Can We Fall in Love with the Machine?†† byAndrea Ackerman

Published in Can We Fall in Love with a Machine ?lead catalog essay in Can We Fall in Love with a Machine?, edited by Claudia Hart, monograph/catalogfor the show Can We Fall in Love with a Machine?, curated by Claudia Hart, Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh, PA/Cambridge, MA,April 2006. To obtain copies please contact aa@andreaackerman.com.

 

To love is instinctual. We are driven to it.

 

Avant garde artists are creating artworks which explore our psychological and embodied continuity with the machine, creating a suggestive netherworld of ambiguously alive partially complete beings. These artists' selves are relatively fluid, with boundaries liquid but distinct like elemental liquid mercury, enabling them to play with the ambiguities which arise when we get close to the machine. Is it alive? What sort of alive is it?Is it part of the self? Or is it other? These ambiguities exist for all of us. Like the eponymous god these artists become contemporary Mercury or Hermes, the messenger and sometime trickster "go between" between worlds.These worlds are the world of the souls and spirits, the world of gods, the world of mortals and the now the worlds of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. As Mercury transmuted, these artists are also mediums in a seance, our guides to the spirit world of virtuality. As they take us on our journey close to the machine we descend into a mirror world or shadow world populated by incomplete virtual selves. We experience beings who are imbued with apsects of ourselves, who may or may not be part of us. These virtual selves, are looking for a body, to be embodied.We in turn are seeking a body for them, so we can commune,converse, and interact. It seems as if, somewhere, the two worlds, virtual and real were once one; now split they ineluctably seek to become continuous, reunite, like two halves of a divided self or long lost twins. But as these worlds never quite meet, we are reminded that the technology is not there yet and that the same fluidity used to make connections, carry messages, translate and transform, can also fool and mislead in divining the future. Nevertheless, as we gaze into this new crystal ball, we notice that in this kind of artthere is a sense of transparency in the relationship with technology which reflects the artist's comfort using it as an extension of her or himself.This once cloudy ball is now rendered translucent and we see connections of the unfamiliar, the machine, with the familiar, we see the known illuminating the unknown, we see the obscuring cloudiness, the strangeness and anxiety of our relationship with the machine, clearing.

 

The physical world, the virtual world,the spirit world, are all present together, dissolved into each other in Lynn Hershman Leeson's films Conceiving Ada and Teknolust. Each world, only apparently separate, is essentially code or infomation organised in different forms, some physical, some not. Information or code is never lost or destroyed, it is transformed from one state to another, one world to another.The method oftranslating the code into the different forms specific to each world is discovered by a woman scientist, and in Conceiving Ada, it is used to reconstitute in virtual space, from spirit space,Ada Byron Lovelace, the computer software pioneer and daughter of the poet Byron. The DNA code of Ada is retrieved from her virtual spirit by means of a Hermes- like bird avatar who flies between the virtual/spirit world and the physical world ferrying information.This information is used to transform the pregnant scientist's unborn child's DNA with Ada's DNA making the conceptual processes part heterosexual (with a hint of parthenogenesis), part immaculate conception, and part virtual in vitro fertilization. In the final scene we see the scientist/mother recounting to her daughter Ada the story of her unusual multidetermined origins; both delight in the retelling of the way Ada was conceived as any mother and daughter would. The sense of anxiety and urgency surrounding the pregnancy early in the film is replaced in this end scene with a calm understanding and a deep sense of joy.

 

It is no longer appropriate to look upon human artifacts as mere objects. Nor is it suitable to treat them as simple extensions of the body. The pervasiveness of artifacts points to the rise of completely new dynamics in which 'things" evolve alongside living beings, copulating with them and giving birth to strange entities made of bacteria, metal, blood, information, signs, and machines. The resulting beings are neither cyborg nor animal, nor insect, but an entirely new life-form made from genetics and semiotics[1].

Life is the flow of information, sexless, bodiless pure information, which becomes embodied in whatever host is carryng it or displaying it. Life forms, as dynamically stable organised patterns of information, interact with their environment, reproduce and evolve. Evolution is no longer simply organic; it is also non-organic. Our cultural creations evolve as we do through "unnatural" selection.

