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How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness

How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness

Still from a video feedback sequence.
© Robert Pepperell 2018, Author provided

Robert Pepperell, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Explaining consciousness is one of the hardest problems in science and philosophy. Recent neuroscientific discoveries suggest that a solution could be within reach – but grasping it will mean rethinking some familiar ideas. Consciousness, I argue in a new paper, may be caused by the way the brain generates loops of energetic feedback, similar to the video feedback that “blossoms” when a video camera is pointed at its own output.

I first saw video feedback in the late 1980s and was instantly entranced. Someone plugged the signal from a clunky video camera into a TV and pointed the lens at the screen, creating a grainy spiralling tunnel. Then the camera was tilted slightly and the tunnel blossomed into a pulsating organic kaleidoscope.

Video feedback is a classic example of complex dynamical behaviour. It arises from the way energy circulating in the system interacts chaotically with the electronic components of the hardware.

As an artist and VJ in the 1990s, I would often see this hypnotic effect in galleries and clubs. But it was a memorable if unnerving experience during an LSD-induced trip that got me thinking. I hallucinated almost identical imagery, only intensely saturated with colour. It struck me then there might be a connection between these recurring patterns and the operation of the mind.

Brains, information and energy

Fast forward 25 years and I’m a university professor still trying to understand how the mind works. Our knowledge of the relationship between the mind and brain has advanced hugely since the 1990s when a new wave of scientific research into consciousness took off. But a widely accepted scientific theory of consciousness remains elusive.

The two leading contenders – Stanislas Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace Model and Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory – both claim that consciousness results from information processing in the brain, from neural computation of ones and zeros, or bits.

I doubt this claim for several reasons. First, there is little agreement among scientists about exactly what information is. Second, when scientists refer to information they are often actually talking about the way energetic activity is organised in physical systems. Third, brain imaging techniques such as fMRI, PET and EEG don’t detect information in the brain, but changes in energy distribution and consumption.

Brains, I argue, are not squishy digital computers – there is no information in a neuron. Brains are delicate organic instruments that turn energy from the world and the body into useful work that enables us to survive. Brains process energy, not information.

Recognising that brains are primarily energy processors is the first step to understanding how they support consciousness. The next is rethinking energy itself.

Is the human brain a squishy digital computer or a delicate organic instrument for processing energy?
Installation shot of ‘I am a brain’, 2008. Cast of human brain in resin and metal. Robert Pepperell

What is energy?

We are all familiar with energy but few of us worry about what it is. Even physicists tend not to. They treat it as an abstract value in equations describing physical processes, and that suffices. But when Aristotle coined the term energeia he was trying to grasp the actuality of the lived world, why things in nature work in the way they do (the word “energy” is rooted in the Greek for “work”). This actualised concept of energy is different from, though related to, the abstract concept of energy used in contemporary physics.

When we study what energy actually is, it turns out to be surprisingly simple: it’s a kind of difference. Kinetic energy is a difference due to change or motion, and potential energy is a difference due to position or tension. Much of the activity and variety in nature occurs because of these energetic differences and the related actions of forces and work. I call these actualised differences because they do actual work and cause real effects in the world, as distinct from abstract differences (like that between 1 and 0) which feature in mathematics and information theory. This conception of energy as actualised difference, I think, may be key to explaining consciousness.

The human brain consumes some 20% of the body’s total energy budget, despite accounting for only 2% of its mass. The brain is expensive to run. Most of the cost is incurred by neurons firing bursts of energetic difference in unthinkably complex patterns of synchrony and diversity across convoluted neural pathways.

What is special about the conscious brain, I propose, is that some of those pathways and energy flows are turned upon themselves, much like the signal from the camera in the case of video feedback. This causes a self-referential cascade of actualised differences to blossom with astronomical complexity, and it is this that we experience as consciousness. Video feedback, then, may be the nearest we have to visualising what conscious processing in the brain is like.

Does consciousness depend on the brain looking at itself?
Robert Pepperell, 2018

The neuroscientific evidence

The suggestion that consciousness depends on complex neural energy feedback is supported by neuroscientific evidence.

Researchers recently discovered a way to accurately index the amount of consciousness someone has. They fired magnetic pulses through healthy, anaesthetised, and severely injured peoples’ brains. Then they measured the complexity of an EEG signal that monitored how the brains reacted. The complexity of the EEG signal predicted the level of consciousness in the person. And the more complex the signal the more conscious the person was.

The researchers attributed the level of consciousness to the amount of information processing going on in each brain. But what was actually being measured in this study was the organisation of the neural energy flow (EEG measures differences of electrical energy). Therefore, the complexity of the energy flow in the brain tells us about the level of consciousness a person has.

Also relevant is evidence from studies of anaesthesia. No-one knows exactly how anaesthetic agents annihilate consciousness. But recent theories suggest that compounds including propofol interfere with the brain’s ability to sustain complex feedback loops in certain brain areas. Without these feedback loops, the functional integration between different brain regions breaks down, and with it the coherence of conscious awareness.

What this, and other neuroscientific work I cite in the paper, suggests is that consciousness depends on a complex organisation of energy flow in the brain, and in particular on what the biologist Gerald Edelman called “reentrant” signals. These are recursive feedback loops of neural activity that bind distant brain regions into a coherent functioning whole.

Video feedback may be the nearest we have to visualising what conscious processing in the brain is like.
Still from video feedback sequence. Robert Pepperell, 2018

Explaining consciousness in scientific terms, or in any terms, is a notoriously hard problem. Some have worried it’s so hard we shouldn’t even try. But while not denying the difficulty, the task is made a bit easier, I suggest, if we begin by recognising what brains actually do.

The primary function of the brain is to manage the complex flows of energy that we rely on to thrive and survive. Instead of looking inside the brain for some undiscovered property, or “magic sauce”, to explain our mental life, we may need to look afresh at what we already know is there.The Conversation

Robert Pepperell, Professor, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

On ‘The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars’

Paul Broks: I was putting the finishing touches to my first book, Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology when my wife, Sonja, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I put off submitting the manuscript in order to support her through the difficult first stages of treatment but I also used the time to write an additional chapter dealing with our response to her diagnosis. In that final chapter I recount the true story of a conversation we’d had over dinner in which I’d presented the following scenario (borrowed from a Milan Kundera novel). A kindly visitor from an advanced alien civilisation brings the good news that death is not the end and that she will be moving on to another life. But there’s a choice to be made. Does she want to commit to having me with her in that future life, or would she rather go it alone? She said she’d go it alone. One lifetime was enough, however much you loved someone. So I’d better make the most of it. We had another eight years together, more than twice as long as expected from the original, rather grim, prognosis.

Into the Silent Land ends with Sonja’s cancer diagnosis and The Darker the Night begins with her death. That Stoic injunction – Just the one life; better make the most of it – finds an echo in the first few pages. Close to the end she said to me, You don’t know how precious life is. You think you do, but you don’t, and those words, effectively an encapsulation of the Stoic message of Marcus Aurelius, resonate through the pages of the book. Both Into the Silent Land and The Darker the Night contain neurological case stories and autobiographical strands. They both make excursions into philosophy and fiction. But The Darker the Night is more layered and has a more discernible narrative arc. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if at times the narrative thread that leads you through the journey dissolves into fictional digressions and the retelling of stories from Greek mythology from time to time. I know I’m asking a lot from readers. And it’s a bookseller’s nightmare with its mix of genres. It ends with me entering a new relationship and an encounter with a self-proclaimed archangel at the top of Glastonbury Tor who presents me with a difficult dilemma. It’s a happy ending, I think, or at least a wistful one.

The idea of interspersing images with text occurred to me quite late on. I aim to counterbalance darkness and viscerality in my writing with humour and sheer wonder at the mystery of the world. There’s a similar chemistry in some of your work, I think, and you were the first person I considered approaching.

Garry Kennard: I had read Into the Silent Land some years before I founded the Art and Mind festivals and had been extremely impressed. I admired the way you blended the science, philosophy and a personal feel for the world via marvellous writing into a satisfying and moving work of art. It was exactly this kind of melding that I was looking for in the festivals. As director I was in the fortunate position of being able to invite anyone I liked to take part and you were the obvious first choice. Apart from a few more appearances at my events, that was the extent of our acquaintance.

That was that until I received your email asking if would be interested in illustrating your new book. This was an amazing surprise – and a flattering offer. I wasn’t even aware that you had seen any of my work.

I had made a rule for myself, born of long experience, that I would always refuse commissions. I had realised that when I did, it was guaranteed I would produce awful work. The idea of someone looking over my shoulder, waiting expectantly for the masterwork, made me falter and stutter.

So I demurred to begin with. But after you had sent me some chapters to read, it began to dawn on me that I could do something. I was still very doubtful about it but the feeling grew that this would offer me the opportunity of trying something new, although I had to get over the problem of too close a collaboration spoiling the thing. I remember saying that I would have a go at this, but it would be under certain conditions. One was that I would not discuss the images with you. I would not send you sketches for you to comment on. I would not directly illustrate the book. I would read the text closely and then let my hand and brain semi-improvise the images and see what emerged. I would send you the finished pictures. If you didn’t like them or didn’t think them appropriate you could ditch them.  I would continue to produce images to replace those you didn’t like. When you agreed to this, I started.

I had no idea of what you expected. You had said nothing about what you hoped for, no rules that you wanted me to adhere to. That left me an opening to start work without constraints – the only way I could do anything. I managed five or six pictures, sent them to you and waited for your reaction.

PB: I had no more than vague intuitions as to what to expect but didn’t at any stage envisage the pictures as mere ‘illustration’. I was more interested in seeing what might come of a more loosely imaginative – subconscious, even – reaction to the text. That wouldn’t work if you’d felt in any way obliged to produce images to order. Actually, I think there’s some similarity in the way I produced the text and the way you produced the pictures. Although my writing sometimes involves quite hard deliberation (over how to frame a philosophical argument, say) I think it works best when I don’t think too much and just leave it to my subconscious ‘brownies’ to do the creative legwork. I’m usually just noodling around with a notebook and pen and suddenly a phrase or image presents itself and sets off a train of thought and I think, where the hell did that come from? Nothing to do with me! I sense something similar was happening with your semi-improvised pictures. Parts of the book are, in fact, explicitly concerned with the unconscious, semi-autonomous machineries of ‘imaginal reality’, and it also chimes with the non-linear, “knights move” progression of the essays and stories, so it’s all quite apt.

We had a bit of to-ing a fro-ing over a couple of the images, I recall, and you made your own unprompted revisions here and there, but, for the most part, I was pretty much blown away by the “first takes”. By the way, I happened to be in the thick of a children’s birthday party when those first dark, still, mysterious images came through on my phone. It was exquisitely incongruous! I knew straight away they were going to work.

