Vladan Joler, “New extractivism”, exhibition display, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, Novi Sad, 2021.


The idea of cognitive mapping is foundational to the argument of historical change and the correlation between culture and the political economy: every era develops cultural forms and modalities of expression which allow it to represent the world, however partially or ideologically motivated.

Vladan Joler does just that. He maps the battlefield.

We live in an age when more sophisticated technologies have made it possible for cartographers to represent every corner of the World, molecular biologists to encode the genome, and astronomers and nuclear physicists to map out more and more sections of the Universe.

And yet, along with processes as large as the ambition of world-gnosis and the goal of – at the least – understanding the world, how is one to map out that which keeps running away, that which Frederick Jameson calls “the ultimate reference, the foundation of Being in our time – the Capital representing our ‘true ontology.'[2]. It could be one of the appropriate introductory roads which will induct us into the deliberation on the mapping of the relation between Natural and Human resources, Production processes, Technology and the Capital. In a sequence from a movie, a magnum opus of Italian Neo-Realist cinema, viewers are confronted with a representation of a specific kind of awakening – “Europa ’51” by Roberto Rosselini, in which the film’s heroine, Irene Girard (played by Ingrid Bergman), while spending her day at the factory exclaims: “I thought I saw convicts! I saw them! They are simply slaves in shackles!”

The carto-essays of Vladan Joler also represent a form of awakening, because they remove the curtains from an important part of the Secret, and allow us to see.



“Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection;

it is space not time that hides consequences from us.”

John Berger

Atlases and maps, as world stages, have always been empowering us by allowing us to understand something that is difficult to approach. They have been offering us the possibility of understanding the world through spatial perception, orientation, and construction of the world.

This question becomes especially relevant in today’s late capitalistic system of unperceivable spatial totality, which resists the representation of an individual’s situation, in accordance with the impossibility of the representation of the social structure as a whole. Our ideological difficulties stem from a lack of resources which would enable the current state of modern society to be revealed.

Because, while the representation of social totality was possible in the classical period of laissez-faire capitalism, when the life of the individual could be connected with the politico-economic space encompassing city and nation in the form of grand realist and naturalist narratives, or represented as a relationship between the individual and the collective, the local and the global, it has since become disturbed by capitalist and colonialist projections and the period of imperialism. In the time of imperialism, repression was being instantiated in the space of the political and the economic unconscious, because the experience of the colonial system, itself complex and detached from the possibility of any kind of experience and perception, could not be “synthetised”. Mapping this new imperialistic system has become impossible. Such a spatial detachment has resulted in the impossibility of understanding how the system functions as a whole.

The time we live in – the period of late Capitalism – represents an even greater challenge. We run into a complete inability to present and to orientate. That’s why this material hermeneutics leads us on the way to a formal battle for a new configuration of totality, but also to a rethinking of existing artistic methods, so that we can view in full this strange mixture of the concrete and the abstract, the visible and the invisible, the representable and the non-representable.

Speaking of maps and orientation, we are truly mesmerised today by the scope and the precision of Google Maps and GPS navigation. But these views, to paraphrase Hito Steyerl, enable a vertical zoom which diminishes the state of “free fall”, in which neither our aesthetic tools nor our political strategies unite into a “unique united horizon”: “The view from above is a perfect metonymy for a more general verticalisation of class relations in the context of an intensified class war from above — seen through the lenses and on the screens of the military, entertainment, and information industries. It is a proxy perspective that projects delusions of stability, safety, and extreme mastery onto a backdrop of expanded 3D sovereignty. But if the new views from above recreate societies as free-falling urban abysses and splintered terrains of occupation, surveilled aerially and policed biopolitically, they may also — as linear perspective did — carry the seeds of their own demise within them.”[3]

That is the challenge which Vladan Joler has chosen: to think through maps and understand the world through spatial perception in order to understand the political, economic, technological, ecological, and cultural dependencies in the world, as foundations for the exploitation of humanity and nature.

