Flexibility, Unlearning, Movement, and Thinking with the Writer-Artist: A Conversation with Nora N. Khan
Shelby Shaw (MFA D+M 2022)
Shelby Shaw (MFA D+M 2022)
Nora N. Khan has been a crown jewel in the curriculum for many Digital + Media graduate students working on their written theses. Her critical theory and writing courses have given form and detail to the often amorphous identity of D+M works. Nora brings a world of insight to her teaching: she is a prose writer and critic, the 2021 Editor-in-Residence for Topical Cream, the first guest curator for The Shed (2020), and she writes on digital visual culture and emerging technology for publications such as Rhizome (where she was a longtime editor), Artforum, Art in America, Mousse, The Brooklyn Rail, and 4Columns, and for exhibition catalogues and artist books as well.
I had the pleasure of taking Nora’s Critical Theory and Artistic Research class this spring, a requirement for all D+M first-years, which precedes her Thesis Writing course with second-years in the fall. We met via Zoom on a spring Saturday morning to discuss her approach to writing pedagogy at an art institution. Nora also selected the excerpts here from the 2021 D+M graduate theses to showcase their vast array. This interview is a close reading of pedagogy and, for us at v.1 and in D+M, a thank you to Nora both for her contributions to the rapidly changing fields of digital and technological culture and for the support she has given to her students who have in turn become part of those fields.
SS: Nora, how did you start teaching critical writing at an art institution?
NNK: I had been a critic for about ten years before I came to RISD. Some time ago, I taught writing as an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had an approach to teaching writing to writers, which changed as I engaged (as an editor and curator) with artists, who are often writing about their practice. Criticism and writing are integral to my own understanding of what artistic practice is. I understand artistic practice in part as a conversation between an artist and writer. I also work with artists as writers engaged with the world. The artist creates a critical or fictional space through writing, which in turn forms an atmosphere or a lens onto their work. Through it, I can enter into a dialogue with them.
At RISD and at a lot of art institutions, there’s a tension between craft and making on one hand and writing on the other. There can be this very traditional attitude of “make first and ask why later.” While people can bring a range of approaches, some more critical and some more form- and results-oriented, to teaching in this field, for me, making and writing, making and thinking, are inextricable. I try to bring that ethos to teaching both writing and theory. To keep making and critical thinking separate is not a tenable pedagogical position, given the world and art world students are entering. It’s crucial to be able to position your work and speak about its ideas and relate them to a wider field of inquiry. It’s important to engage with readers and viewers of art who are considering the articulated ideas, the text, just as much as the experience of the work. Folks are less interested in having a work of art just beam down implied meaning at them without context. They really want to have insight into how the work was made, be part of the experience, and this allowance makes community and narrative and conversation. I find that artists who refuse to talk about their work, or resist having any writing, even hidden, about their work, tend to not get to plug into vital critical conversations in which their work could exist.
Also, without a suggested theoretical context, your work kind of floats in a void, open to misinterpretations. Without an understanding of the deeper critical issues that one’s work engages with, the work can tend to recycle or erase or repeat arguments that have been made many times before. This is especially important in work that engages with technology. One can recycle tired positions that have been theorized and explored very well. I’ll see, for example, the false duality that the physical and the digital are completely separate spaces—one more “real” than the other—surface from time to time. One might see a lot of fetishizing of mastery of technological tools without critical context. But it is impossible to use a technological tool, a piece of software, within an artistic practice, and define that use as separate from the critical reading and understanding of its (usually military) origins, the constructed storytelling that’s embedded it as “just a tool” in culture. This could be summarized as “a tool is never just a tool,” which, as you know from our Theory class, we deconstruct slowly over many weeks. A tool is its story, a tool is its making, a tool is all the different perspectives and feelings one has about the tool.
SS: Can you talk a bit more about how you synthesize the reading of theory with the writing of theory in your teaching at RISD?
