Counter Cartography and Cooperative Acts of Refusal

»Post-Doom« Web Resident Peter Polack talks to former Solitude Web Resident, researcher and sound artist Pedro Oliveira about data-driven policing systems, and how his practice as a researcher and designer interrogates how algorithms brand reality. Subsequently, the two artists discuss Peter’s project »Doomsday Cartography,« in which he uses counter-insurgency scenarios as a starting point to discuss military tools and tactics to protect state interests, and demonstrate how counter-insurgency and technologies of oppression determine what appears as regular and significant. 

Peter Polack interviewed by Pedro Oliveira — Feb 24, 2021

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Pedro Oliveira: You describe your work as exploring the notion of »perceptibility« and its relationship to technological systems. I understand that this includes, but is not limited to surveillance. Can you introduce us to your research and practice as a designer, and expand a little bit on that idea – that is, what are the other systems that in your view and with your work you aim to address or interrogate?

Peter Polack: My interest in perceptibility comes from my background in computer science, which I approached through game design, interface design, and data visualization before I began to study it critically. This background made me partial to viewing computation as something that is always designed to be perceptible, and in the case of game design and interface design, designed to make precepts convey certain ideas. So, as the critique of algorithms as opaque black boxes came into vogue, I noticed that the desire to visibilize algorithmic systems tended to obscure the ways that algorithms already made certain phenomena perceptible. In my research, I’m finding ways to demonstrate the power that comes from this capacity of computation to make phenomena perceptible.

This understanding of computation also informs my understanding of policing and surveillance. I’ve worked with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition through the process of dismantling two data-driven policing systems: PredPol and Operation LASER (LA Strategic Extraction and Restoration). The Coalition knows that each new information system that the LAPD implements depends on the same tactics with a slightly different branding scheme. What I have tried to insist in this context is that the designs of these new systems, besides masking the dubious statistical models and anthropological assumptions underlying them, are able to direct attention and produce events, irrespective of the decisions that they operationalize. Like the Coalition, of course, my concern is not with improving systems for deciding who is a criminal and who is not. My contribution is to consider how algorithmic systems are getting better at making these categories appear real. In a certain sense, I’m trying to show how algorithms brand reality: to make certain actions, events, and circumstances take on new meanings. Art-making is one way that I’m interested in examining this.

Pedro Oliveira: How does your previous (and continuing, as I understand) work with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition relate to your practice, and how do you position yourself within the larger social and political work of police abolition?

Peter Polack: It’s difficult to capture in words how much I’ve learned from the Coalition and its members. From a political perspective, I’m continually inspired by their capacity to organize effectively, accessibly, and with care. With respect to my work, it impacts me greatly that the Coalition welcomes participation by specialists in the sciences like myself who come from outside the community. This is not easy to do, and requires significant labor, both to protect the community from outside power relations and to make everyone feel welcome. But as a result, an exchange of perspectives happens there that is extremely rare. In practice, I’ve learned innumerable lessons in the Coalition through making illustrations, messaging, and concepts that address the community’s concerns, and in general the Coalition demonstrates to me that this type of work is possible and necessary.

»Like counter-insurgency scenarios, art and algorithms embed counterfactuals into otherwise familiar circumstances, but where algorithms are typically designed to hide them, art can demonstrate their influence.«

I am an abolitionist, which is not a position that normally goes hand in hand with computer scientist these days, and I’m sure we could think of reasons for that. I view my work as a refutation of the idea that we need to improve systems for assigning criminality. Too many appeals to algorithm reform are going in this direction today: removing racial categories from analysis and stopping there, or attempting to better understand how algorithms manage rights and access, so that we can fine-tune their parameters. My interest in perceptibility is a way of trying to reframe this conversation, so that we can acknowledge how computational systems inform what we take for granted, as well as the problems that we choose to confront. My hope is that we can anticipate the types of algorithm reforms that will try to produce the prisons of tomorrow.

