Facing adversity in the first game of a rematch with chess-champion Garry Kasparov (1997), IBM’s Deep Blue computer suddenly allowed the champion an easy checkmate. The abrupt suicide puzzled and terrified the champion—the impulsive, emotional response from the previously unrelenting machine seemed to hint at untold psychological depth. Years later, programmers revealed the overwhelmed computer, having exceeded its allotted time, had chosen the move at random.
Named after the chess annotation that denotes an exciting move with unexpected consequences, the group exhibition (!?) takes the Deep Blue anecdote as its foundational myth. Here, the sign (!?) marks the unforeseeable appearance of emotional complexity at the extreme edges of technology. The works on display span the last sixty years and a diversity of mediums from outsider art to CGI renderings, psychology case studies to social media performances. But they are united in a formal approach that finds technology at its most expressive not when it succeeds seamlessly but when it begins to come undone; that when technology or its users are pushed to the point of failure, their interactions flicker with an uncanny emotional life.
The term “singularity” technically means the point after which no present theory can account for what happens next, and so the work in this exhibition shows that even if artificial intelligence has yet to reach that point, we already have an aesthetics of the singularity: a critical art which pushes technology past limits, beyond which there is no accounting for what we may find…
Iain Ball (UK)—Philips, 2013, 2010-ongoing, mixed media installation
Phrased in the vernacular of forward-thinking tech demos and commercial prototyping, this installation imagines the paradox of an already-passed future brought to extremity by the excesses of the 21st century. What would be the place for benevolent technology in a world that no longer harbors any safe place for its consumers?
Sebastian Schmieg (DE) and Silvio Lorusso (IT)— Networked Optimization, 2013, on-demand printed books and mixed media installation
A series of crowd-sourced versions of the three most popular self-help books on Amazon’s marketplace: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The 5 Love Languages, and How to Win Friends & Influence People—installed according to the specifications of a patent held by Amazon for a generic photo studio (# 13/292,359 “Studio Arrangement”).
All the text has been rendered invisible except the so-called popular highlights – the short passages that were underlined by many Kindle users and which Amazon automatically tracks and displays to readers.
Simultaneously condensed and evacuated, the books diagram a multi-layered, algorithmic optimization of our emotional lives: through the harvesting of recreation as micro-labor, Amazon implicates the act of reading in a circular process of data-mining and data-dispersion that reinforces certain affective norms across an otherwise diverse and unconnected population.
Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (AT/US) — “Joey: A ‘Mechanical Boy’,” Scientific American, March 1959
“Joey, when we began our work with him, was a mechanical boy.” This is the first general audience case study of autism. The doctor in charge of the case, Dr. Bettelheim, goes on to explain that “[Joey] functioned as if by remote control, run by machines of his own powerfully creative fantasy. Not only did he himself believe that he was a machine but more remarkably, he created this impression in others.”
Bettelheim’s article remains both a record of the literal incorporation of robotics into our psyches and the scientific community’s response to the new discipline of cybernetics; to this day, the study offers an original model for how humans are capable of relating to robots, neither as slaves nor adversaries, but rather as abstract models for cognition and ego-formation.
Paul Laffoley (US) — Anthe Hieronymus Box II, 1999-2003, mixed media painting
Since the 1960s Paul Laffoley has been creating paintings and mixed media collages that straddle the genres of system’s theory, pop, and outsider art. Laffoley operates at the extreme edge of paranormal psychology, physics, and engineering building constructions that he believes to be fully functional “visionary” machines, capable of a wide range of emotive and super-natural functions from time-travel, to telekinesis, and divination.
Each piece is painstakingly hand-inlaid with texts, circuits, and diagrams which, according to the artist, form dynamic interfaces for wielding emotional and cybernetic powers. Are these artworks that use the vocabulary of empathetic machines or the other way around?
R. Lyon (US)- The Limits of Perception and the Rectangular Frame #6 (OK_Utrecht), 2014, performance and documentation
A re-imagining of the self-portrait in the age of algorithmically conditioned social media. Using a loophole on the dating site OkCupid, Lyon asks the site to show him other heterosexual males that are the most like him— his digital doppelgangers according to the site’s data analysis. Running this protocol locally in Utrecht, Lyon has invited several high-percentage matches to the opening of the exhibition to serve as a kind of constellated, proprietary self-portrait.
Cécile B. Evans (BE-US/DE)— Hyper Links or it Didn’t Happen, 2014, HD video
A short film narrated by the failed CGI rendering (PHIL) of a recently departed actor. In an intensification of so-called “hyperlink cinema”, various digital iterations of humanity—CGI models, spam bots, holograms—are woven through multiple converging story-lines that unfold across various settings, genres, and modes of representation. Familiar conditions of linear narrative falter under a multiplication of connections that never quite cohere into a linear narrative. The emotional prickle of the uncanny—borne out of the failure to cohere— is raised to the level of narrative form and cultural critique: an uneasy “in-between-ness” definitive for our contemporary moment.
Support from the Arts Council of England
Mark Leckey (UK)—Prop4aShw, 2011, HD video
A short proposal for a group exhibition realized last year, that contends that today’s world of interactive objects, networks, and virtual spaces returns us to a pre-Modern sensibility wherein every object was potentially inhabitable by a spirit or being (animism). A short circuit built out of a series of objects drawn from material culture and fine art: our current technological subjectivity is reframed not as a novelty but as a return to a magical way of thinking that long predates its superficial features.
Tyler Coburn (US)— Naturally Speaking, 2014, text, screensaver, monitors, furniture, floor paint
A spoken word essay, presented in silence, accompanies a custom screen saver. Modeled on the interface for training Apple’s speech recognition software, the “standard script” retells famous stories of the births and afterlives of the voice: from Edison’s attempt to make his phonograph a device through which every sound in the history of the world again might be heard, to the robotic dogs and chatbots of early AI, and the scene in Rabelais’s 16th century novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, when the warming air thaws the frozen sounds of a past battle.
Zachary Kaiser and Gabi Schaffzin (US)— Whisper, 2014, custom software and hardware enclosure
Designed as a play on the prototypical “black box,” Whisper is a small custom computer that prompts users to describe how they are feeling in their own words. Using natural language processors, Whisper processes the users’ desires and then distorts them through a chain of algorithmically motivated associations. The scrambled wish is then interfaced with Amazon’s marketplace and the user is given a printout of a product available for sale that corresponds to their digitally demented desire.
Harun Farocki (DE)— Serious Games (Ernste Spiele), I-IV, 2011, seven-channel HD video
A four-part series, spread out over a seven channel video installation, diagrams the military’s varied uses for virtual reality simulations. In this context, the vernacular of violent videogames becomes a means to convert a generation of gamers into soldiers, and then is repurposed as a therapeutic tool for reintegrating those same soldiers back into daily life after the trauma of real war. Simulation, then, working not as a placeholder for reality, but as its threshold: a moment that mediates extremity and seeks to retrain the thoughts and feelings of its subjects so that they may re-enter the world changed, for better and for worse.
BOILER ROOM #001 A CREATURE CALLED SOFT MACHINE, Student exhibition
Third and fourth year students of the HKU Fine Arts department together with students from MaHKU present their visions on the festival topic ‘Soft Machines’ in a group presentation. In the research format of a ‘Boiler Room’ the students investigate the relation between human beings and machines, working with the question: What are empathetic qualities in the interaction between art, technology and humans? From October 24 to November 2, the public will have the possibility to become part of this intensive laboratorium, in which experiments are tested, objects exposed and processes put into further operation.
The opening of the Boiler Room #001 Exhibition is sponsored by Warsteiner.