NNK: We flow back and forth between theory and writing. In D+M specifically, since the grads are often experimenting, breaking, glitching, and looking at the conceptual foundations (of seeing, of mapping, of modeling) embedded within their tools, it becomes essential to think really hard about the fifty or sixty years of computation and software theory preceding their specific engagement. In their critical use of software and technology, each student is engaging directly with the most pressing issues of our time. I can’t imagine how this work can be done without a dive into the history and critical thinking that has been invested in this field, which continues to evolve. At the same time, in art-tech departments across the country, it’s common to find criticality is often erased, or effaced, by the techno-utopian or techno-positivist language that is so part of the narrative of emerging technologies. Unwittingly, without a critical stay, a bulwark, or moat, that tendency can creep into a department as well. Critical theory is the last line of defense! [laughs]
In D+M, I’ve noticed that finding language collectively about theory, within the cohort, activating theoretical ideas in the conversation itself, is essential. We read theory, but it isn’t dead. It lives; it should be activated to think about the classroom itself, its power dynamics, surveillance and capture enacted over Zoom. What’s really vital and thrilling, as a teacher, is the conversation that emerges between us in deconstructing a text, that is ongoing, open, subject to revision. That collective wrestling and experimentation with interpretation in our Theory class continues into the Thesis Writing class. Writing in this department is so exciting for me for this reason: in digital (plus) media, much ekphrastic, evaluative, and critical language is still being formed. Artists narrate their handmade synthesizers or their sighting of emerging psychological trends in experimental media. The language is nascent, wrapping around the work. So the conversation around art at the intersection of art and technology (that dreaded phrase!) is often defined by artists. Critics listen carefully to digital and computational artists talk about their work, its significance. They are following artists’ lead.
SS: Is there any writing among D+M students that stands out in this way—in charting new territory or new language?
NNK: Each D+M student, in their way, takes up the challenge of charting new territory. They engage seriously with the process of experimenting in finding language, making for a slow accrual of sharp images and metaphors that emerge from their practice. In my first semester teaching, three years ago, Win Liewpairat (D+M 2019) wrote on haunting, machine learning, and Indonesian ghost stories. This was an incredible thesis that wove history, cultural narrative, and hauntology with cutting-edge critique of machine learning and how it’s used across cultural contexts. That was my introduction to D+M and the wild writing folks are willing to do, and the wildness practices engaged with technology generate. Some are thinking about how to convey the logic of predictive algorithms, or the ways in which imprecise data determine one’s memory and understanding of the truth of a single event. Some, like Zongxian Huang, use the writing to systematize and sort through the “art game” of the MFA program itself, and what a creative practice in this space means.
Others define precise fictional worlds, generated through their explorations of the glitches and failures of technology and automation. Take Kat Jarvinen’s incredible depiction of a kind of electronic waste facility, haunted by a feral dog generated through a fever dream of spam e-mails and digital trash. Or Zhanyi Chen, collaborating earnestly with rain, with clouds, indulging in the imprecision of the process. Writing in this space is not just critical analysis. Critical ideas bury themselves in narrative and poetic form. A work about algorithms can also be a work about one’s parents. This thesis writing is most about the artist defining the terms of engagement with their work and adding layers of complexity. It’s storytelling, it’s juxtaposition of artistic research with an imaginary, with an affective space one is trying to locate. I’m thinking of Ollie Rosario’s thesis here, in which a practice that can be described as creating handmade instruments is tied to a desire to locate the unhearable. Our engagement with technological artistic practices is deeply personal, deeply emotional, and deeply rooted in personal history. How we see, how we name, how we orient, and how we model ourselves in the world all come through in the writing.
SS: I’m curious if changes in technology over the years that you’ve been teaching have changed how you approach your syllabi and engagement with students’ critical writing about, or involving, technologies. Have you needed to stay on top of trends in tech to keep up with each new cohort that comes into D+M, or does that learning come from the students in the moment? Even though we work across a vast array of modes and mediums, we have a lot of overlapping concerns and interests given the shared fields in which we’ve situated our work.
