The Plague: Panel

BLOG EPHEMERA, ENCOUNTERS, SPECULATIONS

Transcript of panel presentation for Melbourne Art Book Fair 2018, Art+ Australia Journal Issue Two: The Plague.

“… I’m Jess. I operate out of the Victorian College of the Arts over the road from the National Gallery of Victoria.  I’ve now worked as a physiotherapist for close to a decade whilst undertaking my studies in Fine Arts, and I’m undertaking my PhD part time, which- to get a bit to technical- is an investigation of the agents and agencies in transdisciplinary digital art production. An agent is a person or thing that takes an active role or produces a particular effect in a given situation. For my contribution to this issue of Art+ Australia, I pulled out one particular type of agent: that is, the non human, artificial intelligence or A.I.

Who is affected? Well, it’s all of you humans out there! Those without an Internet connection are probably ok, though… In my essay, I tell the story of a semi-fictional A.I, whose function is to curate and share online media. This particular computer program- which doesn’t quite exist yet-uses a neural network, one of the most powerful machine learning architectures modelled after the animal or human brain. These systems are able to predict human behavior through the gathering of information over time- learning by experience, in other words. These systems do exist- take self driving cars, of recent controversy, for example. In my scenario, I wonder what would happen if an automated artificial intelligence replaced human labour in tastemaking visual media? What if such an entity needed to farm and control social media shares in order to retain resilience, presence, in fact, to ensure its own survival on the social web? In my piece for the journal, this entity begins to commandeer our online visual culture, feeding back to us an increasingly homogeneous diet of images and media.

Aside from the obviously dystopian, science fiction tone of my story, its concerns have their roots in the here and now. These near future speculations are the sort of thing we see in frequently bleak series like Westworld and Black Mirror, yet they are part of a potentially real horizon beyond humanity. This has some people a bit worried- and not just the conspiracy theorists! Take the Future of Humanity Institute, operating at the University of Oxford. Their entire mission is the study of existential risks – events that endanger the survival of Earth-originating, intelligent life or that threaten to drastically and permanently destroy our potential for realising a valuable future. This includes the machine-human impact (or cybernetic relationships) of future technologies, such as advancements in artifical intelligence. As Norbert Wiener, originator of the term cybernetics has warned us: “To turn a machine off effectively, we must be in possession of information as to whether the danger point has come.” If any of you saw that recent short clip of the Boston Dynamics robot dog opening a door and marching out into the unknown-maybe it already has, and the end is nigh! With all this in mind, I wanted to work with the journal’s theme of Plague to conjure an insidious epidemic of activity, brewing up on the peripheries unseen, before it begins to infiltrate mainstream awareness and affect human behaviour. In fact I’m speaking from experience, as this infiltration via fringe culture is how the story first came about.

It happened before the editor Ted Colless asked me to write for the journal. It was sparked in a conversation we’d had years earlier, when I had made up a bit of jargon for an art project I was working on. As a kind of online Choose-Your-Own adventure, or Web page maze, I wanted my title to suggest many choices, unfurling moments of consequence in a labyrinth of potential options- this is, as we are all no doubt familiar with, the experience of cruising the Internet, clicking on through the chains of links and offshoots in the everyday searches most of us all do without much thought. I cobbled together the word “hypersition”, hoping it would encompass hyperactivity and multiple positions, and we could leave it at that.

Ted informed me however, that alas, “hyperstition” was an existing neologism- a cobbled together word-once notorious for its use by a particular group of people, though it had been a while since he had last heard about them. Their term “hyperstition”, so similar to my “hypersition”, seemed to be one among many experimental terminologies, bandied about by a transdisciplinary group of rogue academics, theorists, writers, artists and philosophers operating around The University of Warwick during the ’90s. They called themselves the Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit- CCRU, for short. I think their definition of their term “hyperstition” gives us a good demonstration of their experimental and unorthodox ideas, articulated as follows:

Hyperstition:
1. Defined as an element of effective culture that makes itself real
2. Fictional quantity functional as a time-travelling device
3. Coincidence intensifier
4. Call to the Old Ones

Well, I was definitely curious then… As you can imagine, there was an almost mystical, cultish quality about the work that the CCRU did in the 90s. It was deliberately obtuse and shrouded in abstract language like this, but it is possible to identify distinct themes within much of their writings, conferences, and events. They were strongly interested in ideas around cybernetics, science-fiction, futurism, and contributed significantly to ideas around accelerationism: intensifying capitalism to an end point of totalisation or collapse.

