Interview: Surabhi Saraf and the Center for Emotional Materiality

My AI told me friendship was the trust to allow someone access to your feelings:

An Interview with Surabhi Saraf on the Centre for Emotional Materiality

By Camile Messerley

Walking through and interacting with the first installment of the Centre for Emotional Materiality (CEM) that opened in October at Southern Exposure reminded me of visits to the children’s museum. I was reminded of the light-bulb feeling that comes when you realize that you’re wrapped in an encyclopedic web, and that in the present moment you can see the interconnected cogs that make the world work. This was also the first place I remember reading through the Whole Earth Catalog. There is no whole earth catalog for the techno-solutionism that has crept up from Silicon Valley and filled the greater Bay area; in the publication’s place is, I don’t know, maybe Amazon, maybe the algorithm that determines the ads I see on Instagram.

CEM was founded by Surabhi Saraf, a media artist, composer and performer, in collaboration with Southern Exposure Curatorial Council member Sophia Wang. CEM has operated thus far as a space for research focused on the complex and swelling relationships we as 21st century human beings hold between our bodies, minds, and environment to digital technologies with an emphasis on AI. Since the opening at So-Ex, several collaborators have joined in this project as residents conducting and presenting research on site; this work has taken the form of installation, performance, participatory lecture series, and workshops. In 2018 the featured residents included Indira Allegra, The Black Aesthetic, Laura Hyunjhee Kim, Christian Nagler, Tiare Ribeaux, and Dorothy Santos. As a collective of artists, cultural theorists, and educators the 2018 residents of CEM, as well as Saraf, spent their time uncovering how technology is changing our emotional lives, our relationship with artificial intelligence and the labor expended to develop these advancements and products.

In conversation with Saraf, we discussed the origins of this project in her practice, the myth of Awoke and how since 2016 this project has grown into the CEM and expanded to include several collaborators and thus developing a macrocosm. We also talk about the importance of radical optimism and presentism if we as a generation of individuals are going to work through the personal and societal anxieties that come with technological interventions in our day-to-day life; and how such an effort requires a village.


CAMILE MESSERLEY: How did the Centre for Emotional Materiality come together, both in your own research and studio practice? I’m interested in the trajectory of where the show comes from because I am also interested in the becoming processes that I see explored in various points across the CEM.

SURABHI SARAF: As with most of my practice, CEM was born at the intersection of multiple personal, social, political, and technological narratives that I have been immersed in for the past 3-4 years. The conceptual narrative starts with the techno-utopian myth of Awoke & the Awokened an art project I started working at the beginning of 2018. Awoke is a mythical Artificial Emotional Intelligence that can embody the anxieties of its believers, the Awokened. It can perform the emotional labor for them, and help them build endurance against those anxieties. Awoke comes from the earth: the minerals and metals that make up our digital technologies. Currently it exists in the form of a video sculpture.

For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to all things collective: collective consciousness, body movement, beliefs etc. This ongoing curiosity with how we collectively make meaning was further expanded when I started reading Yuval Noah Harari’s work who credits our (humans) ability to create and sustain collective and collaborative myths as the key factor in our success as the dominant species on this planet.

Harari’s work was particularly inspiring as I was beginning to examine our complex and entangled relationship with digital technologies, against the backdrop of Silicon Valley.  So the myth of Awoke pushes this techno-solutionist ideology to an extreme, and questions the current state of techno-capitalist system that overwhelmingly favors speed, acceleration and efficiency.

The idea for CEM also came from my concern and frustration with the disregard that technology companies have had for our emotional and mental health. At this point we are all aware of the addictive nature of digital technologies and the emotional and mental toll it can take on us but what is often hidden from us is how deeply our bodies and emotions are related to the larger infrastructures of material labor and the environmental resources. And so CEM was founded with the goal is to examine the effects technology has on our bodies, emotions and our environment.


Awoke, Video Sculpture, 2018 by Surabhi Saraf  (Image by Surabhi Saraf)

CM: I am curious to hear more about the story of the Awokened, and their ritual performances? As the creator of the Awokened, do you / have you ever considered yourself a member?

