Optimising the self (and reimagining power) at Somerset House Studios

Courtesy of Superflux

Courtesy of Superflux

Earlier this week we visited Somerset House Studios for a talk on Self Optimization: What does self mean in an era of algorithmic logic? This was a part of the six-day series of artist-led approaches to the concept and practice of wellness, titled 'Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy'.

At the event we contemplated classics such as "what is the 'self' and how is it identified?" But we also explored selfhood as it's manifested in our numerous social media accounts, and in our constant quest for "optimising our performance" (See this New Yorker article for a range of critical perspectives around "self-optimisation"). 

We also considered what a 'healthy' relationship with our 'self' might look like, as new, powerful technologies make their way into the mainstream. How do we maintain or re-evaluate this relationship?


Resident artist Marija Bozinovska Jones, business psychologist Alan Newman, artificial intelligence researcher David Pfau and buddhist teacher Prajnamanas made up the evening's panel and offered perspectives from their respective fields of expertise.

Somerset House Studios describes itself as "an experimental hub in the centre of London connecting artists, makers and thinkers with audiences". The Studios aim to be a platform for "the development of new creative projects and collaboration, promoting work that pushes bold ideas, engages with urgent issues and new technologies though art, expression and experience."

Last month, as residents at The Studios, Superflux put on their second Future(s) of Power event. Superflux act as a 'collaborative design practice' producing work that navigates the entangled wilderness of our technology, politics, culture, and environment to imagine new ways of seeing, being, and acting. We've previously blogged about Superflux's co-founder Anab Jain's amazing TED talk. With this event series they "hope to uncover this quite abstract idea of power through new methods of advocacy, but also discreet and alternate sets of tools, tactics, and strategies."

Here's their report from the first event - featuring our good friend & valued contributor to The Alternative UK Indy Johar:

At the first “Future(s) of Power” we wanted to explore the conditions under which various forms of power become defined, and we are specifically interested in exploring how we can move from feeling powerless, both individually and as transient groups, networks and communities, towards feeling like we have some forms of power.

We were really lucky to have a great lineup of speakers: Aviah Day (Sisters Uncut), Dr Catherine Haddon (In house historian at the Institute for Government), Indy Johar (Project 00Dark Matter Labs) and Jacques Peretti (Journalist and BBC Filmmaker). We brought together this inspiring range of speakers from organisations rooted grassroots political activism, the media, and people working in and with governments and Whitehall.

We designed the structure of the discussion to avoid long speeches, or recursive panel conversations. We had a set of provocations which were presented to the panelists and opened up to the audience, bringing them in right in the beginning for a wide ranging conversation.

Our initial provocations were:

  1. Is there a sense that people have stopped engaging with systems of power?

  2. What tools and tactics have you adopted in your work to confront and engage with power?

  3. Based on your learning, what can all of us here do to start holding politicians and corporate power to account?

Some of the key ideas that emerged from the first session:

Aviah’s perseverance around protests and also alternate forms of action and tactics such as occupancy and dissidence for her organisation Sisters Uncut. Whilst positions on the “power of protests” remain divided, with many in the audience voicing disillusionment, Aviah compellingly argued that consistency is key. According to her, a one-off protest is not as successful as meeting every two weeks and building a community of resistance committed to change. Aviah told a story of a young boy, who was inspired by the work of Sisters Uncut, and fought for his playground on his estate in front of the Mayor of London. Weeks later it was refurbished and children on the estate could use their playground.

Jacques argued that real power resides within the realm of business. That shocks such as Trump and Brexit were not about participation within a democratic system, but they were a response to the failure of prosperity. Jacques also picked up on the idea that in the media and political environments “people waterboard facts until they come out with the answer they want”.  

Indy made the case for rephrasing the narratives and language that drive our lives, to create a new lexicon of resistance that can push forward a new politics. He also express the idea that we need to redirect our anger away from the idea that particular individuals are responsible for the status quo. He argued that we need to develop new codes through which power is written, and to work towards how to develop new forms of governance, rooted not in fear, but around wisdom and love.

Catherine discussed the broad ecosystems that make and deliver government policy, the frustrations officials express at their own powerlessness within the greater machinery of policy making and delivery, or what she terms “power problems”. She pushed forward the idea that registering the complexity of our power structures helps us learn how to engage with them better, and can help us figure out how to force them into changing in the ways we want them to change.

For more - watch the Facebook livestreams from both the first and second event (with musician Brian Eno, journalist Juliet Jacques, artist Liv Wynter and Jinan Younis for gal-dem.com).