alien matter – An Introduction

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alien matter – An Introduction

by Inke Arns

The only truly alien planet is Earth.[1]
— J. G. Ballard

In Hollywood’s Terminator 2, a mercurial liquid left behind by a T-1000 after combat quickly reforms itself into a whole battle droid. [2] This made life difficult for the T-800, an older model Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 1991, it all still seemed like pure science fiction, but today, the use of liquid metals in technological applications is an everyday reality—just not (yet) for intelligent machines like the T-1000.

Still, the scene offers sharp insights into the changes in things that are currently taking place all around us. The intelligent liquid is a foreign material—alien matter. Material that has become alien to us. Material that alienates us, perhaps because it has—as in the case of the T-1000—a peculiar “intelligence,” or behaves strangely, or because its “lifespan” stretches so radically beyond our own. Plastic, too, is a different and strange material. Alien matter is a human-made, potentially “intelligent” material that is utterly foreign to humans. It is the outcome of an escalating amalgamation of natural environments and technological artifacts, and within it, the algorithm is the new, non-human key player. And through its ubiquitous existence, novel technologically-driven environments are created that lead to a new relationship between human and machine. Our present, as Erich Hörl writes, is “particularly informed by the rise of new object cultures that are more active and automatic, not to mention “smarter,” more and more immersed in our environments, informing our infrastructures, processing our experiences and backgrounds, and operating in new micro-temporal regions, which are all characteristics of the face and logic of cyberneticization. These object cultures, with which we are intimately coupled, are truly techno-logical, in an eminent sense of the term, and they ultimately unhinge the sovereignty and authority of the transcendental subject.” [3] The technological objects, previously defined purely in terms of use, become semi-autonomous actors. Their capacity to learn and network throws into question the previously clear and dominant division between active subject and passive object.

Immaterials, the Outdatedness of Machines and the Up-to-dateness of objects

This superficially unspectacular change was heralded in a most spectacular way by the T-1000. Looking back: it was Jean-François Lyotard who in 1985—more than thirty years ago—coined the term “immaterials” with the “Les Immatériaux” exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. “Immaterial” is in this context not to be equated with “immaterial” (= the opposite of material), but instead denotes a new kind of extension of the material that is not directly accessible to humans. “Good old materiality itself reaches us in the end as something that has been dissolved and recomposed in complicated formulas. Reality consists of elements that are organized by structural laws (matrices) beyond human measures of space and time.”[4] These immaterials do not, at first glance, differ from materials we are familiar with, but they are organized according to very different laws. One example is genetically engineered organisms.

Parallel to this development, another was beginning that German philosopher Günther Anders had already described in the late 1960s in his book, The Outdatedness of Human Beings, as the outdatedness of machines.[5] While machines were getting ever smaller, they went simultaneously “incognito” becoming parts in large-scale machines—and finally, since the end of the 1980s, computers have “conspicuously left their housing and begun colonizing the whole environment.” [6] Machines have almost dissipated and become an environmental agency made up of objects that communicate and operate automatically. In this infrastructural revolution—manifest in the Internet of Things, for example—“machineness” is lost in favor of “thingness.”[7] The most “profound technologies” are then, states Mark Weiser, “those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”[8] It is estimated that today, fifty billion devices are now connected to each other—for just six billion people.[9]

alien matter

The “alien matter” exhibition deals with the neo-cybernetic couplings of humans, living entities, and technology, and of human and non-human abilities—and addresses the shifts in this power structure. Technologies have become an obvious element of the new object cultures surrounding us. Alien matter is thus not something still in the distant future but rather an integral part of our present. The artists in the exhibition reveal the extent to which our supposedly familiar environment has already become alien material.

