The Hidden, in Plain Sight: The Work of Liliana Farber

As so often happens now, during the great pandemic of these early 2020s, I found out about Liliana Farber's work through an email newsletter. The 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia was announcing a shared exhibition of Farber's work with El Centro de Exposiciones Subte in Montevideo, Uruguay. As I read through the announcement I became more intrigued with the work. Clicking through to Farber's web-based piece L-A-S-E-N-I-O-R-A-I-N-D-I-C-A-R-A.ONLINE, I found a user agreement, not unlike the ones I scan through before using an app, only this agreement was for "A SPACE OF CONGREGATION; A SILENT CHOIR OF TIME INDICATING VOICES."

Farber was born in Uruguay in 1983, a year of tremendous change in the country. 1983 was also, precipitously, the official beginning of the internet, with the invention of the Domain Name System (DNS) at the University of Southern California. Fittingly, Farber's work hovers around and just outside of the internet and the world that has been constructed in its wake. Her work often uses custom software and data collected from commercial digital platforms to create both place and web-based experiences. In my own estimation, her work beautifully asks questions of us and of the worlds we are currently creating together. Farber's work seems to both expose what is so often concealed in our virtual experiences but also conceals what is obvious, so the viewer can see better what is being missed.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Farber a few questions about her work. Farber discussed her pandemic-born project, the paradox of representation and looking for the sublime to represent what can not be represented.

- Eric Hurtgen

You just launched a new work of net-art, L-a-s-e-n-i-o-r-a-i-n-d-i-c-a-r-a. It's a really beautiful but also, in my opinion, a subversively unsettling piece that holds in tension a Western conception of time and place with the deeper reality of the visible universe. You call it a "silent choir of time-indicating voice" which is really wonderful. Can you tell me a little about the piece and how it came to be?

L-a-s-e-n-i-o-r-a-i-n-d-i-c-a-r-a is a pandemic born project. I was already really interested in time used as a data structure to translate lived spaces into digital spaces, but when the pandemic started, the concept of time became my obsession. All of the sudden, time surrounded me. There was nothing but it. I felt almost like we lost the dimension of space. The world became my little apartment in NYC and my connected screens. I kept thinking about Paul Virilo’s “Open Sky” book, in which he states that in the cyber-connected world we don’t share space but we share time. Electronic synchronicity is what kept us going. A hybrid dimension between space and time where we spent our days. I wanted to make an artwork that could be exhibited in that space, and would strip the historical conditions and geopolitical implications of the nature of that space. L-a-s-e-n-i-o-r-a-i-n-d-i-c-a-r-a operates as a virtual space in which the only interaction users can have is to be there. It is a space created just to be there, together. A space that in order to access, a user needs to acknowledge the very political, economic, and cultural nature of the structure that supports it. With that acknowledgment, the user’s local time is recorded and displayed as representation of their interaction. I called the artwork a “silent choir of time-indicating voices" because looking at all the data points created by users exist in this space, like they would normally do hidden in databases, is like looking at a choreograph, or listening to a choir, in which the invisible partiture define all the individual movements.

I like that idea of exposing what is hidden—especially in this virtual space where so much is hidden to the users: the code of the site, the code of the browser, the code of the device the user is accessing the site with. Is this process of making the invisible processes visible a theme that you've worked with in the past?

I am fascinated with the algorithms and protocols that inform our perception of the world, which are inherently invisible. Mostly, what we can see is their outcomes. The code, the infrastructure, the political agreements, these are concealed. In my work I approach this invisibility with different strategies. Some of my pieces are the result of processing uncommon or unfitted data with a commonly used algorithm. In these cases, the unexpected source of data disrupts the feedback loop, bringing the algorithm construction particularities to the fore. In other works I play with reframing outcomes of public algorithms. This allows me to expose the hidden in plain sight. Other times, like in l-a-s-e-n-i-o-r-a-i-n-d-i-c-a-r-a, I use the form of the user agreement to expose what we are bound to without agreement. However, this artwork differs from past ones in that I make my research accessible to the viewer.

here's something wonderfully human about exposing the viewer to these hidden processes. When you show us what exists behind the curtain, it has a levelling effect that reduces the hierarchy that is created by the invisible structures. Do you sense that making your research accessible to the viewer is something that you'd like to carry into future projects?

In my practice I often deal with the dichotomy between clarity and poetry. While my intention is to expose the inner workings of knowledge production systems, I want to leave some space for what cannot be easily described - the experience of us individuals living within these ungraspable systems. I feel their size and complexity is so colossal that I look for the sublime in order to represent what cannot be represented. Lately, however, I have been thinking about how I can be more generous with the viewer. How I can create more accessible pieces. How can I be more successful in exposing what is hidden. To show the research in l-a-s-e-n-i-o-r-a-i-n-d-i-c-a-r-a was a way to achieve it in this project. I am not so sure if I will be using this strategy in the future, but the question of accessibility is always on my mind.

Ah, I love that, "to be more generous with the viewer." That seems like an aspect of artmaking that would open up a practice in really interesting ways.

I'd like to talk about your work and the sublime just a bit more—it's something that I noticed about the work immediately. Jean-François Lyotard said that, "the sublime is not simple gratification but the gratification of effort. It is impossible to represent the absolute...but one knows that one has to, that the faculty of feeling or imagining is called upon to make the perceptible represent the ineffable." How much would you say that your work, at least at some level, involves making "the perceptible represent the ineffable?"

In the short story “On Exactitude of Science,” Borges describes a map which coincides point by point with the empire it represents. By lacking abstraction, the map becomes utterly useless and it's left to rot as a parallel landscape. I like this story because at the center lies the paradox of representation. By exposing the hidden processes, I can reveal the canon as subjective, but as Jean-François Lyotard pointed out, it is impossible to unveil the intricacies of world-scale infrastructures. The actors, policies, histories, and materialities are too vast for representation. Thus, I turn to expose infrastructe’s details or outcomes, creating poetical connections, hoping the viewer can grasp the magnitude and complexity of what lies in between. This is something I am concerned with throughout my practice. Often I focus on personal data and personal experiences with these monumental systems. I like to compare the intimate lived experience with the global structures by personifying the data that inhabit them. Other times, I create abstract pieces by arranging found and manipulated data in a way they seduce and deceive the viewer, ultimately exposing infrastructures’ concealed attributes.

Looking forward—what's next for you? Is there work on the horizon that you're excited about?

I’m working on a couple of projects that I’m really excited about. They both deal with representation of liminal territories and the power Geographic Information Systems, such as Google Earth, have in determining how we perceive geopolitics. “Terram in Aspectu” is one of the projects. In this artwork, phantom islands - masses of lands that appeared on maps and in the collective consciousness, but never existed in reality - are recreated as satellite photography by a machine learning algorithm trained with images taken from Google Earth. This project has been shown widely as a series of printed images. Recently, I was invited to present this artwork at an exhibition at The Center for Books Art in New York City. For this opportunity, I’m working on a book presentation of the project.

On the opposite side of the existence/representation question, I’m working on a new body of work that investigates remote corners of the word: the islands Rockall, Landsat, Jeannette, Rosalind, and Billingsgate. These modest lands, though contested by several countries, contradict national and international laws through their denominations as islands. But through entering this category, countries intend to claim for themselves broad territorial waters. However, due to their size, location, or political controversy, these shores are not represented in Google Earth. In their place is water. This investigation is adopting several forms and I am really excited to see where it will take me.