Image source: https://melbourne.sciencegallery.com/sci-film-ex-machina
This text was presented for Sci Gallery Melbourne, Friday 17 August 2018, as part of National Science Week. It was an introduction prior to screening the film ‘Ex Machina’ (2014) at Federation Hall, The Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne.
“Before you settle in to watch the film, I want to get the cogs turning a little around major themes- no spoilers! If you haven’t seen the film before, don’t worry.
When I was a smaller person, my Dad made the somewhat naeive error of insisting that I learn that game of supreme tactics, operating somewhere in between excruciating deliberations and then spurts of careless bravado- the game of chess, of course!
He quickly overcame his enthusiasm when I started to win, and wanted to deflect my appetite for conquest onto another, perpetually willing competitor. So we loaded up the old Windows XP computer with a CD-ROM of a chess program- he was off the hook.
I had a head full of imaginings around the tale of Deep Blue VS Gary Kasparov, the infamous tournament loss of a human chess champion against a computer. Even so, I made sure I dialled the difficulty settings all the way back to ‘easy’. Now this was to be my first experience of friction against a perceived algorithmic injustice, an encounter of disparity between human and non-human action taken towards a common objective- to win the game. Time and time again, as I played, rather permit my win, the chess program would enforce the second optimal result: flashing up stalemate- stalemate- stalemate! I remember feeling outraged at the unfairness of it all, at what seemed like a cold ungraciousness in what I imagined to be my opponent’s persona.
Dad reminded me that was a fairly simple case, though, of placing blame on the puppet masters- the developers who had written the chess program’s code. They were responsible for the unyielding, relentless tendencies of their creation. The actions of this program, hardly representing an autonomous thinker, was only a proxy for the whims of its makers.
This brings us to the film we’re here to watch today- Ex Machina. As you might suspect, the story doesn’t offer up such a simple case. This movie is actually one of my favourites in a fairly recent crop of thoughtful sci-fis. Beyond the fanciful, glossy elements of typical sci fi- ultra advanced tech, cyberpunk urban sprawl, and very tight jumpsuits- audiences are encouraged to ask big picture questions of judgement, empathy, conscience beyond the human. These are what’s termed ‘near future’ concerns- not too far away that we’re talking about transcending our bodies and melding into the universal hive-mind, but along the lines of social media becoming a bit more all consuming, our phones doing more for us than ever, or the internet of things being in pretty much in everything. The hardware we already have in our pockets and the software we subscribe to with full consent, in the near future. In Ex Machina, there’s three relevant concerns around the future of tech that particularly struck me, and maybe you can think about these as you watch tonight.
The first arises from that story of stalemate in my chess adventures, and the agency to take certain actions. Where does that distribution of responsibility fall when there are actions of intelligence made, rather than born? How can these actions be judged if there are involuntary, prescribed differences in someone’s moral compass and ability to behave? Is it just enough to create a faithful, perfect copy of our own psyches, suspended in wetware gel? Or should we take our tech obsession with upgrade and improvement to engineering a better version of us- the next unmissable new release, a host of exciting new features, a symbol of advancement beyond perfect. Machine learning researchers surveyed by a specialist unit at Oxford University answer with some conviction. They predict AI will outperform humans in many activities in the next ten years, such as translating languages (by 2024), driving a truck (by 2027), working in retail (by 2031) or working as a surgeon (by 2053). These researchers believe there is a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years. (1)
The title of the film, as some are probably aware, relates to the phrase : ‘Deus ex machina’. The term was used in ancient Greek theatre. It meant, ‘God from the machine’, where an intervening character would fly onto the scene, suspended high above the stage via a mechanical contraption- the machine. They would change the course of the story through powers often unexpected, or supernatural. In the case of tonight’s film, the title itself confronts us with the notion of the machine unencumbered, disconnected from a deity, master or overseer. Thus given elevated levels of autonomy, we are invited to consider an experience of sensation and action, indeed, a consciousness, as it might occur ‘ex machina’- from the machine… alone.
Now I recall a few occasions of being in the car with my partner, who assures me that he is a master of navigation, a genuine wayfinder in a world of directionless chaos. Inevitably of course, we require a helping hand- courtesy of Google Maps. He will protest: “Oh- shut her up! She’s always wrong anyway, she doesn’t know these streets like I do.” Google’s voice navigation is set by default as a female voice, and it’s not a big stretch to imagine a extended persona that goes along with this- one that is specifically gendered. Sure, it’s just a voice- but like Scarlett Johannsen’s character in the film Her, sometimes that disembodied voice might be all it takes to embed itself into cultural norms and expectations. If we tap into the archives of tech media cultures, from sci fi gaming, film, graphic novels, and the like, we encounter an entrenched history of female gendered virtual assistants.