GK: In the past most of my paintings and drawings have been carefully worked out. They were designed to discombobulate the viewer by presenting two different modes of perception on the same plain – one highly realistic, the other of suggestive abstractions. Now, with the opportunity to free myself from this and to semi-improvise the images, I could explore a new way of reaching the same destination. Of waiting for the image itself to disarm me as it grew.

I had a small note book by my side all the time and I would scribble in it at the most peculiar times – while watching television or doing a crossword. The scribbles, and they grew into hundreds, gave me a feel for what might be done. I didn’t refer to these when drawing the final pictures but some of those came out very similar to the initial sketches.

The deeper I got into this the more astonished I became at what was emerging. Themes kept re-appearing – a black sun, clocks, doors opening. I felt these held the sequence together. But on a deeper level what was appearing before me became an exploration of my own psyche, almost as if I was creating my own Rorschach tests with the added device of being able to develop and strengthen those emerging images to which I found myself responding. This is obviously not a new way of doing things. Artists have always produced work like this in some way. But it was new to me and a revelation. You can see from this how my ‘method’ was very close to your own in composing the text.

Of course, the other thing which preoccupied me was your text, which I read over and over, hoping that something from it would infiltrate the pictures without me actually illustrating the words. I think that happened to a greater or lesser extent in the series.

PB: Sorry to say a couple of my favourite pictures didn’t make it onto the pages of the book owing to the publisher’s squeamishness. One is the image of the Greek god Pan standing in a doorway, proudly erect as he often is in classical depictions. This was ruled out on grounds of being ‘pornographic’. The other was the image of the gipsy woman, again a very traditional one, which was rejected for reasons of political correctness. I found this hard to accept, and protested but, regrettably, didn’t have the final say.

GK: I was quite devastated when the publisher rejected a number of the images, some of which I had been very pleased with. It made no sense to me. With some of the pictures missing the connecting themes, apparent in the whole set, disappeared. I know you tried your best to reinstate some drawings (and succeeded with a couple of them). I realise you were as disappointed as me. But – it was done and that was that.

The Complete Drawings

1. Stairway to sunlit room:
“Push, and the door will open into a sunlit room, forever sunlit, regardless of the depth of the night.”


2. Trees through the windows:
“Doors opened into unexpected rooms. Through this window, a crisp winter morning, though that, a summer afternoon.”


3. Boy at night:
“Sleep won’t come. Thoughts are running like rats through his head and a shadow on the far wall of the bedroom unsettles him.”


4. Man with dark moon:
“For a minute or two I had the sense that she was still alive. I could catch up with her and we would carry on as normal.”


5. Time Traveller at the station:
‘Mike the Time Traveller?’ No. He was just a miserable dipso on his way home from the miserable office, having a drink or nine to gird his miserable loins for miserable home.


6. Tabletops:
“The tabletops are identical in size and shape, yet the one on the left appears elongated. There’s a mismatch between mental and physical reality.”


7. Pan at the door:
“There’s a knock at the door and there he is with his hooves, his horns, his fur and, slightly worryingly, his large, erect penis.”


8. CS Lewis:
“Jack has a morbid dread of insects. ‘To my eye,’ he says, ‘they are either machines that have come to life or life degenerating into mechanism.’”


9. Pat Martino:
“With music as the golden thread, he began to weave a new version of himself. He was a genius twice over, but this time with a piece of his brain missing.”


10. The White Bull of Minos:
“Listen, the bull said to himself, nonverbally, I may be a beast of the field but I’m no mug. I’m doing this of my own conscious volition.”


11. Zombies:
“Now Lewys was telling me that zombies were real, not merely conceivable. They walk down every street.”


12. Multiplicity:
There are infinite histories to choose from with infinite variations on the theme of you and your life.


13. Tyger, tyger:
“Have moonlight if you want. There’s no sign of a tiger. Why would there be in an English forest?”


14. Spiral head figure:
“The labyrinth is a primordial image of the psyche. It symbolizes the winding, snakelike path to psychological wholeness and authenticity.”


15. Into the Labyrinth
I’ll give you a clew, he told her, but she was in no mood for games and just wanted an answer. No, this sort of clew, he said, producing a ball of thread.


16.Time and the woman:
“Stabs of absence; stabs to the brain and heart; an entering of the flesh, knowing in the flesh that she’s not here anymore.”


17. Gipsy at the door:
“So you’re in a good place, then. The gipsy told me. You’re thinking of me, she said, and you want me to find another good woman.”


18. The drunk on the bench
“Isaac Newton, he told me, was a genius but died a virgin. He was a sad fucker. I was taken aback because I’d just then been thinking about celestial mechanics.”


19. Hierarchy:
‘One day I’ll be dead’. It’s an oddly exhilarating thought. Something unimaginable – eternal nothingness – awaits us all. It sharpened my senses. Let’s not forget we’re alive.


20 Perseus and the Dead Girl:
The image of the dead girl surprised me. She bobbed in a flowing white garment, like an infant Ophelia. The sea itself was subdued. Small waves broke indifferently.


21. Sisyphus:
“The toil of Sisyphus represents the human condition, ‘…his whole being exerted towards accomplishing nothing.’ ”


22 Incubus:
The firewall between fantasy and reality collapses and all the monstrous archetypes break free: witches and goblins, demons and other strange creatures. They have the shine of sentience in their eyes.


23. Universe and beer
“All moments, all times, are equally real, equally present, including all the moments of your life, which are, from beginning to end, ‘in place’”


24. Carpet flower:
“Whenever I recall the carpet flower I have a sense of seeing, of being, for the very first time.”


25. Glastonbury Tor
“So you can, if you want, totally erase the life you’ve had. It will never have existed. Up to you, he said. I made my choice.”



All images copyright and courtesy of Garry Kennard



The post On ‘The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars’ appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

From Computational Creativity to Creative AI and Back Again


I compare and contrast the AI research field of Computational Creativity and the Creative AI technological movement, both of which are contributing to progress in the arts. I raise the sceptre of a looming crisis wherein public opinion moves on from the spectacle of software being creative to viewing the lack of authenticity in creative AI systems as being a major drawback. I propose a roadmap from Creative AI systems to Computationally Creative systems which address this lack of authenticity via the software expressing aspects of its computational life experiences in the art, music, games and literature that it produces. I posit that only by harnessing Creative AI technologies and Computational Creativity philosophies in the pursuit of truly creative software able to express the machine condition, will we gain maximum societal benefit in further understanding the human condition.


  1. Introduction

This year, we passed a milestone in my field, as the 10th annual International Conference on Computational Creativity (ICCC) was held in the USA. The conference brings together AI researchers who test the idea of software being independently creative, describing projects with goals ranging from enhancing human creativity to advancing our philosophical understanding of creativity and producing fully autonomous creative machines. The conference series was built on roughly ten years of preceding workshops [1], with interest in the idea of machine creativity going back to the birth of modern computing. For instance, in their 1958 paper [2], AI luminary Alan Newell and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon hypothesised that: “Within ten years, a digital computer will discover and prove an important mathematical theorem”. In [3], we proposed the following working definition of Computational Creativity research as:

“the philosophy, science and engineering of computational systems which, by taking on particular responsibilities, exhibit behaviours that unbiased observers would deem to be creative.”

In the last few years, we have seen unprecedented interest across society in generative AI systems able to create culturally interesting artefacts such as pictures, musical compositions, texts and games. Indeed, it’s difficult to read a newspaper or magazine these days without stumbling across a story about a new project to generate poems, or a symphony orchestra playing AI-generated music or an art exhibition in which AI systems are purported to be artists.

This wave of interest has been fuelled by a step change in the quality of computer-generated cultural artefacts, brought on largely by advances in machine learning technologies, and in particular the deep learning of artificial neural networks. Such techniques are able to generate new material by learning from data about the structure of existing material – such as a database of images, a corpus of texts or a collection of songs – and determining a way to create more of the same. An umbrella term for this groundswell of interest and activity in generative art/music/literature/games is “Creative AI”, and people from arts and sciences, within and outwith academia are actively engaged in producing art using AI techniques. We surveyed different communities engaged in generative arts – including Creative AI practitioners – in a recent ICCC paper [4].

While we might have expected the Creative AI community to have grown from the field of Computational Creativity, this is not the case. Indeed, somewhat of a schism has developed where the two communities have different aims and ambitions. Both communities have a main interest in the development of generative technologies for societal good. The Creative AI movement has an emphasis on quality of output and developing apps to commercial level for mass consumption. There is also a tendency to disavow the idea that software itself could/should be independently creative, in favour of a strong commitment to producing software purely for people to use to enhance their own creativity. In contrast, Computational Creativity researchers tend to be interested in the bigger picture of Artificial Intelligence, philosophical discourse around notions of human and machine creativity, novel ways to automate creative processes, and the idea that software, itself, could one day be deemed to be creative.

To highlight the schism: I personally find it difficult to think of any computational system as being “a Creative AI” if it cannot communicate details about a single decision it has taken, which is generally the case for approaches popular in Creative AI circles, such as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) [5]. I prefer therefore to describe Creative AI projects as “AI for creative people”, because the most literal reading of the phrase “Creative AI” is currently inaccurate for the majority of the projects under that banner. I often go further to point out that many Creative AI applications should be categorised as graphics (or audio, etc) projects which happen to employ techniques such as GANs that were originally developed by AI researchers.

As another example, I’ve argued in talks and papers many times that the end result of having more computer creativity in society is likely to be an increased understanding and celebration of human creativity, in much the same way that hand-made craft artefacts, like furniture or food, are usually preferred over machine-produced ones. I point out that I’ve met dozens of artists, musicians, poets and game designers, none of whom have expressed any concern about creative software, because they understand the value of humanity in creative practice. On the other hand, I’ve also spoken to Creative AI practitioners who remain convinced that truly creative software will lead to job losses, demoralisation and devaluation in the creative industries.


  1. Product versus Process

The Creative AI movement has helped to swing the global effort in engineering creative software systems firmly towards human-centric projects where AI techniques are used purely as tools for human use, with ease of use and quality of output disproportionately more important than any other considerations. I’ve been trying recently to put together arguments and thought experiments to help explain why I believe this is a retrograde step, and I’ve been trying to articulate ways in which the wealth of knowledge accrued through decades of Computational Creativity projects could be of use to Creative AI practitioners. Almost every project ever presented within Computational Creativity circles started with building a generative system with similar aims to Creative AI projects. Hence I feel we are well placed to consider the role that AI systems could have in creative practice, and to encourage Creative AI researchers and practitioners to consider some of the ideas we’ve developed over the years.

Imagine a generative music system created by a large technology company, which is able to generate 10,000 fully orchestrated symphonies in just 1 hour. Let’s say that each symphony would be lauded by experts as a beautiful work of genius had it been produced by a human composer like Beethoven; and each one sounds uniquely different to the others. If we accept the reality of an AI system (AlphaGo Zero) able to train itself from scratch to play Go, Chess and Shogi at superhuman levels [6], then we should entertain the idea that superhuman symphony writing is possible in our lifetimes. If we only concentrate on the quality of output and ease of which software can generate outputs as complex as a symphony, then the above scenario is presumably a suitable end point for generative music and would be a cause for celebration – it would certainly tick the box of huge technical achievement, as the AlphaGo project did. However, one has to wonder what the benefits of having these symphonies (and the ability to generate them so easily) are for society.