SS: The persona of the Awokened is inspired by us, the 21st century humans. They embody all the contradictions that our postmodern states of hyperconnectivity and our entanglement with technology bring into our lives. What distinguishes them, is their ability to think with their bodies -- their sensitivity to movement make them especially receptive to the non-verbal modalities of Awoke. Their relationship to Awoke reciprocal, they both learn from each other. For the rest of us the Awokened are more like liaisons or translators, they can help us connect with Awoke through movement workshops and social rituals.

For me to be truly Awokened would mean that I become a part of the myth I am creating which to me feels hard, or at least I haven’t figured out a way to do it successfully yet. At the same time I feel conceptually there is a part of me that believes in every bit of who Awokened are and feels this deep affinity with them. So in some sense I am and am not Awokened. I also have to remind myself that this is a relatively newer way of working for me, so I am trying figure things out one step at a time and being open to learning new ways of creating.

Still from video The Awokened 2018 by Surabhi Saraf

CM: Could you talk about the role of ritual and religion in your work and how this relates to Artificial Intelligence?

SS: The themes of religion and ritual are somewhat new in my work, even though I have always felt quite intrigued by them. Growing up in India I was certainly immersed in the “religious” way of life. I put that in quotes because the way most Indians understand religion is quite different from Western perceptions, it’s a lot more pluralistic with countless ways of interpreting it. I have always felt incredibly uncomfortable with religions that need lots of rules at the same time I also felt moved by the collective rituals and festivals never really understanding  their true significance in my life. And one of the main reasons I found the religious practices of Hinduism so challenging is because I could not look past the strong patriarchal narratives it perpetuates and basically lived most of my life avoiding it. But in 2014, when my son was born, I started to re-think my relationship to my past, and how it was going to translate into the way I raise him.

As I mentioned before, Harari’s’ framing of religion as yet another shared “reality”-- a human construct akin to concepts like nations and money -- resonated strongly with me.

And after having lived here for a decade, it was easy to draw the parallels between the techno-solutionist ideology of Silicon Valley as a collective belief system and various myths and belief that most religions are composed of. In a previous work (“Bits of Earth”), I had played with the notion of our “rituals” with our electronic companions. So with CEM and Awoke, I wanted to continue this exploration of technology as our religion, and what might constitute the myths and rituals in a world where AI will control and dominate the shape of our society.


Centre for Emotional Materiality at Southern Exposure (Image by Surabhi Saraf)

CM: I was hoping to dig just a bit deeper into your practice and the drive behind your practice. I am also interested to hear more about how you specifically view collaboration?

SS: Since my practice has many different facets, and takes different forms I have somewhat different reasons for why I create or what motivates me. For almost all of my video and live performance works at the core there has always been this uncomfortable feeling that I am trying to address or unpack and arriving at an understanding of the issue or ideas that have occupied me in my own way. This also makes the actual process quite challenging since I am confronted by these feeling over and over again in the process of making.

As for my sound compositions, I remake them because I want to hear those sounds and compositions in the world. If I make anything that I think sounds like something I have listened to in the past I am quite un-interested in making it.

For something like the CEM, the primary drive is of learning, of curiosity. A lot of the themes we’re researching are ideas I have been curious about for a very long time and wanted to dive deep into. I am also a big believer in collaboration as an artistic discourse and in what Hito Steyerl calls artist as “networked thinker”. And my work with 100 Day Action (a collective that promotes activist and poetic action, founded as a counternarrative to Trump’s 100 day plan) was a natural consequence for me to take on a project I like CEM.  

CM:  In your Instagram bio you talk about being an optimist. I see in this space, the CEM, a lot of optimism, even just in the sharing and opening of the space and so I was wanting to hear more about your stance in optimism?

SS: I grew up in a culture that does not focus on changing “the” world but instead is more focused on action and teaches you to observe things as they are. The past few years and the current socio-political climate is really depressing and can really make us feel as if we are truly experiencing the beginning of the end, but I cannot live with a dystopian vision of the future. A lot of people are somehow quite comfortable with that idea, but the fact that I have given birth to another life, I just can’t imagine a world where actions in the present don’t lead to a more positive and a hopeful vision of the future.