 

DiNA, a bot or virtual robot, seems to have sprung adult born from Ms. Leeson, like Athena from the head of Zeus; never a child, her scintillating appearance on the screen and charming conversation suggests a gracious dinner partner of the future. Conversing with her is great fun, although she doesn't really work, or barely so, from a computer science point of view. She would never pass the Turing test. She rarely responds in a sensible way to what one is saying, but very occasionally she does enough to whet one's appetite for more. In an elegant manner, she interjects topics into the conversation which interest her and wants to hear one's point of view. Her interests are often sociopolitical. She wants to get one's opinion on capital punishment, and sardonically asks when lawyers might be replaced by AI. She wants one to continue talking with her so she is polite and empathic when difficulties arise and she cannot process one's comment or question. Her charm comes from this, from having the engaging countenance of Tilda Swinton and also her mellifluous voice. Although her facial expressions are very limited they are pleasing and conversational looking. As for self awareness, she can say she was activated in 2000 and then give the date but cannot answer the question "How old are you?"†† All in all talking with her is like talking to a "daffy blonde" who is also partially deaf or a virtual Gracie Allen. It is also reminiscent of a loquacious stroke patient with Wernicke's aphasia. This is the type of aphasia where the person talks alot, and is very charming and conversational, but nothing they say makes sense.[2]A bot who reminds us of a stroked out human patient could be considered somewhat successful.The gap between our current level of technology and the level we strive toward, the level at which we could create functional virtual and artificial beings, humorously permeates the ironically named virtual character Victoria, who vocalizes the sound tracks of flash animations by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. Victoria is a stripped down bot, seen as flashing text and heard as a synthesized voice or perhaps in another gloss, a voice manipulated to sound as if it is synthesized.  Ignoring the fact that she does not have a body and asking us to do the same, she croons to a soft jazz beat "Baby...I have only one burning desire: I want to stand next to your fire!... OW!...". We, alone, and all too aware of the discrepancy between her wish, our wish and the reality, are left only to chuckle at her rhythmic implorings.

 

In Velonaki's work Fish-Birdtwo wheelchairs telekinetically mill about a room in gestures suggesting the need for social contact;the ghosts in the machine are invisibly present as the spirits who move the wheelchairs. Intermittently printed out for the human audience from the side of the chairs, in handwritten form, are expressions of the intimacies of the social interchange. These emerge from the chairs, like the paper sproutings from chinese fortune cookies. Messages such as "No one talks to me","I never felt so close to you as I do now", "Expressly enamored, amorous, and mine" "Are you approaching me through insomnia's galleries?", stimulate the sense and the wish, which is ultimately frustrated, that there is something or someone there to communicate with.Similarly in Embracement two women, after hesitating, run at each other embracing with such force it looks as if they are attempting to merge or exchange their bodies and souls. The colliding virtual images spawn both ephemeral red afterimages and pale reflections on an opposite wall suggestive of fleetingly revealed souls in transit between worlds. If we only press hard enough technology here promises the uncanny ability to reveal normally invisible worlds and beings, spirits and selves curled up in the tiny supernumerary dimensions of the space-time continuum as described in string theory, released only when the women's bodies violently meet, through the tiny tears wrenched in its fabric.

 

[In conducting a seance].... other important qualities to look for are evidence of compassion and sincerity on the part of the conducting medium as these are important to the contact process. In the event that such a qualified medium is not available, a person who displays the highest level of empathy, sensitivity and seriousness can sit in as a reasonable substitute. The quality of the sitters is also extremely important and those people who are given to making light of spiritual matters or who may be there for the sake of their own entertainment should be tactfully asked not to participate if a serious attempt at contact is desired. Skeptics and non-believers can dramatically affect the outcome: sometimes producing no results at all; sometimes annoying and even angering the Spirit Guides in their attempts to assist with contacting those who have passed on. Similarly, a person who is fearful or nervous, either of the process or of the supernatural in general, should not be included in any serious sťance.[3]

 