I would predict that the classical music world would find very few practical applications for a database of 10,000 high-quality symphonies, and it would likewise find little value in generating more such material. I would also predict that there would be little, if any, devaluation of symphonic music as a whole, and no devaluation of the work of gifted composers able to hand-produce symphonies. Superhuman chess playing by computers has been around since the time of Deep Blue, and has likely increased rather than decreased the popularity of the game. The chess world has responded to computer chess by being clearer about the human-centric struggle at the heart of every game of chess, and “[a]mong the chess elite, the idea of challenging a computer has fallen into the realm of farce and retort” [7]. It is clear that computer chess has made the game of chess more human. Part of the attraction of the music from composers such as Mozart and Beethoven is that these were mere mortals with superhuman creative abilities in composition. Society celebrates such creative people, often by lauding the works they produce, but also by applauding their motivations, exploring their backgrounds, expressing awe about their process, and by taking inspiration for a fresh wave of creative activity. Creativity in society serves various purposes, only one of which is to bring into being artefacts of value.

While board games have hugely driven forward AI research, chess isn’t some mathematical Drosophilia for AI problem solving (as some researchers would have you believe). It is actually a game and pastime played by two people, which can be elevated to highly competitive levels. Likewise, a symphony isn’t just a collection of notes to guide musicians to produce sound waves, but is created by human endeavour for human entertainment, often condensing into abstract form aspects of human life experience and expression. I would predict that – in an age of superhuman symphony generation – a huge premium would be placed on compositions borne of human blood, sweat and tears, with the generation of music via statistical manipulation of data by computer remaining a second class process.


  1. Computational Authenticity

To hit home with the points above, I usually turn to poetry, due to the highly human-centric nature of the medium: poems are condensed humanity, written by people, for people, usually about people. The following poem provides a useful focal point to illustrate the humanity gap [8] in Computational Creativity.



by Maureen Q. Smith

The joy, the pain, the begin again. My boy.

Born of me, for me, through my tears, through my fears.


This short poem naturally invites interpretation, and we might think of the joy, pain, tears as fears as referring literally to the birth of a child, perhaps from the first-person perspective of the author, as possibly indicated by “My boy … Born of me”. We might also interpret the “begin again” as referring to the start of a baby’s life, but equally it might reflect a fresh start for the family.

Importantly, the poem was not actually written by Maureen Q. Smith. The author was in fact a man called Maurice Q. Smith. In this light, we might want to re-think our interpretation. The poem takes on a different flavour now, but we can still imagine the male author witnessing a childbirth, possibly with his own tears and fears, reflecting the joy and pain of a woman giving birth. However, I should reveal that Maurice Q. Smith was actually a convicted paedophile when he wrote this poem, and it was widely assumed to be about the act of grooming innocent children, which he referred to as “childbirth”. The poem now affords a rather sinister reading, with “tears” and “fears” perhaps reflecting the author’s concerns for his own freedom; and the phrases “Joy and pain” and “Born of me, for me” now taking on very dark tones.

Fortunately, as you may have guessed, the poem wasn’t written by a paedophile, but was instead generated by a computer program using a cut-up technique. Thankfully, we can now go back and project a different interpretation onto the poem. Looking at “Joy and pain”, perhaps the software was thinking about… Well, the part about “Born of me, for me” must have been written to convey… Hmmmm. We see fairly quickly that it is no longer possible to project feelings, background and experiences onto the author, and the poem has lost some of its value. If the words have been put together algorithmically with nothing resembling the human thought processes we might have expected, we may also think of the poem as having lost its authenticity and a lot, if not all, of its meaning. We could, of course, pretend that it was written by a person. In fact, it’s possible to imagine an entire anthology of computer generated poems that we are instructed to read as if written by various people. But then, why wouldn’t we prefer to read an anthology of poems written by actual people?

For full and final disclosure: I actually wrote the poem and found it remarkably easy to pen a piece for which a straightforward interpretation changes greatly as the nature of the author changes. I’ve been using this provocative poem to try to change the minds of researchers in Computational Creativity research for a few years, in particular to try and shift the focus away from an obsession with the quality of output judged as if it were produced by a person. I’ve argued that the nature of the generative processes [9], how software frames its creations [10], and where motivations for computational creativity come from [11] are more important for us to investigate than how to increase the quality or diversity of output. This led to a study of the notion of computational authenticity [12], which pays into the discussion below.

As with pretty much all things generative, the advent of deep learning has led to a step change in the quality of the output of poetry generators, which have a long history dating (at least) as far back as an anthology entitled: “The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed” [13]. On the whole, the scientists pushing forward these advances have barely thought of addressing the deficiencies with these poems, namely that they were made by an inauthentic process. It is not impossible to imagine a poem-shaped computer generated text that would have been classed as a masterpiece had it been written by a person, but is not accepted by anyone as even being a poem, because public opinion has swung against inauthentic generative processes. I have for many years advocated using the name “c-poem” for the poem-shaped texts produced by computers. Just as people know that they won’t be unwrapping a beautifully bound e-book for their birthday, they should know that their ability to project human beliefs, emotions and experiences onto the author of a c-poem will be very limited.


  1. Responses to the Rise of Creative AI

Returning to the observation that the quality of the artistic output of AI systems has much increased in recent years, we can consider some appropriate responses to this situation.

One response is to follow the lead from the Creative AI community, and disavow the idea that software should be developed to be fully creative, concentrating instead on using AI techniques to aid human creativity. This certainly simplifies the situation, with AI systems becoming just the latest tools for creative people. It is also a public-friendly response, as journalists, broadcasters and documentary makers (along with the occasional politician, member of the clergy, philosopher or royal) often publish missives about how AI software is going to take everyone’s job, strangle our cats and devalue our life. On the whole, I believe it would be very sad if this response dominates the discourse and drives the field, as it would certainly curtail the dream of Artificial General Intelligence, which brought many of us into AI, and it will limit the ways in which people interact with software, which has the potential to be much more than a mere muse or tool. Software systems we have developed in Computational Creativity projects can be seen as creative collaborators; motivating yet critical partners; and sometimes independent creative entities. We should not throw away the idea that software can itself be creative, as the world always needs more creativity, and truly creative AI systems could radically drive humanity forward.

A second response is to accept the point above that the processes and personality behind creative practice are indeed important in the cultural appreciation of output from generative AI systems. In this context, given that software won’t be particularly human-like anytime soon, we could say that it’s impossible to take an AI system seriously as an authentic creative voice. An extreme version of this argument is that machines will never be valuable in the arts because they are not human. I argue below that this is shortsighted and missing an opportunity to understand technology in-situ. A closely related opinion is that people should or could dislike computer generated material precisely because it has been made by computer. This point of view has certainly been simmering under the surface of many conversations I’ve had, leading people to talk of computers lacking a soul or a spark, and often employing other such obfuscating rhetoric. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve argued on a number of occasions that such a view is not extreme, and is indeed perfectly natural: such a view would, in my opinion, be a suitable personal response to the childbirth poem above, if indeed it had been computer generated.

Well intentioned people would never dream of saying that they dislike something because it was produced by a particular minority (or majority) group of people. Hence it feels to those people that they are being prejudicial to say that a painting, poem or composition is inferior purely because it was computer generated. Moreover, the view that works such as paintings and novels should be evaluated in their own terms, i.e., independently from information about their author and the creative process, has been reinforced philosophically with movements such as the Death of the Author [14], and numerous artistic manifestos.

Software systems do not form a minority human group whose creative freedom has to be protected. Throughout the history of humanity, art has been celebrated as a particularly human endeavour, and the art world is utterly people-centric. Software is not human, but due to decades of anthropomorphic thinking on AI, it seems more acceptable to think of computers somehow as under-evolved or under-developed humans, perhaps like monkeys or toddlers, rather than non-humans with intelligence, albeit low. Disliking a work of art purely because of its computational origins is more akin to expressing a preference of one type of process over another, than it is to expressing preferences of one ethnicity, gender or religion over another. “I don’t like this painting because it is a pointillist piece” is not the same as: “I don’t like this painting because it was painted by a Brit”.

So, we could say that, while the output of the current/future wave of generative AI systems is remarkable, and could – under Turing-style conditions of anonymity – be taken for human works, there is a natural limiting factor in the non-humanity of computational systems which gives us a backstop against the devaluation of human artistic endeavour. This is a reasonable response and may lead to increased celebration of human creativity, which would be no bad thing. However, I believe that this response will also (eventually) be limiting and lead to missed opportunities, as I hope to explain below.

A third response, which I greatly favour, is to start from the truism that software is not human. In many research and industry circles, it often seems that creating human-like intelligence through nueroscience-inspired approaches such as deep learning, is the only goal and the only approach. Not every AI researcher wants to build a software version of the brain, but this fact is often lost, and helps to obfuscate the fact that software has different experiences to people. The Painting Fool is software that I’ve developed over nearly 20 years [15], and has met minor and major celebrities and painted their portraits in half a dozen different countries, often in front of large audiences in interesting venues ranging from science museums and art galleries to a pub in East London. I have, of course, anthropomorphised this experience and The Painting Fool didn’t experience it as I have portrayed. But it did have experiences, and those experiences were authentic in the sense that the software was present, did interact with people and created things independently of me which entertained and provoked people in equal measure.

We could therefore respond to the uptick in quality of output from Creative AI systems by agreeing to concentrate more on investigating plausible internal reasons for software to be creative, and developing ways in which it can impart its understanding of the world, through expressing aspects of its life experiences. Instead of challenging human creativity in terms of the quality of output, but failing due to lack of authenticity, Computational Creativity systems could be developed to explore aspects of creative independence such as intrinsic motivation, empowerment [10] and intentionality [8]. A side effect of this is that – if we get software to record and use its own experiences rather than pretending that it is a person having human experiences – we will gain a better understanding of computer processing, the impact of particular software systems and what it means for a machine to have a cultural existence in our human world. It may be that this communicative side effect actually becomes more important than having software be creative for the purpose of making things.

If software can express its experience of the world through artistic expression, surely this would add to our understanding of human culture in a digital age of tremendous, constant, technological change. While the non-human life experiences of software systems can seem other worldly, automation is very much a part of the human world, and our increasing interaction on a minute-by-minute basis with software means we should be constantly open to new ideas for understanding what it does. It’s not so strange to imagine building an automated painting system to add on to another piece of software so that it can express aspects of its experience. In fact, this would be a natural generalisation of projects such as DeepDream [16], where visualisations of deep-learned neural models were originally generated to enable people to better understand how the model processed image data. It turned out that the visualisations had artistic value as computational hallucinations, and were presented in artistic contexts, with this usage eventually dominating, fuelling a huge push in generative neural network research and development.


