Last fall New York-based artist and theorist, Katherine Behar presented High Hopes (Deux) a more-than-human performance that involves two Roombas (each with its own rubber tree), the Karaoke version of Frank Sinatra’s High Hopes set on repeat, and a large square of astroturf installed at Sector 2337 in Chicago. For about 30 minutes, the Roombas appeared to be dancing around the gallery while they cleaned the space as visitors came and went. More recently, Behar sent me a transcript of a conversation she had with the mutispecies ethnographer, Eben Kirksey about the same work. What follows is an edited version of that discussion. High Hopes (Deux) was curated by Every house has a door in Wasted Hours, an evening of performance that also featured Joshua Kent. Kirksey and Behar’s conversation will appear in an upcoming Green Lantern Press catalogue, Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening, for which the performance event was curated. Behar recently co-authored And Another Thing: Nonanthropocentrism and Art (Punctum) with Emmy Mikelson; in addition to finishing a book about decelerationist aesthetics last spring Bigger than You: Big Data and Obesity (Punctum), her latest book Object Oriented Feminism is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press and her first solo show, Data’s Entry, will open this September at the Pera Museum in Istanbul.
Eben Kirksey: Where is the hope, or is there hope, in these cyborg phytological assemblages?
Katherine Behar: The “hopes” in the title come from a children’s song about a little old ant who’s trying to push a rubber tree plant. Why does the ant think that he can move the rubber tree plant? It’s because he’s got “high hopes” and he thinks he can accomplish the impossible.
Of course, the ant is a symbol for the worker. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful message about overcoming impossible odds if an ant can move a tree, but on the other hand, in my view it’s pessimistic or perhaps dystopian to teach kids to identify as the ant and grow up to be good little workers.
EK: One teleology of capital and machines is the end of work, as in the fantasy that a new appliance will get rid of a whole regime of labor. But going back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, that fantasy often spins out of control and results in all sorts of cataclysms—people unemployed, factory workers, and whole categories of people that no longer have meaning or an economic place in contemporary society. High Hopes (Deux) seems to grapple with similar ideas.
KB: Robots like the Roomba are a form of the automated labor you are talking about. The etymology is from the Czech word robota which translates as “forced labor” or “serf labor.” This means whenever we talk about robots, we are really talking about social relationships because we are employing the metaphor of slavery.
So who gets to enjoy the end of work? If we fast-forward to the contemporary moment, automated labor might be better understood not as machinic labor but as dehumanized labor. Today automation either still means forced labor—slave labor, or maybe prison labor—or it means offloading jobs that have traditionally been done by humans to machines, leaving humans unemployed and vulnerable.
At the same time, it’s important to distinguish between dehumanization and the nonhuman. Nonhumans—like the plants and machines in this project—can counter dehumanization by expanding the possibilities for solidarity which dehumanization forecloses.
EK: It seems like in this domestic context or in conventional patriarchal relations, the labor of cleaning often gets done by women, but also often by undocumented workers in elite U.S. households. How are Roombas changing these roles and the hopes of folks in such entangled situations? It seems like in some ways the Roomba is a hopeful, liberatory technology, but in other ways it is problematic.
KB: With this project, I’m trying to draw solidarities between all of these roles, between the middle class mom, the possibly undocumented domestic worker, and the machine—not to mention the plant. Machines are one of my focal points because they represent an extreme case. We don’t need to think of machines as having any kind of humanity because they’re not human. For me, the question is, is the undocumented worker closer in kind to the machine or closer in kind to the mom? There’s something about how we treat machines that I think prefigures how we treat entire classes of people.
The same could be said for our relationship to plants and nature, which we exploit on similar grounds. Initially I imagined High Hopes (Deux) as a way of drawing nonhuman solidarities between a houseplant and a housekeeping robot, both of which are usually cast as existing for human enjoyment. Although human interaction emerged an important factor, my first response to the concept of this show was to create a nonhuman system for plants and machines to play and care for each other, an experience that would be censored in the typical domestic setting.
EK: Relations of care are key to this piece. In fact, in one way or another many relations of labor and cleanliness are about care. The fantasy is that machines don’t require care. The Roomba seems to be an indestructible prosthetic, its own little war machine combating dirt and making cleanliness happen. This is the disembodied image of remote control. But in reality you’ve got to care for the machine in certain ways, just as you have to care for your wife, or maybe you don’t. In this context humans and machines are engaging in all sorts of relations of care, going both ways, but that may be uneven or unreciprocated.
KB: Uneven and unreciprocated care are critical notions for me. I’m interested in how we care for machines, and are cared for by machines, and why. In the case of the Roombas, they’re very charming. On Roomba list serves, you find people talking about just wanting to watch their first Roomba clean, like proud mamas and papas. Even pets want to play with Roombas. They’re very endearing devices. Yet these transpecies relationships are complicated because we’re mirroring how we interact with humans. We work for them and they work for us, and part of that work involves making ourselves care–for–able, and learning to expect certain kinds of care in return.
EK: In the gallery, as the Roombas interacted with people, it seemed like they were soliciting things. There were moments of corporeal interaction where the Roombas sort of snuggled up to people. What affective exchanges were taking place in those moments?
KB: Those moments were one of the really lovely surprises of the piece for me. Roombas are programmed to try to understand the perimeter of a space and learn to travel through the space to fill that perimeter. When they are in an empty gallery, the Roombas do a very geometric dance. Choreographically speaking, it’s very expansive; they really traverse space. The presence of people introduces organic clusters, and the perimeter of the space becomes much less rectilinear and predictable. The Roombas become confused by organic shapes, especially moving ones, and try to figure them out.
What’s surprising and can’t be explained by the algorithm is that the interaction feels very interpersonal. It feels as though the Roombas are trying to have a relationship.
EK: In some ways hope occupies an anthropocentric or zoocentric space. How can we think about these things as desiring machines that might orient towards an object and try to bring that object into contact with reality?
KB: Perhaps we would need to eliminate the desire part of hope, which may be hope’s zoocentric aspect. Assimilating to plant temporality, hope becomes a stand-in for futurity. A futurity without desire might mean orientating towards a species future, or even remapping hope and pessimism toward a future that includes species extinction.
EK: The Roomba really isn’t a species as such. A Roomba can’t fuck another Roomba and make baby Roombas. In that way a plant is different from a Roomba.
KB: Maybe the Roomba is closer to being a species than we think. I don’t know whether I want to say plants fuck, but plants reproduce and cross-pollinate and changes happen between generations of plants. A similar thing happens between models of Roombas. For instance, there’s now a more advanced Roomba that doesn’t have bristles on its brushes. For Roombas evolution occurs in design, not genetics.
EK: Thinking about evolution as a teleology—in botanical or technological realms—just maps on to one possible vector of change. Things are constantly becoming beside themselves with dissolution and glee, to paraphrase Brian Rotman. In some ways what you created is this shared space of hope and happiness, where the Roomba is enabling the plant to actualize desiring teleologies that could rarely happen otherwise. Certain plants move. There’s a walking palm that can slowly put out another prop root in Costa Rica. But having a Roomba enables all sorts of wild possibilities that a rubber plant might not have imagined before.
KB: If a rubber plant has to wait around for an ant to push it, it’s not going to get very far. But as an interspecies collaboration, or perhaps a symbiotic relationship, the Roomba and rubber tree as a unit are able to dance. They’re able to traverse space, they’re able to be aesthetic, and they’re able to solicit relationships with the humans who keep getting in their way.
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