Wien: Defining the world

by Elise Wien | 4/5/17 1:40am

I’m lost, a little, as to where I should start.

I type into Google (friend, hero): “define definition.”

Google gives me: def•i•ni•tion /defəˈniSH(ə)n/ noun (1) a statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary; (2) the degree of distinctness in outline of an object, image or sound, especially of an image in a photograph or on a screen. (2) defines (1), in that a definition draws attention to the definition of a word, takes a file to sharpen its edges and cast a light on it. Here, we see THE WORD, and just here, at this defined edge, we drop off into a zone that is NOT THE WORD. Definitions work on definitions like oceans on coastline, eroding, eroding, to specify the shore.

This weekend I went to Ingo Günther’s “World Processor,” an exhibit on view at the Hood Downtown. In the exhibit, Günther attempts to visualize big data through over 30 illuminated globes that map out different statistics: CO2 emissions, GDP, global migration, maternal death rate and “statistical challenges” (he lists suicidal tendencies, lies told per hour and extramarital affairs among the difficult-to-measure on this globe). A group of classmates and I walked around and considered how each of the globes were defined by certain statistics (or the absence thereof). In turn, our personal experiences defined which globes we saw as more important; the parts of the globes that held more definition for us.

Here is what I thought:

If the purpose of art is eliciting emotion, how is this exhibition supposed to make us feel? For the most part I feel guilty, as the U.S. dominates the globe’s tracking power, money, emissions and shrinks when it comes to hospitality or calmness. I feel lucky, I guess, to have food, internet, electricity, warmth. I feel undeserving.

I once told a boy I had a crush on him, then later found out he was in a long-term relationship with someone else. The boy invited me to lunch in what I can, in retrospect, only imagine was an attempt to make himself seem as unattractive as possible.

It came up in conversation that I was doing dramaturgical research to help a playwright imagine how to build a bunker. The play was about this plague that takes over a town, and one character is prepared with an underground bunker made out of an old storage container.

The boy nodded like he understood.

I said, “Oh, uh ... what?”

The boy told me he would consider having a bunker to keep his family safe, to filter waste and grow food in anticipation of an inevitable resource war.

Suddenly, the crush left my body with a violent speed, like a sneeze.

I told him I didn’t think a resource war was coming, not here anyway. That the U.S. would take — by force if necessary — any of the resources other countries stockpiled, the fresh water, the grain, the medicine, as well as those which hadn’t been stockpiled. Come end times, a country doesn’t need a large agricultural budget if it has the largest military spending in the world. Why grow a carrot if you could steal one from the rabbit next door? Then kill the rabbit. Then eat the rabbit, too.

Surely our country would let the whole world dry up before it let itself lose a drop.

But what do I mean, “let itself”?

“It” is a piece of land. “It” conducts no diplomacy, makes no policy decisions.

In parts of it, the resource war has already begun; in the parts that we don’t care about, it’s been raging for hundreds of years.

But back to the globe and how it should make us feel. This is a globe with its eyes closed. Mostly in the dark, it can sense the presence of land masses and bodies of water, but it doesn’t try to trace their outlines.

This globe is taking a breath, divorcing from the onslaught of data, the geopolitical complexities of its tenants. In this, the globe is lying to itself.

I had an argument with my father before I left for school. He waved me over to his office, where he was in a video call with a man whose software he was thinking of investing in. It was basically a desktop version of Google Drive that allowed for multiple windows, offline use and faster switching between applications.

THE MAN: “They did a test at PricewaterhouseCoopers and found that it accelerated productivity for each employee an average of nine hours per month.”

Later, in the car:

ME: “Maybe instead of investing in something whose end game is to increase productivity, you could do microfinancing? Or socially responsible investing?”

HIM: “Well there’s a lot to plan for. There was college, and we also have a certain amount set aside for grad school for you and your sisters, bat mitzvahs, weddings...”

I tell him I am grateful, of course, that he’s provided so much for my sister and me. We’ve never had to worry about money. This is a gift, to be sure.

I tell him that I want to see him at places other than his desk chair, in moods other than grumpy, that if it means retiring (he turns 65 this year), that could be what it takes. I tell him I am okay worrying about money if it means I get to see him happy, doing what he wants with his life.

He says, “In some respects, it’s too late for me.”

This is jarring.

It’s not a new thought, but one that’s been on my mind a lot lately: what do we sacrifice when we prioritize financial prosperity? Peter Singer has an organization that urges individuals to donate 10 percent of their income to charities — long-term giving to eradicate poverty, disease, a first world reparation, a guilt band-aid, maybe. I calculate my paycheck next year minus 10 percent. Plus 10 percent. Minus 10 percent.

I think of health problems of scarcity versus health problems of excess. Bulimia, depression. When we are so lucky to have access to good healthy food, and doctors, and dental care, we literally expel it from our systems like a foreign object. We are presented with four limbs that work and a family that loves us and all we can do is listen to Mitski and stare at a wall for hours?

This is not to say that I don’t practice self-forgiveness. This is vital. It’s just alarming. Rationally alarming, you know? This clash between the data and how we live our lives.

Lately I’ve been seeing — I’ve been making — a fair amount of art that purports to be art as or for activism, or social change, or what have you.

The issues I face with this art is that it asks everything and nothing of its viewers.

I start moving through the exhibition and it desperately makes me want to donate — to something — to eliminate the pain in my chest, begin to fill the hole of complicity, with gravel, cement, mud, the substance itself doesn’t exactly matter.

Then I get to the globe of Foreign Aid (subtitle: a map of our guilt) and that globe, with all its lines that stick out so you want to touch them —

(Start to touch.)


— does nothing to change the shape of all the others, which is to say, all these lines can coexist with such inequity (can even enforce dependence on global hegemons, in some cases), that what’s the point?

So we close our eyes and reset and take a breath because we’re never going to be able to take on continents or oceans, but we can do our own work, 10 percent at a time, maybe, in data barely discernible on a mass scale, maybe data not called data at all.

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