I grew up console gaming with a character called Cortana, an A.I helper in the Halo franchise. Now, a virtual assistant called Cortana issues cheery pronouncements on the weather from the desktop of my Windows PC, with an twangy American woman’s voice. My new Samsung phone rather unfortunately pits an A.I assistant called Bixby- Samsung proprietary-against the cohabiting, also female voiced, Google Assistant. Both carefully avoid mentions of their Apple counterpart Siri, attending to such menial tasks as turning my Wi Fi on and off, or calling someone handsfree. These current day assistants also orchestrate the latest in smart home technology, bonafide domestic goddesses that are not yet seen- only heard.
Where the rub lies is the continual reinforcement of these artificial, abstracted, but identifiably female subjects into a deepening history of servitude and unquestioning compliance. This not only problematic for it mirroring retrograde gendered arrangements of imbalance and inequality in humans, but it is establishing such a precedent in nonhumans- the sort of thing from which dystopias are dreamed. Much of the control and initiative to shape artificial service assistants or ambient intelligence lies with tech workers, a traditionally male held domain. This is tied up with the tendency for contemporary society to applaud, glamorise and bestow incredible riches, cultural impact and power upon the tech heroes that design these systems. Gender politics are already at play in how we think, speak about and regard service technologies today. This can hardly get simpler as each iteration brings advanced complexities to the fore.
The final point I want to bring up around artificial intelligence is more currently tangible, gaining greater exposure with every scandal that hits the headlines. This is the surveillance, algorithmic profiling and hijackable features that are embedded in, or accompany, the technology we use today. I have a lot of slightly paranoid discussions about how my internet searches will suddenly create relentless advertising, despite my interest in dog beds or toilet seats being largely one-off. I’m not a toilet seat connoisseur or collector, you know- can’t we go back to pop up ads that fill up the screen, strobe crazy colours and say I’m today’s lucky winner??!
Tech ethics researcher Katja De Vries argues that the way in which we experience ourselves necessarily goes through a moment of technical mediation- the apparatus we use, those adornments and additions to ourselves in a physical sense and the way in which an online portrayal of ourselves defines a sense of who we are. She argues that there is growing societal concern around the impact of algorithmic, computational profiling on our sense of identity. (2) This is most obviously occurring online, in which algorithms thrive on reconfiguration of human identity, claiming alleged infatuation with toilet seats at the flimsiest of diagnoses.
This type of thing poses a sense of existential questioning around who or what influences or manufactures a sense of self and even opens up the possibility of preference-based discrimination through increasingly detailed, cross referenced and nuanced examinations of our behaviour through artificial intelligence. With a massive source of information from which to compare us among many, many others like and unlike us- the internet- the way in which algorithms capture us is not a perfect reflection. Rather, a new twist is generated in our stories, and who we appear to be from an outside point of view.
That all being said- I leave you now to enjoy the film!”
- Grace, Katja, John Salvatier, Allan Dafoe, Baobao Zhang, and Owain Evans. ‘When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts’. ArXiv:1705.08807 [Cs], 24 May 2017. http://arxiv.org/abs/1705.08807
- Vries, Katja de. ‘Identity, Profiling Algorithms and a World of Ambient Intelligence’. Ethics and Information Technology 12, no. 1 (1 March 2010): 71–85. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-009-9215-9.
Recalling physicist Richard Feynman’s double-slit experiment, quantum particles take all possible paths in the universe to travel from one locus to another. Transmitted through an intermediary screen, they collect in representational bands at their terminus, made tangible through the sensorium of our world. The principles of superposition enliven these multitudinous passages, before their petrification makes way to existence. Our very act of observation excises all possible potentiate histories, and the most improbable paths tend to neutralise one another in an incomprehensibly limitless contestation of actual determinacies. Such is the act of quantum interference. After Hawking and Mlodinow (2010): “Quantum physics tell us… through our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.” Looking, noting, participating, measuring; all are gestures in our repertoire of quantum agency. At any given moment, an infinite flowering of being collapses in on itself synchronously, antithetical occurrence and disappearance as a universal law of matter.
