If machines were to curate, circa 3051

Puppets on Display

In this post I talk about curatorial practices of a museum, the invisible multitudes who don’t get represented in a museum, including persons with disabilities, and how our machine descendants would curate their ancestors, us, circa 3051.

“It’s too late to just say no” –
Allen Buchanan, Better Than Human (2011)

“History is written by the victors” – Anon

/ Part 1
Curating is an art, or so the curators from across the museums of the world would have us ordinary gawkers believe. Since art and any form of creative output, including textile, architecture, music, and other material and visual remains, come from the Chthonic neural caves of the most eccentric (and rarefied) of us on earth – the artists – the rest of us billions can at best be thankful for this curatorial culling (Yes, thank you for helping us choose what is best for our viewing pleasure. We would have never realized that the broken shard of glazed redware kiln burnt pottery dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization, roughly 2,000 years ago, would be so crucial to answering the riddle of our existence).

This sarcasm is not petty, only ironic. That pottery dating back two millenia was hardly an artistic output. It was utilitarian at best, used for holding fruits, grains and water. Discarded but sturdy evidence of how our ancestors lived, ate, worked, and died. The design, the geometric patterns on the surface, the colors all point to our need to express, to be creative and fertile with our imagination. It confirms that since the beginning of time, with all the differences rampant between us, our need to paint (and do things with our hands) has been universal. Beyond that, it remains a mystery why certain objects are classified as art and others as functional. There are overlaps of course, however, the intention behind displaying each in their respective spaces becomes the guiding point for visitors as well to view the artefacts in the same light, as either or.

/ Part 1.2

All that we know of human behavior, of our forefathers, of ethnicity and rituals, of dance and drama – all that we have understood or are trying to make sense of – has come from our study of history. Yes, psychology helps us decode human mind, but it is only by studying the history of psychology can you hope to trace the evolution of human mind. We keenly follow our past – humanity’s collective adventure – so that we can trace the journeys we would be taking in the future. It comes from our belief that patterns get repeated, that human behavior is predictive, that we keep repeating what we learn in childhood and so will continue to behave in a certain way. It’s a matter of a small leap then to understand (or assume) that by fully assimilating our pre-history, we are in effect preparing ourselves for the future. Simple equation really.

So, shouldn’t everything about our past be on display? Should we be tagging discarded panties, curating lipstick-stained love letters, tagging torn condoms, annotating car repair bills, and studying x-rays of a child’s femur fracture? Why do specific episodes get highlighted and the others suppressed? Well, didn’t you know that “the victor’s story is the only one that is retold”! The story of the one lost in battle, of the one whose estates were looted, of the wives and daughters who were raped and murdered, of the children who died in childbirth, of the one who lost his physical perfection – is forgotten, or distorted, neglected, ridiculed, caricatured, and worst, treated as an afterthought and added to the footnotes of the ‘legend’ who survived.

Of course, history isn’t all suppositions and hokus-pokus. Comparative sources in different languages and traditions allow us to determine the accuracy of the victor’s claims, tall-tales can be trimmed towards a semblance of truth. It’s in the numbers; you have enough travelers, court historians and chroniclers concurring on the timeline and sequence of events, then you got yourself an authentic story. It isn’t all vague thrusts in open air.

What then of these surviving objects. Do they tell an accurate story? Do pottery, ivory arrow shafts and bark skin coats from the cave man signify artistic genes or is a tale of survival against all odds? Isn’t art borne out of the impulse of meaningless pursuit; we pursue it solely for the pleasure it gives us to express our vision and imagination, and not because it has a functional goal? It is what we indulge in for respite from working for survival. Why then do we consider these material remains from ancient times as art, and not treat them as the detritus of a house, a caveman’s house? And if the hordes of items on display in museums were not to be considered as art, are we actually displaying the junk of our predecessors?