NNK: That’s an excellent question. I’m always keeping an ear open to how the discourse is evolving and am keen to bring that change into the space of critique. That’s my practice. I’m moved by how discourse within criticism, or within our dealing with the technological, can emerge and travel across contexts or follow a pattern—there are cycles of discourse that repeat, that are actually quite predictable—or discourse can kind of close off. For example, a field like AI ethics has developed in the past five to seven years, starting within experimental critical tech spaces and then moving into academic discourse and now coming into a lot of common discussion around the ethics of the database or racist, gendered AI that reifies the worst aspects of the social. In my own editorial practice I’m thinking about how it’s not enough for Microsoft and Google to have an AI ethics panel or collective while they are still in service to refining AI to become better at serving late capital. A true AI ethics committee, as some critics argue, would dismantle the company altogether.
Another trend I see is in students working with machine learning, for example using RunwayML to produce a set of images. I see that in my Graphic Design and Industrial Design students at RISD, too. In D+M though, we can’t just use the program, we need to have a serious conversation about what these images mean. It’s not enough that the tool is “interesting” or “useful.” We must evaluate the significance of this model and its aesthetic values. We might look at the work of artists like Anna Ridler or Casey Reas, who articulate each step of how they design a machine learning model in an accessible, unpretentious way. A lot of the language around AI and generative software is being figured out collectively. Really evaluating the significance of its use is, I think, my role as a critic. Why are we doing this, and with what terms do we evaluate it?
In terms of tools changing, I get a lot of my information from my own switching between platforms. For a long time I would engage with critics on Twitter, and then I moved on to Instagram, where people share many information carousels, and now I see a lot of these critical communities moving to Discord and other self-defined forums. I find myself in a lot of Discords, talking to other critics and artists. Really great thinkers about technology are always moving into some other peripheral community, and I move on alongside people whose ideas I respect. But I don’t want to be caught in one critical or pedagogical bubble anywhere.
So, as a critic as well as a teacher, I have my ear to things outside, and then I start to see patterns in critique. Where a conversation closes, where there’s a critical pause, my role often is to keep opening the discussion up. The critic’s role is to be a somewhat insistent person in the room who doesn’t let the circle close. They ask why the work should be made, a question that prevents resolution, that unthreads things again. It’s vital to have someone, ideally many people, doing this work, to generate new conversation, debate, discourse.
SS: Technology’s evolution, depending on how you define it, can be traced back thousands of years. While for specifically digital and computational technology the history is not so long, it is pretty dense and varied, depending on where you look, who you speak to, and who’s left out. How do you juggle the histories of this field with the rapidly changing discourse around contemporary critical thinking on technology?
NNK: This balance really came up for me when I taught my first class, History of Media Art, in the fall of my first year at RISD. I struggled with the idea of repeating a media art canon given the critical debates pushing for more inclusion, more references, more genealogies and origin stories. I came from ten years of practice with media scholars and critics and artists responding to their moment. My understanding of media art history comes from seeing the questions we’re asking now as quite old. That’s something that an artist’s or writer’s approach to digital media affords outside of an academic canon. I recognize that history is always being rewritten and retold. Claire Evans’s book Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet is one of many examples of popular criticism reframing the origins of this technology as communally based. Moving away from the hero’s narrative of a few great men who formed a few great companies, Evans highlights women programmers who didn’t get their due and communities that made the Internet we know possible. As the founding lore of Silicon Valley and the military origins of most of the tech we use today are better contextualized through critical, decolonial, and feminist threads of study, a fifty- to seventy-year-old history is being actively rewritten.
So, I think of this history shifting through the lens of artistic practice. We are, for example in our Theory class, learning about the history of seeing, going back some 3,000 years. We’re thinking of the drone’s eye as the god’s eye, as a technological seeing that manifests methods of mapping and an illusion of cartographic objectivity, across time. I don’t know if that is necessarily a “historical line” of pedagogy, but I try to relate history through the stories of what is happening in this moment. This is one way to see history as something that is in flux and changing. I look to earlier generations of artists grappling with similar issues. Today, we’re talking about technology being controlled by five major corporate players. Artists like Gretchen Bender or Tony Conrad, starting in the 1970s, were looking at the same questions in relationship to television and surveillance. We can learn from their artistic practice of experimentation and conversation and community building, addressing these questions in a wider space with the public.