  1. A RoadMap from Creative AI to Computational Creativity

In a talk at a London Creative AI meetup event a while ago, I offered some advice for people in the Creative AI community who might be interested in pursuing the dream of making genuinely creative AI systems. At the time, there were already indications that Creative AI practitioners were beginning to see the limitations of mass generation of high-quality artefacts and were interested in handing over more creative responsibility to software. Some people were already testing the water using deep learning techniques in ways other than pastiche generation, for instance looking at style invention rather than just style transfer [17]. The advice I gave can be seen as a very rough roadmap, which reflects to some extent my own career arc in building creative AI systems, and provides one of many paths by which people can take their generative system into fascinating new territories.

While keeping much of the original, I will re-draw the roadmap below, from a fresh perspective of improving authenticity through expanding the recording and creative usage of life experiences that creative software might have. It is presented as a series of seven levels for Creative AI Systems to transition to via increased software engineering and cultural usage, with each level representing a different type of system that the software graduates to. Focused on generative visual art rather than poetry/music/games/etc., but intended to generalise over many domains, the roadmap offers direct advice to people who already have a generative system.

  • Generative Systems. So, you’ve designed a generative system and are having fun making pictures with it. You play around with input data and parameter settings, and realise that the output is not only high quality, but really varied. You write a little graphical user interface, which enables you to play around with the inputs/parameters, and this increases the fun and the variety. It becomes clear that the space of inputs/parameters is very You begin to suspect that the space of novel outputs is also vast. You’re at level one: you have an interesting generative system which is able to make stuff. 


  • Appreciative Systems. Generating images becomes addictive, and you gorge on the output. In your gluttony, you get a strong fear of missing out – what if I miss the parameters for a really interesting picture? You decide to systematically sample the space of outputs, but there are millions of images that can be produced. So, you encode your aesthetic preferences into a fitness function and get the software to rank/display its best results, according to the fitness function, perhaps tempered by a novelty measure to keep things fresh. You’re at level two: you have an appreciative system which is able to discern quality in output.


  • Artistic Systems. At some stage, some humility sinks in, and you begin to think that maybe… just maybe… your particular aesthetic preferences aren’t the only ones which could be used to mine images. You give the software the ability to invent its own aesthetic fitness functions and use them to filter and rank the images that it generates. You’re at level three, with an artistic system which has some potential to affect the world artistically.


  • Persuasive Systems. Some of the output is great – beautiful new images that you perhaps wouldn’t have found/made yourself. But some of the pictures are unpalatable and you can’t imagine why the software likes them. However, sometimes, an awful image grows in appeal to you, and you realise that your own aesthetic sensibilities are being changed by the software. This is weird, but fun. You want to give the software the ability to influence you more easily, so you add a module which produces a little essay as a commentary on the aesthetic generation, the artefact generation and the style that the software has invented. You’re at level four, with a persuasive system that can change your mind through explanations as well as high quality, surprising output.


  • Inventive Systems. You begin to realise that you enjoy the output partially because of what it looks like and partially because of the backstory to the generation of the output and the aesthetics being considered. You want to increase both aspects, by enabling the software to alter its own code, perhaps at process level, and by taking inspiration from outside sources like newspapers, twitter, art books, other artists, etc., so you have less control. And you add natural language generation to turn the commentary about the process/product into a little drama. You’re at level five, where what your inventive system does is as important, interesting and unpredictable as its output.


  • Authentic Systems. You’re loving the commentaries/essays/stories about how and why your software has made a particular picture/aesthetic/style/series or invented a new technique, and the software pretty much has an artistic persona. However, sometimes the persona doesn’t ring true and actually verges on being insulting, given how little the software knows about the world. You realise that you’re reading/viewing the output as if it were created by a person, which is a falsehood which has gotten very old and somewhat disturbing. You decide to give the software plausible and believable reasons to be creative, by implementing models of intrinsic motivation, reflection, self-improvement, self-determination, empowerment and maybe even consciousness. In particular, much of this depends on implementing techniques to record the life experiences that your software has, via: sensors detecting aspects of the environment the software operates in; improved in-situ and online HCI, wherein the software’s interactions with people are recorded and the software is able to probe people with questions; and methods which take life experiences and outside knowledge and operationalise them into opinions that can be reflected in generative processing and output. You then give the software the ability to use its recorded life experiences to influence its creative direction, in much the same way that twitter and newspaper sources were previously. You’re at level six, with an authentic system that is seen more as an autonomous AI individual than a pale reflection of a person.


  • Philosophical Systems. Ultimately, you find it thrilling to be in the presence of such an interesting creator as your software – it’s completely independent of you, and it teaches you new things, regularly inspiring you and others. You realise that for the software to be taken seriously as an artist, it needs to join the debate about what creativity means (as creativity is an essentially contested concept [18]) in practice and as a societal driving force. You implement methods for philosophical reasoning based on the software’s own creative endeavours, and you enable it to critique the thoughts of others. You add dialogue systems to propose, prove and disprove hypotheses about the nature of creativity, enabling your system to generally provoke discussion around the topic. You’re at level seven, where it’s difficult to argue that your philosophical system isn’t genuinely creative.


It is fair to say that no AI system gets close yet to levels 6 and 7 yet, but projects presented in Creative AI and Computational Creativity circles have tested the water up to and including level 5. If I were giving a talk about this roadmap, there would be much handwaving towards the end, as the road gets very blurry, with few signposts. This, of course, is the frontier of Computational Creativity research and reflects directions I will personally be taking software like The Painting Fool in. I’m particularly interested in exploring the notion of the machine condition and seeing how authentic we can make the processing and products from AI systems. That notwithstanding, I hope the roadmap offers some insight and inspiration to people from all backgrounds who are working with cool generative systems and want to take the project further.


  1. In Conclusion

More than a decade ago, I was dismayed to read in a graphics textbook the following statement:

“Simulating artistic techniques means also simulating human thinking and reasoning, especially creative thinking. This is impossible to do using algorithms or information processing systems. [19, p. 113]”

The topic of the textbook is Non-photorealistic Computer Graphics, part of which involves getting software to simulate paint/pencil/pastel strokes on-screen. Stating that computational creative thinking is impossible was short-sighted and presumably written to placate creative industry practitioners, who use software like the Adobe Creative Suite which employ such non-photorealistic graphics techniques. In the 17 years since the above statement was published, the argument seems to have moved on from whether software can be independently creative to whether it should be allowed to. It is my sincere hope that the argument will shift soon to the question of how best truly creative AI systems can enhance and inform the human world, and how we can use autonomous software creativity to help us understand how technology works.

Creative AI practitioners have emerged as much via scientists in the machine learning community embracing art practice as via tech-savvy artists picking up and applying tools such as Tensor Flow [20]. Speaking personally, and having witnessed numerous transitions, scientists tend to hold on too long to the idea that product is more important than process or personality in creative practice [21]. This is presumably due to scientific evaluation being objective, with scientific findings expected to be evaluated entirely independently of their origins.

It would be tempting to follow the lead of companies like DeepMind who often justify working on applications to the automated playing of board games and video games [22] by stating that this research pushes forward AI technologies in general, which ultimately leads to improvements in applications to other, more worthwhile, domains like protein structure prediction [23] and healthcare. Getting software to produce better poems, paintings, games, etc., will likely lead to improvements in AI techniques overall, so concentrating on improving quality of output is in some senses a good thing. However, this would serve to deflect from what I believe is a looming crisis in Creative AI, which is when the novelty of the computer generation gimmick wears off, and people begin to realise that authenticity of process, voice and life experience are more important than the so-called “quality” of computer generated artefacts.

The activities of playing games and predicting protein structures have the luxury of objective measures for success and thus progress (beating other players and nanoscale accuracy, respectively). This is not true in the arts, where there are only subjective – and highly debated – notions of the “best” painting, poem, game or musical composition. The humanity wrapped up in artefacts produced by creative people is absolutely critical in the evaluation of those artefacts, which is not true in scientific or (to a lesser extent) competitive scenarios.

It is similarly tempting to appeal to the creative outcomes of the AlphaGo match against Lee Sedol, which have been described beautifully by Cade Metz in [24]:

“In Game Two, the Google machine made a move that no human ever would. And it was beautiful. As the world looked on, the move so perfectly demonstrated the enormously powerful and rather mysterious talents of modern artificial intelligence.”

“But in Game Four, the human made a move that no machine would ever expect. And it was beautiful too. Indeed, it was just as beautiful as the move from the Google machine – no less and no more. It showed that although machines are now capable of moments of genius, humans have hardly lost the ability to generate their own transcendent moments. And it seems that in the years to come, as we humans work with these machines, our genius will only grow in tandem with our creations.”

In the thought experiment above, in the corpus of 10,000 new symphonies generated by computer, there would surely be many moments of inventive genius: a phrase, passage or flourish of orchestration found in the notes of the music produced. Humankind would learn from the software, and would in turn develop better generative approaches to music production. But would we necessarily learn anything about the human condition, as we generally hope to in the arts?

I posit that only if software is developed to record its life experiences and use them in the pursuit of creative practice will we learn anything about the human condition, through increased understanding of the machine condition. Developing better AI painters means engineering software with more interesting life experiences, not software with better technical abilities. While there might be advantages, there is no imperative for these life experiences to be particularly human-like, and society might be better served if we try and understand computational lives through art generation. We hear all the time that the workings of black box AI systems deep-learned over huge datasets are not understood even by the researchers in the project. While this difficulty is usually overstated, we are facing a situation of increased scenarios where AI-enhanced software makes decisions of real import for us, coupled with decreased understanding of how individual AI systems make those decisions.

Combining the best practices and understanding gained from both Computational Creativity as a research field and Creative AI as an artistic and technological movement, may be the best approach to bringing about a future enhanced by creative software expressing its life experiences artistically for our benefit. The diversity, enthusiasm and innovative thinking coming daily from the Creative AI community, guided by the philosophy of the Computational Creativity movement is a potent combination, and I’m optimistic that in my lifetime, we will reap the benefits of cross-discipline, cross-community collaborations. Creative AI practitioners may rail against interventions from people like myself: stuffy academic disciples of the Computational Creativity discipline. But it is worth mentioning that we were once the angry young men and women of a largely ostracised and ignored arm of AI, shouting into the void at an establishment who thought that notions of creativity in AI systems were too “wooly” to be taken seriously.

Who knows what history will record about the rise of creative machines in society. My sincere hope is that it will chart how Computational Creativity thinking evolved without the benefit of sophisticated technical implementations; this was massively influenced with a surge in the technical abilities of Creative AI Systems during the period of Deep Learning dominance; but then naturally turned back to the philosophical thinking of Computational Creativity in order to properly reap the benefits of truly creative technologies in society.



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[4] Cook, M. and Colton, S. (2018). Neighbouring Communities: Interaction, Lessons and Opportunities. Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Computational Creativity.