The artists in the “alien matter” exhibition address just such systemic, active, (more or less) intelligent, and communicative objects. They are interested in such diverse things as algorithms, plastic, pattern recognition, exascale computing, non-human agents, and the fact that technology is becoming, through miniaturization, an increasing part of our everyday, material environment. As such, they succumb less to the fascination of a Singularity in whatever form (the moment computers take control of everything), but instead appropriate the term crapularity, coined by Justin Pickard in Alternatives to the Singularity (2011): “3D printing + spam + micropayments = tribbles that you get billed for, as it replicates wildly out of control. 90% of everything is rubbish, and it’s all in your spare room – or someone else’s spare room, which you’re forced to rent through AirBnB”. Florian Cramer writes in “Crapularity Hermeneutics” [10] (2016) that the popularity of this dystopia is reflected in the growing number of subscribers to the Twitter feed Internet of Shit (currently 125,000). Under the motto, “The Internet of Shitty Things is here. Have all of your best home appliances ruined by putting the internet in them!” the microblog posts, for example, images of blue (crashed) screen in a Windows elevator, faulty train station displays, and alerts about a car updating its operating system while driving.

All of this already exists. But what happens if computers are at some point no longer connected to devices? If AI gets literally inside things? Then the world becomes truly alien—with intelligent liquids, smart dust, thinking mucus, and feeling fog that can assume different physical states just as the T-1000 can. According to Günther Anders, machines of the future will become one single machine which no longer requires differentiation. Completely in line with the theme ever elusive, all distinctions will become obsolete. “Whether crapularity or singularity, the differentiation of systems into such subcategories as ‘internet,’ ‘artificial intelligence,’ ‘machine vision’ and ‘pattern recognition,’ ‘big data,’ ‘smart cities’ and ‘internet of things’ will likely soon become a thing of the past.”[11] But it hasn’t gotten that far yet. The artistic points of view in “alien matter” already recognize the beginnings of this development now and content-wise, cluster around four thematic focal points: Artificial intelligence (AI), plastics, infrastructure, and the Internet of Things (IoT)—subcategories of the nascent great machine, which here, as in the Andersian sense, are to be designated future outdated.

(The Outdatedness of) Artificial Intelligence

Dutch artist Constant Dullaart engages with pattern recognition that uses AI—which has applications in facial, image, and speech recognition—a tool as poetic as it is powerful: DullDream “de-specifies” images so that only general features of the shape are rendered. A picture of a specific person becomes a “dulled down” picture of a person, that could, principally, be anyone. Fantasies of nature and artificiality collide in Ignas Krunglevičius’ video Hard Body Trade: we accompany an AI on its flight through unnaturally beautiful mountain scenery and listen to her reflections on humanity. The Predictive Art Bot by Nicolas Maigret & Maria Roszkowska makes predictions about the directions art will take in the future and suggests appropriate concrete projects. The most popular suggestion was brought to realization (by a human) and can be seen in the exhibition. Sascha Pohflepp’s video Recursion shows a special kind of loop: an AI-generated text about humans is read out loud by one. In a way similar to Maigret & Roszkowska’s work, a machine is using a human actor to let us participate in its “coming-into-the-world.” In HFT The Gardener, Suzanne Treister examines the world of high-frequency trading (HFT). Treister’s protagonist develops a botanical obsession: he wants, with the help of psychoactive substances, to fuse his consciousness with algorithmic intelligence to see the world from the other side—from the algorithm’s perspective. Finally, the AI in Pinar Yoldas’ video Kitty AI, a cute 3D animated cat, looks back from the year 2039 and sums up the extent to which human inadequacy led to the elimination of politics and its replacement with artificial intelligence.

(The Outdatedness of) Plastic(s)

Several projects deal explicitly with plastic. In their 3D Additivist Cookbook, Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke describe additivism as a fatalistic basic principle of all human activity—particularly the transformation of petroleum into plastic. The 3D Additivist Cookbook brings together radical projects by over one hundred artists, activists, and theorists who examine 3D printing for its revolutionary potential. In Xenopolitics #1: Petro-bodies and Geopolitics of Hormones, Aliens in Green (Bureau d'études, Ewen Chardronnet, Mary Maggic, Julien Paris, Špela Petrič ) investigate the devastating impact of synthetically produced endocrine disruptors such as those in, for example, plastics and map the various actors and the effects in a complex data visualization. Joep van Liefland, in turn, builds a monumental sculpture (Video Palace #44 – The Hidden Universe) out of tens of thousands of old VHS tapes—today nothing but plastic waste—leading into the hidden space of esoteric 1980s video culture. Finally, as part of their Plastic Raft of Lampedusa project, YoHa (Matsuko Yokokoji + Graham Harwood) perform a forensic analysis of a rubber dinghy that was produced in China, as most are. The artists are interested in the circulation of economic, material and human flows that have a mutual influence on one another.