In the field between the visual and conceptual modes of understanding, Joler uses maps as performative statements, which, connecting different strata of information do not merely reproduce social reality, but serve to generate change, because they carry the seed of their own death within themselves.

Maps become a story told by the author, based on a presentation of relations between elements of the system of technological exploitation and the principle of modern extraction.


ShareLab, Facebook Algorithmic Factory (detil), www.labs.rs, 2018.

“Everything is summed up in Aesthetics and Political Economy”


Vladan Joler (1977) is a visual artist, researcher, and professor at the New Media Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Novi Sad. His work is part of an interdisciplinary dynamic new field, connecting the visual and the narrative with a research-oriented methodology. Situated outside traditional research structures, his field stands at a crossroads of visual art, science, technology and human rights activism. It is a practice based on research and an expression which overturns standard research processes, which at the same time initiates and produces alternatives to a possibility of understanding. These open processes of investigation are transformative, continuous events, which combine elements of research with such steps as data analysis and visualization, and the understanding of their theoretical foundation. That is why Joler’s projects, in addition to their geographically wide scope, always possess an elaborate theoretical-aesthetical form as well.

After graduating in graphical design and visual communication, and finishing his MA thesis in design and structure of digital space, Vladan Joler spent almost ten years (2001-2010) as creative director of the EXIT festival in Novi Sad, at a time when this festival had a distinct political dimension as symbol of the power of democratic change, activism and student-led movements. At the same time, he worked on his academic career, earning his tenure as professor at the New Media Department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Novi Sad, as well as the status of guest lecturer at many world-renowned universities.

In the career of Vladan Joler, the year 2012 represents one of the turning points in his life, as it was the year he founded the SHARE Foundation, aimed at leading the battle for an open, decentralised Internet and the implementation of human rights in a digital environment. In the same year, he also founded SHARE Lab, a research laboratory for data research into various social and scientific topics, such as invisible infrastructure, algorithm transparency, work exploitation and many other phenomena that have arisen from modern technology.

This specific research-detective-artistic mode of operating encompasses a broad scope of methodologies, an interplay of cyber-forensics, big data analysis, cartography, media theory and philosophy, and deals with the analysis of private data exploitation, forms of invisible labour, surveillance economy and the various algorithms hidden behind the walls of Facebook, Google, Amazon and similar corporations.

The SHARE Foundation has organised some of the largest congresses and simultaneous educational events in both the Balkans and the Middle East (Belgrade, Beirut and Rijeka), bringing together thousands of internet activists, and hosting events in Tunisia, Ukraine and even Kosovo. Next year, the SHARE Defence Team will be founded, and will be a unit dedicated to intersectional questions of technology and law, and therefore in a position as a relevant organisation dedicated to these questions in a broader European and World context.

That is why we are talking about the practice of art as a form of analytical activity conceptualised as research, in which research groups working together on the articulation of questions and their presentation are involved.

The research projects of Vladan Joler realised with his co-workers at the SHARE Foundation have been recognised as significant in fields such as social activism, graphic design, political economy and law – according to the author, various “social ecosystems” involving, of course, modern art.

How should one begin to understand such a phenomenon in the context of modern art? His works can be found in collections of world-renowned museums such as MoMA in New York, where the visual essay “Anatomy of an AI System” by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler can be found, and then in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; his works are also part of a permanent exhibit in the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, and have been presented at over one hundred international exhibitions, among others: ZKM, XXII Triennale di Milano, HKW, Vienna Biennale, V&A, Transmediale, Ars Electronica, Biennale WRO, Design Society Shenzhen, Hyundai Motorstudio Beijing, MONA, Glassroom, La Gaité Lyrique…

Cartography today is a craft belonging to the privileged. It is a form whose presentation principles were taken over by contemporary art, drawing from the forms and actions belonging to the conceptual, theoretical, structural, interpretive and critical traditions of visual art. That is why a critical presentation of society today is being mediated more and more, both literally and metaphorically, through maps and charts. Cartography and maps are expressions that both reflect and shape the broader cultural and visual categories.