I see a sort of duality here. On one hand, we display objects of high art (or rather dub them as high art), on the other, we club the miniatures with the beetle-nut spittoons – both sitting magnanimously in their glass enclosures, separate but connected by the thread of their mother – the era of their birth. We, the visitors to the museum, are allowed to enter with strict instructions of maintaining decorum and awe. The decorum is mandatory, the awe, expected. When you see everything bathed under the swich liquor of yellow hot lights, separated by the distance of glass and illegible labels, even an ordinary brass lamp (that Indian use as a prayer paraphernalia) appears enchanting and reverential.  Only the best is curated, but the best appears ordinary at most, and totally irrelevant to our present, if you remove them out of the cubicles and switch off the lights.

/ Part 2: The Best of the Lot

Curation is about representation: you represent a sample of the population. Just like statistics or market research, which surveys a representative pool of 1,000 restaurant goers – a microcosm of the population – to find out whether deep fried Kentucky Chicken tastes better with or without parsley. Curating our history works on the same principle. Since every object ever made by man cannot be put on display, curators have the difficult task of choosing which artefact best represents our collective past, either for a particular community, genre, tradition, linguistic branch, or time. So, what are the factors that go into making this tough decision? There are plenty and I don’t want to go into the details. Suffice to say, education, training, experience, exposure, and curatorial osmosis aid the curators to select the best specimen of the lot and plan exhibits that best represent the various genres. The very word curator, comes from the Latin curare, meaning to ‘take care’ and implies that these professionals are custodians of heritage.

Just as in any other profession where your experience and background influence your decisions at work and how you engage with the environment, a curator too brings her idiosyncrasies to work, every day. A curator is expected to be above bias or prejudice and work towards an impartial, objective practice of showcasing our heritage. However (pay careful attention here), representation works on the idea of a sample, and in the world of curios and artefacts, samples that get picked and put on display would also not necessarily be representative of the larger pool. When a curator chooses to study a work of art or piece of history from a lot of hundreds of other similar items, it is her and her handful of colleagues alone who decide if the piece is a worthy representation of a time or tradition. The public will never know the stories that came before or after this piece.

/ Part 2.1: Of Men and Men with Disabilities (women don’t figure into the scheme of things)

 As a kid, you must have stuck your face to the diorama enclosing the Neanderthal family. The cave man ‘mannequin’ with swarthy skin, vacant, bulbous eyes, slightly flared nostrils, and a cap-cut hairstyle appears in a threatening pose of nonchalance viewed from any angle. It was the definitive portrayal of the cave man in any museum around the world: a cave man could not have had the refinement to look at his wife with love-sick puppy eyes or at his children with tender quietude. His mouth was always half-opened in a silent snarl, driving away an invisible, but ever-present feline or saber tooth. Hurr. Hurr. Hoo.

What these displays don’t make you think is about the sheer range of humans who got left out the story. We only think of the muscled, tall and Terminator Neanderthal when asked to recollect the physiognomy of our bi-ped ancestors. You wouldn’t see the shorties, the slenders, the dwarves, the ones with different hair-styles. The diversity of life some 30,000 years ago is reduced to a handful of cave men posing in their Mowgli avatar, with the women blowing smoke, cooking or tending to the kids, where as the handful of children who are depicted in the tableau reveal nothing more than glassy eyed astonishment.

We certainly don’t see any imperfect men here. No one with fractures or 11 fingers or toes (this anomaly is quite common, let me assure you). Not a single creature with any deformities. Certainly, you don’t see any sick or old or hunch-backed Quasimodos! No disease, no visible injuries, nothing at all to give us any idea that health itself was a matter of concern. Are the curators implying that man, 30,000 years ago, was always in the prime of health, with not a limb severed or missing at birth – when we know for certain that lifespan or life expectancy in that epoch would have been less than 40? Is it to be understood by viewing this steady scene that persons with disabilities either did not hold any positions of influence in pre-history or historic times, or perhaps, it is to be assumed that they were ignored, killed at birth or left to fend for themselves – survival of the fittest? I am unable to wrap my head around the idea that curators around the world would not think about highlighting the social milieu of our ancient life, and educate visitors about diversity – or reality – whichever applies.

