On MIT’s Moments in Time (and Being Dead-Alive)

June 2020

Adam Milner is an artist whose sprawling and idiosyncratic practice includes sculptures, drawings, videos, texts, and interventions which draw from deeply personal experiences to point toward broader ethics around how we engage with the things around us.

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Long lists of verbs remind me of applying for jobs. “185 Action Verbs That’ll Make Your Resume Awesome!” reads the top entry when I search “resume verbs”. executed, operated, developed, established, accelerated, capitalized, maximized, outperformed, produced. Written in past tense to show experience, these terms give language to one’s actions in a way that describes achievement. Achievement of what, exactly, depends on the context and career, but the understanding is always that an individual has added to a collective project of some kind. These words are the lifeblood of capitalism and depend on an agreement that productivity, in whatever manner, is something to aspire to. A résumé, from the French for summary, attempts to literally encapsulate a life through its professional actions.

Richard Serra’s Verblist (1967-68) exists physically as pencil on paper in the collection of MoMA, but is really a conceptual framework for making sculpture which Serra has maintained for half a century. to roll, to crease, to fold, to crumple, to split, to cut and a hundred other terms become hypothetical actions, like prompts or suggestions, that invoke the possibility that anything around us can potentially be bent to our will. This list embodies a philosophy of domination over the material world. In this paradigm, matter exists to be manipulated and mastered by the human.

If I had a therapist, they might tell me that it’s not verbs we’re looking for, what we really need is adjectives. “I feel like he’s just using me, that he’s like manipulating me into moving on so that he can feel better.” “But how do you actually feel?” they might calmly respond. A list from a friend gives some options: angry, annoyed, anxious, ashamed, bitter, confused, depressed...

(I’ve been getting ads for Talkspace, a therapy app, with the suggestion that I’m bumming my friends out, or they’re tired of listening. It’s much easier to download the app, they say.)

Verbs are also at the core of the Moments in Time Dataset by MIT, which Everest Pipkin uses as their material for the newly commissioned project Lacework at The Photographers’ Gallery. The dataset is organized as a set of 339 file folders, each designated by a verb ending in -ing, with each folder containing thousands of videos culled from across the internet. In total, there are over a million of these three-second videos, each demonstrating its designated action. The list of terms comprising the dataset reads like an index of living, removed from the context of the world and made alphabetical.

Still, context hangs over these actions. aiming, applauding, arresting, ascending, asking, assembling is a section of the list which reminds me of protest, a section which seems inseparable from a world fed up with systemic racial inequity and police brutality. So many of the words in the MIT dataset begin to feel like a struggle. building, bulldozing, burying, burning — descending, destroying, digging — fighting, filling, filming — guarding, hammering, handcuffing — loading, locking.

The 339 words in this dataset show the range of what one can do. Though the MIT researchers never claim that this list is comprehensive of all that a life can entail, by clustering verbs from thousands of choices to select the most inclusive and recognizable actions, life does seem to be contained here. These verbs were selected by the researchers as the most commonly used words to describe what they call “meaningful” events or actions. The verbs, when read as a list or while watching the videos one after another, feel like a clash and a resistance.

As this dataset has been made for machine learning — to teach computers how to identify certain actions — the resulting archive is not only fraught when I put poetic brackets around it, but fraught in its actual conception, creation, and utilization. Like so many datasets like it, it will undoubtedly be used by interested parties as tools of surveillance and control. Like so many datasets like it, it was made with the assistance of Amazon Mechanical Turk, which has been called a “poorly paid hell” for the way workers are usually paid below minimum wage for repetitive and menial tasks.

I write this from my small New York apartment in my fourth month of isolation. The pandemic has required each of us to slow down and do less, and I keep thinking of a childhood friend who once told me, “We’re human beings, not human doings”. Even as a teenager, I knew this was an important paradigm shift: it meant that we could rethink how we define ourselves beyond endless production and consumption. Allowing oneself to be a human being seemed to resist the gig economy, workerism, the idea of “a calling”— all the ways that society has been structured to combine a person’s work into their core identity. The way busyness became a humblebrag. Human doings.

Over the past months contemplating this dataset, I’ve tried to remember that sometimes the necessary action is slowness, stillness, something that looks more like inaction. Jenny Odell writes that “nothing is harder to do than nothing”, and references the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s 150-year old critique of busyness. He used the term dead-alive to describe this state of being “scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation”. While some governments across the globe have mishandled and exploited the health crisis for political gain — chiefly the United States — we have been reminded that the actions we can take (staying home, wearing masks, keeping distance) are not so much to protect ourselves, but the most vulnerable around us. It is a reminder of community, connectivity, and collective health, ideas that don’t easily mesh with a spirit of self-centred consumption and production.

The Moments in Time dataset can provide some insight into decentering the self and appreciating a collective unity, even beyond the human. Scraped from across the internet, from YouTube and Vine to Getty Images, the vast array of videos touches on something connective: while certain verbs in the collection are innately human — arresting, autographing, baptizing, for instance — others can be reminders of what we have in common across species and even among inanimate things. opening, for example, contains a macaw’s bright blue wings spreading to reveal their yellow undersides, the blooming yellow petals of a cactus flower, and an animation of a circular metal door as seen in sci-fi movies. The door looks like another video of the iris of an eye dilating. Many videos show people opening wrapped presents, but a dog tears a package open as well. As I scroll through the folder, a baby’s yawning mouth, a car door, and a gif of a red theatrical curtain each take their turn to open. A bottle of sparkling water mysteriously blows its lid in slow motion. Categories like this, and there are many of them, reveal a flatness that decenters the human. Subject/object relationships blur and agency gets difficult to pin down. An image much greater than the individual self begins to form.

I Seem To Be A Verb is the title of R. Buckminster Fuller’s experimental book from 1970. In this meandering collection of writing fragments, images, quotes, and graphic design exercises, Fuller writes, "I live on Earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe". Fuller neither collects productive verbs like the resume writer, nor tries out each verb on an object next to him like the sculptor, but instead opts to become the idea of action itself. This way of applying language to himself allows him to decenter his personal, human experience, instead moving toward a perspective that views everything as connected, accumulating into something greater. Fuller wrote this fifty years ago, just after the first Apollo missions, the Moon landing, and the first photographs of the Earth as a fragile blue marble. He seems to echo what has been called The Overview Effect, where, upon seeing the Earth from space, astronauts observe and appreciate “a whole system”, realizing that “there is a connection and interdependence of everything on the planet, including human beings”.

There’s a dissonance in being separate from a community, sheltered in place, in order to protect that community. I watched this dataset from a fog of depression — another kind of dead-alive. As I did nothing, the archived videos did everything: cleaning, eating, exercising, flying, giggling. I pored over thousands of these videos (even though they are made for computers to watch, not for me), and became drawn to certain collective actions — dancing, hugging, joining, kissing. (As it turns out, looking and watching don’t appear in MIT’s list.)