Essays

Understanding the Building Blocks of Our Machine World with Art

In a time of uncertainty, artists may offer insights and navigational aids for an emerging reality overwhelmingly dominated by technology and machines.

Marina Zurkow, production still from “Mesocosm (Wink, TX)” (2012) (image courtesy the artist and bitforms gallery)

Watching the final two months of 2016 play out politically made me question so many things, probably the largest being: Do I trust what I know? I believe that it is something a lot of us are asking.

In late November I attended a fantastic discussion with artist Ian Cheng at the Whitney Museum and became intrigued with his practice of creating live simulations, particularly in the piece “Emissary Forks At Perfection.” They are like games that are playing themselves, and usually involve tribes of people with obscure motivations navigating extreme and harsh landscapes in worlds that somewhat resemble ours but are more nonsensical. Some of his atavistic characters seem to take on the ancient role of the joker, creating misalignments of trust between them and the others.

This might be hyperbolic, but I have never felt closer to living in a simulated world of Cheng’s design than immediately after this year’s election. The night of the election, watching poorly designed, real-time digital graphics popping and spinning as Donald Trump took the lead felt like the equivalent of one of Cheng’s volcanoes exploding, resulting in his characters jumping, bumping, and leaping into and on top of one another, ultimately getting nowhere.

Post-election, some familial and professional relationships were suddenly called into question. I oscillated between feeling disaster fatigue and a raging fire in the pit of my stomach to “do something.” I don’t feel dissimilarly to one of Cheng’s lost souls, wandering in something like an artificial state of nature. I’m troubled at the thought of this continuing indefinitely.

Emissary Forks, “At Perfection (map)” (2015), vector drawing on vinyl, 130 x 150 cm (image courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias)

In a time of uncertainty, artists may offer insights and navigational aids for an emerging reality overwhelmingly dominated by technology and machines. Cheng’s work reminded me of Marina Zurkow’s virtual, ever-changing world, “Mesocosm (Wink, Texas),” that functions as a kind of poetic meditation on the absurdity of how people avoid confronting impending ecological doom. The piece, which will run for 144 years before the simulation abruptly just stops, is set in a sinkhole in Wink, Texas, at an oil refinery field that secretes odd materials like plastic bags and other forms of human-generated artificial detritus. All the while, there are both human and animal visitors crossing the screen, checking the space out, working together in Zurkow’s unique visual illustration style to create a sense of slight foreboding. Taken as a whole, the scenario seems in some ways to point to a uniquely American apocalyptic anxiety mixed with glee.

The piece could have been made to run infinitely — it is a machine, after all. By setting an end date, Zurkow seems to spell out rather clearly where she sees things are going. Is it a coincidence that this past year, 2016, saw the real sinkhole in Texas, upon which the work is based, expanding? There is a sense of melancholy and inevitability to the work that borders on hopelessness. Zurkow’s explicit focus on real-world problems in her artificial realms is a welcome counterbalance to the notion that technological advancement is always empowering.

Taeyoon Choi also presents a refreshing perspective in his work, which suggests that machine-driven worlds are altogether inferior. His Occupy-bot protests in places where “human civil disobedience is not allowed, and it can also replace human protesters.” Taeyoon’s machines exhibit a dumb logic; at most they move forwards and backwards, raise a sign. This embrace of ground-level computation calls to mind machine intelligence more akin to times past. His robots herald the days when a random number generator was seen as an innovative concept in home computing and could make your 1989 Tandy 1000 do wild and crazy things.

Taeyoon Choi, “Occu-bot” (2011) (photo by Jongchul Lee)

This return to 0-1 behavior reminds us of some axiomatic truths about machines: they do what we tell them to do, sometimes they can be dumb, and ultimately they are not human. Often, our belief in their power stems from our lack of understanding of how machines are constructed and operate. Taeyoon’s robots seem to obliquely remind the observer that a case could be made for AI as a dysfunctional technology. In the same way Occu-bot fails as a protestor, data profiles built from Facebook users are largely rendered inaccurate. The strange echo chambers of internet-perpetuated “fake news” are potentially creating the dissolution of our democracy. AI technologies for the office can barely schedule upcoming meetings.

Taeyoon’s Occu-bot, endlessly raising its protest sign up and down, is a kind of kinetic sculpture testifying to the dysfunctional nature of computation as a whole, a topic not much discussed. That is not to say that there are not worrisome potential outcomes as machines get relatively smarter, but the aura of omnipotence and inevitability around machines and intelligence seems to be a distraction from a deeper understanding of what computers can and cannot do. And even though his work isn’t dependent on complex software architectures, his work is still about software — it is about how machines and humans think, together.

Cheng and Zurkow seem to suggest that we potentially learn something about ourselves by digitally modeling aspects of our daily existence. Often, this results in a realization of human irrationality. Choi’s robots act more as a conceptual art version of the robotic vacuum Roomba as they seem exasperated with the possibility of cultural progress. The Occu-bot doesn’t believe in his sign, and he isn’t fired up enough to move anyone to protest. But at least he is there.

These three artists are poking holes in the often-suffocating narratives around technology. They are suggesting that our relationships to our machines are both more simple and complex. They are uninterested in blinding us with science, which is still a weakness in much technologically based work. Finally, these artists help us navigate these ubiquitous machines and consider their potential as well as limitations. With the American intelligence community agreeing en masse that a foreign government used manipulation of the US national digital landscape as a tool to influence the presidential election, it’s a strong indicator that our shared headspace — i.e., the internet — is both extremely powerful and highly vulnerable. One means of reducing a growing sense of existing in an otherworldly simulation is to more fully understand the building blocks of the machine world we all inhabit. These artists are providing insights into how people can more rationally engage the potential of computation as well as skeptically interrogate its failings. Works that do so are unquestionably art, but in some ways also serve a civic purpose.

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