Pedro Oliveira: You situate your proposal as taking place in »the world envisioned by speculators of counter-insurgency.« I find it particularly interesting your use of »counter-insurgency« as a departure point to frame those scenarios; yet it seems that the »post-« of doom as exploited by these systems of control is already taking shape disguised as a »counter-insurgency« narrative – the white supremacist invasion of the Capitol in the US on January 6th being but one recent example of it. What is, for you, the role that design and artistic practices play in the sheer velocity with which reality catches up with complex and hitherto unimagined doomsday scenarios?

Peter Polack: One reason for starting from counter-insurgency scenarios is that they define doom in relation to the tools that the military and law enforcement have at their disposal. In those terms, if the military can’t figure out a way to protect state interests in infrastructure, then we’re all doomed. This elides the question of whether people can survive, and indeed flourish, without these military tools and interests. It implicitly aligns human interests with military interests, and then targets interests that fall outside of this pattern as doomed, insurgent, and feral. But this is where post-doom begins: in the interests that don’t propose new solutions to doom, but already make up its terms, and abandon the desire for it. So, to take up space in »the world envisioned by speculators of counter-insurgency« is to accept that their fears could become a reality, and to consider whether we are necessarily doomed because of it.

I also want to emphasize this speculative dimension of counter-insurgency, which involves the production of counterfactuals that attempt to regulate possible unfoldings of events. By making the future fit to a doomsday narrative, it becomes easier to paint unexpected events as belonging to that narrative: they either signal our doom or they suspend it. Here art, design, and fiction can provide a space free from the terms that we use to describe and anticipate reality. This seems crucial to me when so many technologies and discourses of oppression operate by ensuring that these terms can be taken for granted, and that their disruption can appear as blasphemous – so that a mother and her children living in an abandoned home appear at fault for resisting eviction, as opposed to the terms that govern the response of law enforcement. This, by the way, is part of what algorithms are so effective at: determining what appears as regular and significant, signal and noise, as your work also demonstrates by disassembling this process. Like counter-insurgency scenarios, art and algorithms embed counterfactuals into otherwise familiar circumstances, but where algorithms are typically designed to hide them, art can demonstrate their influence.

I’m glad you raise January 6th because it’s so true that it gives a new brand image to US counter-insurgency operations, at a time when a new president is being installed, and for many, the doom of the Trump era comes to a close. It is disconcerting how quickly demands from 2020 to defund and abolish the police were replaced by support for more widespread surveillance and counter-insurgency, as if these were two different things. This shows one way that doom is harnessed to undermine ideas that want to supersede a dependency on it, by emphasizing that a more pressing doomsday is right (or left) around the corner.

Pedro Oliveira: You mention in previous work an interest in autonomous design for AI, specifically when it comes to policymaking; at the same time, you interrogate the implied ambiguity of the term »Artificial Intelligence« in itself. How does your research and work articulate notions of autonomy and ambiguity in so-called »Artificial Intelligence«? Wouldn’t that, in your opinion, imply a quasi-accelerationist view of AI?

Peter Polack: Another way of thinking about the ambiguity of the term »Artificial Intelligence« is that it never exhaustively accounts for the diversity of its consequences for human experience, which in my work are typically harmful ones. By pushing on the ambiguity of the term, I first want to demonstrate that all people have the ability to say what AI is for them, now, irrespective of how it is defined in policy writing. This means that I think there is a way of working with AI that does not just accelerate its usage and implementation, but allows us to interrogate precisely what computation can and can’t do, according to different people and perspectives. To me, it’s one thing to use data science as a way to make oneself legible to the state, and another for a grassroots initiative to use data and mapping to document police violence for their own community. However, my interest here is in thinking more critically about why these uses of data are different, whether they are in fact sufficiently different, and the relationships that they reveal between computation and politics.