With two audiovisual tracks spliced together, the triptych video screens of Youjia Lu’s Super(im)position (2018) cycle in and out, phasic openings onto a zone of corrupted subjecthood. Each interfacing wall features the artist, an unclothed female figure seized in temporal abeyance. The inverted negative processing suggests a plane of narcosis, saturated in strobing binaries of red and blue. Subtle gestures mark each screen in a staccato fashion, resisting a discernable narrative, only small eruptions of bodily amplitude. The figure is cut through at each frame, unresolved. Lu performs relentlessly as these vitreous selves. Atomised possibilities for an identity, a chronology, lie outside each frame. They remain in fact with the artist, unable to be transduced into these phantasms. Through her video technique, Lu has nullified familiar symbolic referents, dissembling idioms found in cinema and film. What remains are pluralities at work, an unhinged timeline made visible- but not lexical. Once could have been words, now an utterance in disarray. From around the installation runs a polyphonic shudder, like the deadened battering of moth wings at a windowpane.
The experiential affect might have touched visitors softly, if Lu had not layered her elements with such conscious antagonism. Her videos arrest the unexpecting and unprepared into a dissensus that-paradoxically- unites them. For each new spectator, a diverse suite of visceral reactions pool into discomfort, on the doorstep of horror. Indeterminacy represented: this is a supernatural vision of disorienting, unknowable liminality.
A man with Tourette’s sensibility enters the space. More attuned to variance in light and sound than most, his refractory tolerance for strobe has been exhausted, spent on a rare cinema excursion that was deemed worthy of the physical consequences. He baulks, apprehended by corporeal premonition. At times, his body expresses aesthetic judgement in a dance of muscular contortions. The dance comes unbidden, though he might temporarily suppress it. As he moves past the large-scale screens, a red and blue glow bathes his face. There are no physical tells. Somehow, this work makes a latent refuge out of its oscillating stimuli. His predeterminations fall away, and he is unburdened, if momentarily.
A harried medical doctor arrives, straight from the bustling intensity of neurosurgical rounds. She steps into the space without hesitation. In her brusqueness, one is reminded of the necessary detachment that comes with diagnostic imaging. These tableaux show processions of catastrophic pathology, or coy deviations that creep from a baseline norm. In them, she must decipher omens. Sometimes her patients see things, hear things, that fracture reality. They reach past our world of commons into a superimposed other, a perceptual singularity received only by them. The doctor moves quickly to an adjoining space. The work of the day crowds in on her, unbearably. Super(im)position confronts her, and the others, with all those aborted happenings compressed into the artist’s own, quantum lore.
This text was written by Jessica Laraine Williams (jlogos.net) in conjunction with Super(im)position (2018), commissioned by the artist Youjia Lu
 Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010, pg 106.
 Youjia Lu, Super(im)position (2018), video installation, Kings Artist-Run Gallery, 12 May 2018–2 Jun 2018.
Images: Youjia Lu, Super(im)position (2018), video installation. With the artist’s permission.
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:
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.
– “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.
The tensions of artifice runs a charge through the invitation, extending out from the relational collegiality we had established a few years ago. Marita and I had been tossed together like salad condiments, based on a shared interest in communications dispersed across geospatial rifts, from node to node in the entangled Web. Our respective practitioner circles had connected us based on this twin investigation; in my case, perhaps out of sympathy for my lack of other associates working in the fields of new media and digital art. As a regional and independent practitioner, Marita had made her own inroads towards reviving the Telematic Embrace, and we were both nostalgic for Roy Ascott’s technoetic optimism, one that had sparkled amongst the pages of Leonardo Journal through the decades. Ascott’s heady and spiritual utopias enmesh material, historical and cultural remediations of the winding and endlessly morphing forms of technological advancement. Pushing back against what we felt was a climate laced with posthuman paranoia, Marita and I felt buoyant with new vitality in the tactical technologists, the social justice practitioners, and that unrelenting acceleration in the landscape of networked media. This acceleration was sure to wipe clean any obsolete and brittle attempts to enclose the field of digital art, even those established just ten years ago.
Now, years later, as the boat shredded out from the pier with a filmy salt spray, I remembered grimly that I couldn’t swim.
My blue GPS marker showed up on a contiguous green blob, hedged in by that same shade of Google blue around all sides. The directional arc attached to my blue-dot-avatar disclosed a facing toward north west. Its proprietary length, pivoted around a stationary axis, might sweep over the entirety of the small land mass quite comfortably. Along with myself and Marita, our little landing party comprised creatives, children and someone approximating an official. He knew the clandestine history of South Channel Fort, and he held a set of keys to the subterranean complex it contained. In this, our group also facilitated (and was facilitated by) canonical representation of the island. As he perpetuated the established lore and occupancy of the site, I found myself irresistibly drifting to the fringes of hearing, dipping in and out of comprehension and narrative alignment. I circled and circled the island, past our colleagues in a dogged cartographic pilgrimage. My own consternations and fictions stopped those gaps in knowing the function, real or imagined, of the structures I encountered. A slurred interface between operational and archival objects was a very tangible phenomena throughout all contact with the island and its perimeter.