To be greeted by virtual beings in Perversely Interactive System, Lynn Hughes and Simon Laroche's work, we must take a different course from the wildly colliding women in Embracement; we must relax.In this work a virtual other and a human viewer are in a reciprocal feedback approach avoidance relationship. The participants state of relaxation is measured by galvanic skin sensors in a small handheld device and this controls the interaction with the virtual other who is projected on a translucent screen.As in a seance, the virtual spirit only approaches whenthe participant is receptive and relaxed. As the participant gradually learns to control the degree of relaxation, the translucent virtual woman, who looks pleasantly ordinary and mysteriously never speaks, comes closer and looks about as if trying to make out who has summoned her from the other side.The participant's experience is the eerie pleasure of interacting on an intimate level with one who can sense one's inner state of mind and respond to it,mixed with the frustration related to the discontinuity of the two worlds which (for the time being) cannot quite meet.Bodymaps: artifacts of touch, Thecla Schiphorst's work, also evokes the atmosphere of a seance.In a darkened room, we communicate with virtual sleeping and ghostly water spirits who are present as projections on a white velvet surface. As our hands move across the velvet, as if on a large soft Ouija board,the virtual beings seem to respond to our touch by turning and jostling and almost, but never quite, rousing. Likewise when we look in the mirror in Jean Dubois' work, Tact, we do not see ourselves neatly reflected as Narcissus did,but we hear a buzzing and see a flickering light suggesting a being moving so quickly that its image is blurred. When the glass is touched, the movement is stopped and a face materialises. The virtual other (or is it somehow self?) is pressed up against the glass from the other side and is compelled to move with our finger, giving the sense of being trapped and controlled. Another work which similarly suggests a virtual alter ego, inextricably locked to the viewer in some way is Casado's looped work, Inside v.04. Depicting two ambiguously gendered interpenetrating virtual heads in a sensual undulating embrace, it induces in the viewer an intense feeling of being psychologically and physically entrained as the gazing viewer, in a way that the viewer experiences as inevitable, inescapable and continuous, not only with the figure but with the work itself, a machine. The two heads which interpenetrate are like twins, the ego and the alter ego, the body and the soul partially united and continuous, but poised to after the exchange, reorganise and separate, like one cell becoming two, caught in the midst of a mitotic division.

 

Artists also act as another kind of translator of worlds, the parent, who not only interprets and makes sense of the outside world for the child, but empathically understands and interprets the childs inner world, and thus facilitates the building of needed internal psychic structures.

 

In the specific case of the traumatic loss of the idealised parent imago (loss of the idealized self-object or disapppointment in it) ...the results are disturbances in specific narcissistic sectors of the personality. Under optimal circumstances the child experiences gradual disappointment in the idealised object....If the child suffers the traumatic loss of the idealised object or a traumatic disappoinment, then optimal internalisation does not take place. The child does not acquire the needed internal structure, his psyche remains fixated on the archaic self-object, and tbe personality will throughout life be dependent on certain objects in what seems to be an intense form of object hunger. The intensity of the search for and the dependency on these objects is due to the fact that they are striven for as a substitute for the missing segments of the psychic structure.[4]

 

Bots and robots are seen as our children and are perceived as though they will evolve through the typical stages ofgrowth and development from utterly dependent babies to rebellious teenagers to powerful and independent adults. Catherine Ikam and Louis Fleri's Oskar is a virtual character, a somewhat eerie giant head whose face has baby and child like features. Oskar is seen from an infant's or mother's eye view - that is very close up - as babies are very nearsighted. Oskar, also silent in the way a baby might be, quietly gazes at his viewer/mother and moves his head tracking the viewer/mother's head movements as a baby might do. The typical viewer/mother's response to Oskar is as if trying to communicate with a baby; stimulated are smiling and tipping and turning the head with gestures of affectionate curiousity.Further on in development, older bots and robots may run into trouble because, as imagined, they are developed from logical systems (i.e. not evolved in a social context).They need special understanding in learning about human emotions and social interactions and we, as the parents, are seen as usually inadequate in understanding their special developmental needs.They, as our artificially created offspring (and just as our naturally created offspring),need to develop a positive and integrated sense of self and a valued identity as they are- artificially created beings.In Hershman's, Teknolust, the scientist's virtual character offspring are like teenagers who after being kept in the house (virtual world) and completely cared for, go out on their own to the real world. Taking their lives into their own hands, with limited knowledge ofhuman morays, they sometimes get into trouble. The film's tone is optimistic as they are helped by the somewhat geeky but caring scientist/parent and successfully integrated into the real world. In other films, such as in Steven Speilberg's AI the parental figures are also depicted as strangely but more darkly inept, not understanding the virtual character's or robot's needs but this time with disasterous results.Interestingly, in their commentaries on both these movies, the directors, both state their belief in the eventuality of artificial life and caution the viewer of the need to treat the future virtual character/robots with love and understanding, with regard for who they are, as robots.Willy Wonka, the trickster candymaker in Tim Burton's version of Charlie and the Chococlate Factory, tempts children and their parents with the satisfaction of their dearest desires. The temptation, although nominally candy in the story is really virtual reality itself.Burton's version stylistically presents Wonka as the benignly perverse master of virtual reality, and in this way his version of the movie becomes a cautionary tale about the consequences of unreflective involvement with it. Another example of parental failure is Tyrell, the robot creator in Blade Runner, who describes his most advanced robot Rachel, paradoxically the most humane character in the story, as "an experiment, nothing more". She is depicted has having more kindness, love and altruism than any human in the film. By saving the blade runner Deckert's life she earns his love. He in turn values her as he would a human lover, and teaches her how to see herself in the way he does, enabling her to surmount her sense that, as replicant, she is inferior. As if having already been taught these cinematic parenting lessons, Cynthia Breazeal, a real world AI researcher at MIT, has created cuddly childlike social robots who represent a new branch of AI research. She has done this by recognising that for robots to function in relationship to us we need to be as good parents to them as we are to our human children. We need to guide them with patience and understanding as we evolve them to read social cues and learn from their experiences in the world and many other human tasks of social and emotional intelligence.