It has been a long journey for me to get to this point, but I ultimately believe that computation has a place in any political configuration, and that we are seriously wanting for imaginaries that address what this might look like (here left-accelerationist tendencies have a monopoly). I say this at the same time as I’m working to dismantle certain algorithmic systems. For me, an alternative or autonomous AI would not come down to developing new algorithms, but changing our practices for producing and interacting with computation so thoroughly that we no longer recognize it as it is today, that we are designing against and not with the white, militarized, patriarchal, ableist, and carceral genealogy of computing. I am skeptical that the computation we have today can help us do this, and most signs point to it frustrating this work, but I think that contemplating alternative models can help to identify more precisely where these systems harm us, and how (when, where, whether, to what extent) computational systems can exist alongside life.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Counter Cartography and Cooperative Acts of Refusal

Pedro Oliveira: In your proposal you mention a specific concern of how the idea of »disaster« or »doom« is exploited by »systems of control« in order to generate a sense of anxiety and fear-mongering. In talking about the »militaristic view« of doomsday scenarios coming up as a top-down tactics of control, it immediately invokes mapping as a tool of and for predictive policing, too. Similarly, we can also think of the techniques and practices of mapping and scouting by so-called »preppers« (which inhabit not only the US-American but also the European imaginary, with many of these »preppers« infiltrated in the German Bundeswehr, for instance) as inhabiting this ambiguous ecology of »counter-« and »insurgency« as mentioned above.  However mapping, as explained in your proposal, can be a tool of control but also a technique of resistance. How does your work contribute to a practice of counter-cartography or uses mapping as a »cooperative act of refusal«?

Peter Polack: As you suggest, the militaristic view of doomsday is almost always geographical. This is, once again, a reflection of the tools that the military has at its disposal, which range from aerial imaging equipment that renders the world in geographic terms, architecture and planning that partitions human movement for more effective control, and most basically, positioning firepower. Then again, the growth of cities compromises the effectiveness of these spatial techniques, as density frustrates imaging, architecture becomes dysregulated, and maneuverability is compromised. My interest in mapping is to consider what kinds of mapping technologies or design conventions can frustrate militarized paradigms of seeing and knowing – just like the scale of future cities does for military doctrine – and yet promote accessibility, sensitivity, and empowerment.

»My hope is that we can anticipate the types of algorithm reforms that will try to produce the prisons of tomorrow.«

The Web Residency gave me the space to consider that. One case that informed my thinking was a project organized by indigeneous Dayak communities in Indonesia to use drones for mapping their land, in order to dispute the mining industry’s incursions into it. While the aerial imagery helped them to resist industrial exploitation, it also exacerbated tensions between competing land interests among their own communities. I’m very interested in counter-effects like these, because they teach us a lot about what technology can do despite our best intentions – and I think we can benefit from figuring out what these effects are. The fungibility of technologies for mapping and locating is also important to recognize, as we witness ankle-bracelet and predictive policing technologies jump at the opportunity to enter into the coronavirus sector. The ‘unintended’ uses of technologies can be as influential, if not more influential, than their intended uses, and this is all the more significant the greater these technologies become in scale and scope.

And scale is a key design pattern that I’m exploring in this project, by imagining how multiple local maps can work together to support navigation, while resisting capture by a definitive regionalization. These small-scale, contingent maps become a „cooperative act of refusal“ when they make life accessible at the same time as they encrypt it. I love the way that speculative cartography can inscribe a political imaginary on a map (Cascadia is a classical example), so that people can envision it as a possible reality, and then orient themselves toward that reality if they choose. I think what is powerful about this technique is that, instead of erecting physical borders that determine who moves where, the speculative map encourages people to decide for themselves how they should relate to the land, people, and environment around them, and to refuse existing habits if necessary. There is something about the political tactic of the occupation that achieves this as well, even if recently in the US, it has tended to collapse into strengthening its borders and permanence at the expense of its orientation toward another way of life. And one project that puts this orientation into concrete terms, is the Hong Kong designer Jacky Chan Wai Hin’s »Weaving City,« which imagines a system of modular city blocks that connect together and float at sea, where our grounding in political boundaries dissolves. For the residency, I tried to impart these considerations into a map that represents space for navigation and access, but refuses to partition it once and for all.