Which brings me to a few questions: if only the best specimens are curated to be on display and the best implies an arbitrary and biased selection, what do we really know about our past? How well are we modernists acquainted with our heritage? If selections are made on our behalf, whose version of history are we internalizing? If putting certain objects on display, places them under prominence, and sending them back to the storeroom relegates them to oblivion, are curation and viewership a game of musical chairs? Tie this all up with corporate sponsorship, cultural and political policies (vagaries) of a state, funding cuts, emphasis on entertainment value to draw in visitors to a museum, and the diktat of collectors and donors and you dig in deeper holes for bias and unnatural selection to play their dirty games.

/ Part 3

Can machines curate?

You have to know that it is too late for us. We never stood a chance against the onslaught of what is coming. It is inevitable. It was always supposed to be like this, with us. With evolution we began externalizing our innards. We learnt to paint on canvas, create music through instrument, shape our bodies within clothes, and lend our impulses to paper and pen. The long term vision was to outsource any form of manuality. Thinking is labor, remembering your thoughts that’s slavery! Machines were invented so they could outlive us, and in doing so, keep alive our memories and innards for perpetuity. The point of procreation and evolution was not about the next generation keeping our family name intact (and our faulty genes!), but about giving us enough time to build superior beings that (or who?) would outlast our fragile bodies and keep alive our legacy.

Legacy. What is human legacy? What do we wish to leave behind that will be remembered by machines and our few biological / bio-mechanical descendants? Mozart’s music sheets? Kalamkari weaves? Tutankhamun’s gold-encased coffin? It is debatable whether a man, more machine than human, would be left with enough humanity to be sentimental about preserving the past. That’s a purely humanistic trait. Machines won’t even understand such existential fears. They would of course ensure their own survival, but certainly not go around preserving our jewellery, SLRs, chandeliers, and fridge magnets.

Objects in museums have to tell us something about our past and engender an emotional connect with our history. It has to fill us with awe: our feats, our precision, our survival in the face of many odds – there are hundreds of stories that could be representative of what it means to be human and live and die as one. Why don’t we curate objects that showcase our kindness – on the other hand we do proudly display armory and tanks. What about the pain of child birth and a new life being born – after all, visitors to certain museums are inundated with photos of war, death, battle-field scars and waste. Why didn’t we take an effort in curating not what is best, but what is most honest about being frail, yet alive, being mortal, yet hopeful of a life after – after all, museums are filled with stories of the progress we made with technology and machines.

We have been so busy curating shards of pottery and tattered shrouds of saints, materials that will hold no meaning for the bionic man, let alone the machine. We have left no traces of humanness in our collective displays and we are bound to suffer the same fate at the hands of our future generations. For the machine, human bodies would appear weak, fragile, a pathetic dough oozing bacteria and secreting foul fluids, not worthy of being perceived or acknowledged as its creator. Don’t we imagine our creator to be the most powerful, omnipotent force?

If the robot or machine of the future were to curate a representative sample of the human species, it would pick and choose from among its bionic-limbed predecessors or cousins. Men and women more mechanical and electrical than biological. They would be almost-human, but best of the lot specimens, just like the stoic Neanderthal man we choose to highlight as being representative of our ancestry. The irony would be that bionic limbs and prosthetic were first needed and tested on persons with disabilities (people living with disabilities today), for they were the ones in need of medical / machinic intervention. The disabled person is the cyborg of tomorrow, who evolves into machines of the distant future. The disabled man and woman are the ancestors of the future machines and they would get prime spot in the diorama. The very demography that we ignored throughout our history would one day relegate us – the Homo Sapiens – to the storerooms.