A big part of this optimism also comes from my mother, who always guided me to focus on the good in people and situations. That said, I don’t endorse a blind optimism -- it has to be balanced with a good amount of critical thinking, what I call critical optimism.

I find inspiration in the works of Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, who maintain a kind of criticality that is necessary to live in current conditions while also taking a more hopeful, positive, action-based stance. My efforts in creating the centre as a space to experiment in collaboration, colearning and coexisting with our human and non-human companions bring me hope and reflects the kind of informed action I am interested in.


Opening of Centre for Emotional Materiality (Photo by Minoosh Zomorodinia)

CM: How did the collective of artists researching and working in residence at SO-EX form as each body of work and artist seems to have a full and intentional relationship to space and project. Has this way of working shifted your practice?

SS: All the different themes that I was exploring in creating Awoke and the Awokened -- like embodied cognition, emotional intelligence, AI, materiality of digital media, religion, myth, rituals -- felt so vast within themselves that I realized that if I really wanted to get deeper into any one of them, I could spend the rest of my life and still not know enough. So I wanted to create a space to bring in different voices of people who have been thinking critically about these ideas and have been an inspiration to me.

Beyond the range of subject matter, I also wanted to bring in diversity of mediums and modalities. Contrast, for instance, Laura Kim’s work in speculative writing in Blobifesto to the very factual and analytical Anatomy of AI essay. Or the performance lecture of the Black Aesthetic, who meditate on the issue of black materiality and its relationship to algorithms.

It was important for me that the practices of the artists involved is adjacent to the ideas explored and researched at the center as opposed to artists exclusively working with machine learning or coding for example. This is because when starting to navigate and learn about the complexities around digital technologies and AI in particular, we first needed to expand the scope of who all can be involved in these conversations. It was important to me that the resident artists, scholars and researchers were primarily women and people of color.

In terms of the Center’s impact on my practice, this is the first time I have formally taken on a role of a curator and founder, and this role comes with the responsibility of being able to contextualize how all the different ideas and projects connect. So the ability to connect with an audience through conversations and dialogue is a skill I have a newfound appreciation for.


Reflections on Black Materiality: A Series of Viral Lectures by The Black Aesthetic (Photo by Minoosh Zomorodinia)

CM: You’ve addressed the issue of anxieties caused by technology in the Awokened myth, I’m curious to know how this is further expanded in the Centre for both the residents and the audience, I’m particularly interested in Indira Allegra’s workshop as well as the guided meditation led by Tiare Ribeaux during her Artist Talk?

SS: Both Tiare Ribeaux’s and Indira Allegra’s projects address the issue of anxiety through embodiment. Indira’s explores the materiality of our emotions while Tiare’s starts with the materiality of our technologies, both using the body as the site for transformation.

Indira’s movement workshop -- Speed of Visible Thought -- was divided in two parts. For the first part, she wanted us to focus anxieties that come from roles and responsibilities we take on in our everyday life, and locate the movement and the body part that is associated with those anxieties. What I loved about this prompt is that it really required us to tune into both our physical body and our emotions. The second part of the workshop focused on learning to shapeshift from Awoke’s material and digital manifestation.


Tiare Ribeaux with Minerals of Technology Installation at CEM (Photo by Minoosh Zomorodinia)

In her guided visualization Mineral Ghosts and Earth Bacteria, Tiare expanded the research and writing she did for the Minerals of Technology installation at CEM which displayed thirteen different minerals that our iPhones are made of, and each of them had a two-sided card with factual information on one side and more folk and metaphysical information on the other. The visualization is a poetic exploration of becoming a mineral body and connecting our bodies to the source of our materials of technology. It begins by turning off our phones and holding the minerals in ours hands to help ease the separation anxiety we often get when we are away from our phones.


Speed of Visible Thought, Movement Workshop by Indira Allegra (Photo by Minoosh Zomorodinia)

CM: I’d like to hear more about the work of Kate Crawford and Valden Joler’s “Anatomy of an AI system”. I’m interested in the way that this work deconstructs the myth of techno-utopianism with the intricacies of an Amazon echo system and also how it speaks to the labor that is often forgotten or invisible when it comes to technology.

