In Profile: Erkki Kurenniemi

Remembering the pioneering composer, visionary thinker, multimedia artist and techno-utopian, who died in May

In the 1970s Finnish inventor Erkki Kurenniemi stated: ‘our true descendants will be algorithms’. Born in 1941 in Hämeenlinna, Finland, Kurenniemi was a composer, visionary thinker, pioneer of multimedia art and a techno-utopian who extended his vision to fields such as electronic music, robotics, experimental cinema and interactive installations.

Active in the early development of analogue computers and synthesizers, Kurenniemi built the music studio at the Department of Musicology of the University of Helsinki in the 1960s. In the following decade he was involved in the creation of multi-sensorial experimental installations, music compositions and films. Yet for all his varied output, he remained a peripheral figure, known only to a select few. The release of Mika Taanila’s film-essay The Future Is Not What It Used To Be (2002), which used Kurenniemi's own archive material – from his early experimental films to later cybernetic theories – allowed for a belated discovery of his life and work. In Finland, between 2003 and 2011 he was awarded numerous prizes, including the Finland Prize of the Ministry of Education and Culture, yet he remained largely unknown outside of Scandinavia until 2012 when his project In 2048 was included in dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel. 

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Erkki Kurenniemi in Mika Taanila’s The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, 2002, film still. © Kinotar

In 2048 is a multimedia project that Kurenniemi started 40 years ago. Following the belief that artificial intelligence will outpace the biological brain, he began transforming his life in a multimedia archive. Kurenniemi believed that on 10 July 2048, his 107th birthday, a quantum computer would have advanced to the stage that it will be able to upload a human being in a digital format, and reactivate his own life in ‘the postsingularity universe’ (the afterlife), influenced by the theories of computer scientist, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil and science fiction author and teacher Vernor Vinge.

In Kurenniemi’s archive he collected ephemera from his personal life and that of his entourage, compiling hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings (making 8mm and 16mm home movies in the ’60s; later using video and digital), conserving objects of his everyday life (newspapers, receipts, movie tickets, notes, etc.), and taking some 20,000 photographs per year. This archive was meant to store up a retrievable memory of his existence that was intended to be shared with the public: some of it free to be used, other parts to be ‘played’ like a game or viewed as a networked multimedia show.

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Erkki Kurenniemi in Mika Taanila’s The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, 2002, film still. © Kinotar

For Kurenniemi, the boundaries between science, music, physics, art, pornography, and technology were porous. The documentation of his life started as a never-ended science fiction novel, titled 2048, influenced by the writing of Vinge and sci-fi author Greg Bear. He never finished the novel, preferring to exploit technological possibilities for his archive project, but that was sadly interrupted in 2005 when he suffered a stroke.

Kurenniemi was always looking to the future: as head of Planning for the Finnish Science Centre Heureka of Vantaa (1987–98) he built robots for Nokia and produced more than a dozen experimental films. Despite this, Kurenniemi considered himself a dropout, always in search of new challenges and moving restlessly across disciplines. As a professor in the department of digital media at the University of California, Los Angeles, Erkki Huhtamo, wrote: ‘his career has been marked by brilliant fragments rather than finished masterworks’.

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Desmostration of the Dimi O (Hand)

Demonstration of Erkki Kurenniemi’s Dimi-O (Optical Organ, 1971)

With an interest in synesthesia, Kurenniemi made various musical instruments and released interactive tools for shared perception. Inspired by the notion of ‘bio-music’ – music based on the transformation of brain waves into sound through external sensors – Kurenniemi invented the DIMI (Digital Interactive Musical Instrument) series. Dimi-O (Optical Organ, 1971) is based on a bio-feedback and optical interface that can be played with a keyboard or a video-camera. And for Dimi-T (a.k.a. Electroencephalophone, 1973) the sound control is based on a signal generated by the brain’s electric activity. Dimi-S, also known as Sexophone or Love Machine (1972), is a device intended to generate sounds produced by the epidermal contact of four performers each holding an electrode in their hands.