[5] Goodfellow, I., Pouget-Abadie, J., Mirza, M., Xu, B., Warde-Farley, D., Ozair, S., Courville, A. and Bengio, Y. (2014). Generative Adversarial Networks. Proceedings of the International Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems.

[6] Silver, D., Schrittwieser, J., Simonyan, K., Antonoglou, I., Huang, A., Guez, A., Hubert, T., Baker, L., Lai, M., Bolton, A., Chen, Y., Lillicrap, T., Hui, F., Sifre, L., van den Driessche, G., Graepel, T. and Hassabis, D. (2017). Mastering the game of Go without human knowledge. Nature 550, 354-359.

[7] Max, D. T. (2011) The Prince’s Gambit: A chess star emerges for the post-computer age. New Yorker, March 14th 2011 edition.

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[22] Mnih, V., Kavukcuoglu, K., Silver, D., Rusu, A., Veness, J., Bellemare, M., Graves, A., Riedmiller, M., Fidjeland, A., Ostrovski, G., Petersen, S., Beattie, C., Sadik, A., Antonoglou, I., King, H., Kumaran, D., Wierstra, D., Legg, S. and Hassabis, D. (2015). Human-level control through deep reinforcement learning. Nature 518, 529-533.

[23] Evans, R., Jumper, J., Kirkpatrick, J., Sifre, L., Green, T., Qin, C., Zidek, A., Nelson, A., Bridgland, A., Penedones, H., Petersen, S., Simonyan, K., Crossan, S., Jones, D., Silver, D., Kavukcuoglu, K., Hassabis, D. and Senior, A. (2018). De novo structure prediction with deep-learning based scoring. Proceedings of the Thirteenth Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (Abstracts).

[24] Metz, C. (2016). In Two Moves, AlphaGo and Lee Sedol Redefined the Future. Wired, 16th March 2016 edition.

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Is consciousness a battle between your beliefs and perceptions?

Imagine you’re at a magic show, in which the performer suddenly vanishes. Of course, you ultimately know that the person is probably just hiding somewhere. Yet it continues to look as if the person has disappeared. We can’t reason away that appearance, no matter what logic dictates. Why are our conscious experiences so stubborn?

The fact that our perception of the world appears to be so intransigent, however much we might reflect on it, tells us something unique about how our brains are wired. Compare the magician scenario with how we usually process information. Say you have five friends who tell you it’s raining outside, and one weather website indicating that it isn’t. You’d probably just consider the website to be wrong and write it off. But when it comes to conscious perception, there seems to be something strangely persistent about what we see, hear and feel. Even when a perceptual experience is clearly ‘wrong’, we can’t just mute it.

Why is that so? Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) shed new light on this puzzle. In computer science, we know that neural networks for pattern-recognition – so-called deep learning models – can benefit from a process known as predictive coding. Instead of just taking in information passively, from the bottom up, networks can make top-down hypotheses about the world, to be tested against observations. They generally work better this way. When a neural network identifies a cat, for example, it first develops a model that allows it to predict or imagine what a cat looks like. It can then examine any incoming data that arrives to see whether or not it fits that expectation.

The trouble is, while these generative models can be super efficient once they’re up and running, they usually demand huge amounts of time and information to train. One solution is to use generative adversarial networks (GANs) – hailed as the ‘coolest idea in deep learning in the last 20 years’ by Facebook’s head of AI research Yann LeCun. In GANs, we might train one network (the generator) to create pictures of cats, mimicking real cats as closely as it can. And we train another network (the discriminator) to distinguish between the manufactured cat images and the real ones. We can then pit the two networks against each other, such that the discriminator is rewarded for catching fakes, while the generator is rewarded for getting away with them. When they are set up to compete, the networks grow together in prowess, not unlike an arch art-forger trying to outwit an art expert. This makes learning very efficient for each of them.

As well as a handy engineering trick, GANs are a potentially useful analogy for understanding the human brain. In mammalian brains, the neurons responsible for encoding perceptual information serve multiple purposes. For example, the neurons that fire when you see a cat also fire when you imagine or remember a cat; they can also activate more or less at random. So whenever there’s activity in our neural circuitry, the brain needs to be able to figure out the cause of the signals, whether internal or external.

We can call this exercise perceptual reality monitoring. John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher, believed that we had some sort of inner organ that performed the job of sensory self-monitoring. But critics of Locke wondered why Mother Nature would take the trouble to grow a whole separate organ, on top of a system that’s already set up to detect the world via the senses. You have to be able to smell something before you can go about deciding whether or not the perception is real or fake; so why not just build in a check to the detecting mechanism itself?

In light of what we now know about GANs, though, Locke’s idea makes a certain amount of sense. Because our perceptual system takes up neural resources, parts of it get recycled for different uses. So imagining a cat draws on the same neuronal patterns as actually seeing one. But this overlap muddies the water regarding the meaning of the signals. Therefore, for the recycling scheme to work well, we need a discriminator to decide when we are seeing something versus when we’re merely thinking about it. This GAN-like inner sense organ – or something like it – needs to be there to act as an adversarial rival, to stimulate the growth of a well-honed predictive coding mechanism.

If this account is right, it’s fair to say that conscious experience is probably akin to a kind of logical inference. That is, if the perceptual signal from the generator says there is a cat, and the discriminator decides that this signal truthfully reflects the state of the world right now, we naturally see a cat. The same goes for raw feelings: pain can feel sharp, even when we know full well that nothing is poking at us, and patients can report feeling pain in limbs that have already been amputated. To the extent that the discriminator gets things right most of the time, we tend to trust it. No wonder that when there’s a conflict between subjective impressions and rational beliefs, it seems to make sense to believe what we consciously experience.

This perceptual stubbornness is not just a feature of humans. Some primates have it too, as shown by their capacity to be amazed and amused by magic tricks. That is, they seem to understand that there’s a tension between what they’re seeing and what they know to be true. Given what we understand about their brains – specifically, that their perceptual neurons are also ‘recyclable’ for top-down functioning – the GAN theory suggests that these nonhuman animals probably have conscious experiences not dissimilar to ours.

The future of AI is more challenging. If we built a robot with a very complex GAN-style architecture, would it be conscious? On the basis of our theory, it would probably be capable of predictive coding, exercising the same machinery for perception as it deploys for top-down prediction or imagination. Perhaps like some current generative networks, it could ‘dream’. Like us, it probably couldn’t reason away its pain – and it might even be able to appreciate stage magic.

Theorising about consciousness is notoriously hard, and we don’t yet know what it really consists in. So we wouldn’t be in a position to establish if our robot was truly conscious. Then again, we can’t do this with any certainty with respect to other animals either. At least by fleshing out some conjectures about the machinery of consciousness, we can begin
to test them against our intuitions – and, more importantly, in experiments. What we do know is that a model of the mind involving an inner mechanism of doubt – a nit-picking system that’s constantly on the lookout for fakes and forgeries in perception – is one of the most promising ideas we’ve come up with so far.

Hakwan Lau

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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In Praise of Form: Towards a New Post-Humanist Art

Today the litany of crises we face culturally and globally has become so familiar that it needs no further recitation. Indeed, so often are we reminded that the world has gone wrong that the word “crisis” has acquired a patina of banality. But this is to be an essay of hope, so let us move on. For protests to the contrary notwithstanding, there is good reason for it: across many strata of Western culture, there is a growing awareness, uneasy though it may be, that we have at last identified the problem. The problem is not out there, in some externalized other (would that it were so, so much more palatable would this be). Reluctantly, shamefully, but profoundly necessarily, we are finally meeting the enemy, and he is us: the human animal that placed itself in the center of the universe, the one that first severed itself from nature and then elevated itself above it, and the one that in imagining that this was really possible has dug its own grave. We can call this progress.

Daniel Hill, “Untitled 37,” 2012. Acrylic polymer emulsion on paper mounted to panel, 44″ x 60″ (diptych). Courtesy of ODETTA Gallery.

To be fair, the problem is more specific, and can be located in an idea. Although for most of us in the West the word “humanism” still conjures little but benevolence (“human values,” “human rights, “human dignity,” etc.), it harbors an implicit ideology that many are now challenging. This is none other than its premise of human exceptionalism: the assumption that the human being is the source of all meaning and, even further, the ultimate reality. In light of everything we’re witnessing in our ignoble Anthropocene, it is becoming increasingly clear that humanism has been as mistaken as the theism it sought to replace, for just as God’s omnipotence reduced us to servitude, so ours has done the same to the non-human world. The call for a post-humanist worldview grows ever more compelling. Can we achieve a new way of being that honors the nonhuman world, one that acknowledges its inherent richness and restores it to its rightful place in the cosmos? Spatially, chronologically, and in just about every other way, it does, after all, rather greatly exceed us.

William Holton, “Point of Convergence,” 2010. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 35″ x 36″. Courtesy of the artist.

But what does any of this have to do with art, you may be asking. And this is exactly the point. The answer is nothing – or very little, just yet. While the so-called non-human turn has inundated the humanities, leading even to the proposal a new “inhuman humanities,” visual art has undergone nothing of the kind. In fact, it could be argued that just the opposite has happened; with art’s preoccupation with social justice and an exhausted postmodernism, it’s easy for those of us in the field to forget anything beyond us exists. Adding to this our inherited assumptions about art being “self-expression” (and lest we be inclined to dismiss this as a pedestrian notion, what is our current “identity art” if not exactly this?), it becomes clear that visual art is mired in an obsolescent human centrism. Indeed, if “everything is a social construct,” as postmodernism tells us, the human being isn’t just the highest but the only reality.

But aside from the societal orientation of much visual art today, there is a deeper sense in which art has been complicit in perpetuating an old idea. It’s much more subtle than subject matter, and has to do with our very expectations for and valuations of art. For as art becomes ever more discursive, prioritizing issues and ideas over the forms in which they’re instantiated, it is reinforcing the implicit values of the humanist fallacy.

Werner Sun, “Double Vision 1B,” diptych, 2018. Archival inkjet prints and acrylic on board, 12″ x 25″ x 2″. Courtesy of the artist.

The problem is made evident when we consider prevailing attitudes toward form. “Empty formalism,” “mere formalism,” “shallow form devoid of content”: in a time when art is expected to address this or that issue, form has become a critical embarrassment, something insufficient in itself but useful for one purpose – namely, to serve as the delivery system for the real substance that is “content.” So pervasive is the disdain for “mere form” that today’s artist’s statements often read as hyper-intellectualized apologia – discursive treatises announcing in advance that there’s no “mere” happening here. And yet in the privacy of their studios, in the presence of that trust they have only with each other, many artists will confess that it is precisely form – the interplay of shapes, colors, textures, and materials, and the tensions and rhythms generated therein – that is not only captain but also navigator: the one with the first word, plenty in the middle, and certainly the last. A tacit understanding among those who make, discursive content is to many a mere maneuver of expediency.