(The Outdatedness of) Infrastructure

Evan Roth’s sculpture Burial Ceremony consists of two kilometers of fiber-optic cable. The cable has been positioned in a figure eight, which resembles the infinity symbol. It is standard practice to unwind the cables in this way before laying them in the ground to avoid damaging the fibers. Jeroen van Loon also engages with the cabling of the world: in his work, An Internet, however, undersea cables are represented by a system of communication tubes: smoke signals carry information into transparent glass tubes that follow the contours of the continents, only to dissipate at the other end. Addie Wagenknecht’s filigree-effect wall sculpture taps into WiFi hotspots in its environment but does not share its findings with anyone. The WorldWideWitch Protektorama—one of many fictional identities and hysterical-subversive drag characters of artist Johannes Paul Raether—is interested in the symbio(n)tic relationship between humans and their smartphones, investigates wearable computer systems as body prostheses and addresses the materiality, manufacturing, metals, and mines of information technologies.

(The Outdatedness of) Internet(s) of Things

The protagonist in Mark Leckey’s GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction is an intelligent refrigerator of the sort that will soon populate the Internet of Things. The refrigerator’s process of awakening is expressed in an entertaining and at times hilariously funny machine monolog. In Internet of Things, Addie Wagenknecht lets three vacuum-cleaning robots wander through the exhibition to not just clean but also, optionally, to function as either a WiFi-Hotspot, Tor browser, or jammer. Their signals are either strengthened or suppressed depending on the distance between the devices, but also between the devices and mobile phones, laptops or other WiFi routers. The rocking motion of the electronic baby swing in Katja Novitskova’s Swoon Motion seems uncannily human.

I would like to thank all participating artists for their productive co-operation in “alien matter.” The collaboration with my co-curators at transmediale, especially Daphne Dragona and Florian Wüst, was rewarding and friendly. Thank you also to the wonderful transmediale team, especially to Inga Seidler, Isabelle Busch and Sibylle Kerlisch for their precise work on the exhibition. Natalie Schütze and Filippo Gianetta devoted themselves attentively to the catalog, and The Laboratory of Manuel Bürger to its consistent design. I would like to thank the artistic director of transmediale, Kristoffer Gansing, for the invitation to curate the exhibition. It was a great pleasure to work with raumlabor. And, not least, thank you also to HMKV and its team, whose support enabled me to work on the “alien matter” exhibition.

 


 

[1] In James Graham Ballard, “Which Way to Inner Space?,” New Worlds (May 1962), quoted in: The Riverside Dictionary of Biography (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), 54.

[2] At https://youtu.be/Aq5ydeWWr4A

[3] Erich Hörl, Die technologische Bedingung. Beiträge zur Beschreibung der technischen Welt (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2011), 12. English version: Erich Hörl, “The Technological Condition,” at http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia22/parrhesia22_horl.pdf

[4] Cf. Jean-François Lyotard et al., Immaterialität und Postmoderne (Berlin: Merve 1985), 11.

[5] Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Band I: Über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten industriellen Revolution; Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band II: Über die Zerstörung des Lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1956/1980). In Die Antiquiertheit der Maschinen II from 1969 (Band II) Anders develops ten theses in which the emergence of a mega machine from many individual machines is described. The first five are: 1. expanding machines (every machine is designed to get bigger), 2. the machines’ drive to expand is unstoppable, 3. the number of existing machines decreases, 4. the machines “go incognito” (they become part of larger machines), and finally 5. the machines become one single machine.

[6] Hörl, 26.

[7] Hörl, 28.

[8] Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American 265 (1991), 94–104, here: 94. Quoted in Hörl, 30.

[9] Cf. Sabina Jeschke, „Wenn Roboter Steuern zahlen,“ Das Netz – Jahresrückblick 2015–16 (December 10, 2015). At http://dasnetz.online/wenn-roboter-steuern-zahlen/.

[10] Florian Cramer, “Crapularity Hermeneutics,” unpublished article, 2016.

[11] ibid.

 

 

 

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