With our increasingly porous objects, ubiquitous networks and ambivalent organisms, why artists are drawing inspiration from extra-human agencies
Contemporary geopolitical, technological and ecological narratives are marked by uncertainty, as if unmoored from a gravitational mass. ‘Speculative’ seems to be the adjective of the hour, usually preceding ‘fiction’, ‘design’ and, inevitably, ‘realism’. Algorithmic intelligences run riot in the Anthropocene: as ecologies collide, ontologies dissemble. Sentences that weld seemingly disparate nouns into angular Latourian provocations are now utterly commonplace. (‘How can a cryptocurrency set in motion the colonization of the Arctic?’, asked one recent exhibition press release.) Prior delusions of unparalleled human agency – from Protagoras’ proclamation of ‘man as the measure of all things’ to Silicon Valley techno-optimism – seem to have ebbed away into an ether of strange signals to which we are not fully attuned: a medial soup of porous objects, encrypted networks and ambivalent organisms (often including other people).
The sociologist of science Andrew Pickering has argued that reality should be understood as an ‘ontological theatre’, and that scientific practice is a ‘performative’ engagement with the world as it unfolds, rather than a representation of the reality as it appears.1 The same could almost certainly be said of artistic practice: to be alive to an environment of lively systems, human and non-human alike, is a reminder that we exist prepositionally – above and below, amongst and within. As Anna Tsing writes in her 2015 work of fungal anthropology, The Mushroom at the End of the World: ‘Everyone carries histories of contamination. Purity is not an option.’2
Are we losing control? If so, perhaps a little confusion should come as a relief – after all, it was hubris that got us into this mess. In a world of shrouded communications that implicate our everyday practices while being all but imperceptible to empirical intuition, artists have lately found themselves in the role of conduit, conjurer and host. In the past year, a number of projects have summoned the involvement of supernatural forces and otherworldly agencies: uncanny channels that unveil new shapes of thought and new minds for thinking with, unsettling well-worn humanist epistemologies. These aesthetic sensibilities favour the sticky over the smooth, embodiment over representation, entropic emergence over linear causation: they form a diverse yet distinctly contemporary engagement with ‘other agencies’, as well as a deeply political inquiry into the interrelation of bodies, cultures and species.
Tendencies towards the spiritual have been increasingly visible of late, notably manifesting earlier this year in the performance-symposium Witchy Methodologies (coined by Holly Pester and organized by Anna Bunting-Branch) at the ICA, London. The corporeal imaginary of witchcraft offers a potent inventory of spells and sanctuaries against the predictive schema of technoscientific rationalism, constructing emancipatory worlds through folk knowledge and deviant practices, as well as a certain aura of orphic authenticity. The performances of Linda Stupart, who was part of the ICA panel, cast ritual magic and witchy aesthetics as tools of queer subversion and self-care. In A Spell to Bind Straight Cis White Artists from Profiting Off of Appropriating Queer Aesthetics and Feminine Abjection (2016), Stupart conjures a safe space of sorts from a candle-lit salt circle. From personal anecdotes to an account of Ana Mendieta’s death, the artist incants tales of misogyny and heteronormativity in the art world, while a video collage plays out scenes of self-harm, floating crystals, as well as sequences of vengeful empowerment and possession in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The performance took place during a residency titled ‘COVEN’, during which Stupart was joined by female and non-binary participants. Meanwhile, in Autonomous Trap 001 (2017), James Bridle casts a salt circle of his own in order to trap a driverless car by imitating the road markings understood by its computer vision system. Black magic as communication, as well as control, invoked as a supernatural mediation between the language of humans and machines. Thematically, these works sit some distance apart, but in their occultist gestures, higher powers from the other realm are called upon against the mundane yet pernicious forces that subject us in our own. Witchcraft sabotages dominant forms of being and seeing, as it ever did. If only for the duration of a performance, art works its magic.
Such weaponizations of the arcane carry echoes of what Melissa Gronlund observed a few years ago as ‘the return of the Gothic’, in which supernatural motifs functioned as a ‘nexus for a variety of anxieties’ around technologies emerging at the beginning of our century, much as the Gothic genre did in the late 19th. Writing in 2014 – which now feels like a generation ago – Gronlund’s essay discussed artists who explored digital representation as a screen of fearful and fetishistic investment. Current engagements with extra-human mediations seem altogether more pragmatic. As the post-humanist theorist Rosi Braidotti writes, ‘any theory of subjectivity worth its name must take into account the organic and embodied nature of the subject’.3 Contemporary artistic experiments with the supernatural are doubtlessly anxious, but they are less worried about infinite interior of a bourgeois psychoanalytical subject than the actual material ethics at stake: the violent biopolitics of living bodies within emergent socio-technical ecologies.