During one of my ambulatory tracings, I watched the Spirit of Tasmania glide noiselessly past from the dark, circular impression of an absent naval gun. The silently whirring weather station at my back siphoned its data from the atmosphere, bits held in suspension for unseen interpreters to discern and extrapolate. Sound came mostly from the burbling human visitors, and a disgruntled audience of birds. The birds came with species categorizations and placards to announce their legitimate, recognized presence at the site.
I tried to commit some of this factual anchorage to memory, something that would help me consolidate the experience into linearity and retelling afterwards- my partner, an avian biologist, might have held some small stake in such details- but the attempts fell flat and lifeless. As if a kind of resonant materialisation of this sense, white bird bones and powdered organic detritus littered nearly every exposed surface of the island. I examined a thick and sturdy little bone, reminded of the human radii I had studied in my anatomy classes, wedged in among the grotesquerie of medical school vitrines. Despite the ragged array of natural interventions at this place, I felt the same clinical detachment as I had to those formaldehyde soaked and neatly enclosed specimens. The bone’s topography appeared pocked yet ran smooth under the fingertips, and I envisaged, from the many petrels clutching rocky aspects around us, the avian leg that had housed it before rotting away. In my anatomy classes, we had watched our demonstrator artfully strip membranous fascia and clinging strands of grey-brown tendons from human legs, desperate to retain the visual contours of these interior landmarks for future recall. Anatomy exams demand a canonical and agreed upon rhetoric of natural structures. We were anxious not to falter in upholding such a tightly regulated story.
As sedimented intersectionality crunched underfoot, I pulled the park notes out from within a purpose-built wooden box. It was accompanied by Carlton Dry bottles and tightly rolled fragments of serviettes. The literature of this bureaucratic authority celebrated the invasion of natural ecologies, recuperating the site in a siege of elemental transmutation. Skirting caveats, dodging permits, a habitat was formed. The occupying artist, however, received no such concessions to occupancy. The evacuated notes went on, a display of large headers reassuringly announcing an interest of Public (and thus, tax paying) integrity. The ‘why’ of an artificial island, the ‘how’ it was built, and who lived there. The monitoring of gun emplacements, and for distant foreign silhouettes on the encircling sea horizon. A mesh of stakeholders attempting to demarcate their own particular pickets of the island’s significance. This mesh continued to swell and bloat under the strata of our presence on the island that day, and perched atop this blistering mass was our own mix of specificities. We brought a governance to the narrative ourselves, which was possible to assert under the headers of
Questions, and Interrogations
Ludology and Role Playing Games
Unwritten (until now), this collective lens was carried around and unrolled in conversation over the uppermost impressions of island history. We each felt an emotional response as an inextricable textuality in that story, fusing with the invisible actual, the amorphic ‘real thing’ that this place was about. In me, I felt multitudinous scrutiny. Diminutive fairy penguins nervously peered out under sandy fortifications. I felt the eyes of hobby fishermen, a gaze quite apart from the generosity given by our creative colleagues. These interlopers seemed to infringe and destabilise the cosmos of generative storytelling we were weaving in chatting and daydreams. Bobbing out at sea, shuttered behind sunglasses, fishing rods in hands. Jostling past, demanding access and enforcing the usual protocols of park visitation. Try not to think about it; just look. Just see. To me, they were analogues for those invisible frames outside yet inside, demanding permissions and protections, artifice greedily squatting over artifice, making transactions out of retrograde paranoia and a national park out of a man made ruin.
re synthesis of convnet visual extraction
This article was first published on Furtherfield.org on 15/11/16.
The productive alliance between instruments of computing techne and artistic endeavour is certainly not new. This turbulent relationship is generally charted across an accelerating process outwards, gathering traction from a sparse emergence in the 1960s. Along the way, the union of art and technology has absorbed a variety of nomenclatures and classifiers: the observer encounters a peppering of computer art, new media, Net.art, uttered by voices careening between disparagement, foretelling bleak dystopian dreams, or overflowing with whimsical idealism. Once reserved for specialist applications in engineering and scientific fields, computing hardware has infiltrated the personal domain.Today’s technology can no longer be fully addressed through purely permutational or systematic artworks, exemplified in 60’s era Conceptualism. The ubiquity of devices in daily life is now both representative and instrumental to our changing cultural interface. Technologies of computing, networks and virtuality provide extension to our faculties of sense, allowing us phenomenal agency in communication and representation. As such, their widespread use demands new artistic perspectives more relentlessly than ever.