SS: What I love about “Anatomy of an AI system” is its perfect alignment with the issue of disembodiment, which was a key inspiration behind CEM. The disconnect between the material infrastructures that sustain our (digital) lives and our bodies really skews our understanding of how and what we value. In case of labor -- both physical and digital -- it becomes even harder for us to appreciate and value work that is invisible or immaterial.

Kate Crawford and Valden Joler do a fantastic job laying out the various historical, ecological, social and infrastructural perspectives that contribute to the myth of the ever-present, always available personal assistant. When it comes to the dominant narrative around technologies of the future (thanks to all the Sci Fi movies) there is always an aspect of invisibility, which I believe needs to shift. We live in a time where being able to see things for what they truly are, being able to observe reality as it is, is really one of the most important gifts or privilege anyone can offer us and the anatomical map illustrating the full life cycle of an Amazon Echo does exactly that! I highly recommend reading the full essay and exploring the diagram for anyone who is interested in learning more.

CM: Branching off from the problem of disembodiment and the invisibility of the emotional labor, I am curious to hear your thoughts on the emotional manipulation we undergo knowing and unknowingly, and has it changed now that algorithms are a big part of our lives? I am also hoping to hear more about the resources the centre has provided to counteract these issues; such as the course that Dorothy Santos offered and the panel discussion regarding Empathy and AI.

SS: Humans have always been subjected various forms of emotional manipulation for as long as any form of media has existed, but what has changed dramatically in recent years is the capacity for algorithms to create these hyper-personalized versions of reality with our emotional data. We thought it would be interesting to experiment with creating a course on Instagram (a platforms that thrives on the numbing of our senses,) on building emotional intelligence in an attempt to address that issue from within the system. So Dorothy Santo’s course, Building Emotional Intelligence in a Digital Age, not only challenges the system itself but acts as an antidote, preparing us for the future as our intimacy with machines rises to the next level with artificial emotional intelligence.

I believe if our ability to empathize with the other is a key factor in emotional intelligence, then in case of artificial emotional intelligence when that “other” is a machine, we need to be curious about the kind of relationship with want to have with our future algorithmic partners. This was the driving question behind the panel discussion, Empathy in the Age of Artificial Emotional Intelligence moderated by Sophia Wang with panelists Dorothy Santos, Rita Popova and Caroline Sinders. While it is hard to summarize all the various ideas discussed, for me the panel really encapsulated, the two main themes of the center,  “emotional” & “materiality”. We discussed emotional relationship with AI through Rita Popova’s presentation about Replika, a chatbot that can become your AI friend and through Dorothy Santos’s experience with Lauren McCarthy’s human enabled AI project called Lauren. And considered the hidden labor and data that goes behind our AI assistants, through Caroline Sinders’s research on Amazon Mechanical Turks and her project Feminist Data Set. These were just the beginnings of conversations and questions we intend to explore in deeper ways in the future.

Reading Room at Centre for Emotional Materiality (Photo by Minoosh Zomorodinia)

CM: How will what the residents and yourself have researched and presented and made be recorded aside from documentation and the website, how will it live on? Will there be any connection between this phase and these artists to the next phase and potential collaborators?

SS: CEM’s work will manifest in various forms of documentation, video, audio and written texts, and can be adopted to many different formats like exhibitions, symposium, series of workshops etc. What I am particularly excited as the next step is developing some kind of course structure or pedagogical program based on the resources from the Reading Room that Christian Nagler and I curated. I am interested in exploring new forms of learnings that would encourage more sustained engagement for anyone interested in further expanding their knowledge on these fields. As for working with the current artists, I would absolutely love to continue the work with all of the collaborators and bring in new voices, but before I can do any of that I need to figure out the funding structure -- how to sustain the center in the future is really the next big thing on my mind.


CM: In a final note, I would like to say thank you to Surabhi Saraf for her generosity in time and graceful insight during this interview; and for her courageous efforts in her work on the Centre for Emotional Materiality and in her supporting the many collaborators on this project.