I wonder what Charles Darwin would have to say about how human evolution gave a rather ironic twist to his thesis: survival of the fittest.


Law and Circumcision: Human Rights versus Cultural Rights?

Religion versus law versus human rights

In my religion, male circumcision is considered sunnat (holy / ordained by god). Our parents organize the ceremony and a doctor does the deed. We never had any questions about the moral aspect of getting a piece of skin chopped off. After all, how can you question the ethical connotations of a religious custom? But the recent protest against male circumcision that has arisen in the media and western countries focus on this very aspect: the moral responsibility of parents to make religious decisions for their children. Circumcision protestors say that the foreskin of the penis is a natural part of a male’s body and religion should not be the instigator for getting it removed. Another rhetoric raised by protestors is that of ‘parental abuse’: parents who perform this ceremony (Muslims, Jews and Christians all follow this practice, apart from several hundred communities in Africa, Middle East, Asia and India) are abusing their parental authority on a child who is not old enough to understand the implications of this procedure. They ask for parents to delay performing circumcision until the boy is old enough to decide for himself if he indeed wants to follow in the religious footsteps of his tradition.

This latter argument is very sound. Parents who are religious will pass on their learning and customs to their kids from birth itself. Some of these customs are restricted to learning the scriptures, performing prayers and undertaking certain rituals. These include animal sacrifice, or visiting a holy place, or participating in festivals, fasting, or doing charity. Some of us grow up and discard these practices and refuse to follow ‘traditions’. Some others continue to practice and lead a religious life. There is no moral judgement on either of these two folks; it is their prerogative to follow customs or to inculcate new rituals or to simply decide to not follow any of this. The thing with circumcision is that it is a permanent act – you cannot grow back the foreskin, it’s irreversible religious act. The psychological damage is negligible. Hospitals perform the surgery in 10 minutes and a boy who is 4, 5 or 6 hardly remembers the pain years later. We know this because the ceremony has been performed – and continues to be performed – in hundreds of communities for close to 1,000 years. But if you are not a follower or believer of that religion years later, you just might feel short-changed by your parents. So, yes, from an ethical point of view, you cannot force your child to have a ceremony as part of a religious tradition that the child might not eventually follow.

But to say that parents are physically abusing their male child by performing this ceremony is distorting the very foundation of what parents do and the role they play. A child has rights yes. Certain unalienable rights. Right to live, be happy, pursue education, have nutritious meals, make friends and be in a secure, warm and loving environment, travel and learn to sing, dance, play, or draw. Parents are responsible for actualizing these rights. Parents try their best to provide that ideal environment for their children. No parent will willingly or purposely abuse their kid by performing a religious ceremony. They do it in good faith, in the name of god, and in the belief that this is one of the holy acts ordained in their scriptures. More often than not, even adults who don’t end up following their religion or customs meticulously, will still cling on to certain physical rituals that mark their identity. Perhaps it’s psychological, perhaps it’s reactionary. But this is a family decision, a personal one. Why would people and media say that millions of parents around the world are willfully ‘abusing’ their children with this practice? Are all these parents mentally disturbed then? Are they incapable of taking decisions for the welfare of their children because of the religious practices they believe in? In essence, are the protestors attacking the very idea of religion itself? To practice religion is to be mentally unsound and in essence, perpetrate abuse?

What role does law play in unpacking these private tensions between religion and family on one hand and the public discourse on what is ethical parenting on the other? There is a tension between the Western model of viewing all issues from a rights-based lens and the Eastern model of living life based on the foundations of tradition, mythology, religious books and teachings, and, dare I say, common sense?