David Mann, “YTB III,” 2016. Oil and alkyd on canvas stretched over board, 68″ x 72.”

Why the disavowal and disparagement of form? As our attitudes about art can’t be separated from the larger culture, we come back to humanism and its hierarchy of values. One of the most pernicious assumptions of the humanist worldview was its devaluation of the body and all that is associated with it. Carrying on the legacy of the great Cartesian cleavage, humanism had reason enthroned on high, casting off as inferior the emotions, the senses, all our autonomic functions – in short, anything rude enough to remind us that we are animals. And yet as today’s neuroscience has definitively shown, the body and the emotions are not separate from cognition; far from being “soft” and secondary faculties inferior to reason, they are in fact central to it, integral functions on which reason is entirely dependent. If form is something we apprehend with our senses and discursive content that which is grasped by the mind, the inferior status granted form is a tired recapitulation of the humanist error. But it is also more than this.  In denying form its rightful place in art, art is denying itself an exquisite opportunity. For if now is the time for us to move beyond ourselves, to reclaim our fleshly relations to earth, animal, and world, what better vehicle than the power of sensual form?

Debra Ramsay, “The Wind Turning in Circles Invents the Dance,” 2019. Acrylic on acrylic panel, 19″ x 18″. Courtesy of the artist.

In the spirit of the emerging ethos, then, can we imagine a new art for a post-humanist century? What would a post-humanist art look like, and how would it be experienced? First and foremost, a post-humanist art would be one that embraces form. It would be an art that considers form not as something that serves content, but rather as something that, like the body, possesses an intelligence of its own – an intelligence far deeper and more complex than conscious, discursive thought. In its address to the body and somatic experience, it would run directly counter to the prevailing emphasis on ideas, seeking not their propagation but exactly their cessation. For in order to gain access the beyond-human world, conscious thought, discursive thought, must first be extinguished. Rather than focusing on the contents of consciousness, then, post-humanist art would alight on its structure – all the subtle rhythms and patterns that constitute its movement. And not least, being decidedly oriented away from the self – away from personal identity, above all that of the artist – a post-humanist art would be one of transcendence. For with the thinker that thought itself into the center of the world silenced, we become living organisms again just like all others, participating in, and exquisitely sensitive to, the dynamic flux of the natural world.

Linda Francis, “Nostalgia for Messier #2,” 1994. Chalk on paper, 52″ x 39″. Courtesy of the artist.

With the affirmation of form as the powerful force that it is, the question becomes how, exactly, it delivers us to the non-human. We can begin by examining how form works on us, and why it moves us so deeply when indeed it does. Of all the arts, visual art is singular in a particularly significant way, and this is that it is physically embodied.[1] Its material presence being the first thing we apprehend, we confront in it not just it but ourselves: body to body, there is a certain carnal reciprocity absent in music and literature. Grasping the whole with an uncanny instantaneity, the eye moves in to probe the parts and their interrelations – this part to that, these to those over there, all of them in active tension with the overall organization.  Attraction and repulsion, assonance and dissonance, the ever-present tug of gravity that is the counterpoint to all visual form: whatever forces are enacted in the work’s particulars reverberate sympathetically on the instrument of our nervous system, causing subtle internal movements we cannot locate introspectively. Never fixing on any one area for too long, the eye is led by the forms in a rhythmic leaving and returning, ever expanding and contracting between the general and the particular. A kind of optical dance choreographed by the artist, the experience of viewing is far from the passive act of receiving information; rather, it is a profoundly active and participatory mode of engagement. When we say we are moved by a work of art, it is not just conceptual metaphor. In a very real sense, on every level of our organism we literally are moved. The experience of visual form is a distinct and particularly intense kind of electrochemical excitation.

But the real mystery of aesthetic form is not so much why it moves us but why it moves us so deeply. Why, when it does so, does it not merely delight? Why is it not just pleasant, the way the sound of a distant foghorn is pleasant, or the smell of fresh rain falling on stone, or the brush of a hand against the soft fur of an animal? Unlike these momentary pleasures, the experience of a great work of art seems in some way to change us, to rearrange the internal architecture on the deepest level of our being. And not only does it change us; it does so in a way that feels unusually significant. There is a profound rightness about it, a felt realignment, a re-membering of something unconsciously undone.  Indeed, so right is the feeling that is has, in the largest sense, the quality of coming home.

Ed Kerns, “Degree of Freedom in a Liquid Field; Not Overwhelmed,” 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 40″ x 30.” Courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps the experience of aesthetic form feels like coming home precisely because it is coming home. Home, that is, to the world that gave rise to us: the world of inanimate matter in all its myriad manifestations, and the whole kingdom of sentient creatures from whom we are descended. For what is the nature of this non-human world if not an endless cycle of dynamic patterns, from the rhythms of the tides to the sonic undulations of the animals to the expansions and contractions of the earth moved by forces to all manner – not least life and death – of arisings and evanescings? If the world out there is constituted of patterns of movement, it is in their deep visceral experience that we gain access to that world, moving from a consciousness of separation to one of participation. The experience of aesthetic form is an active engagement in the largest kind of communion.

It is also, and not insignificantly, an act of self-recognition. For in transcending the thinker and entering the greater world, we find not just the greater world but the greater parts of ourselves: the millions of years of evolution we carry in our bodies, and all that constitutes, unbeknownst to us, the richest reservoirs of our intelligence. We all know the feeling of being thus transported. Little else is as satisfying. The separatist ego will return, of course, to reassert its authority, but the experience of having left it lodges deep in the body, where, like a benevolent nuisance, it reminds us of something we only half want to remember – namely, that we live most of our lives locked in the smallest room in the house. Summoned on occasion by the exquisite rightness of a form, it comes back, and there we are again, and again we have to humbly concede that we really should get out more.

Yoshiaki Mochizuki, “Untitled, 6/6,” 2012. Gesso on board, clay, palladium leaf, and ink, 10.5″ x 10.5″. Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough, New York and London.

While it may not be our only means of participating in the Great Beyond, aesthetic form is surely one of the most powerful. If visual art continues to dismiss it, insisting on art’s identity as a discursive enterprise, it may end up on the losing side of our century’s catastrophe. For if the arrogance of reason is what brought us to where we are, it can hardly be expected to be the thing to get us out. What we need is reason reunited with the sensorium that sustains it and with the misconceived “other” that gave rise to it in the first place. And what is art if not an agent of integration, and what are artists if not those who know how to show us what that might look like? So let us reclaim form. Let us reclaim it as the transformative force it always was, and let us reclaim it in the name of something larger than ourselves – something beyond art, beyond culture, beyond even human history, something that, in returning us to our smallness, grants us full citizenship in the greatest largeness.

[1] Unless it is not. There is certainly much conceptual art that lacks any material component, but our focus here is on visual art that is visual – which is to say visual art that has sensual form.


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Neural Zoo


Sofia Crespo: Micro Beauty


Sofia Crespo: Bug


Sofia Crespo: Consistente


Sofia Crespo: Soft Sea of Awareness


Sofia Crespo: Self Acceptance


Sofia Crespo: Reward System


Sofia Crespo: Revivir


Sofia Crespo: Realization


Sofia Crespo: Morphing


Sofia Crespo: Merging


Sofia Crespo: Internet


Sofia Crespo: Free Will


Sofia Crespo: Courage



All images copyright and courtesy of Sofia Crespo

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Art and Generative Systems

Gene Kogan: Neural Synthesis, 2017

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Gene Kogan: I studied applied mathematics in university and became interested in machine learning through its application to music technology, especially the idea of music recommendation systems. That got me thinking more about creative and artistic uses of machine learning, which led me indirectly to discover media arts and art technology more broadly. Since then, I’ve become interested in computer science more generally in how it can be applied to emerging tech art.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

GK: A lot of the things that influence my art practice come from outside the art world. I don’t have a proper art background and don’t participate very much in the residency or gallery scene, with fairly rare exceptions, and I think this keeps my work a bit less influenced by art trends. I am very curiosity-driven and spend most of my time looking at scientific literature more so than artistic. That said, there have been many artists that have influenced me over the years, and I am especially grateful to arts-technology communities like OpenFrameworks and Processing, out of which I’ve made many friends, and gotten many ideas and help on projects. Community is very important in arts technology, otherwise we’re all just sitting alone in front of computers.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

GK: I guess the underlying theme is emerging technology for creative practice and generative art. More recently, I’ve become interested in systems that facilitate mass collaboration among people, and creating generative systems built on collective intelligence.

RB: Can you say something about ml4a, the collection of free educational resources devoted to machine learning for artists?

GK: I started ml4a as a resource for a class I was teaching at NYU called “machine learning for artists” and slowly the scope of it grew to encompass most of the educational materials I was putting out, including outside of the university. I generally neither work as a creative technologist nor as a professional artist (selling my work) and so my educational output turns out to be the most stable part of my professional work, and it’s been really fun for me to keep a consistent workshop practice over the last few years, and ml4a has been a big part of that. These days, I’m thinking a lot about how to evolve ml4a, as some of the problems that it seeks to solve are becoming less relevant, now that there are so many more resources besides ml4a directed at artists and creatives. I’m thinking about how to make it more goal-driven and community-oriented.

Neural synthesis [2017]. Some recent experiments with neural channel synthesis. The video was created for the creativity exhibition at NIPS conference in 2017.

RB: A lot of the processes behind creative thinking are still unknown. Can AI-powered creativity and neural networks play a role in helping the understanding about our own creative methodology and imagination?

GK: Yeah, I think it can help us discover a lot of things by creating interesting interactions between us and our tools. When you work with systems that have flexible automation, it forces you to confront what the essence of creativity really is. Is it in the performance, or the composition, or the ideation? It’s all very subjective though, so I tend not to take the question too seriously.

RB: Can you say something about your project Abraham?

GK: I’ve been thinking about Abraham for a couple of years, and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s gradually becoming my main focus. In many ways, it’s a continuation of ml4a but a bit more goal-driven, with a tangible project as an end goal, and an expanded scope to include emerging topics besides machine learning, including decentralization technology, cryptography, economics, game theory, and even some philosophy. I’m trying to make the case now for why it’s an interesting construction, this idea of an autonomous artificial artist, and it’s been a learning process for me, trying to understand and articulate why I find it so meaningful. Hopefully, we start working towards a prototype later this year, and I expect 2020 for it to be my main focus.

Gene Kogan: Experiments with style transfer (2015). Mona Lisa restyled by Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Crab Nebula, and Google Maps.

RB: Can AI be taught how to create without guidance and develop its own sense of creativity?

GK: By definition, AI (or AGI) is all about creating agents that have all the same intellectual capabilities or even greater ones than human beings, and so in principle, if we believe a human can do that, then so could an AI eventually. How we achieve that in the future, and when or if that might ever actually happen is another question. I’m pretty optimistic in general and don’t see why we couldn’t accomplish this in principle, but it’s hard to predict.

RB: When does a neural network become an author of an artwork? And how can we form an understanding of the art that it makes?