There are patterns to the questions “we” ask about technology, which one can model over time, in part because the underpinning models of technology have been replicable across time. Historical narratives start to repeat and fold in on themselves, creating a Groundhog’s Day of questions: how to evade surveillance ,and how to grapple with models and predictive regimes that determine our life possibilities. There’s a reason these crises repeat: it’s because the underlying ideology of such technologies is often fairly static. This repetition changes our sense of time and progress, and of whether we’re moving forward on these issues. Emily Bright’s fictional world and script about the Silicon Valley cowboy—a collapse of previous generations of cowboys with resurgent, unchanging techno-positivist rhetoric—is a perfect capture of this cycle. Songan Kyung’s game world, its script around an algorithmically generated conspiracy, feels both of this moment and of many paranoiac moments before.
SS: Can you talk about how the written thesis actually operates on the ground for D+M students?
NNK: Sure. Thesis writing at RISD carries a lot of weight and intimidation with it. I wanted to open up the process so it wouldn’t feel suffocating. When I started, I met students I had not known in their first year. There was a lot of anxiety around the writing, especially when writing had not been much respected or integrated into their studio practice. Yet they had real trouble talking about their work and their thinking in an accessible and interesting way. The connection there is clear. That’s why I started to position the Theory & Artistic Research class as a runway into the Thesis Writing class—so that it wouldn’t be such a shock to the system. Ideally writing needs to be worked in from the very beginning of an MFA program. I don’t think it should be dumped on students in their final spring. When writing is not part of one’s day to day, it becomes built up as this awful theoretical, looming thing. Now, in our Theory class, we produce a rough research book of both free writing and visual research, so the thesis feels way more manageable. It’s like, I’ve made a book. I just need to edit this down or revise its core questions.
I have found it key to work in developing a sense of ownership over one’s writing. This is to counterbalance bad experiences with writing, or the teaching of writing. Folks have bad vibes around writing. They remember punishing twenty-page research papers about one topic in a very specific form of scholarly, academic prose that conveys Authority. I think of artists’ writing, which is of course not new, as so very, very different. It is living, it is active. It is a place where artists get to write about their ideas in progress, in flux, unformed, and slowly taking form. This lends itself more to experimental, even free-form writing. I see students get more comfortable, claiming, yes, I’m writing through my thinking. I’m writing through my critical context; I’m writing through my position. And this writing is and should be constantly shifting. It’s not always about forming an official position and defending one’s practice. Take Nicola DiFusco’s writing, which embraces ambulatory practice and meme-like doubt and dark humor to unseat their critical arguments even as they put them down to the page.
So, it’s important that the style is open, that one can choose fiction or prose or criticism or a mix of all these things, and that the open style always works in concert with one’s practice. Take Xinyu Li, narrating trips to her family’s ancestral village to locate the source of her figurative nightmares. Or Thomas Brett, who writes beautifully about the process of locating a void in the virtual worlds they construct. Or Hannah Suzanna, looking at decomposition through machine learning systems, algorithmic prediction, tarot, and personal history, and her research into a conservation-focused cemetery. Incredible layering. In Theory we read a lot of other writers who write about the digital and the technological in different styles. For example, Jena Osman, in Motion Studies, writes poetically about the algorithmic. Often it’s not even clear what her subject is; it’s very oblique, but you get her argument through these wanderings. We also read science fiction, like the prose of Octavia Butler. In the Thesis class this last fall we read Donna Haraway, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Clarice Lispector. I would do short readings at the beginning of class as people would free-write while listening to these great women thinking about many different things.