I, and no doubt many other academic observers, watched the Pokemon Go augmented reality (AR) game erupt into a veritable social phenomenon this year. The rapid global uptake and infiltration of AR in gaming stands in contrast to new media arts, still subject to a dragging refractory period of acceptance and canonization. Perhaps this is emblematic of a conservative art world that persistently recalls an ebullient history of computer art practices. In this lineage, many a nascent techno-artistic breach has been accused of deliberate obfuscation, of cloaked agendas under foreign (‘non-art’) orchestrations. The seductive perceptual forms elicited through augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and immersive reality (IR) devices can be construed as mere spectacle, vulnerable to this type of critique. “Google Daydream” and “HoloLens” chime with a poetic futurism; cynics might instead see ready-to-wear seraphs veiling the juggernauts of Silicon Valley. However, the current groundswell in altered reality discourse may signal a divergence from such skepticism. One recent exemplar is Weird Reality, an altered reality conference that aimed “…to showcase independent and emerging voices, creative approaches, diverse and oftentimes marginalized perspectives, and imaginative and critical positions…. that depart from typical tech fantasies and other normative, corporate media.” This is representative of the expanding, international trend towards artistic absorption of new media and technologies. It is a turn that emphasizes the potential for cultural impact, experimental daring, and even conjures the spectre of the avant-garde: radical transformation.
One of my PhD supervisors wisely admitted “…to stand out, the human artist must be more creative, diversified and willing to take aesthetic and intellectual risks. They can and must know the field they are creating in practically and philosophically, and confidence in their position and contribution to it is essential.” Through this earnest lens, artistic production can serve as a conduit for ideas ranging from the speculative to the revelatory. In these divinations, we might trace a path through the sprawl of new media discourses, and find ourselves somewhere unexpectedly revitalizing. I hope to mark out some of this territory from a position of mediation. I want to invite art and art theory into an arena of uninhibited collusion, using critical writing to facilitate the exchange between digital media theorists and artistic practitioners in the most open sense. Furtherfield.org offers an allied platform for the aims of the Theory, Meet Artist  project, articulated here in an interview dialogue.
Originally published in The Fibreculture Journal, Edwina Bartlem’s 2005 article Reshaping Spectatorship: Immersive and Distributed Aesthetics proposes that immersive artwork practices have transformative potential. Across a range of modalities, these works can influence perceptions of ourselves and our extended digital presence in a variety of scenarios and configurations. Whilst participating in such practices, we are prompted to consider IR encounters as form of mediation around our human embodiment, subjective identities and cultural interactions. Bartlem touches on ideas of prosthesis and sensorial augmentation within these immersive experiences. Creation of a synthetic environment is posited as an opportunity for deepened self-reflexivity and awareness. In parallel, a spectrum of narratives around the technologically adapted ‘post-human’ emerge. Their tone and reception hinges upon the artist’s individual performance in roles such as programmer, director, composer or overseer to such works.
Rachel Feery is an Australian artist interested in the intersection of visual art, soundscapes, video projection, experiential installations and technology. Her artistic practice explores alternate realms, the meditative headspace, ethereal imagery and immersive environments. For this interview, Bartlem’s paper is positioned alongside and in dialogue with Feery’s work, Clearing the Cloud.
Clearing the Cloud is described by the artist as “… a multi-sensory work inviting pairs to cloak-up, complete a circuit, and experience simultaneous mapped projections visible through a hooded veil. The artwork aesthetic draws from esoteric sciences and holistic health practices. The environment is intimate, quiet much like a room where one would go to receive therapeutic treatment.
Two participants at a time are invited to cloak up, remove their shoes, and step onto sensors on the ground to generate a circuit of light and sound. Starting with a ‘personalised scan’ followed by a projection of light and sound, all visible and audible within the suit itself, the individuals can either interact with each other or be still and silent. The robe, constructed of a semi-translucent, lightweight fabric with a soft skin-like texture acts as a supplementary skin. One’s field of vision is slightly inhibited by a lightweight mesh that both creates a screen-vision as well as the ability to see through it.”
Jess Williams: I first came into contact with your practice during your talk for Media Lab Melbourne in September this year. You chronicled your process, influences, past works and brought us to Clearing the Cloud. I was struck by the experiential intimacy of the project, and the immersive qualities that you deployed though staging it. In her paper, Bartlem suggests that participants in immersive practices cannot be immersed without being affected by the environment on perceptual, sensory, psychological and emotional levels. What kind of sensorium did you want to create for Clearing the Cloud, and did you contemplate the possibility of this type of affective influence on your participants?