As for the term ‘female genital mutilation,’ is it even appropriate to describe what is primarily a religious or tribal custom? Let me enumerate the various tribal practices that could possibly come under the purview of the judiciary: body piercing and branding (using a hot iron rod – Native American, Indian, Asian, African); neck elongation using heavy metal jewellery since childhood (because this tribe believes that an elongated neck is beautiful – African); facial piercings (ears, eyebrows, mouth, lips, cheeks, rod through cheeks – Native American, Indian, African, East Asian); full body tattoo (several cultures and tribes); sexual, menstrual and marriage rituals that involve blood sacrifice or some sort of isolation or ceremony involving fire or some form of body ritual (across all religions and traditions); animal sacrifice; fasting without food and water, and other variations of fasting (basically, denying your body essential nutrients for up to 12 hours in a day – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jewish). This list is endless and older than the idea of religion itself.

Now, we have a rising tide against male and female circumcision. They focus on the bleeding, the pain, lifelong painful intercourse, and the psychological damage that takes place when an essential component of your femininity is cut off (the physical part of what makes you a woman, and the psychological aspect of connecting a part of your body with sex and sexual identity). I am a woman and I would never wish to have my “femininity” cut off in such a painful manner or using such crude and unhygienic tools (as is the case in every village where female circumcision is performed – be it Africa or the Middle East). However, I would also never reduce my femininity to a part of my body. That’s like saying that if I happen to lose my breasts, I would stop functioning as a woman and conceptually stop being feminine! What sort of trajectories do the feminists / rights activists walk on when they relate a female’s genitals to her womanhood? Seems like they are objectifying (glorifying) a body part – not for the functional role it plays, but for the gender implications it has in society. Not good. But yes, this is a different issue to deal with. There is no arguing on one point: the girl child who undergoes circumcision is in constant pain, while growing up, during menstruation, during sex, childhood and suffers innumerable complications. We don’t hear “much” of such complications arising out of a male circumcision (primarily because this has been a routine performed by doctors – legitimately – in several countries). Perhaps, hospitals need to maintain records and educate parents on the potential and very real risk of infection for male circumcisions.

For female circumcision, it is highly mandatory that the women themselves take charge and decide to stop practicing a ritual that scars them for life. The solution needs to come from the women. The idea of what empowerment means to them and how it has been shaped or influenced by their tradition has to be taken into account. Are Western feminists, health care professionals and local government departments going to ‘educate’ these woman (Africa, Asia and Middle East, tribal, rural and urban) about what empowerment ‘should’ mean and what is the ideal way to be modern? Is there a one-size-fits-all idea of modernity and empowerment? In another article I read about female circumcision in a small village in Africa, one of the woman said that female circumcision is a rite of passage for their tribe and it marks the transition of a girl to womanhood: she is now ready for marriage, sexual intercourse and childbirth, and is empowered to be a decision maker. When the government banned this practice, the men in their community ostracized them and the women also felt a sense of outrage and betrayal at the hands of the government. In a sense, the government was held responsible for de-empowering the women. Yes, from a Western lens, it might be obvious that patriarchy has a stronghold in these regions and it operates on a visceral level, barring women from rights to their own body. But a Western intervention is certainly not the answer.

A few of my readers point out that horrific practices such as Sati in India was also part of the customary cultural practice of the Rajput warrior clan in ancient and medieval India. It involved a widow burning on the funeral pyre of her husband; the royal queens and princesses were particularly susceptible to it as they had to uphold traditions and set examples for the women of their community. The British banned the practice during their rule over India and without a doubt, thousands of women have been saved from a fate worse than death.

How can the government promise religious freedom and cultural integrity on one hand while protecting the rights of vulnerable and weaker sections, the women, the children, the elderly? Even the educated women from the city falls prey to customs and rituals that require her to fast several times a year (Asia, Middle East). Even the notion of what ‘humanity’ means is under question: does the rights of a person begin when she is a cell in the womb, or when she is a fetus, or after she takes her first breath? If someone attains legal identity only by the age of 18, aren’t parents naturally the guardians and should have medical, economic and cultural rights over their babies?

I guess there are more questions and concerns than real, definitive answers to these issues. Morality and ethics are not as obvious to understand and practice as we think they ought to be.

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