Pedro Oliveira: In talking also about mapping, I see in your previous and current work a strong preoccupation with apparatuses of observation – that is, not only how reality unfolds but also how reality/realities are described and annotated through and by these apparatuses of observation. In one of your earlier publications you highlight a concern with the »conditions of visibility that surveillance systems depend on.« Could you expand a bit on your perspective of the relationship between the apparatus (as a technical system) and the production of specific practices of observation that your work addresses?

Peter Polack: Everywhere we see technical systems described as strictly material forces, while perception is imagined as something that happens entirely in our heads. Even Foucault, for all his work to address how perception is inseparable from language and technology, is appreciated most widely for his analysis of the panopticon, which too readily evokes imagery of material constraint, and can be read to imply simply that we are constrained by the perceptions of others. One exception to all this comes from interface studies, where there is an interest in identifying what computational systems make perceptible to us, but even here the focus is primarily on what we’re blocked from seeing, what we’re misled into seeing, and generally on how interfaces constrain our interactions. And, ironically, the theory of algorithmic governmentality, which attempts to adapt Foucault’s considerations to critiquing algorithmic control, is all about how we are denied access to seeing and knowing ourselves, by virtue of the opacity of the systems that define who we are.

»For me, an alternative or autonomous AI would not come down to developing new algorithms, but changing our practices for producing and interacting with computation so thoroughly that we no longer recognize it as it is today, that we are designing against and not with the white, militarized, patriarchal, ableist, and carceral genealogy of computing.«

My interest is to demonstrate how apparatuses govern our behavior without limiting it, by giving us possibilities for action and perception that motivate us to act and observe differently. This means that I am less focused on how surveillance systems represent the world, which implies a kind of deception, than on how they are able to give us confidence in a particular way of organizing the world. Put another way, it is less alarming to me that a notification can happen at the wrong time, than the fact that it can make us stop dead in our tracks. And this doesn’t mean that these systems are any less coercive, but that we can no longer depend on decrying them for being misaligned with reality – their current iterations are designed to make this argument obsolete. This explains my preoccupation with perception and observation. We have to acknowledge that algorithms don’t just affect the material world: while they’re doing that, they also influence our perception of how the material world is being affected, and what is perceptible as an effect in the first place. Some of my ongoing research addresses how computer scientists and algorithm developers are beginning to acknowledge this more explicitly, so that they can consider public perceptions of algorithms when designing them. This is an expected consequence of growing public outrage over algorithmic decisions, and the parallels to pacification in counter-insurgency theory are worth considering.


Akademie Schloss Solitude - Counter Cartography and Cooperative Acts of Refusal

Pedro Oliveira: Related to the question above, how do you position your work for the Web Residency as exploring »opportunities that specific doomsday scenarios give us for new means of association and perception«?

Peter Polack: Doomsday is a dystopia where surveillance isn’t in excess, but inadequate. The threat is the zombies and the collapse of civilization, not the overseers and their perfection of it. But really, these two caricatures are always coexistent. To live in doomsday, to actually take up space in it, requires an inversion of what we perceive as healthy for ourselves and our communities. Suddenly the rapid and unpredictable transmission of zombie influence isn’t what puts us in danger, but actually points to a tactic we employ to keep ourselves safe. I recognize that saying this brings to mind the harms of contagious diseases, as well as every other dystopian imaginary available to us, but this is built into the mythology of the zombie in the first place: that mass association means contagious sickness, destruction, and braindead violence. It is through discovering the difference between disease and social movements, between pandemics and what »plagues« the social body, that doomsday gives us an opportunity to perceive and associate differently.

That’s the broad answer. But there are more specific ways that military doomsday scenarios can be inverted to salvage the capacities for association and perception that they try to stamp out. In different ways, the doomsday scenarios I’m looking at problematize how people are able to associate with one another, and the failure of perceptual technologies to adequately account for and anticipate these associations. This includes the ways that people are able to move freely in and out of cities, their indistinguishability, the failure of technologies for aerial imaging and geolocating, and so on. In my work for the residency, I am addressing each of these doomsday issues, and looking for what they tell us about the military’s fears, as well as about our own preconceptions of health and justice.