Rachel Feery: In one sense, the project came about while I was thinking about art as therapy, and thinking about technology that has the potential to create a meditative space. The site of the exhibition, Neon Parlour, was previously a centre for healing and meditation. I wanted to create an intimate room that would reflect the building’s history. Speaking of the sensorium, I was drawing from esoteric sciences, looking at auras, and Reiki practices whereby chakras are ‘cleared’. This is all reflected in the visual and environmental elements of the work, but ritual aspect is key. It’s important for participants to enter the artwork through the process of putting the garment on. The ritual is something you have to experience with someone else, and there’s a synchronicity between the people who participate. If either person takes their feet off the sensors, the ‘therapy’ is reset. It becomes apparent that there’s a level of commitment to it, that there’s a trust involved. If one person backs out, the interaction stops and resets.Clearing the Cloud ultimately asks participants to commit and experience the work together. Some participants responded that they felt lighter, and that time had passed out of sync with the seven minutes that had passed in reality. I thought this was an interesting reaction when nowadays, our attention spans are said to be dwindling. I feel there’s something significant in a lot of those esoteric sciences.
JW: Bartlem maintains that immersive art offers more than pure escapism into a constructed simulacra. These types of artworks can also elicit a type of self-awareness or meditation on perception and one’s own agency in the prescribed environment. I’ve noticed a strong tendency to consider transcendence, or the superhuman, in many futurist discourses around technologies that interface with the human body. This spans augmented reality, virtual environments and may well capture less conspicuous (yet ubiquitous) examples, such as fitness metrics or geolocation of the self through GPS. How do you position narratives of extending or ‘hacking’ embodiment within your own work?
RF: There’s an aspect of being both physically present and also outside of yourself whilst engaged in Clearing the Cloud. As a participant, you find yourself looking through a meshed veil that’s being projected on, and if you adjust your focus, you can see coloured projections on the other participant. This dual, simultaneous vision got me thinking about the ways that newer technologies such as AR and VR can affect what we see and the way that we see. Essentially, those applications allow you to see an environment with a filter over it. You have the sense during the ‘clearing therapy’ of an outer body experience, which is something that certain types of meditation aspire to. Escapism can imply you’re ignoring what’s happening in the outside world and going inside yourself, or elsewhere. But technology is blurring these boundaries, becoming increasingly intertwined in everyday activities, both personal and shared. You’re not really escaping if there’s an application present to assist with something, provide new information, or an augmented experience. In that sense, I would agree that it’s not pure escapism. You’re in two places at once. I would say that the word escapism has darker implications, such as detachment and avoidance of reality over a virtual space. Meditation, however, is affiliated with deeper understanding of oneself, and acceptance and appreciation of both worlds. As technology gets more advanced, I think it will have the ability to do both.
I like the idea that two people willingly participate in this scan and projection without question. I feel it relates to this influx of new technology applications that are free and that everyone’s willing to try. On the darker side, I wonder about the consequences of giving away information- effectively, parts of yourself- to participate in the unknown. I also like the idea that Clearing the Cloud is presented as a holistic therapy, a gesture of removing the build-up of accumulated information, or as protection from the data mining we’re exposed to through technological interfacing. We’re made vulnerable to hacking, but in a sense it’s not really hacking anymore, it’s just collecting what we’ve been giving. There’s such a rush to use new applications and technologies but everything is untested. Essentially people become trial subjects through their willing self-disclosure.
JW: You mentioned David Cronenberg’s 1999 film eXistenZ as a formative influence in your creative development. Underpinning the science fiction and horror themes, a specific abject revulsion is reserved in this film for prosthetic extension and modification to the human body. Could the veils (with their accompanying perceptual experiences) used in Clearing the Cloud be viewed as a form of sensory prosthesis?
RF: I would say I was more interested in the idea of accessorising tech, rather than prosthetics. I am drawn to the way that Cronenberg’s characters leave their physical body and enter another state, but again, this is quite geared towards escapism. Using the veils arose through researching a mix of religious and medical robes, futuristic fashion and science-fiction inspired fashion. They all seemed to be white. There’s also a relationship with the cloak to other forms of wearable technology. I’m interested in this – in Google Glass, VR headsets, and related items – as both a current fashion trend and also as a subtle way that technology encroaches on our day to day lives, present as we move through and see our worlds. While I perceive the cloak itself is not so much of a prosthesis, there are certain physical qualities of the material that feel both organic and synthetic. They’re made of a foggy, PVC translucent plastic: when worn, this fabric feels like a skin. The backwards-oriented hood also functions as a way to obscure the face, and presents a form of anonymity that is ultimately within the concept of ‘being cleared’ and ‘regaining yourself.’ There are other associations too: of a uniform, of being part of a community that has been cleared, or erased.
