10 November 2018 – 4 February 2019 QUAD Gallery, Derby
QUAD, Derby is pleased to present a solo exhibition of new and existing work by the American artist and digital art pioneer Rebecca Allen.
Nearly 30 years ago Rebecca Allen predicted our futuristic culture, writing in 1989 “…not only will people build highly detailed artificial worlds in the computer, but they will also create complex characters with “human-like” behaviour that will “live” in these artificial environments. These new worlds will be experienced by the viewer through high resolution displays and the viewer will be able to interact with these synthetic characters.”
At the heart of Allen’s complex artworks are give and take interactions by the viewer when inside the artist’s, responsive, visionary and uncanny Virtual Reality worlds. There are few other experiences that replicate the embrace of Allen’s unique language; a language half-way between gesture and thought. The exhibition at QUAD features a new commission Life Without Matter and recent VR artworks such as Inside and Tangle of Mind and Matter. Included is a selection of works drawn from her early career, including the interactive large screen installation Bush Soul (#3) and the video Musique Non Stop that the artist made for electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.
Curated by Helen Starr, The Mechatronic Library and Peter Bonnell, Senior Curator, QUAD.
Sync(Emerge(Consciousness)) Helen Starr November 2018 ISBN 978-0-9954611-6-1
“.....Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” 莊子 Zhūangzi (c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC)
We are living in the most exciting of times! The future, if such a thing even exists will decide if these are the best of times or the worst of times. And the future/past as we all know will be written by those who are victorious now. These are wondrous times for technology, with massive advances the last few years in artificial intelligence and virtual reality.Both of these technologies raise very deep philosophical issues. What is artificial intelligence? Is it an artificial mind? What is virtual reality? Is it an artificial world?
This is the time of the questing thinker, because philosophy is the study of the mind and the natural world, and how the two come to co-exist.
To be able to build artificial minds and artificial worlds will open new vistas for us, because they will make new connections between mind and world. And if we can connect these two, we can build new bridges to each other. For all other minds and all other bubble worlds; of artists, of programmers, of farmers and airport workers are inhabited by the Other. And the other is always intrinsically different from and alien to oneself.
Ordinary physical reality meets three conditions: it is immersive, it is interactive and it is driven by real world Physics. 360 Film and Music are immersive, driven by real and/or digital physics but not interactive; meeting two conditions. Gaming is interactive, driven by digital physics but not immersive; it too, meets two conditions. Full-scale virtual reality, of all communication technologies meets three conditions, it is an immersive, interactive and computer-generated environment. Virtual reality takes the immersive and interactive quality of everyday reality and brings in the computer to generate the digital physics.
Virtual Reality is the ladder over the fourth wall. The fourth wall is the conceptual barrier between any fictional work and its viewers or readers. Breaches into wall can be found as early as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote(1605/1615) and “breaking the fourth wall” was popularised in the early 20th century by artists like Virginia Woolf and C.S.Lewis. It occurs when a character in a fictional world engages directly with his/her/their audience; reader, viewer, visitor. The breaking of the fourth wall is often used as a technique to increase or decrease immersive aspects of a cultural work. Increased immersion can trigger mass moral panics and emotional turbulence. Powerful examples include Myrick and Sanchez’s film, The Blair Witch Project (1993) and Team Salvato’s multiplatform single player visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club (2017). With flirty, responsive, Lolita -like avatars who can be wooed by poetry, Doki Doki Literature Club’s branching narratives and dark content has elicited warnings from watch-dogs such as The Sun and the BBC.
We can think of virtual reality as an artificial, digital world. When we digitise ourselves as avatars, when our ephemeral minds inhabit our ephemeral bodies, our real bodies react as if we are physically present. When we are scared in an artificial world, adrenaline (fear) rises in our real bodies, when we feel adoration in an artificial world, our body produces oxytocin (love). The veil, this skin, between what is real and what is virtual is thus compromised and we, in a transitory state of flux exist simultaneously in a dreamt up world and the natural world.
Let us consider for a moment that Descartes’ mind–body dualism is an outdated concept designed to privilege intellect over feeling. “Substance” dualism, as it is commonly known is an old philosophical view in which non-physical consciousness has no matter, or that our minds, divorced from our bodies are distinct and separable. This 17th century thought experiment states that the mental can exist outside of the body, and the body cannot think.
We have mostly left this behind as most teenage fans of Kubo’s manga, Bleach (2001) and Kirkman and Moore’s comics,The Walking Dead (2003) would agree; that a mind without a body is a ghost and a body without a mind is a zombie.
We can apply a more measured approach and embrace instead a term which was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Autopoiesis (from Greek (auto-), self, and (poiesis), creation) refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself.
Autopoiesis is an astonishing bio-chemical lens which gives us an insightful way to look at pioneering artists such as Rebecca Allen, Suzanne Treister and Hans Haacke who have been thinking about how complex systems work in artificial technical environments, in sociological environments and in natural, ecological environments. These avant-garde, systems-literate artists laid the fertile ground for younger, but no less brilliant artists such Pierre Huyghe, Jon Rafman and Anicka Yi.