That is why we should mention, in the context of the specificity of maps that represent data analysis in the context of a critical overview of society, the heritage of Marco Lombardi (1951-2000), whose work was based on sketches and visual narratives representing the flow of money in a postimperialist, transnational economy, and covering a broad area: from corporations to political organisations, from individuals to groups. Using a standard graphite pencil and a red colouring pencil, Lombardi created a new form of historical painting based on complex matrices of cash flow and financial dependencies, using only public information from media, newspapers, and television. At the same time, in the context of recent art practice, Trevor Paglen also maps modern surveillance systems and the routes of unmarked aircraft carrying convicts, and Heath Bunting conducts research on the ways our data are used, and on the relationship between privacy and confidentiality with regard to information and large-scale networking. In this field, the results of the work of interdisciplinary researchers have become more evident: these are scientists and theoreticians, such as the physicist and network analyst Albert-László Barabási, who works on identifying positions of power on networks and clusters in the system of contemporary art, or Maximilian Schich, a multidisciplinary scientist and art historian researching networking in the ecosystem of contemporary art.

The contemporary cartographic revolution in art clearly begins to reflect the mutations brought about by late capitalism and the counterculture movements. The very high number of artists using maps in their register demonstrates a capability to address the questions of cartography in a formally reflexive way, carefully using the visual repertoire of graphical design; and this is also the case in the work of Vladan Joler.


Vladan Joler, “New extractivism”, exhibition display, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina,
Novi Sad, 2021.

Vladan Joler and Kate Crawford, “Anatomy of an AI System”,
(detail) 2018. www.anatomyof.ai


Vladan Joler already set the basic protocol in his first work, dedicated to the invisible infrastructure on the Internet. This protocol is based on three successive steps: 1. Data gathering 2. Data analysis and its graphical visualisation 3. Theoretical foundation of data analysis in political economics, media theory, human rights activism, etc. A team of specialists is working on these projects, brought together from their various fields by the work of Vladan Joler (which is investigative-detective work, as the author himself states). This gives his work its characteristic format and its theoretical explication.

Within the first project group for “Invisible Infrastructure”, the SHARE Lab research team started its work by trying to understand the nature of different structures in the networking systems of internet providers which were open for analysis, especially with regard to misuse and data control, censure and filtering. In a successive chain of analytical topics and data processed for “Invisible Infrastructure” – online surveillance, cookies, permissions given to apps, data flow etc. – the SHARE Lab team used a variety of programmes and platforms for data visualisation, such as Gephy, Nmap etc., turning the concept of mapping into an interactive and reflexive practice stemming from creativity and critical thinking. This kind of research has not, therefore, been set up as a linear procedure, but organised as an open process which compresses and organises large and complex chunks of the world around us and creates a feeling of familiarity and understanding.

What is really important in any discussion about Vladan Joler is the logic and aesthetics of cognitive mapping – that is, the need to elaborate the cultural and representational practices appropriate to the ambitious task of describing a social space and class relations in the time of late capitalism or postmodernity. Joler responds to the call of Frederick Jameson to answer this question within the scope of Marxist dialectics as a compass of cultural criticism.

The concept and term “Cognitive Mapping” comes from Kevin Lynch, who laid it out in his iconic book The Image of the City[4] , published in 1960, on the basis of which many later theories came to fruition, amongst which the most important is the theory of cognitive perception of the city. Cognitive mapping is part of the much broader spatial representation and cognitive psychology, and it becomes incredibly important in the context of the disruption of political action caused by our inability to map cognitively the contours of the world system. . This is how one arrives at new meaning and the extrapolation of Lynch’s spatial analysis of social structures and the totality of global class relationships.