In April, the Helsinki-based curator Taru Elfving hosted the second occasion of ‘Beyond Telepathy’, an ongoing research project which attempts to address the ‘intimately otherworldly’ in the age of ‘omnipresent “action at a distance”’, intimating a world of ineffable communications via Einstein’s famous pronouncement on the ‘spooky’ effects of quantum entanglement. The loose group of artists and writers that Elfving brought together at Somerset House Studios (including this writer) shared disparate yet particular interests: the nocturnal transmissions of fungal mycelia, cryptocurrencies, symbiotic pairings and biological computation. (These lines of flight could perhaps be traced back to the roots of the word ‘broadcast’, which meant ‘sown by scattering’ before it took on the sense of electronic mediation.) Lovers (2017), by the artist Essi Kausalainen featured performers strewn across the room in meditative harmony, giving body and voice to the chemical communication between fungi and tree roots in an association known as a mycorrhiza: a mutualistic bond of nutritious exchange which the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane has playfully termed the ‘wood wide web’. These biochemical intimacies were only discovered by plant scientists relatively recently, and they will tenderly persist long after we are gone. In Jenna Sutela’s video work Nam-Gut (the microbial breakdown of language) (2017), bubbles percolating through fermenting kombucha tea (by a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) perform the role of a ‘wetware random number generator,’ emitting erratic phonemes in the poetic warblings of a non-human culture.
To paraphrase Donna Haraway: however combined and unevenly, we ‘remain [children] of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and technoscience.’4 How are we to negotiate with the remains of this legacy, acknowledging its manifold histories of colonial violence, even as we sharpen its instruments? In de-throning the historical constituents of humanism (which seldom held more than a small percentage of humanity in its scope) and its Vitruvian ideal of ‘man’ from the apex of universal order, we might discover an ecology which is shaped less like a hierarchy (cf. The Great Chain of Being) and more like a plasmodium: a biomorphic substrate through which we are distributed every which way, with semi-permeable membranes separating I, we and they. Gut bacteria partake in our thought processes, while viruses riddle our genome; human bodies are hardly ours alone. Through the figure of the parasite [in French, le parasite: ‘interference’] Michel Serres suggests that there is no communication without noise, and that noise is the only source of new signals.5 Animal, mineral or vegetable, the vibratory mediations brought together by ‘Beyond Telepathy’ evoke the messiness of communication between temporary metabolisms stumbling towards the ‘heat-death of the universe,’ the cosmic finale of thermodynamic equilibrium. In the meantime, all systems are open systems, existing in a state of constant parasitic exchange, subject to entropic diffusion, displacement and emergence.
Sutela’s recent publication, Orgs: From Slime Mold to Silicon Valley and Beyond (2017), explores ‘organisations, organisms and orgasms’6 through the amoebic form of Physarum Polycephalum, the ‘many-headed’ slime mould in which the artist has found a companion mind. Single-celled and brainless, Physarum is an amoeba whose swarm-like behaviour exhibits impressive spatial intelligence through an ability to form complex and efficient networks as it forages through its environment. ‘Thinking’ without thinking, the slime mould is pure sensibility, taking embodiment to extremes. In his contribution to Orgs, ‘Sublime Administration’, Mike Pepi compares slime logistics to Silicon valley cultures of ‘bottom-up’ corporate organization which render employees as semi-autonomous, ‘entrepreneurial’ labourers responsible for their own optimization. At a macro scale, from social media to the ubiquitous informatics of so-called ‘smart cities’, the eusocial performances of intelligent amoebae may shed some light on the implications of our own information networks: a petri dish culture of what the architect Keller Easterling refers to as the organizational ‘operating system’ of infrastructural form.7 As Benjamin Bratton has argued, from satellites-laden skies to billions of pocket devices, our massively networked systems of sensing and processing constitute an ‘accidental megastructure’: a many-headed machinery comprising so many decentralized agents and layers, through which new geopolitical forms parasitize the traditional geometries of state sovereignty.8 Last year, the telecommunications magnate Masayashi Son (who recently acquired ARM, a UK-based company whose semiconductor designs power 95% of all smartphones) predicted that a trillion sensors will populate the Internet of Things over the next two decades, likening it to the evolution of sensory organs during the Cambrian explosion. In a polycephalous world to come, what might the embodied intelligence of slime moulds teach us about organization, collectivity and resilience?