Kurenniemi was looking for a ‘New Sensorium’, for other perceptual possibilities, through the use of techno devices, interactive instruments and fleshy intensities, like sex, alcohol, pornography, drugs and combinations thereof. He focused on the symbiosis of man and machine before it became a commonplace notion, as with today’s social media and apps like Periscope.

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Erkki Kurenniemi in Mika Taanila’s The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, 2002, film still. © Kinotar

One only needs to look at the importance of Kurenniemi’s ideas by seeing their resonance in contemporary culture. His life-logging anticipated many recent projects dealing with ideas of control and self-surveillance such as Lifestreams by David Gelertnes or MyLifeBits by Gordon Bell, who collected images, texts, recordings, lectures and voice messages from 1998 to 2007.

Kurenniemi's project can also be considered a forerunner to contemporary networking, where the upload of human identity marks a horizon of (post) human evolution, and its quest for digital immortality. Think of Replika, the chatbot designed by Eugenia Kuyda in order to speak with her deceased friend, the Belorussian Roman Mazurenko. Replika is a gadget for digital spectres, repeating questions and answers already recorded – a digital cemetery of sorts, where the ratified identity of people can be reactivated and questioned. Think, too, of Eterni.me: a web service seeking to ensure that people’s memories are preserved online after their death. In order to make this happen, while you’re alive you grant the service access to social media accounts, email accounts and your geo-location history. All the information is stored and analyzed before it is transferred to an AI avatar that meanwhile tries to simulate your personality. The avatar learns more about you as you interact with it while you’re alive, with the goal of more accurately reflecting your personality as time proceeds. Electronic Immortality Corporation is another example. Founded by the Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov, it is part of the 2045 Initiative, whose goal is the transfer of one’s individual consciousness to an artificial carrier so as to achieve cybernetic immortality. According to Ray Kurzweil, in the year 2045 we will be able to back up our minds to the cloud.

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Erkki Kurenniemi in Mika Taanila’s The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, 2002, film still. © Kinotar

It is through these experiments in eternity that we might be able to evaluate the effectiveness and outreach of Kurenniemi’s life-long project, the archive of which is now conserved at the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary art, Kiasma. With a software that is able to read the archived material, nowadays his archive can be considered obsolete from a technical point of view. What is important, however, is not the technical but the philosophical implications of Kurenniemi’s project.

Life-logging, as simulated experience, posits theoretical questions of the limits of simulation that might be crucial in the current development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing research into the automation of living organisms. The question is fundamentally about experience. Can experience be simulated? Can it be automated?

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Erkki Kurenniemi in the Helsinki university studio. Photograph: Martti Brandt 

Erkki Kurenniemi in the University of Helsinki Department of Musicology studio which he built. Photograph: Martti Brandt 

Kurenniemi problematized the technical possibility of a simulated life and engineered intelligent behaviour in a double-hatted way. As an engineer and a techno-visionary, he anticipated developments still unfolding decade after decade, year upon year. As an artist – even if he thought of himself as a scientist – his audiovisual synesthesia reveals a sort of melancholia at the loss that is implicit in this augmentation. As prostheses replace living organs, and AI mirrors conscious action, what is next for the organism itself? Such scenarios have been widely described by science-fiction writers, particularly by cyberpunk novelists of the 1980s and ’90s. For the most part those writers have been coupling the description of an automated future with a sentiment of intolerable suffering and loneliness.  

Unlikely as Kurenniemi's predictions may have been, they were not unfounded. An anticipator of the archival excitement in visual culture and creative practice, his contribution to the history of multimedia art deserves recognition. Erkki Juhani Kurenniemi passed away on 1 May after a long illness. He was 75 years old. 

Main image: Erkki Kurenniemi in Mika Taanila’s The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, 2002, film still. © Kinotar

Lorenza Pignatti is an art writer, curator and professor at the New Academy of Fine Arts (NABA) in Milan. With Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Marco Magagnoli she co-edited Errore di sistema. Teoria e pratiche di Adbusters (Feltrinelli Editore), and edited Mind the Map. Mappe, diagrammi e dispositivi cartografici (Postmedia Books). She is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines such as Il Manifesto, La Repubblica and Art Review.

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