We read our work aloud a ton. There’s this intense, close peer-review relationship. One’s relationship to the writing comes to life when you have someone else reading your work lovingly and closely week to week. It’s about honoring each other’s work. I’m not embarrassed to say it’s a class about falling in love with your ideas. Not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that elevates the value of one’s ideas and the value of not knowing as well. It’s a place where being sure or being unsure is okay. You can say out loud: I’m working through these ideas. Ultimately you create a space where your interpretation of the world and your story and your voice and why you make work becomes grounded. You lay out the field and territory in which to continue work. I think of the writing as therapy, too. Important, in this year!
SS: What about the practical matters of editing and designing, of producing a polished book that will live on in the public realm, and doing this most likely for the very first time?
NNK: It’s a compressed class in which you develop a piece of polished writing produced through three drafts over three months. I edit very closely, as if it’s a work that’s to be published professionally. The edits are quite heavy, which can be surprising for some, but this is a way of engaging seriously with the work. I’m delighted if students take my comments seriously and incorporate them into their own edits, but I also have to leave space. I guess I most want to encourage rhetorical ways of thinking about one’s practice. What is the experience you want to create around your work? How do you think about your audience and how they are thinking? I find that students, through the process of writing, almost always become more appreciative of writing. Not everyone is a fan of writing, which is fine, but most feel a lot of ownership over their work at the end, and excitement and confidence.
The book design is also really critical, and this is something I hope departments outside of Graphic Design could try to support students better with. Students should be thinking about how their work is translated into book or website form as they’re writing. The book and the writing should live beyond the library—it must in this day and age! Book design catalyzes the writing once people can visualize, “Okay, this is how this passage looks in a book, and this is where it sits in relation to images of my work.” Students are often doing this work alone in the spring, which I think should change. This is my one critique.
SS: How have the D+M cohorts you’ve taught changed your approach to teaching, if at all?
NNK: I’ve learned a great deal about teaching from the students. I learned to teach writing by watching other writers teach writing. In an MFA Writing program, the workshop setting is sacred. You close read each other’s work like it is the most important writing you’ll read that week, and you write detailed letters to each other. But discussions with writers are often quite different because they have a different aim for their writing. In teaching artists’ writing, I found I really had to slow down. A practice was emerging. I had to figure out what one artist’s writing style is and hear what their voice is trying to be. A huge part is taking myself out of it, taking my ego out of it, which is a bit different from writers teaching writers—that’s a lot of big egos teaching big egos.
I have learned that artists’ writing needs to be open in a way other than stylistic: it needs to stay open to the ongoing changes in the work. So even if I fall in love with someone’s argument early in the semester, if the work is changing, the writing has to change in relation, and I also have to move with the change. Parts that were central in the drafting process at the beginning might end up fading into the background, couched in a footnote or an appendix. I think here of Meghan Surges’s writing; Meghan closed her thesis writing with a metaphor of false beacons and the history of the dioptric lens, which came out of her semester of careful writing on surveillance and the police state. I couldn’t predict that; the passage then drove her thesis making.
Overall, I think my understanding of pedagogy has really shifted hard from traditional approaches, from this top-down punitive approach to writing to one that’s about flexibility and unlearning and movement and thinking with the writer-artist. It’s about abandoning this idea of a right or wrong way, about listening to the students’ language, listening to the world they want to evoke, hearing it, really being in it, and never saying things like, “I don’t understand this” or “I don’t know what you’re trying to do.” It’s my responsibility to try to hear what’s being said, to sit in that world and then give informed feedback in relation. That’s why I see students as a community of peers. It really changes everyone’s approach to the writing when we’re all thinking of each other as peers rather than “here’s a body of knowledge and how things should be done” being passed down. I’m very grateful for this way of thinking and writing together.
SS: And we’re very grateful for you. Thank you, Nora, for your teaching and for talking about it so thoughtfully today.
Shelby Shaw is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY and Providence, RI, whose work critiques modes of ontology through analogue and digital interfaces.
Nora N. Khan is a critic, editor, and curator, focused on art, technology, with a focus on the politics of software. She is on the faculty of Rhode Island School of Design, in Digital + Media, teaching critical theory, artistic research, writing, and technological criticism.