GK: This question comes up a lot but I think it’s actually not well-defined. Authorship is a concept that very much predates AI and has not yet caught up. We are seeing now how limiting it is to try to assign one person or entity as the sole author to something, when AI brings in so many influences, and so many people, and so many data points. It very much fragments the notion of authorship, and certainly downstream ideas about intellectual property, copyright, and so on. No one ever asked “when does a paintbrush become an author of an artwork” even though it’s a tool just the same. But the more of the creative process AI takes on, much more so than the paintbrush itself, the more obsolete the authorship idea becomes, since AI is not really a singular being like a human. We may have to invent new words to really make this clear.

Gene Kogan: pix2pix webcam (meat puppet), 2017

RB: Emotions are essential for creativity and is a subject being explored in a relatively new area of AI, Affective Computing, which seeks to place a machine in the world such that it recognizes, interprets, processes, and simulates human affects. In order to be truly creative, will AI need to develop emotions and consciousness?

GK: Like with authorship, I think some of these terms are not well defined. Have to pass on the question, it’s a bit too abstract!

RB: Pushing the boundaries of the medium is a natural part of the art making process because, in some ways, the artist is exploring the medium itself. What boundaries do you wish to push with the medium that you use?

GK: I’ve been really inspired by the world of decentralization and peer-to-peer networks, in how they are trying to increase our ability to coordinate en masse with many people towards shared goals. Abraham is very much influenced by this trend. I think there’s a lot of room to innovate here and a lot of low-hanging fruits. In the context of art, I’d like to see how it’s possible to make creative artifacts — artworks, music, even novels — through this kind of mode of mass collaboration.

RB: As well as mI4a and Abraham, what other projects are you currently working on or planning?

GK: I am helping some friends to organize a free retreat to make art in something of an intentional community in the desert. The website is . It is closely tied with some of my arts projects, but it’s much more anarchical, and some of my friends will be initiating interesting art projects and group activities there. It’s an experiment in sustainable learning and living, and I’m pretty excited to spend a few months focused on it next year. I’m also just generally researching AI and decentralization, and working occasionally on art projects and installations. For example, I just finished a big installation at a brand new museum in Germany called The Futurium.


All images copyright and courtesy of Gene Kogan.

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Missing Mass

Carey Young: Missing Mass, 2010 (installation view) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Missing Mass (2010) is a sculptural work created with the scientific guidance of Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, an astrophysicist based at King’s College London. The piece ‘presents’ a specific number of dark matter particles alongside a legal disclaimer which proposes the particles as the only truly free entities in existence. The work centres on the idea of artistic freedom, suggesting that if dark matter particles are the only free entities in existence, by implication, art, the artist, and any other societal or cultural element held to be symbolic of freedom, are merely constrained, whether by gravity, bureaucracy, institutional ties, etc. The work also proposes links between sculptural works associated with Minimalism and Conceptual Art (such as the early work of Hans Haacke) and contemporary developments in astrophysics.

The work was developed through a research process which involved regular meetings with Dr. Fairbairn, plus an astrophysics reading list, which necessitated five months of study. From this process I derived the idea for the work, as well as others including Terminal Velocity.

Carey Young Missing Mass, 2010 (detail) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) Photo: Thierry Bal. © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

The text on the plinth says:

Carey Young
5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, 18 x 18 x 18 inches.*

* Disclaimer

  1. i) Dark matter particles are governed by their own laws and may circulate freely.ii)  The figure of 5461 dark matter particles represents an average according to current scientific thinking. Actual amounts may vary from time to time.iii)  Dark matter is transparent and undetectable to the human eye.iv)  Since dark matter may at any time pass through any surrounding man-made or natural structures, including the walls of this container, your body, and the whole material structure of the planet, any collector of this work should not expect to own the same 5,461 dark matter particles at any one time.

Carey Young Missing Mass, 2010 (detail) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) Photo: Steven Probert. © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York


Artist Statement

Since 2003, visual artist Carey Young has developed a number of artworks that are also functional legal instruments, and which have conceptualised and explored law as an artistic medium. Young collaborates with legal advisors to make artworks in installation, video, performance, print, sculpture and photography, which have been exhibited internationally. These works have embodied such diverse forms as contracts, disclaimers, offers, licenses, cautionary statements and a will, and addressed disparate legal fields including human rights, inheritance law, intellectual property and law relating to outer space. Experimenting with ideas of time, space and physicality, Young’s body of artistic work explores law as a separate kind of ‘reality’, one with its own inherent subjectivities and points of breakdown.



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Aura Satz: The Trembling Line. Film and multi-channel sound installation, 2015

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Aura Satz: I studied cultural studies and art history in Bologna (Italy) before coming to London to do a PhD by theory/practice at the Slade School of Fine Art. Initially I worked with sculpture and performance but over the last 20 years or so I have become more invested in film and sound. My works operate in constellations, I have a central theme which might manifest in multiple formats, as films, performances, sound works, and so on.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

AS: I was very much influenced by Lis Rhodes who taught me at the Slade, and whom I have since collaborated with. Intergenerational conversations are extremely important to me. I have been teaching for around 20 years now, and I get a lot of inspiration from my students. Teaching also keeps me attuned to practices outside of my own. In my undergraduate studies I was particularly fascinated by iconoclasm and theories of the image based on contact relics. I suppose this has carried through in my later works which attempt to look closely at technologies, prying the apparatus apart, as well as my interest in technologies of sound writing, such as the phonograph – where the groove is a trace and relic of the voice, so to speak. I have always been inspired by female voices, and there are a number of women composers who are key sources of inspiration. I often think of some of the more dialogic works I have made with people such as Lis Rhodes, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, as an opportunity to go deeper into the conversation, not just through the encounter, the film or the recording of a verbal exchange, but even later in the editing process, where I spend a lot of time listening and composing to the cadence of speech or a pause for breath.

Aura Satz: Her Marks a Measure

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

AS: I keep returning to the notion of a distributed, expanded and shared notion of voice. Works are made in conversation and use dialogue as both method and subject matter. In my works which draw on historical research I see myself in dialogic exchange with past voices, speaking backwards and forwards, being spoken through. When I have focussed on technologies of sound writing, recording and playback, it is precisely because I am interested in ways in which voices carry through, have been under-heard, and can be ‘listened into speech’. Many previous works focussed on minor histories, using archival research as a starting point, but in recent years I have shifted from the idea of notation of the past towards a logic that is more aligned with a visual or verbal score, an open invitation to think towards possible future manifestations. A score implies a non-hierarchical generosity, suggesting multiple future iterations and no singular privileged way of performing or enacting. Some scores simply suggest a shift in focus, such as Oliveros’ suggestion to listen with the soles of your feet. Many of my works could be read as an invitation to recalibrate attention, ways in which we give it, what is deemed worthy of it, how we might enact a different modality of attention, what we conceive of as foreground and what is background.

Aura Satz: Ventriloqua

RB: You began working with sound, with the piece Ventriloqua, in 2003 when you were pregnant. A number of your later works are to do with acoustic devices and vibration. Can you give some examples of these works?

AS: In Ventriloqua my pregnant belly became an instrument, a medium or antenna of sorts for a thereminist to play the electromagnetic waves. I wore a red outfit that covered all of my body, including my face, and the only visible part was the belly, which looked like an oracular eye or a breast of sorts. Through the trope of ventri-loquism (belly-speaking) I was able to explore the possibility of becoming a conduit for other voices. For me that performance was a powerful manifestation of speaking and being spoken through. In other works such as Automamusic (2008), Sound Seam (2010) Onomatopoeic Alphabet (2010), Vocal Flame (2011) and In and Out of Synch (2012) I focussed on devices such as orchestrions, mechanical music, phonographs, Chladni Plate, Ruben’s tube and optical sound on film as technologies of sound visualisation, some of which manifest sound patterns without quite constituting a notation system or code, and others which encrypt sound in order for it to be read back by a machine rather than a human. All of these enabled me to explore voices that align, interfere, interweave, synchronise, overlap, overwrite, hover between signal and noise, between decipherable meaning and the unfamiliar and as yet unencoded.

Aura Satz: Vocal Flame, 2012


Aura Satz: Sound Seam, 2010 (installation view)

In Sound Seam for example we worked with the surface noises of wax cylinders and vinyl glitch, as well as generating many layers of sounds by recording voices over each other.  At the same time there is something about seeing as informed by hearing, and vice versa, a listening that is in tension with the visible, that I find incredibly generative. This became central to In and Out of Synch, the 16mm film co-scripted and co-voiced with Lis Rhodes, where the optical sound on film patterns conveying our voices are ruptured by stroboscopic effects, due to a deliberate subtle misalignment of the monitoring eyepiece. You end up with a kind of Rorschach effect, certain sounds are punctuated or counteracted by the visual, and their respective rhythms generate a friction that is useful in unsettling standardized readings, making us hear or see differently.

Aura Satz: In and Out of Synch

RB: When did you begin to prioritise film-making and why?

AS: Initially I used film to document performances. When I made Automamusic in 2008 I realised that the only way to get inside these multiple mechanical music devices (which were housed in a museum in a small town in Switzerland), the best method of access to open them up and reconfigure them, was through the camera and the juxtaposition of sound patterns with visual rhythms. In other projects I found that there’s a kind of close-up looking and listening that can only be achieved through film. In my films I am keen to foreground sound, often it becomes the driving force, literally the engine driving the visuals or setting the rhythmic pace of the film. This is true of all of the sound visualisation films mentioned above, as well as a more recent project Preemptive Listening (2018), where the voice triggers an emergency rotating light. A film might feature moments of darkness or silence to allow for the senses to cross-pollinate, the eyes to take on the role of the ears or the other way around. I like the idea of an anagrammatic remapping of the senses, a disruption of hierarchies, a destabilizing of relations, of what is perceived, how, where, by who.

Aura Satz: Preemptive Listening (part 1 The Fork in the Road), 2018, installation view (photo Adam Reich)

RB: As well as exploring different techniques for visualizing sound, a number of your works focus on gender and women’s important contributions to technology. I’m thinking particularly of Oramics: Atlantis Anew (2011), Doorway for Natalie Kalmus (2013) and She Recalibrates (2018).  Can you say something about these works?

AS: Part of my commitment to the notion of a distributed voice is an unsettling of which voices are allowed, amplified within the range of the audible, who gets heard, who is written into the canon of history, and how can we destabilise these readings to allow for new voices to emerge. The film about Daphne Oram was central to my thinking on sound writing as a form of instantiating a new language or notation system, a new soundscape and in turn a new kind of listening.