There is another answer to this question, which concerns how military tactics operate on perception directly, and how we can develop a sensibility toward this. There is a continuing movement toward cybernetic responsiveness in law enforcement and military strategy, in seeing that the world is becoming too complex to deploy one tactic everywhere, and in recognizing that public sentiment increasingly determines the amount of violence they can get away with. The future of asymmetric warfare, from more accessible drones to underground architecture, also means that the military is forced to invest in more decentralized, clandestine, and „less-than-lethal techniques for eliminating adversaries while maintaining public favor. Understanding public opinion, modeling it, and literally visualizing it as the terrain of conflict is the order of the day. The Human Terrain System is one counter-insurgency platform that implements this, as are performance metrics for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) that attempt to quantify how humanitarian aid translates to pacification. The LAPD’s upcoming »Information-Driven Policing« program for organizing the city into Neighborhood Engagement Areas is a more local example. Instead of valorizing what might appear as an egalitarian aspect of asymmetric warfare, I am attentive to how it makes things worse in a different way, and interested in the strategies that we can develop to understand its impacts on our selves and communities. For me, this involves being able to perceive how our built environment, information systems, and discourses inform our capacity to associate with one another. In my work for the residency, I imagined a kind of language, or cultural technology, that might facilitate this.

Pedro Oliveira: I also wanted to ask you about positionality, and perhaps think of that with you in two interrelated forms: the first being that your work is highly focused on the US and its practices of policing; you mention in your proposal institutions such as the Pentagon; you work closely with a grassroots organization focused on the LAPD; and previous work you did also addressed practices of observation and predictive policing in the US. In this being a Web Residency it might be easy to rely on a universalization of these practices instead of conceiving this (web) space as re-territorialized, too. How do you address the transferability of the positionality of your work within US-American politics (and »antipolitics,« as you describe) to other parts of the world, particularly for people who might encounter your work in the Global South?

Peter Polack: This addresses an aspect of this project that concerned me most at the outset, which is that fictions and imaginaries tend to depend on pretty universalizing assumptions about how life should be lived. After all this is where the project begins: taking a close look at a specific kind of narrative that the US uses to represent life in cities across the globe. In developing the project, I used the phrase »narrative washing« to refer to the ability of an imaginary to obscure an agenda and its positionality. This becomes very clear in the case of zombie narratives, which for the author of World War Z who works at the Modern Warfare Institute, are useful precisely because they can make real military tactics and nightmare scenarios more palatable and relatable.

So, in this cartography, my aim is to respond to this capacity of narratives to obscure and export positionality, and to imagine some ways that this can be resisted. To this end, characters in my narrative have developed systems to resist capture by the narrative itself, and there’s a sense that a universalizing view of the map would fail to understand it. I am still implicitly relying on my experiences within a US context to develop this world, and I begin by telling the story in English. However, I also tried to avoid making claims about how life ought to be organized. Instead the map is made out of customs which I think appear more idiosyncratic than declarative.

At the same time, the subject matter of this work, threats to US interests in infrastructure, capital, and security, entail projects that are global in scope. I do believe that it’s worth imagining responses to these projects that may arise, since I believe that these responses have transferability across contexts, even if not universal applicability. As we know, counter-insurgency is a global project that exports tactics and technologies across geopolitical contexts – this is why US Marines shadow LAPD officers to learn how to operate in Afghanistan, US police officers shadow IDF operations, and why Palantir provides software solutions for the US carceral system as much as counter-insurgency abroad. For me, this »deadly exchange« means that we all can learn from local imaginaries that respond to systems that aim to have a global scope. I would never pretend to be an expert on the effects that these global systems can have in different contexts – after all it’s their job to assume that one logic could apply everywhere – but I am interested in conveying my experiences through the form of a world, to see where it resonates with others.

