Evil twin; using technical critical practice to create a disobedient object.

A ‘disobedient object’ subverts the material or functional qualities of a familiar object in order to communicate a particular, often political, message. Typically, these objects are dopplegangers of everyday/ubiquitous items (the clock, the bra). A ‘disobedient object’, a trickster twin, uses its appearance of ubiquity to belie its radical intentions, while acknowledging the original object’s existing web of relations.

‘Disobedient objects’ may be badly behaved in that they do not perform their function as expected. Or else they may behave in exactly the way they were intended; but are used in a subversive context – i.e. as a tool of disobedience. Often made in resistance to an established process or system, the disobedient object’s objecthood sets useful boundaries for it’s maker/artist. By imposing a limitations – insisting the object is physical – its creator is forced to distill the message to a pithy, memorable phrase.

As the disobedient object is often to a reaction to a systemic condition, the ideal space for the object to be found is in the space where the symptoms of the condition are also observed. For example, an object commenting on conditions of working life, would be found in the workplace rather than in an art institution or gallery context.

Using technical critical practice, the conceptualisation of disobedient object can evolve through the scrutiny of an authoritative or political process. I attempted this recently with colleagues. We began by choosing to interrogate the online status icon – a digital artifact which lets an individual’s contact know they are online and indicates whether or not they are available to talk. Once we had scrutinised the technical, discursive and social aspects of this artifact, we then dreamt up our own version of its naughty twin.

Mapping of the social, technical and discursive aspects of an online status icon.
Example of Facebook chat online icon – the green dot, with contact details obscured.

The most significant aspects, as we identified them, were as follows:

  1. The colour scheme of the icon mimics the traffic light system– red == unavailable, green == available. These signifiers have their roots in industry – specifically the rail/automotive industries in the West.
  2. Social expectation of availability and the subsequent development of new digital social etiquette have changed as consequence of the immediacy and inexpensive nature of internet communication.
  3. There has become a blurring of personal, industrial, local and global temporalities.
  4. We experience multiple presences (for instance I am here typing, I am having a conversation which has lasted a whole day on Whatsapp, and one that’s been going on for years on facebook and I am present for them all), which contributes to an…
  5. Altered sense of immediacy, change in temporality (a life lived in multiple timelines [1]).

We each felt that these observations gave legitimacy to the latent dislike we all felt towards the online icon – although we had not been cognisant of them before the exercise. We merely felt a directionless unease with the idea of tracked through our app usage.

We considered a number of different ways to subvert the icon – for example creating an add-on which makes it appear as if you are logging on and off continuously, obscuring your real presence. However, the solution we felt most expressed our distaste for being categorised as ‘online’ or ‘offline’, was the substitution of the status icon with a multicoloured ‘disco’ ball (we image via an add-on). The ball would appear as many colours simultaneously, obscuring the users activities while acknowledging the fact we are all simultaneously online, offline, away, at the gym, seen 32 mins ago…

[1] http://dismagazine.com/discussion/78352/the-terror-of-total-dasein-hito-steyerl/

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