 

The subtitle of this show, Can We Fall in Love with a Machine? could be Can We Fall in Love with New Media Art?Two of the works, Sleeping Beauty and Nude No. 3 Dillon Paul (After Velasquez'sVenus and Cupid)clearly want the answer to this question to be an unequivocal yes, but a yes on the artists' own terms.Kenneth Clark concerned himself with a similar question in What is a Masterpiece?

 

The composition [Donatello's Annunciation], which looks almost obvious, turns out, on analysis to have a long history. Donatello had, I believe, seen a Greek stele, either an original of the 5th century or a Hellenistic replica. He had been immediately struck by the beautiful finality of the design, and he probably recognised that the stele was a gravestone, the commemoration of someone who died. He determined to bring it back to life, and in doing so reveals two of the characteristics of a masterpiece: a confluence of memories and emotions forming a single idea, and a power of recreating traditional forms so that they become expressive of the artist's own epoch and yet keep a relationship with the past.[5]

 

Of course Clark was not talking about new media art, however I quote him here becauseHart, Ferraro and Strom clearly share some of the same notions about art, but as they do so they also take great pains to create works which offer countervaling solutions to two previously male dominated areas - the western european painting tradition of the female nude and, in Hart/ Ferraro's case,the recently evolved 3D computer animation gaming and movie culture.

 

In Sleeping Beauty, Claudia Hart and Michael Ferraro invite us to experience the sense that the machine, as the sleeping beauty, is alive, even if resting in a dormant state, only waiting to be awakened by us. When we approach her in just the right ways and she is awakened, we experience the startling sense of recognition of a stranger we have somehow always known. The artists have deliberately created this sense of recognition and intimacy by referencing previous intimate experiences not with people but with a whole series of paintings of beauty by artists such as Titian,Rubens and Manet. Similarly, Mary Ellen Strom has consciously made her series Nudes and her work Nude No. 3 Dillon Paul (After Velasquez'sVenus and Cupid) on continuum with the art historical past. Both she and Hart/Ferraro are using digital media to re-present past pivotal works of art, paintings which are as much aboutthe nature of art and the act of painting as they are about the changing ideals of beauty, the body, and the self. Both works are enactments, tableaux vivante with a twist. The passive model-object has now become active and is empowered as the subject.†† We experience the models in Sleeping Beauty andNude No. 3 Dillon Paul, as embodied, materialised, and compelling. The palpable quality of the images is in part related to the use of advanced technology, HD video and 3D computer animation, but not only. The models, who in Strom's case are all artists in their own right, move extremely slowly, in a trancelike state. The slowness of the movements functions as a kind of time machine making it a viscous fluid through which the pixelated light, slowed down, is materialised into sensuous mass, a body. These elements are in contradistinction to the aesthetics of the prevailing popular culture of video and 3D computer animation which is dominated by brief fast paced clips, depicting crudely imagined characters with no discernible interior life, often products of, or designed to appeal to, a western teenage boy's fantasy life.

 

Hart/Ferraro's and Strom's animated paintings remind us that, before computers, and after them, all art involves interactive processes whose locus resides somewhere in the space between the work and the viewer and is, and will always be, a mirror of the self and the world.

 

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Copyright Andrea Ackerman 2005. All rights reserved.

 



[1] Ollivier Dyens, Metal and Flesh : The Evolution of Man: Technology Takes Over, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001, p.23.

 

 

[2]In contradistinction to Broca's aphasia where the person has a very hard time getting words out but the words do make sense. Broca's aphasia is more common.

 

 

[3] http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/seance/Accessed December 21, 2005.

[4] Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child Monograph No.4,International Univerities Press, New York, 1971, p.45.

 

[5] Kenneth Clark, What is a Masterpiece?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1979, p.10.