First among this visionary tribe is Rebecca Allen. In 1989 Rebecca wrote “…not only will people build highly detailed artificial worlds in the computer, but they will also create complex characters with “human-like” behaviour that will “live” in these artificial environments. These new worlds will be experienced by the viewer through high resolution displays and the viewer will be able to interact with these synthetic characters.”
Like Renaissance artists of old, Allen has always moved fluently between technology, art and philosophy of mind exploring notions of feminism, gender fluidity, the body in motion and mind.
Mind (n):the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.
Rebecca Allen’s very first computer animation in 1974 was of a woman seductively lifting her skirts. Today we can appreciate this as an insightful critique on patriarchy and the secretiveness of Silicon Valley Technology. Made despite the then unamused computer scientists, if only this work had left that sterile computer lab and passed into the wider world. But things were different then and a woman’s voice in technology was not allowed above a whisper.
Ten years later in 1984, Kraftwerk (1970 -), pioneers of electronic music also turned to Allen to create their digital image for the single Musique Non Stop and to design the cover art for their 1986 album Techno Pop (aka Electric Cafe). Allen’s Musique Non Stop video went on to become one of the most lauded MTV videos in pop history.
Furthermore, although Kraftwerk is known for not collaborating with female artists, Allen’s voice threads through the single, “Musique nonstop, techno pop, musique nonstop techno pop…” A lenitive mantra, now above a whisper; like the rhythmic chant of a 9th century Gregorian monk.
Allen has collaborated with other world famous artists such as Korean American Nam June Paik(1932-2006). She was commissioned by Nam June Paik to supply the animations for works such as Office Workers(1992) and Twisted Turtle (1993) among others. Nam June Paik has been ascribed accolades such as “founder of video art” and is credited with the earliest usage of the term Electronic Superhighway. His work has influenced contemporary artists such as Christian Marclay, Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin and Haroon Mirza.
Many of the software tools, now used by these younger generations of artists were shaped by Allen’s humane, artistic vision. Systems - that animate in three dimensions not two. Systems - that capture how our bodies move in space; like Brancusi’s birds. Systems - that augment and expand our reality with symbols. Feedback systems - that interface using breath, muscles and touch; like a futuristic understanding of Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind; Golden Bird (1919). The dazzling, golden bird of Romanian folklore, whose magical song restored sight to the blind and youth to the aged.
Allen has always brought her active perceptual thinking to ever current problems.What does it mean to be a networked, sentient being? How do we navigate our place in this differently ordered, modern universe? What are the invisible electrical bonds which tie us to not just to our living world and tribal families, but to animals, plants and even artificial beings?
All autopoietic creatures; be they human, AI, a swarm of insects or bots or the scented pine forests of the North American landscapes are unified organisations of networked cells. These tangled structures interact and transform continuously in an elemental dance to regenerate the very processes which reproduce and maintain themselves.Let us next get rid of the idea of duality in consciousness. It is not true that there are two sides to consciousness; that you are self-aware or you are not. On/Off. Fundamental aspects of our conscious mind consist of loosely woven skeins of electrical states existing in a linguistic and cultural framework.
Notions such as art and time exist only in an internationally agreed political, cultural and geographical frame. 10.00 am in London is not the same as 10.00 am in Tokyo and Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1926) was not a kitchen utensil, but an artwork. Most new and innovative ideas which seem glaringly obvious now, have been fought for and hard won. Brancusi v. United States (1928). So too, do certain woven threads of our consciousness shape the different parts of our thinking selves. Brightly lit skeins of our consciousness rise like a wave depending on the task at hand. We use differently woven fragments for different situations; for automatic tasks, for quiet wakefulness, for breathing, for sleeping, for solving hard problems. Neuroscience keeps finding new skeins and fragments of consciousness and has only very recently begun to knot them together so as to apprehend the three dimensional web of thought.
An understanding of this can be found in two of Allen’s major works created a decade apart Life Without Matter (2018) and Bush Soul (1997). In Life Without Matter (2018) we find ourselves in a mythic space, a lush forest and the interior of a stone structure that is at once ancient and futuristic. Built in the innocent, graphical language of the pre-Alpha Go era, the viewer confronts their digital reflection. And since a virtual world is immaterial (not built with “real” physics), a virtual mirror need not reflect one’s physical appearance, but rather the female, male and animal in all of us. The groundbreaking Bush Soul(1997) based on West African Orisha practice allows one to visit the lands of Oshun, Goddess of Water and Beauty and of Oya, Mistress of Speed and Tempest; but, and this is important: as a rider not the ridden. Both allow you to step intovirtual worlds where you can play with forms of communication that rely on gestures, movements and artificially intellectualised behaviours.