There are also certain literary devices, or maybe they are political tactics, for carving out a space in a political imaginary that isn’t totalizing, where its characters have the opportunity to enter and leave a political idea as they choose. You see this in Samuel R Delaney’s Dhalgren and Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, for example: there are multiple spaces in their geographies that are utopian for some, dystopian for others, and people pass in and out of them. I think this literary tactic teaches us something about politics and fiction, although admittedly, at the end of the day, we always know where the authors place their bets. In my cartography, I want to think through what happens when a space is deemed uninhabitable by a certain way of life, by virtue of its resistance to policing, surveillance, and mapping, and the opportunities this provides for different ways of life. Although you’ll be able to tell where my cards lie, I would rather this express a possibility than a solution.

Pedro Oliveira: The second aspect concerns a specific point of this residency’s call which is accessibility: how does that play out in your proposal beyond the annotated map in text and audio? Or in other words, how do you make these practices of mapping legible across different abilities and positionalities?

Peter Polack: It was significant to me that the types of cities counter-insurgency theorists feared also tended to be the least accessible, and also that this was never one of their talking points, beyond oblique references to compromised access to resources. As well, their doomsday scenarios are forward-looking imaginaries that are loaded with ideas of progress and regression, stability and instability, normality and ferality, that perpetuate a normative logic of ability. I intend for this project to participate in the practice of using fiction to intervene into how we think progress and futurity, on the way to unsettling hierarchies of ability and perfection.

From a more technical perspective, I really cared to give each of the possible experiences of the game the same amount of attention. I wanted the text, audio, and visual dimensions of the map to each provide something special, but without making them so unique that something would be missing from the project if one of these channels were absent. I also shifted away from focusing exclusively on the visual language of geography, toward a conceptual language of space that was more accessible and open to interpretation. This is a significant theme of the project, that communication and perception is channeled through particular codes, languages, and narratives, and that the labor of undoing these semiotics can be extremely valuable, and can help us to relate to each other and our fears in new ways.

In terms of the language that I use in the project, I spent time making sure that I didn’t inject an unnecessary amount of jargon into it. The language is a bit vague and elusive, but I hope that this gives its audience some space to think open-endedly, rather than frustrating them. There are really no answers in this cartography, but there are moments of clarity. Lastly, I would love to spend time translating the project into some of the languages that I have spent so much time learning, but I need to spend additional time figuring out how to do this meaningfully.

Pedro Oliveira: A last question: can you provide us references (books, movies, other artistic works, etc) that in your view inspire, inform, and/or expand questions that your work addresses?

  • books
    The Absent City (Ricardo Piglia)
    Dhalgren (Samuel R. Delany)
    Hinterland (Phil A. Neel)
    Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)
    The Castle (Franz Kafka)
    A Pattern Language (Christopher Alexander, Murray Silverstein, and Sara Ishikawa)
    Carceral Capitalism (Jackie Wang)
    Dixie Be Damned (Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford)
    Bolo’Bolo (P.M.)
  • movies
    Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)
    The Last Angel of History (John Akomfrah)
    Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera)
    La Commune (Paris, 1871)
    The Falls (Peter Greenaway)
    Threads (Mick Jackson)
    All That Passes Through a Window that Doesn’t Open (Martin DiCicco)
    Auto de Resistência (Lula Carvalho and Natasha Neri)
  • artworks
    – American Artist – A Wild Ass Beyond: ApocalypseRN
    Jacky Chan Wai Hin’s „Weaving City
    – Hillary Mushkin – Far From War
    – Many of Bassem Saad’s works
    – Simon Denny – Secret Power
    – Agnieszka Kurant – Future Anterior
    – Carolyn Pletsch – Untitled (from Imagining Disability Futurities project)
    – RYBN – EEE008
    – Superstudio
    – Archigram



This interview took place between Berlin, Helsinki, and Los Angeles in early February 2021.


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