range Acoustic Devices that have been used by police on activists in Pittsburgh, Oakland, Chicago, and further.

In the video, I share my decoding system, a new ‘bomba’ potentiating ways to think and do radicality in this environment. I am providing a diagram here:

Praba Pilar, decoding system

In my performance work, I am experimenting with chaotic, liminal experiences bordering on incomprehensibility and unintelligibility. These arise from code-switches on ideology I am developing: Infectious Refusal and Disruptive Poesis. Infectious Refusal uses psychic violence to refuse the call of interpellation, and invokes a new linguistic environment that shifts normative discourse into Anzaldúa’s borderlands. Disruptive Poesis glitches and hacks ideology to rupture the smooth operations of continuing colonial violence. In the video, I share two recent experiments. The first is an excerpt from a live performance of the Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno, which names the Cult of the Techno-Logic. The second is an excerpt from a live performance of BOT I, an autobiographical permutation on what it means to be implicated. In these and other works I want to provide an arena for collective experiments in subjective border crossing, to extend methodologies of resistance to technological determinism.

We–the hapless, destructive, world-ending celebrants, hopelessly trying to stay up to date, constitute the Cult of the Techno-Logic. Our reverential absorption in technophilia, obscurant of a brutal necrosis, is leading to domination and death for the majority of life on Earth. Can we break the code, dump the cult and create a differential imaginary of culture–one that nurtures an autonomous subjectivity that can tend, inhabit, and dwell on Earth?

Works Cited

Alper Bozkurt, Student Member, IEEE, Robert F. Gilmour, Jr., Ayesa Sinha, David Stern, and Amit Lal, Member, IEEE. 2009. “Insect–Machine Interface Based Neurocybernetics.” IEEE Transactions On Biomedical Engineering 56 (6).

Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. 2014. “DARPA Launches Biological Technologies Office.” April 1. Accessed 2016.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 2014. “Building the Foundation for Future Synthetic Biology Applications with BRICS.” July 29. Accessed 2016.

Drummond, Katie. 2010. “Pentagon Looks To Breed Immortal ‘Synthetic Organisms, Molecular Kill-Switch Included.” Wired Magazine, February 10. Accessed January 2015.

Pallotta, Dr. Barry. n.d. “Program Information on Living Foundries.” Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. Accessed 2016.

Starr, Karla. 2011. “What Could Possibly Go Wrong: Immortal Micro-Organisms Just Implement a Nice Kill-Switch, Then Everything’ll Be Fine.” Popular Science Magazine.