We, who are transported by these imagined worlds startle as we lose track of time. When, talk turns to losing ourselves in the beat of a drum or in the high of a hallucinogenic, we now, thanks to Allen’s oeuvre, have a richer language to describe what we mean. For while our bodies do not differentiate between the virtual and the real world, our consciousness leaves a little fragment to stand guardian of our still breathing bodies while allowing other silken strands to extend into this dream imagined world, like the long, silken threads that spiders use to fly.
Neuroscience continues to develop tools that track this plurality of consciousness. When thinking occurs in our brains, it looks like a constantly erupting lightning storm that can travel through and across our brain’s folded surface, travelling tingling to our fingertips and then back again. These constant explosions of electrical activity are our brain’s cells processing the incessant stream of information coming in through our senses. When we are awake, even when we daydream these bacchanalian rhythms exhaust us. So we seek restoration in sleep. Here our brains begin a careful re-ordering so that in REM, sleep becomes more of a summer shower and non-REM sleep settles over us like solitary drizzle.
Most electric bursts in certain parts of your brain never switch off or vary when you are awake, daydreaming and dreaming. If they do, you are either under anaesthetic or in a coma; leaving only the skeins in charge of our automatic systems lit. These are systems which monitor the outside and inside worlds through our senses. They keep you breathing, and your heart beating and they startle you to alertness if a loud sound occurs. When, however, you are not unconscious but asleep or deep in daydream parts your brain become active in a different way and a new fragments of consciousness emerge.
Allen investigates this thinking through works such as INSIDE (2016) andThe Tangle of Mind and Matter(2017). These works, especially INSIDE (2016) emphasise Allen’s early fascination with the bodily and the mechanisms which lie within. Allen’s exploration of our most powerful sense, the visual is clearly expressed in the painterly(ness) of INSIDE (2016) and how our mind is embodied in the meat and muscles and sinews of our tactile self. Both works connect us with corporeality of being, that physical container, our flesh based mortality.
For Allen the role of the body is to act as a vessel for the brain, mind and conscious self. The brain; itself is of a vessel for the self-aware mind understands the makeupof the body through which it feels: love, in the racing of heart and fear, in the butterflies of the stomach. Though the brain and conscious mind are related, they are not synonyms. They must not be used interchangeably as the brain is the complex networked structure within which the mind functions. Without the brain there is no mind. Why do we build virtual models of our mind’s eye? In our day and night dreams? Current thinking suggests that what we dream influences what we do and not the other way around. We know that the ability to remember the past is linked to the ability of imagining the future. In our dream-scapes, memory and imagination come to the fore.
When the brain is not attending fully to the outside world, when you are daydreaming or have recently drifted into sleep, it replays fragments of broken skeins which are parts of old memories in real time. Each fragment of memory can connect to another in three dimensions, if there is some commonality between the two. These connectors are specific to a common location or a common emotion or a common cue. And this is how we create a speculative model of the world. Moving through these memory models during REM sleep is the way that consciousness involved in memory and learning attempts to figure out how things can connect in the future. When we dream, we build future models of the world. And as these broken skeins compile and recompile they create the virtual reality of our mind’s eye. We create these simulations to prepare us for the future. This is what it means to learn and to adapt our behaviour to new contexts. This is another trait commonly found in autopoetic creatures. The ability to dream.
Sentient beings, unlike analogue machines made up of clearly separate parts cannot be taken apart to be understood fully. Just as artificially intelligent, digital machines cannot be understood just from their graphics cards or electrical plugs. Allen’s body of work showcases the tangle of tethers, which link the complex parts of ourselves. We, who are sentient, emerge from our connected selves and from these nodes of webbed silk, conscious that we are. When we travel as viewers to Allen’s worlds, we are tethered to the VR devices, we are tethered to our avatars, we are tethered to our bodies and to our conscious minds. Rebecca Allen is an artist who began to generate this type of thinking in 1974. The more science lifts the skirts and the skins of the hidden, the more it becomes clear that our brains can only attend to a small fraction of the surrounding reality. We each inhabit a sensorium, our own little bubble, which is big enough to get by. This is at the heart of the struggle to approximate the larger picture. We can expand our little bubbles, our sensoria by networking ourselves into the virtual worlds of Rebecca Allen. The fraction of reality we can understand, can be increased by experiencing Virtual Reality, it is expanded by the imagined, virtual world of another.
Allen’s thoughtful dream-scapes allow visitors to explore a virtual space free from any privilege or lack thereof marked on their bodies as stigma in the real world. Here, within the imagined space of her mind all who journey can begin anew. We are no longer as suffocated by ideas of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Beginning with her early anatomical drawings, each subsequent art work has grown in scope and understanding. As Allen’s creative allegories, her four dimensional visual poems leapfrog the cascades of other media which mark our current times, we may finally hope to understand the Other. Like the raised skirts of the early animation, Rebecca Allen’s corpus exposes a philosophical frame that is complex and multi-dimensional and as yet undetermined.