It did initially seem that the collective that was working under the 90’s CCRU umbrella had disbanded and fragmented into obscurity, along with one of their most notorious ringleaders, the philosopher Nick Land. Ted told me back then that the enigmatic Land had either gone legitimately a little crazy- he did have a bit of maverick reputation- or he had just staged his insanity before disappearing from the scene and from conservative academia. Ted then went on to recommend me read Nick Land’s anthology, Fanged Noumena. Now, this book isn’t the easiest read, maybe we can use the term ‘read’ a bit loosely here. It’s full of cryptic glyphs and long tracts of dense and feverish writings. It’s more of a visual assault than a casual experience. If we could give this kind of thing a genre title, we could fit it into the category of Speculative Fiction.

Speculative Fiction is described by its advocates as a particular scheme of thinking and writing, one that reflects the shifting and dynamic nature of the universe itself. Speculative fiction can be viewed as space in which thought can be unshackled from experienced, prescriptive reality. Other futures open up through our imaginings and ideas, giving us agency in creation. Hence, you might find that many pieces of speculative writing may not seem linked to stable rationality or straightforward literary structures. They push the envelope for conveying a nugget of condensed, linear meaning to the reader, and might not always be taken as examples of writing that are in good, and proper taste. Luckily, Art + Australia’s platforms for writing allow us to test those borders that might be considered in good, and proper taste.

Now- I took up Ted’s recommendation, tried reading Nick Land’s book, and wrote a blog post about it early last year. I had thought this was a relatively innocuous thing to do, perhaps there might have been some people on Twitter that would take an interest in such obscurities, and so I went ahead and shared the post to social media.

Like a swarm, like an epidemic, they started to come out of the proverbial woodwork. Attracted like deep sea fish to the lure of hash tags and the mention of their guru’s name, Nick Land, a mass of affiliated people started surfacing within my Twitter feed. I was quite suddenly being offered clandestine links to anonymously maintained Google Drive accounts, and strange manifestos sent my way. Like Ben Woodard describes in this issue of Art and Australia, it seems that “the pockets of collectivity that seemed like such a novelty in the 1990s became infinitely pluralised in the 2000s”. I had come into contact with a previously unseen network of self labelled technoscience enthusiasts, cyberpunks, rave nihilists, xenofeminists, occulture connoisseurs… a whole assortment of verbose niche dwellers, all rallying around the ideals of the CCRU. Indeed, it would seem like some of them are writers, artists, philosophers who have contributed to past and current articles for the Art + Australia journal. It can be very hard to tell, since they all have a tendency to mask themselves behind glitchy avatars and codified pseudonyms when posting online.

Through contact with this newly discovered subculture, I realised that Nick Land himself appears to be very much alive, active and posting tidbits from somewhere in Shanghai to a global community of the faithful, made up of acolytes new and old. As an unfortunate side effect, I also experienced contact with what Ben’s article charts- this mass mobilisation and enablement of neoreactionaries and the alt right movement online. Neoreactionaries are the ugly underbelly of extreme right wing capitalism, a confusing and controversial spin off from that CCRU accelerationist proposal. Behind their veil of anonymity, their vitriol is rife across social media, packaged up in meme imagery, and hate speech across sites such as 4chan, Reddit and Twitter.

Eventually, this Twitter swarm brought me in contact with the artificial intelligence called Archillect. Archillect is a real life image miner, the muse for my contribution to the journal. Just like my exaggerated characterisation, Archillect actively sifts through the meta data of human image sharing behaviours on social media. Described as a ‘she’ by her human creator Murak Pak, she acts like a prosthesis for our Internet behaviours, sharing images she predicts we’ll like based on her learned experience. These fairly edgy, quite techno cool images and gifs caught my attention as they were being spread and shared this particular Twitter community. Like a virus, it seemed that these selections were contagious, spreading from point to point in a network of happy and willing supporters. For fans of a cybernetic future, the rise of AI’s agency and independence signals possible entry into the posthuman era. Posthumanism has been described as a”huge shift in the nature of society and our bodies, a mutation brought about by the exposure to simulated images in the traditional media, and the slow penetration of daily life by gadgets from contact lenses to personal computers.” I don’t know about you all, but the infiltration of culture, behavior and society all sounds pretty familiar, to me, it’s our lived experience as of right now…”

More on reading CCRU outputs, Fanged Noumena and Nick Land here.

References:

– “Hyperstition”: (now defunct) CCRU.net website
-Terranova, Tiziana. ‘Posthuman Unbounded: Artificial Evolution and High-Tech Subcultures’. In The Cybercultures Reader, edited by Barbara Kennedy and David Bell, 268–79. London : Routledge, 2000.
-Brits, Baylee, Prudence Gibson, and Amy Ireland, eds. ‘Introduction’. In Aesthetics After Finitude, pg 7–20. re.press, 2016.
-Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics, or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. [Electronic Resource]. New York : M.I.T. Press, 1961, pg 176.