Of course, to map systems without a command and control centre there cannot be a single unifying map. Capitalism is a system full of contradictions which needs cartographers who refuse to oversimplify it – who refuse, so to speak, to flatten out its hills and valleys. The enormous reconfiguration of the capitalist system has brought it to the ultimate position of complexity and class fragmentation, and to the question of our capacity to understand subjective relations that would lead us towards some kind of total view of this kind of global process: to map something that is everywhere and nowhere, material and immaterial at the same time.

That was the task of Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler in the “Anatomy of an AI System” , as a representation of a complex map showing the exploitation of human labour, data and natural resources in a contemporary system through the lens of an Amazon Echo device, run by Alexa, the talking assistant. What we can trace on this map, as well as in the scope of a theoretical elaboration of the project laid out in twenty-one chapters, are the dependencies that arise in the processes of the “birth”, functioning and death of an Amazon Echo unit. These dependencies have much greater consequences for society, economy, politics and the environment than meets the eye. This is because the complexity tied to the development of an AI system consumes a great deal of resources, such as capital, labour and nature. These resources come from different sources, from the manual extraction of rare metals in Africa through the dehumanising conditions in Chinese factories to the almost completely automatised Amazon facilities, and create a new kind of accumulation of power and wealth concentrated in a small social substratum, inhabited by people like Jeff Bezos.

This sort of modelling, diagram usage and representation is a kind of an abandonment of the old model of representation in the form of a mirror, photograph or correlation between the index and the referent. These new kinds of representation, dealing with abstract processes and relations, have the capacity to unveil hidden mechanisms, which is why they are fundamental to the cartographical essays of Vladan Joler.

Unable to fit into finite categories, works like “The Anatomy of an AI system” have the potential of a multimedia presentation, which is why it is important to point out that they can function as physical objects in an exhibition, on a computer screen, on the internet, or indeed in programmes which allow one to zoom in to certain areas of the map as well as look at the map as a whole. For these sorts of representations, it is necessary to optimise the level of micro/macro reading, in order to enable one to understand each part of the data up close, but also to follow patterns from a broader perspective. Respecting the graphical rule of the “data-ink ratio”, Vladimir Joler’s maps allow us to see complex data and recognise clear patterns in them because of their minimalist design. The metaphor for a quality presentation of data is, indeed, a map.

In 2019, “The Anatomy” won the “Beazley Design of the Year” award from the London Museum of Design for originality and innovation, as well as the honorary award of the jury of the Ars Electronica – STARTS award, with which the European commisssion awards achievements in the intersectional areas of technology, industry, society and art. Finally, the acquisition of this work for the collection of the New York MoMA in 2020 represents final recognition for any kind of contemporary artwork.

Let us therefore take a closer look of this map. The distinctions between single data units or registers are visually subtle, but clear and effective. The value and beauty of his proofs lie in the theory and practice of analytical design. Joler’s practice problematises the relationship between the visible and the invisible, the immaterial and the systematic, as parts of the modern economical system i.e. late capitalism, which eludes narrative and visual representations.

We can approach the definitive activist potential of this work in a similar way.. Indeed, the first obstacle to any kind of organised response to the question of social repression or the system of exploitation is a lack of an orientation which would connect capital in the abstract with the tangible data of day-to-day perception.

Vladan Joler, “New extractivism” (detail), 2020, extractivism.online

Vladan Joler, “New extractivism” (detail), 2020, extractivism.online

Vladan Joler and Matteo Pasquinelli, Nooscope, The rise of AI statistical models as instruments of knowledge. A diagram of machine learning errors, biases and limitations,
2020, www.nooscope.ai


Vladan Joler’s maps belong to the corpus of works which enable individuals and collectives to realise their place in the system of exploitation and to contextualise it. They discover the invisible landscape behind a dark screen, whose etymology reveals its use (to screen). This is because mapping out capitalism is a necessary condition for identifying any kind of “lever”, nerve centre, or junction point in the anatomy of the politics of modern domination.