Embodiment takes many forms, a fact that is easy to observe but harder to understand. Contemplating the weirdness of the uncharitably named Vampyroteuthis infernalis (‘vampire squid from hell’), the Czech media theorist Vilèm Flusser posited that ‘disgust recapitulates phylogenesis’ (the evolutionary diversification of species): the further departed a creature is from us in the evolutionary chain – the squid left some 540 million years ago – the more it repulses us and eludes our understanding.9 Recalling the Gothic, it is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary anxious fascinations with ‘other agencies’ are aroused at a time when we are also designing and building them, be it from silicon or stem cells. A number of recent initiatives draw directly from radically inhuman lives, not as a source of abjection but as the germ of informatic, ecological and spiritual potential. Shu Lea Cheang’s Mycelium Network Society, an organization launched at Berlin’s art and digital culture festival, Transmediale, earlier this year, situates itself in the ‘post-internet mudland’ in pursuit of ‘collective fungal consciousness.’ Meanwhile, Worm, a young UK-based curatorial platform for art and ecology founded by Angela Chan, pays tribute to its squirming namesake as a symbol of ecological nurture and inter-species collaboration.
Naturally, these creatures remain largely ambivalent to our ambitions for collaboration. In his seminal 1974 essay ‘What is it like to be a Bat?’, philosopher Thomas Nagel speculated that while he could imagine behaving how a bat behaves, the resources of his mind were fundamentally inadequate to the task of understanding ‘what it is like for a bat to be a bat’.10 Forty years later, as we introduce increasingly intelligent (and affective) algorithms into our phones, our homes, our financial services and our healthcare systems, we are faced with the prospect of encountering other minds considerably more alien than bats. The majority of AIs are designed to meet the human sensorium halfway: computer vision systems are trained to see as we see, and natural language processors attempt to understand how we speak. But what about widely implemented deep neural networks whose trains of thought we can only infer (even when they exhibit demonstrable racial and gender bias)? And to edge into the realm of speculation, what about artificial general intelligence (AGI), prospective ‘strong’ AIs adept at learning a far wider range of tasks than winning a game of Go? The professor of computer science, Murray Shanahan (who now works for DeepMind, the company that developed AlphaGo), recently coined the phrase ‘conscious exotica’, a concept which elegantly captures the challenges of encountering non-human intelligence. In the ‘space of possible minds’, ‘conscious exotica’ constitutes a high-level intelligence whose entirely feasible consciousness is utterly inaccessible to the bounded and embodied criteria of human experience. Even if we affirm (as Alan Turing argued in 1950) that machines can think, we are left with the problem of how we would actually understand a machine intelligence: not as servile, anthropomorphic fembots like Siri or Alexa, but as minds – maybe conscious ones – quite unlike our own.
Reaching an impasse, Shanahan offers the possibility that our language and practices could ‘change in unforeseeable ways to accommodate encounters with exotic forms of intelligence.’ Perhaps much the same could be said for algorithmic intelligences, mycelial networks and black magic. What is striking about these embryonic fields of techno-philosophical inquiry is the dearth of imagination: not only how little knowledge we possess, but how little ground we have to go on in the first place. We find ourselves short of material and conceptual interfaces, unable to grasp the channels of communication and control. By forgoing deadly narratives of domination, we might begin to understand the discursive nature of our fragile ecological condition: our performance in what Pickering terms the ‘dance of agency’. If artistic practice has a role to play, it is surely to open new planes of knowability, staging native encounters through radically alien sensibilities – starting, perhaps, with ourselves.
Main image: Jenna Sutela, Many-Headed Reading, 2016, performance documentation, as featured in Sutela’s book Orgs: From Slime Mold to Silicon Valley and Beyond (Garret Publications 2017). Photograph: Mikko Gaestel
1 Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches for Another Future (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2010), pp. 19-21
2 Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2015), p. 28
3 Rosi Braidotti, ‘Posthuman, All Too Human’, in Theory, Culture & Society (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi, 2006), p. 197
4 Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_ Meets_OncomouseTM, (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 3
5 Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence Schehr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 79
6 Jenna Sutela (ed.), Orgs: From Slime Mold to Silicon Valley and Beyond (Helsinki: Garret Publications, 2017)
7 Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft, (London: Verso, 2014), p. 12
8 Benjamin Bratton, The Stack (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), p. 8
9 Vilèm Flusser, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP), p. 11
10 Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it Like to be a Bat?’, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Durham: Duke UP, 1974), p. 435