JW: Typically, when audiences are presented with new media or computer mediated artworks, they have limited access to the operational interior of the encounter. Whilst it can be argued that more traditional media or installation works also don’t completely disclose their construction or authorship, new media practices seem subject to increased scrutiny and distrust around how- and to what end- they operate. In her paper, Bartlem proposes that instead of masking the presence of technology and interface, immersive artworks tend to overtly emphasize the synthetic artifice of the experience. In regards to revealing the hierarchies of control implicit in executing works like Clearing the Cloud, how much do you wish the audience to have a certain ‘privilege of access’? For example, do you consider it necessary to directly reference programming script, hardware circuitry, or technologies of surveillance?
RF: The actual technology used in the exhibition was not necessarily about aesthetics. Hardware and devices, such as projectors and Raspberry Pis, were not elements that I wanted audience attention drawn to. Moreover, I think if you give spectators interior access, it can take away the simplicity of the art experience. The most that I would give away would be the materials visible or listed in the artwork. I actually tried my best to mask the technology, hiding cords and mounting the projectors up high to make it feel innocuous and to minimise its physical presence. Once people can identify familiar tech, there is an immediate undermining of mystical impact. For this artwork, I worked with artist and technologist Pierre Proske to write a code that triggers the projection once the sensor pads are activated. The hardware elements are present, but they’re definitely not the focus. Rather, it’s the experience itself, the meditative space created that participants are made most aware of. I think that’s why auras, and energy healing, are so fascinating: they rely on people’s ability to embrace and believe in the healing process, which in turn requires any distractions or doubts to be removed- or at least obscured. Obsfucation was deliberately built into the back-to-front hoods used in Clearing the Cloud. Restriction of the visual frame of reference was intended to encourage immersion in the experience.
JW: As we’ve discussed, the eponymous gesture of “clearing the cloud” reads as recuperative, meditative, and somewhat subversive towards strategic or commercial use of new technologies. This is a position that Bartlem suspects is endemic within artistic instrumentalisation of these types of media. Do you feel a sense of alignment with a more radical manifesto in new media practice?
RF: A lot of my ideas draw from or relate to concepts that have been proposed in science-fiction films… science-fiction is radical. Sci-fi extrapolates the current social, political or technological trends, or explores alternate models. Clearing the Cloud also proposes a need for something that hasn’t quite been quantified, a therapy to restore and protect from encounters with technology. Clouds traditionally connote lightness, and formlessness, but today they weigh heavily on us in a digital data context. We carry more and more information, and give more and more of ourselves. We’re now clouded by our metadata trails, and it’s radical to think that a therapy can address this, and return us to a state of clarity, in a literal and metaphysical sense.
JW: After your talk, I asked you a question around whether Clearing the Cloud‘s artistic narrative could function beyond a ‘closed-circuit’ proposition. Whilst Bartlem scopes immersive and telepresent practices in her paper, she doesn’t directly address works that hybridise the two concepts. She frames telepresent artworks as those that link participants from distant locations, precipitating notions of networks and a multi-user participation within art. How would a multiplicity of network relations impact on a scenario like that you have staged in Clearing the Cloud?
RF: An excellent question, and very relevant to the nature of the work. The participant’s experience centres on a propositional ‘defrag’ of their personal hard-drives, regaining clarity, allowing independent thought free from the prison of past browsing histories and metadata maps. Those in a networked community also benefit from this speculative process: the more persons ‘cleared’, the stronger the authentic connections would be. If you were to be ‘cleared’, and your online history erased, the persons closest to you would also need to be erased in order to completely eliminate any trace of you. It’s like a chain reaction. Although only two people might be scanned at a time, for a complete ‘clearing’ you would need the eventual interfacing of everyone you’ve ever come into contact with. Ideas around utopias were intrinsic to the development of Clearing the Cloud. In one view of the work, those people who have been ‘cleared’ became part of a separate, even sanctified community. This meditation was idealistic, borne of the desire to find a way to protect our identities and those of our networks when they are potentially threatened or compromised by interactions with technology.
Clearing the Cloud was originally exhibited in 2016 as part of This Place, That Place, No Place curated by Irina Asriian (Chukcha in Exile) at Neon Parlour, Melbourne, Australia.
Taylor,Grant D. When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2014.
 Ibid, pg. 9
 Visit https://jlogos.net/category/theory-meet-artist/ for parallel projects in the nascent Theory, Meet Artist series
 Bartlem,Edwina. “FCJ-045 Reshaping Spectatorship: Immersive and Distributed Aesthetics.” The Fibreculture Journal, no. 7 (2005). http://seven.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-045-reshaping-spectatorship-immersive-and-distributed-aesthetics/
Taking a dalliance through Nick Land’s mythos should come with a wristband. Cherished for months after the festival, it performs an inevitable disintegration… ephemera reinscribed to fragmentary notions once again. As rumor (and Wikipedia) would perpetuate, Land’s anthology Fanged Noumena(1) is a rare fae of published work, a brief singularity of agitation and irreverence within a limited canon. Amongst this erratic output, Land apparently went rogue: proper rogue. After ejecting himself from the impingements of palatable academia, evidence suggests that he has since reinstated himself anew.
