I would like to conclude this year’s report on Subtle technologies festival with a note on life and time.
I want to dedicate this to my good friend Arlan Londoño, a Colombian Canadian artist and curator who had given me curatorial advice on the final panel. I had invited him to participate as discussant, but as a twist of life and irony, he passed away two weeks before the event. At his memorial, his friends and family read excerpts from favorite books. one of them was a quote from Andrey Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time.
I believe that there couldn’t be a better quote to end my contribution.
Time is a condition for the existence of our “I”. It is like a kind of culture medium that is destroyed when it is no longer needed, once the links are severed between the individual personality, and the conditions of existence. What is known as the moment of death is also the death of individual time: the life of a human being becomes inaccessible to the feelings of those remaining alive, dead for those around him.
To conclude this fabulous round of Subtle technologies, we couldn’t omit the element that during these days has informed and enriched with its presence our conversations: Science Fiction. Subtle technologies started with a reference to the Hitchhicker’s guide to the galaxy, mentioned many times William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Mary Shelley and countless movie references.
Conceived as a panel and then morphed into a creative roundtable where artists and the hackers’ community were invited to submit thoughts and artworks, this session was introduced by an invited talk by feminist Science Fiction scholar Veronica Hollinger who navigated us through the meanders of immortality in scifi literature. It was followed by an open discussionfeaturing Veronica, Eric Boyd and myself and by a final ironic experiment by Colombian/Canadian artist Alejandro Tamayo that wrapped up the entire conference.
Artworks submitted were by Elaine Whittaker, Lisa Carrie Goldberg, and Eric Boyd. part of the discussion was inspired by a meeting on immortality that happened in early february at the Hacklab in Toronto.
For William Gibson it is impossible to “unpack” the material of the 21st century without science fiction:
I don’t really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is so utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted” (Distrust That Particular Flavor 46) –
In reality, science fiction is an essential tool to understand, to unpack at anytime, the key desires and the struggles that characterize the way in which we try to cope with, and in turn we shape science and technologies. Hollinger defines science fiction as the expression of participatory evolution.
The use of technologies and magic (sometimes the two are conflated) to achieve immortality is one of the most prevalent themes traversing science fiction literature. As many panelists and the audience have pointed out, achieving immortality has always been a human project intriguing and obsessing many; it has led many to the edge of madness; it has created monsters, superhumans etc…
no matter the technology of the time, there has always been someone with that project in mind. Shelley and Stoker remain among the most memorable (yet not the first) to have problematized immortality in a science fictional text, as both escape from death and as warning against its consequences. After the lecture, Eric passed me a google books Ngram viewer that shows the presence of the theme in texts from 1800 on.
The spike in interest in immortality in the 1820s shown by the above graph appears to follow the publication of Frankenstein (1818). Shelley certainly contributed to popularize the fairly recent advancements in the study of electricity in the late 1700s. However, experiments in the Teatrum Anatomicum conducted by Galvani and other clever public communicators of science has already evoked a great deal of excitement regarding the ability of the science and technology of electricity to defeat immortality and even bring back the dead.
In the same way as Shelley and Stoker’s novels cope with the drive towards immortality by using science and narratives proper of their times (e.g. the use of electricity to bring back the dead), contemporary novelists have built their stories starting from the latest technologies popularized since the 1970s: cryogenics, cloning, biotechnologies bodily enhancement etc… Cyberpunk in the 1980s and the more recent wave of biopunk are exemplary. It appears that the interest in immortality has faded though. maybe we have become overconfident and think this topic is not worth being discussed anymore?
On the one hand, the advent of cyberspace has provided a plethora of fantasies regarding the fading separation between the organic and the technological and has open up new potentials for extending life in the virtual world; on the other hand, genetic and bio-engineering, nanotechnology, developments in prosthetics has promised even more effective ways to achieve immortality. It is in this context that the materiality of the body simultaneously loses its significance as embodied subject and acquires even more importance as the subject of philosophical contentions. Is my body in this new configuration my own body? I am soul and body, but is this body myself? With reflections over new technologies emerge intense political imaginations.
Some recent post-singularity stories concerned with longevity and immortality can be found in novels and short stories by Greg Egan, Iain M. Banks (who sadly passed away this very week end), Kim Stanley Robinson, and Paolo Bacigalupi, all contemporary authors that have provided nuanced visions of posthuman and post-scarcity realities, embodied and synthetic futures, utopian and dystopian societies.
In Uses and Abuses of Science Fiction, KARLHEINZ STEINMÜLLER quotes Fred Pohl:
A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam
we are reminded here of the “Frankenstein syndrome”: with every technology emerging, we make extrapolations and imagine the benefits that these technologies will bring, but we are somehow never able to predict or to take responsibility for their consequences.
here is a list of science fiction books that deal with immortality.
Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kiln People by David Brin
Existence by David Brin
Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan
After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley
Outnumbering the Dead by Frederik Pohl
The Prospect of Immortality by R C W Ettinger
The Methuselah Gene by Sal deStefano
The Immortalists by TM Jenkins
So far, the symposium has explored projects and research that understand immortality as a way to bring back the past and the long gone; to restore and preserve memory; to pass human legacy to others; and to extend the ability and the perception of the human in its interrelation with the organic and the inorganic. The next two projects analyze what we rarely perceive as pertaining to the category of the immortal, yet it surrounds us, be it in the form of sound signals or in the form of undisposed human bodies.
Don Hill for instance note that there is no such thing as silence. “Sound never ages. A sonic pitch – the note C, for instance – is immutable”. But Sound produced by objects around us create different forms of affect, where the object itself shapes the sound and the sound shapes the object . In turn our relationship that common objects is always one charged with a variety of perceptions, sensations and memories. sounds does something to us.
Take for example a bell: it brings acoustic signals to people. But a bell has a different meaning for each individual listening to it and it resonates differently according the spaces where it is located; rock formations take a particular shape from the action of winds and weather. while the weather eternally shapes acoustic spaces, so is space shaping sound.
among the object that Don Hill has investigated are Memory Stones, from rock art, or painted stones that had a ritualistic significance, to naturally occurring stone formations that can “tell a lot more than you think once you get the feel for a place..”
In Trophies and Talismans, Miriam Nafte, a forensic anthropologist, is concerned with those undisposed death. For Nafte, we are in the presence of death on a daily basis, but we can only cope with it through its institutionalization. A different fate is reserved for exhumed death, archaeological material, mummified remains. When these remains are found, they are not treated as individuals who used to be humans, but as scientific specimens that need be investigated or as trophies to be exhibited. all these dead bodies are not given burial.
Nafte mentions, among others, the remains and relics that individuals sold and traded as objects; churches expose them as trophies; the cadavers in medicine, which are part of the tradition of becoming a doctor; the human remains incorporated by artists in their artworks.
This notion of immortality, as someone in the public noted, presents the cadaver as neutral, as non-gendered and no-raced. Western culture appropriates them and turn them into remains whose fate is not peace, but eternal exposure to serve other purposes: for this reason, these are all forms of immortality as the result of the narratives that we impose upon them, granting them a second life.
Trained in art and dentistry, David Khang brought to Toronto his research on the benefits and the limitation of Botox injections as well as on the result of the interaction of human subjects and other microorganisms (botox is a neurotoxin). British Columbia is the first state in Canada to allow dentists to perform botox injections. As a Dentist based in BC, he immediately jumped at the opportunity. The resulting Beautox Me explores the effects of this popular procedure on two experienced actors who gladly volunteered to perform a shakespearian piece before and after the injection. In toronto, Khang presented the two stages on a split screen with stunning results.
here is the video with Lesley Ewen reading Marcus from Titus Andronicus and
Billy Marchenski reading the Porter from Macbeth
Billy Marchenski also “performed” during the very procedure. Interestingly, the piece he chose was from Richard III
The project produced some reaction from the actors, who sometimes felt that their range of expressions had become independent from their intentions, or, as Lesley notes in an essay on David Khang’s project, “Mashup Destinies” by Kóan Jeff Baysa :
My forehead doesn’t correspond to my emotional state with the same creasing and folding activity…My mask has been neutralized…Do I appear false? I’d mourn for my previous faculties of expression, for how deftly I’d cock a brow or narrow the outer corner of an eye, slowly raise my forehead and draw back the skin of my head in order to appear to grow younger right before your eyes. After years spent parsing and developing my muscles….Squirt. Poof. All of these grace notes…gone.
Khang’s Beautox me is part of a long term project he started developing during a residency at the Synbiotica Centre, Amelogenesis Imperfecta (how deep is the skin of teeth). The two projects were first exhibited at the grunt gallery in Vancouver . In dentistry, enamel is produced to recreate a tooth, but what about making tiny teeth as sculptures? Amelogenesis Imperfecta sought to produce enamel by harvesting in vitro epithelial and mesenchymal cells from an enamel organ of a pig. Khang didn’t succeed in producing enamel, but created some thin layers that he engraved with microscopic messages (thanks to the use of a laser tweezer and a microscope), such as “how deep is the skin of teeth?” The project became a reflection on ethical interspecies relations. In fact, the artist asks, “can we imagine brushing our teeth in the morning as an act of killing bacteria on a massive scale?”
June 9 morning sessions were marked by two very different presentations, Scott Menary’s Born in the big bang and Alan Sondheim’s Digital and Physical Collapse. Interestingly, and despite their different approaches, they set a dialogue among each other: The first explained how the building blocks of our universe have been around basically since the big bang, first in a “froth” of particles and antiparticles, and then as more specific particles. The universe is transparent to neutrinos : they float around and traverse our bodies without interacting with or damaging them. because of their ubiquitousness and their longevity, they can actually be considered immortal.
This idea can be as well connected with Sondheim’s performance/presentation: neutrinos are immortal, they don’t need us, and will survive us . Sondheim reclaims the connectedness of biological and digital life, of primordial life and later life. life creates a continuum.
the two presentations in some way fill our imaginations with images of the beginning (as a big soup) and the end (a soup?)
Strategically scheduled in-between the two days, the documentary “The Singularity” by flamboyant director Doug Wolens was one of the most anticipated events of the festival. As Wolens states in the documentary website
Ultimately, if we become more machine-like, and machines more like us, will we sacrifice our humanity to gain something greater? Or will we engineer our own demise? Even if the answers are impossible to know, THE SINGULARITY makes clear that we cannot postpone addressing the questions.
the movie followed a lecture by Randal A. Koene, who provided an accurate survey (almost catalogue-like, as some people in attendance pointed out) on neural interfaces, neuroprosthesis and brain emulation. These fascinating technologies not only promise to enhance the human brain, making it possible for it to store more memory, and better exploits its potentials, but also to be able to understand its functions and eventually correct a number of pathologies that cause motor and mental disabilities. Koene was the founder of Carbon Copies , a non-for-profit organization dedicated to the reverse engineering of neural tissue, thus allowing the complete understanding and the subsequent successful reproduction of the brain function by means of other material: example of this material is of course the integrated circuit.
For those people who have never heard of the Singularity, Wolens’ documentary is a must see. His documentary features all the main protagonists of this movement that has been developing since John von Neumann, has been popularized by Vernor Vinge and finds today in Ray Kurzweil one of the most outspoken proponents. While waiting for 2045, when some have predicted that the capability of integrated circuits and AI will have passed human intelligence (which intelligence they don’t explain of course), the movement has continued to aggressively publicize their endeavors, they have been popping pills so they will survive until that day and have been created the singularity university (a for profit university that features 10 weeks intensive programs for those willing to take the challenge).
I promised I would be “objective”, but I can’t but be skeptical and a bit irritated by the movement. in fact, while I have nothing against it, and I am terribly fascinated by their progresses, I can’t help noticing their scientific and technological determinism. The documentary was very balanced in interviewing pundits and skeptical of the singularity, but my critique is not at all about the capability of technology. I am sure that Moore was right(at least partially, although the laws of physics tell otherwise), when he observed the exponential growth of technologies. However, focusing on the technological aspect only is dangerous and irresponsible.
In fact, here are some aspects that creeped through the movie, for those (I must say many) who wanted to notice.
2) nobody, except one or two of the interviewees mentioned that while there is a lot of talk about personal improvement, enhancement and the marvels of technology, there is absolutely no critical consideration of correcting the very socio-financial system that is producing these enhancements. of course, there are enterprises being created at the singularity U that claim to address sustainability and anger in the world…from a first world, elitist perspective
3) most people involved with the movement of singularity are men and white
4) when you type the word “singularity” on google, I am redirected to the site of the singularity U….why am I surprised?
the documentary was really good at exposing these elements without falling into rhetoric. Don’t get me wrong, again, my criticism is not about the idea, which I want to like (I have no interest however, to access wikipedia while I am riding my bike ) , it’s about the people and the system that supports it. the organization has almost bottomless funding and power, I wish it directed it to transform the system of untenable competitiveness that afflicts us and that widens instead of filling, the gaps existing today.
maybe I read too much Gibson (who by the way, wrote about this a long time ago), or MT Anderson, but can we have the technologies without the corporate sponsors? can we have brain enhancement offered to all (no matter the background, financial capability, social extraction)? can we avoid being ostracized or disparaged just because you chose not to follow that route?
As Alan Sondheim the day after reminded us all,
Technophelia can be very dangerous…
when the desires for immortality – de-extinction – human drive are crazily mixed with corporate interests.
Hendrik Poinar, a professor in Paleogenetics at McMaster University has some fond memories of his parents (entomologists) spending time uncovering and examining insects fossilized and encased in Amber. What if we could bring them back? what if we could de-extinct dinosaurs and other animals? As a Paleogeneticist, Poinar considers himself a bit of a time traveler. Given samples of extinct Woolly Mammoth recently emerging from unlocked permafrost and the melting of ice in vast areas of Siberia, he and his team were able to extract portions of Mammouth DNA. While time and the conditions of the animal only allow partial reconstruction of their genes, the existing material is invaluable in reconstructing the origins, the migrations and the causes of extinctions of these animals. Poinar believes that advances in stem cells research might one day enable us to reverse extinction of a number of long gone animals. Even if this becomes a possibility, which he would very much like to see happen, he is also fully aware that there are ethics and very careful considerations of the consequences of one such operation. in fact:
Who decides what animal would get to be de-extinct?
Would they survive?
What happens when de-extinct animals are placed next to non-extinct animals? would the first prevale over the other?
What are the consequence for the environment?
These are some of the questions that are further examined by Britt Wray. Wray collected an impressive amount of interviews and statements from scientists and visionaries about the theme of de-extinction: humans are the curators for this de-extinction. with new advances in science, new techniques are being explored to bring extinct animals back to life. In addition to Poinar’s DNA and stem cell research, cloning and synthetic biology can all assist in de-extinction.
Animals such as the Dodo, the passenger pigeon and other popular species have been considered as possible candidates of de-extintion
But with all the attempts to bring back extinct animals, one question seems to be left out. Why are we trying to get them back?
because we want to fulfill some kind of Frankensteinian desire to create life? because we feel guilty for our complicity in bringing certain animals to extinction?
because it is cool and we want to build a zoo Jurassic Parc-style?
It seems that any good proposition to prolongue life, bring back life, evoke life from the death etc.. always place human beings at the centre, as if everything revolved around them.
Very similarly, Tweets in Space by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern collected twitter messages from a 30 minutes performance at ISEA 2012 identified with #tweetsinspace tag. later on, these messages were beamed towards GJ667Cc, an exoplanet that might (or not) support extraterrestrial life. In 30 minutes, Kildall and Stern collected 1500 tweets (1 per second). They then transmitted them on 28 nov 2012
It is interesting how looking for other forms of being has been a recurrent human obsession. I am reminded of Virilio who interpreted pushing further and further the horizon of the unseen and the unknown as a quest for knowing and of “conquering”. Is this another way to establish our presence outside of this world?
Kildall and Stern point out that one of the rationale beyond the project was also to repurpose social media. why just keep them among ourselves? We often trust selected institutions to make decisions for us, but social media might reproduce many of our cultural assumptions, fears and habits way better than those refined images and artifacts that are periodically sent into outerspace to communicate our “greatness” to other forms of life.
But then how would these messages interpreted by extraterrestrial life?
During a break between the presentations, I had a very insightful discussion with the attendees. So far, It looks like most of this festival has focused on non-literal notions of immortality, that is, on those instances of immortality that concern leaving a trace of ourselves on this world, rather than extending our lives.
It is as if we were all collectively trying to figure out the legacy of the human race for the far future generations (the Amber Archive), to reach out and signal our presence for our potential neighbors in other planets and galaxies (Tweets in Space) or to be remembered and appreciated by our peers here and now in this world (DNA mating Call).
Still, someone asked: ” but don’t you want to extend your life and live forever?” well, I don’t think that conceptually there is much difference between leaving a trace and living forever. As I mentioned before, you can use the most advanced technologies to extend your physical existence, and still not find any scope for your existence. Yet, the divide between those who advocate one idea or the other is very palpable.
This is a philosophical question and a conceptual gap that we will not be able to answer either during this festival or in the future.
I have already talked about the Amber Archive, but it is worth mentioning two other projects that were featured in the morning of the Symposium: DNA Mating call, and Tweets in Space. While very different from each other, their focus on outreach and conceptual tendency to project the human existence externally is quite similar.
the project DNA Mating Call by Atanas Bozdarov and Johny Bozdarov focuses on translating into music the portion of our DNA called HLA-B sequence. HLA is involved in the human immune response in the process of mating. If we consider this from an evolutionary perspective, individual immune responses influence mating to avoid the recursion of diseases or genetic mismatches.
each A G C T sequence resulting from the scientific analysis of HLA is different for each individual and can be associated to a note (or to tempo, in the case of T). The result is a music sequence, a personalized mating call.
speaking about memory and preservation in the near and not-so-near future , Line Dezainde ponders the precarious status of collective memory now archived digitally, both in terms of its arbitrary /curatorial nature and in terms of its ephemerality as a resource prone to obsolescence and loss.
in the last few years, we have witnessed an enormous amount of data being digitized and fed into the web. A database culture, Manovich defines it, where information is not narrated, but associated non-linearly according to categories and algorithms. But archives are no databases: while they somehow look messy and unordered, they always have a curatorial mandate in narrating the stories of individuals and societies.
It is this curatorial mandate that Dezainde wishes to problematize: for Foucault, discourse is not formed as a linear, unified or consistent flow, but it rather proceeds by ruptures, whose micro-narratives reoccur in different places and at different times taking different meanings according to the contexts in which they locate themselves. It is the task of the archivist to collect and piece together documents, transforming them into “monuments”. But among these documents there are many that don’t make it into the archive. With Atelier Angus Dezainde is interested in these very “archives des obscures” and asks how this personal collective memory could be preserved in the digital age, and how it is possible to demonumentalize such archive.
While digital archives might be the latest examples of our obsessions towards keeping alive collective memories, I think social media should have a special space in this discussion. do social media provide that very uncurated archive that Dezainde mentions? for instance, social media have been infamous for providing information about us that we don’t necessarily want to propagate; recently, there have been thoughts on what happens when no longer populate this world but our social media account stays on line: is it a trace of our achieved online immortality? is it a sort of online grave? is it a memento of our physical limitation as opposed to the eternity of the Web?
A recent article published on the New York Times, titled “When Artworks Crash: Restorers Face Digital Test” raised an important problem that digital archives today are facing: “..Paintings fade; sculptures chip. Art restorers have long known how to repair those material flaws, so the experience of looking at a Vermeer or a Rodin remains basically unchanged over time. But when creativity is computerized, the art isn’t so easy to fix.” The article describes the challenge of the Whitney Museum of Art to resurrect an early internet piece: with the fast pace of internet transformation, the code that once supported the piece is no longer working. Would new code recover the piece to its original state? or would it completely change its significance?
Amber is a resinous material associated with an insoluble bituminous substance. It comes in liquid form,but when it solidifies, it has the property of preserving any object that has been trapped in it. many fossilized insects and small animals have come to us from remote past encased in amber . Amber is the perfect time capsule for its ability not only to preserve any object, but also to preserve them with incredible care.
Technically, Amber turns anything it captures into a sculpture eternally frozen in time. But is this eternity immutable? or, is the sense that we give to this eternity immutable?
John Paul Robinson defines his project a “time capsule” . Its goal is preserved submitted representatives of human endeavors (including art and science) and send them to the future, encased in Amber. To contain these works, Robinson built a wooden container which will fit discs of ceramic of identical circumference, onto which are printed artworks and other artifacts. these discs will be then inserted in the capsule, preserved with amber and saved to be then retrieved in an indefinite and remote future.
for Robinson, this project is “an act of reverse archeology. The objects in the Archive are charged with cultural import not by the finder but by the sender…retrieved not from the distant past but sent into the distant future…intended to generate a conversation about the future in the present, not the past in the future”.
Myth, according to Robinson, is art, a picture, a story, a map to navigate our world. Physicists, geneticists have described the history of the universe using scientific evidence. They do not consider themselves myth generators. However, logics, reason and mythic thinking are connected. It is an evidence-based mythology, but still a mythology than makes stories in the same moment the scientist communicates his findings, the statistician describes his data etc..
In order to make sense of the world, we provide mathematical and visual evidence…just presented in a certain fashion. take for instance the iconic image of the earth seen from the moon during the Apollo mission. The original image should be flipped vertically. However, it is more impressive for us to imagine the earth from the perspective of the moon rather than from some kind of satellite floating next to it.
For those who think that there is a contradiction between the “mathematical” and objective view of the world (an untranslatable reality), and the “myths” that we make up to explain such reality, Robinson mentioned a memorable moment from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. A group of pan-dimensional beings build a super-computer, Deep Thought, to learn the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything”. After millions of years of “thinking”, the supercomputer produces the answer: 42.
So in a certain way, the artifacts included in the Amber archive are mythical. But once we have encased them and left them to their destiny, will our future ancestors make of these artworks and science? how will they read them? no matter how hard we try to send a message to the next generation, we will always have to deal with the myths of that very generation.