Among other methods, Joler’s mapping involves taking a virtual external standpoint, from which one can comprehend and navigate a situation in which the spectator is in fact a participant embedded in the system. Such an attempt at economical, cognitive mapping represents therefore a new kind of transcendence, painfully extracted from existence itself, construed by departure from the said embeddedness.

In the 2020 project entitled “New Extractivism”[6], made of an assemblage of concepts and allegories, the spectator navigates their own situation, as the imaginary protagonist, through maps, guides and footnotes. This vertical superstructure is made up of three central registers: Forces and Caves (our situational analysis), Factory (a detailed description of the principles of exploitation), and Extraction Fields. All three registers are further divided into 33 subcategories, through which the protagonist passes vertically, descending from the top all the way to the bottom, passing through such “stations” as Plato’s Cave – or rather, Platopticon (a combination of Plato’s Cave and Bentham’s Panopticon) -, through the painstakingly analysed organisational units of the Factory, amongst which one can find the instruments of perception and measurement and the contents of extraction, all the way to the bottom and the largest piece, Extraction Fields, detecting and analysing the principles of the exploitation of data, nature and labour – from the body and mind through digital identities, inhumane labour, the extraction engine -, to the lake at the very bottom, formed of blood, sweat and toxic waste. Man is sucked into the black hole of digital exploitation and used as worker, income source (means) and product. All of the 33 registers are supplied with concise essays detailing the theoretical framework. Joler’s references cover everything from Karl Marx and Christian Fuchs, Bentham, Foucault, Deleuze, Gattari, Baudrillard, through George Orwell, Herbert George Wells, and Terry Gilliam, to the Critical Art Ensemble and Mateo Pasquinelli.

These are not merely didactical or pedagogical works, although they have to be that in part, in order to enable reinterpretion of what a work of art means in the age of internet, AI, and social networking. What we are discussing here is the representability of our stability and the effect of its modelling for the purpose of political action. Understanding the structures and mechanisms of power.

In contemplating the efficiency of graphical representation of information flow on these maps and the choice itself of maps and diagrams, one is invited to think back and remember that the instantiation of the diagram as means of representation in economics is an 18th-century invention, and that it has had significant consequences for representation as an idea. Economic representation, which has been developing simultaneously with political economics, has been integral in understanding capital. An example of this can be found in François Quesnay[7] and his tableau économique: “The zigzag, if properly understood, cuts out a whole number of details, and brings before your eyes certain closely interwoven ideas which the intellect alone would have a great deal of difficulty in grasping, unravelling and reconciling by the method of discourse.”

And so it is that Joler’s tableau enables a kind of an all-encompassing snapshot of temporal and material movement, for whose understanding a sequential diagram would be insufficient.

That is why it is important to think about the metaphorical reservoirs from which one collects the quality of such representations. And about the relationship between the mechanical and organic economic models, with their presuppositions regarding the integrity, composition, operation and degradation of the latter model. About connecting these economic representations and their political equivalents, and thinking about the transition from the visibility of Quesnay’s tables to marking the effects of the temporal division of labour in William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary of 1786, the first significant work to employ statistical graphs.

At the same time, economists have continued to work on mechanical analogies to represent the functioning of economic processes. The American economist Irving Fisher’s 1892 doctoral dissertation developed a mechanical model of the market economy consisting of a network of tanks, pipes and levers, in which water flow stood for the principles of productivity. He considered this model to be adequate not only as an image of the market, but also as an instrument of research, therefore implying that the effects of complex variations in the market can be studied by changing the positions and states of different levers and supports.


Vladan Joler, “New extractivism”, exhibition display, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina,
Novi Sad, 2021.

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”

Edward Tufte

It seems that these modern times are characterised by indifference and ideological confusion, , a vague sense of discomfort and an unclear description of our opponents. Works like Vladan Joler’s maps allow for an easier way to identify these feelings. Joler translates indifference into a question and discomfort into a problem. Any adequate response to that problem contains an overview of a planned intervention, a lever maintaining or changing the integrity of the structure. The work of Vladan Joler is therefore part of a general vision of the system and of the strategical imperative to identify and analyse the levers of power.