Land’s tenure at The University of Warwick during the ’90s is generally regarded exorbitantly, and via iridescent lists. Sprawling, clunky webpages that heave with tags of ‘occulture’…’cybergothic’…’rave nihilism’… ‘de-territorialisation’. A kind of epistemic party mix for the post-human sweet tooth. As if in homage to the spirit of the Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit, the one-time axis of Land’s nebulous activites, most of these aforementioned sites are presented obliquely, aloof even. Their abandonment sees them crusted over with Times New Roman in columnar blocks, fervently indented, staunchly at the cusp of Web 2.0 glossiness. The epitome of these is CCRU.NET itself, the virtual portal that has survived the CCRU’s clandestine sign on the office door.
The new visitor to CCRU.NET is hardly encouraged to wade across the dappled Parchment tile bitmap, an unrenovated sickly green. Furtive hyperlinks with with cryptic nomenclature cling to borders and headers. I scroll hurriedly to try one, which deepens my sensation of trepass.
Trespassing, prohibition and refusal are all evocative of this so-called ‘short prehistory’ of the CCRU. My quarrel is not with the length, rather with the general non-disclosure of the CCRU manifesto. I get the sense that nothing so hermetically packed as a linear chronology might be levered out from this text, and most deliberately so.
The swill of ‘-ologies’ deflects all grasping attempts to chart an entity across time or space. The CCRU was a Happening, a collective disturbance in Warwick’s institutional memory. I eventually get a foothold on assemblages, a familiar motif of Deleuze and Guattaris’ A Thousand Plateaus. It’s characteristic of Land’s writing, where Freud, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger bravely leap out from behind mirrors, a delirious ride that collapses and mutates. Fanged Noumena sees the semiotic core of these encounters petrify into actual glyphs:
I feel distinctly trendy reading these, like I’m soaking up some deconstructionist hexes for future nemeses, but it does make for tough going. After all, I had always thought of D&G’s(2) cybernetic intimations as suspiciously optimistic. I felt warmly encircled by the automatic, the operational, and the mechanistic aspects of their ideas. The shattered substrate of technology and identity was permitted- encouraged, even- to fuse. In Land’s collected texts, cybercultures are more ominously cast:
“It is ceasing to be a matter of how we think about technics, if only because technics is increasingly thinking about itself… a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir… where human culture will be dissolved.”(3)
We telematic dreamers are left bereft, naïve. Land is able to transfix his attention momentarily on recuperation, perhaps haunted himself by recollections of academic stewardship.
“Cybernetics is inextricable from exploration…”(but it’s only a brief glimmer of frontier sentimentality) “…having no integrity transcending that of an uncomprehended circuit within which it is embedded, an outside in which it must swim.” (4)
Last year, I dipped a toe into this swirling milieu with my cybertext titled The Hypersition. In an almost alarmingly serendipitous turn, the name I chose fell in closely to Land’s own vernacular, an onomatopoeic and epistemic acorn to his hyperstition tree. A unanimously frustrating experience of hoarded inputs and neutered agency, my work and Land’s word jostle together.
A coincidence intensfier, indeed.
The CCRU.net glossary is another conflation, and from it we can only know less assuredly that hyperstition might be a labyrinthine detour, an opacity of performance, lifestyle, vapours:
Hyperstition-or brands of the outside-real components of numerical fictions that make themselves real, providing the practical matter of sorcery, spirogenesis, or productive involvement that function consistently with the flatline.
This idea, and indeed the majority of CCRU emanations, appear to be the undead avatars of Land’s cyberhype. We thus tread warily, stepping around Land’s foaming up of signs and cultural material into nonsensicality… a ponderous flattening of excess and emptiness.
Originally published September 2016
(1) Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena : Collected Writings 1987-2007. Falmouth : Urbanomic ; New York, NY : Sequence Press, 2011.
(2) Not Dolce & Gabbana, unfortunately, but Deleuze and Guattari.
(3) Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena : Collected Writings 1987-2007. pg 293
(4) Ibid. pg 295
(5) From http://www.ccru.net/syzygy.htm
Off the GPS grid, locked in a perpetual targeting of the incorporeal.
A glitch reminiscent of Nintendo’s canonical MISSINGNO, circa early 2000’s: