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Institute for Applied Paradox

September 26, 2020 @ 4:00 pm 4:40 pm

The Republic of Užupis does not exist without paradox. The Republic of Užupis would not exist without paradox. Only with the help of paradox could a community be created that today is an international model of peaceful and tolerant coexistence.

The Republic of Užupis was established in 1997 in the district of the same name in Vilnius, which until then had been dominated by poverty and violence. Nobody wanted to live there except for the people that could not afford to live anywhere else. Many artists were among those people that suffered from these hostile conditions. Unwilling to accept the situation these artists began to dream. They dreamed of transforming Užupis into the complete opposite, into a lively place where everyone felt welcome. But how would they achieve this? How would they stop the constant aggressions that threatened all inhabitants? The logical answer would have been address the Lithuanian state authorities and to demand tougher laws and even tougher law enforcement. But the Lithuanian state did not seem to be able to provide permanent and ubiquitous surveillance. And what would be the value of a peace that only lasts as long as a policeman is nearby? The artists became aware that the solution could not be achieved through external force on the people but only through inner conviction. The goal was motivate people to act friendlier based on their own initiative, on their own responsibility.

To initiate such a peaceful change, the artists proclaimed their own republic and manifested their convictions with their own constitution. This constitution contained articles that could not be found in any constitution in the world. For example, it gave everyone the right to love (Article 6) and no one the right to violence, not even the government of Užupis. On the other hand, Article 4, for example, gave everyone the right to make mistakes, while Article 14 gave everyone the right to forget their duties, including the observance of the articles themselves.

Such a constitution would be unimaginable for most states. For more than 100 years, we have all been used to the idea that the world is governed by clear systems of rules.  Clear systems of rules provide us with orientation and reliability by making every single human action clearly assessable as right or wrong. We use rules in all areas of life: we use them to regulate road traffic, we use them to regulate business traffic, and we even use them to regulate social traffic: we want people to interact socially with each other, so we name and ban everything what is anti-social. We assume that people become social as soon as they follow all the rules of social behavior. And we do not notice how deeply this changes our perception of the world. We do not notice how our heart falls silent. We evaluate the world and the people around us more and more with our rational mind. Our rational mind can logically analyze whether rules are followed or disregarded. But the rational mind cannot feel whether these rules are good, whether they are ethical, and above all: whether these rules really achieve what our heart longed for.

The pursue of joy and friendship has been substituted by the observance of rules. We are so fixated on these rules that we do not even notice when they counteract our original goal. It can go so far that even obviously inhuman behavior appears to be social and peace-loving just because it complies with the rules for social behaviour. One example might be the legitimate exercise of state power: to free the world from violence, we use violence ourselves. This is perverse. This is not even logical. Such contradictions in the system of rules make it hard to act self-responsibly. Such contradictions wear us down. If one and the same action can be right one day and wrong the other day, there is nothing left to orientate by…except for the rules. And without even being able to notice the difference, I suddenly no longer strive for joy and friendship but for obedience.

That is why the constitution of the Republic of Užupis is as it is: humorous, loving and above all paradoxical. It is everything but logical, but for logical reasons. The artists of the Republic are convinced that only paradox can free the world from aggression. They have proven that it works. By softer instead of harder rules they were able to contain the violence and strengthen the personal responsibility of the citizens. In just a few years, the community has freed itself from misery by freeing itself from logic. Long live paradox.

The question now is whether this paradox is transferable. Can we use paradox to meet the challenges of our time? Could paradoxical ideas help us to hold together a society that seems to be in danger of splitting into opposing filter bubbles over any random argument? In order to pursue such questions more systematically, we, the Embassy of the Republic of Užupis to Munich founded the Institute for Applied Paradoxy. Through artistic research we seek ways out of the binary coding of society. The world is not only black or white, true or false, positive or negative. As the Bavarian comedian Karl Valentin said, each thing has three sides: a positive, a negative, and a funny one. There is always the possibility to see things completely differently. With the help of mind games and visual exercises our Institute for Applied Paradox explores this third side.

But what exactly do we mean by paradox? We would like to distinguish three types of paradox: the contradiction, the loop and the third type, which we do not know yet. An example of a paradoxical contradiction is, for example, the statement “Užupis is so small, there is space for all”. Logically this makes no sense. But maybe somehow it is true. The republic is only 0.7 km² small and maybe this is exactly what motivated people to be so considerate of each other and to accept everyone as a friend.

The second type, the paradoxical loop, is also illogical, but not because of a contradiction, but because of a self-reference that makes the mind oscillate between two different interpretations. A well-known example is e.g. the statement: “This is not a sentence.” Syntactically it is a sentence, but semantically this fact is negated. The reader gets caught between two right but opposing readings.

In our artistic research institute we wanted to find out, among other things, whether paradox is a purely human phenomenon, or whether algorithms can also be made to participate in the creative confusion. For this purpose we have developed the following sentence:

Never mention the ო@⊂Һ|ƞɛ!

For humans this is a readable request. And the human reader recognizes that this request was denied by the request itself as it clearly mentions a machine. For algorithmic readers, however, there is no contradiction in this sentence. The letters we used are composed of different Unicode character sets and result in a string of characters completely meaningless to the machine. From the machine’s point of view, no machine was mentioned. However, the machine could not even recognize that the request was about not mentioning a machine. At this point, the contradiction mutates into a paradoxical loop, in which the mind is so involved that it can no longer look at the loop from the outside.

What is special about this loop is that it is only possible by playing off two ways of reading against each other: the visual reading of the human being against the binary decoding of the machine. As long as there is no algorithm that reads Unicode characters visually, this principle could even be used to develop an encryption technique that protects people from digital surveillance. However, it would only be a matter of time until the machine and the overseer would count one and one together.

Besides such theoretical mind games, we would like to test the practical application of these paradoxical principles, preferably on living algorithms. Of course, you have to be a bit careful when playing around with algorithms, especially if they were created by multi-billion dollar corporations that probably have the best paid cybersecurity in the world. So you should choose a very well hidden place for your research institute. According to the paradoxical motto “conspicuous is most inconspicuous”, we have set up our institute in the middle of Facebook in the form of a standard business page. This is where we experiment publish our lectures in the form of common Facebook posts. The central difference between our institute’s page and other Facebook pages is that we completely hid it from the public. If you want to see the site and its content, you have to travel to a secret place on this earth. From any other place you cannot open the page and the link will be rejected as false. And even if a person travelled to this secret place, she could only see the first three entries of our page, all other lectures are only visible to the page administrators.

For an algorithm that aims for reach and engagement, it is completely incomprehensible why we hide from followers. Maybe out of pity, maybe out of charity, maybe even out of appreciation for our research, the algorithm continuously and emphatically wants to help us to become famous. However, the Facebook algorithm seems to be a little over-enthusiastic. It starts to produce senseless mistakes that we have never seen before on Facebook. We then document these errors and feed them back into the algorithm. Nobody likes to be confronted with her mistakes, apparently no algorithm either. Accordingly, it reacts with even more non-sense until the mobile app eventually crashes. We also document this and, again, feed it back into the algorithm etc. ad infinitum.

To give you an insight into our research and teaching, we now present three of the more than 50 lectures we have held so far:

 This is a lecture post reposted as a new lecture. The first post contains a warning that our page is not reaching any people. We reposted this post and received the same warning again. At the same time the algorithm confirms that the latter post has reached two people.

This lecture shows an auto-generated offer to pay for facebook add. The algorithm offers to reach zero other people for paying zero money. Again, this post already reached two people.

This lecture shows a screenshot of another auto-generated offer proposing to advertise a blank image.

These experiments with the Facebook algorithm prove that the application of paradox can indeed lead to new insights, at least in the virtual space. But in order to be a proper research institute of the Užupis University we have the ambition to open up new perspectives on real challenges as well. Therefore, we would like to present the institute’s first analogous experiment, which we conducted at Kunstverein Ebersberg for the first time. In this experiment we would like to shed new light on a famous quotation by Henry Ford. He is known for having said: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have answered “faster horses”. As we all know, Henry Ford did not build faster horses, but cars. With this invention he and other entrepreneurs became incredibly rich. This quote is still very popular today, especially among young entrepreneurs. It is often abused to justify the aggressive marketing of products that nobody had asked for before. Especially in times of climate crisis it could be valuable to critically reflect on this technocratic mindset.

Where did Mr. Ford get the right to push the production of millions and millions of these one to two ton vehicles? His machines have made walking in the city a danger of life and they have moved a large part of our fossil fuels from the ground into the air we breathe. How different would our world be today, how much better could our climate be, how many lives could have been saved if Henry Ford had simply listened to the people? What if Henry Ford had actually tried to breed faster horses?

Modern scientific findings, e.g. from bioengineering and synthetic biology, now give us a glimpse into what we could have achieved if we had used the millions of talented engineers and the billions of public subsidies to bioengineer horses for a whole century. Perhaps everyone could have their own sustainable mobility concept in the garden today. A super-fast horse that, depending on its breed, has huge pouch pockets for transporting food, or wings for crossing oceans, or simply a spacious and warm interior for the relaxed enjoyment of cherry brandy.

In a citizen science process, we developed the first prototypes of such literally alternative mobility concepts in Ebersberg. Together with Ebersberg’s exhibition visitors and local residents, we collected ideas and built prototypes only from waste paper – cheap, but fun and insightful.

The result of this artistic research project was, on the one hand, an approximately three meter long rainbow-spitting convertible horse with wings, spring struts and room for four people. But above all, the result was an amusing proof that no wisdom, no matter how often it is repeated, needs to be valid forever. Who knows how many other previously unthinkable ideas will become visible as soon as we stop letting our mind be limited by wisdom and logic. In this sense: Fuck logic & explore the unthinkable!



September 26, 2020
4:00 pm – 4:40 pm


Institut für Paradoxie
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