In one of his latest works, the 2020 Nooscope: AI as Instrument of Knowledge Extractivism[8] , realised in cooperation with Mateo Pasquinelli, a professor of philosophy at Karlsruhe University, Vladan Joler continues to demystify AI. The term Nooscope stands for machine learning, the instrument of navigating knowledge (from the Greek σκοπεῖν – to contemplate, to look and νόος – mind).

This project has also been shown in a cartographical framework representing the limits of AI, also made of three constituent parts: Training Data Set, Learning Algorithm, and Model Application. Its vertical line, however, moves from the bottom up, ending with the models of application of the principles of machine learning previously laid out. The authors have signed this map as a manifesto of AI dissidents, whose aim is to demystify AI – first of all, the term “intelligence”, and then AI as a political form, autonomous, independent of people and society. They see AI as a process of alienation consequent on the increased geopolitical autonomy of hi-tech companies and the invisibility of the autonomy of workers around the world. The purpose of the project is the secularisation of AI, the transition from its ideological status as “intelligent machines” to an instrument of knowledge which can help perceive and correlate vast and, to the human eye, unparseable databases. The aim is to create a sketch of a concise and approachable critical grammar of machine learning, which points to the fact that AI is not a monolithic paradigm of rationality, but a construct crafted by means of known procedures and tricks. Thus the diagrams show the two sides of machine learning, the successful and the unsuccessful, covering a broad spectrum of errors, limitations, weak points, approximations, all of which contribute to a distortion of the image of the world.

Owing to the preoccupation with the aesthetics of the political and the politicisation of art, and the challenges of separating politics from economics, art history has not given enough attention to the aesthetics of economics. This aesthetics gains importance in time of crisis, when our cognitive and financial deficits meet a need to unveil the system. The understanding of this system was always partial, and is now completely suspended. But it can be registered at an aesthetical level, with a very broad scope, which could include artificially constructed representation and individual and collective organs of perception. The essay entitled “Envision Capital” by Susan Buck-Morss offers an orientation in this regard. Buck-Morss problematises “fixing” the economy essentially as a problem of representation, demanding efficiency of abstraction – abstraction of the “image” of economic relations and transactions as a totality. Viewing the problem from this angle points to part of the general intention behind Joler’s maps.


The idea of cognitive mapping is foundational to the argument of historical change and the correlation between culture and the political economy: every era develops cultural forms and modalities of expression which allow it to represent the world, however partially or ideologically motivated. Vladan Joler does just that. He maps the battlefield.

[1] Line from the Roberto Rosselini movie “Europa ’51” spoken in a factory by the movie’s protagonist, referencing the essay of Gilles Deleuze.

[2] Jameson, F. “The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System”, London/Bloomington: BFI/Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 82. 82

[3] Steyerl, H. “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective”, in The Wretched of the Screen, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2012, pp. 26. 26.

[4] Lynch was directed to the question of understanding and city navigation. What kind of cities, buildings, landmarks and transport systems make for the best urban experience? Lynch states that a well-designed city, one developed most optimally, needs to be “legible” to its inhabitants, even visitors. It needs to possess a certain “image legibility.”

[5] https://anatomyof.ai/

[6] https://extractivism.online/

[7] It is interesting to note that Quesnay was a physician, and that therefore we can think about the sources of this kind of representation as stemming from his practice, namely, the possible influences of blood flow and circulation on his metaphor of blood flow for the circulation of people, money and resources into a city. These diagrams, after all, don’t just show us the flow, they also show us the central pump, their source.

[8] https://nooscope.ai/

[9] Susan Buck-Morss, “Predočavanje kapitala: Prikazivanje političke ekonomije”, kuda.org & Multimedijalni institut, Novi Sad i Zagreb, 2014.