Aura Satz: She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018 (photo Thierry Bal)

She Recalibrates follows on from this by focussing on women composers working with electronic music such as Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher and others, who are portrayed with their hands on a dial, engaged in an experimental type of listening, modulating electricity, recalibrating what is considered noise or signal, what is worthy of being heard, and what can be understood as music. Their hands and ears are literally partaking in the circuit, tuning and recalibrating the signal. I made series of pencil drawings of hands on dials, framed inside a Fresnel lens which generates a diffractive pattern from the centre. The drawings only appear at a certain angle, due to the silver effect of graphite pencil on black paper, but also because the lens incorporates the interference of light reflections. It’s like looking at a lenticular print, or, more accurately, a CD or vinyl record with a diffractive centre, the image is continually changing according to the position of the viewer and the angle of light.  This is emblematic of what I try to do in all my works, allowing for an entangled space between voices, between signal and noise, for both to appear as method and subject matter.

Aura Satz: Tuning Interference on a Dark Matter Radio, 2019

RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’, with a sound work Tuning Interference: Dark Matter Radio. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

AS: The curator Sandra Ross commissioned me to make a sound work responding to the theme of dark matter, under the guidance of the astrophysicist Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, who invited Prof. David (Doddy) J.E. Marsh into the collaboration. I was really inspired by the way some of the experiments have been described as listening out for a signal that has not yet appeared. In particular I was drawn to the description of ADMX, one of many dark matter research initiatives (and a number of related experiments operating in Korea, Europe, and the USA), as “a radio that looks for a radio station, but we don’t know its frequency. We turn the knob slowly while listening. Ideally we will hear a tone when the frequency is right.[1] I wanted to work with this notion of experimental listening by making a sonic diagram of sorts, which would evoke a tuning experience. Together with Malcom and Doddy, as well as audio engineer/music AI specialist Dr. David Ronan who sonified the data, we made a 10 channel sound installation which renders a current hypothetical simulation of dark matter into sound. Essentially the sound patterns are a set of relations between the data, and we mapped it in such a way so as to generate intense psychoacoustic effects in the listeners, exploring sonic equivalents of interference and collision through beat frequencies and other diffractive qualities which shift according to the listener’s location. The listener becomes a radio dial of sorts, as the ears move through the soundscape, micro-tuning with each adjustment. It’s not dissimilar to the effect I described with the Fresnel lens framed drawings. There is no ideal vantage point or listening sweet spot, the listener is embedded within the sound, effectively generating the sound according to their orientation within the speaker ring.

Doddy showed me some visualisations of the simulation of dark matter in a hypothetical galaxy, and it looked like ripples of water or waves diffracting. This particular model of dark matter simulated contains waves[2], and we used speed and density to generate the shape of the harmonic structure. We chose the spacing of the speakers around the ring to be close to one wavelength, so that the coherence between speakers is audible, and yet varies in an interesting way around the ring. I wanted to create a soundscape that felt like a field of vibration and flux, with clusters of density, moments of tension and relief. Close frequency alignment and interference became a compositional principle, much like a kind of acoustic moiré. The arrangement of the speakers reflects the distribution of dark matter, so what you are hearing is not the sound of dark matter per se, but the hypothetical flux and motion of dark matter as rendered through sound. Each speaker is one point of data in the simulation, and if you listen close-up you will hear a singular slow-changing drone rather than all the beat frequencies that occur in the centre of the ring where the sounds interact with each other. Sometimes the wave shape of one point of data is extremely close to another, changing at a variable rate, and this alignment generates a sense of dense patterning, a pulse which gradually accelerates, intensifies, shifts focus and recedes. The sound is sculpted into a rippling flux which gathers and dissipates in such a way that is hard to hold onto or memorise. You can’t possibly internalise the rhythm of the piece, and each listening session will sound quite different from the previous one as your ears fabricate new acoustic illusions, adjust to the sounds, are de-sensitized or fatigued. I spent months tweaking the composition and by the end of a long session I wasn’t sure what I was hearing anymore, what was in between the speakers and what was between my ears.

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

AS: I am interested in the ways in which scientific research activates or distorts a certain intuitive understanding of the world, and I try to find a way to make this come across on a very physical level, as visual or sonic experience. I wanted people to feel enmeshed within a dynamic rotational flow or current, something that can be sensed but which we don’t necessarily have the theoretical frameworks to account for. I find it fascinating that in current research on dark matter we are at a point of knowing unknowing, so to speak – we don’t know what exactly we are looking for and we haven’t yet identified what it is, all we know for certain is that its presence is somehow implied through the way it interacts or interferes with matter. Without dark matter many previously accepted theories are untenable, and as such it both disrupts and holds together different hypothetical theories.

I think the piece also conveys some of my previous concerns around modes of attention, a continuous retuning and recalibrating of what is heard and where one is positioned in relation to the signal or the noise (or what is understood as which). The idea of acoustic moiré – a morphing non-hierarchical, almost untethered grid – resonates with my interest in a multiplicity of voices which align and interfere with each other, activating the spaces in between. This is the reason I am drawn to work with sound – already at a very basic level it is doing the work as a vibratory in-between, as inherently relational, unsettling boundaries.

In addition to the speaker ring, I wanted a visual marker to provide a distinct sense of oscillation, that you are entering a vibratory sound field, so between each speaker there is a VU metre driven by the sound. The needle trembles to echo the volatile, dynamic and ever-changing frequency fields, though what exactly is being measured remains uncertain (the metres are blank and have no numbers).

Aura Satz, ‘Vera Rubin’s Irrefutable Evidence’, 2019

Nearby hangs a photo of Vera Rubin (1928-2016). Rubin was an American astronomer who discovered the galaxy rotation problem, providing evidence of the existence of dark matter. In the photo she is seen looking through a spectrograph mounted on the end of the telescope, recording an image of the spectrum (colours) of a small section of a galaxy. It’s quite an obscure image, in that she is wearing a hooded coat, so hardly any parts of her face or body are identifiable. Like the series She Recalibrates mentioned earlier, the image is framed inside a Fresnel lens, generating a diffractive pattern emanating from the centre, the point between her eye and the eyepiece of the telescope. The viewer has to somehow tune into the image for it to surface in amidst all the diffractive interferences and light play. It’s not central to the main piece, but I wanted to include Rubin as I think of the artwork as a space for naming, reconfiguring the canon, putting an underacknowledged female scientist into the conversation.

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

AS: I don’t think I could ever provide a definitive answer. The part that interests me from my recent experiences is the way in which both science and art ask questions and destabilise our current understanding of the world. Both are a response to curiosity and uncertainty, and can give us some orientation towards the future. Recalibration is key, an openness to change and a resistance to standardization.

Aura Satz: ‘Listen, Recalibrate’, solo show installation view, Fridman Gallery (photo Adam Reich)

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

AS: For some years now I have been working on a project entitled Preemptive Listening, which looks at emergency signals and siren sounds. I read the siren as a specific kind of sound, one that requires attention, and demands an action or response. Citizens respond to its call, demonstrating obedience to its authority – it is a sound that commands submission, deflection, dispersion. It attracts in order to dispel, unsettles and resettles. It demands localized attention, and is the sonic architect of social order. It is a sonic marker that structures urban spaces in an emergency, a marker between future danger and dangers past, projecting a trajectory and expelling obstacles along the way. As the primary vocalization of the state, it articulates our relationship to power and civil order. All of which makes it fascinating, complex and in dire need of a re-wiring. My invitation is to pry it apart and recompose the siren, to think of it as a sound signal that requires recalibration. I am attempting to reimagine the siren sound: how can we open and destabilize this overly codified, prescriptive and stable semantic sound by taking a compositional approach, remapping new readings onto new sounds, how can we unlearn the existing code, find ways to listen differently, resist the hypervigilant, predetermined, automated call to obedience and set the intention to be curious, open, receptive, imaginative. If one remaps the sound, explores the possibility of different emotional registers, one can in turn generate distinct affective responses, more varied strategies for crisis management, and attend to a spectrum of different voices in need of our attention. And in our multiple modes of response, we might in turn enact an altered relationships to power.


[2]  Simulations performed at the University of Goettingen by Mr Jan Veltmaat, Dr Bodo Schwabe, and Prof Jens Niemeyer.


All images copyright and courtesy of Aura Satz


The post Voices appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

On the Surface

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Rachel Pimm: I have a pretty straightforward background in Fine Art. I studied an undergraduate Fine Art degree at Central Saint Martins in a discipline called 4D which was developed from a blend of Critical Fine Art practice, film studies and then performative and video practice- all the extras to painting and sculpture. Then I started a project space called Auto Italia, which is still going, and went on to a postgraduate MFA programme at Goldsmiths. Those initial feelers into curating, which also included a curatorial internship at the ICA and a short stint after working in the department, have now morphed into more of a collaborative practice, where I invite people to do projects with me.

I wasn’t born in the UK though, my family are white Rhodesian and I came here from Harare, Zimbabwe in 1986- shortly after independence from Britain. This perhaps affects my interests in ways I haven’t yet unpacked, but It certainly gives me plenty to work on and address in terms of my own relationship to the world as a European settler thinking about land management and colonial histories.

Lori E Allen: My background is in social science with a Bachelors in Anthropology, Classical Studies, and Ancient Latin from New York University and a Masters in Archaeology from University College London. I never trained formally in fine art or music but when living in New York began a very low key experimental type of art practice around media archaeology. This began as a method of chopping up broad-casted media in real time to extract concurrent narratives across television networks, and took the form of a weekly public access television series. I then expanded that focus to include field recordings and began focusing more on sound and sound scape than image. My practice is still generally very low key in that I while I do make solo work it’s mostly for my own amusement, and I prefer a collaborative approach in creative work.

RP: when Lori and I work together we are good at thinking about larger scales than I do on my own- humans, animals, time, place. Lori is very technical and I do admin 😉 I’m only half joking. We have made performance together since 2015. You can listen to worming out of shit performed at the Chisenhale Gallery in 2015 here and Disintegration, performed at the Whitechapel Gallery earlier this year, here.

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: Disintegration, Whitechapel Gallery, 2019

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: worming out of shit, 2015, performed at CCA Glasgow, 2016

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: Disintegration, Whitechapel Gallery, 2019

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

RP: For a short while I did a full time office job at the Ideal Home Show, designing and specifying the model home village at the show – then building show houses inside Earl’s Court. For me, not only is this display format just as interesting historically as gallery exhibition, its lineage can be traced via British Colonial histories to the Crystal Palace, botanical gardens, raw materials, the industrial revolution and housing after the Garden City movement- really rich (and violent) contexts for the relationship between stuff we take from the ground and the systems of engineering and capitalism that surround its movement and processing.

I’m also influenced by Natural History. I find old books and go to libraries a lot – the Geological Society, Linnean Society, Bournemouth Natural Science Society library, the Teri Institute in New Delhi, and then gardens and greenhouses, physics evening classes, kids science kits, conversations and study days with friends, and strolling around, taking photos of infrastructure space, and ways in which ‘Nature’ is being put to work. I learn a lot from living with houseplants about care, and time and growing.

LEA: For me it’s probably studying archaeology that has influenced me most. I like thinking about and witnessing the ways people, myself included, interact with and build relationships with inanimate objects – of which I would also class mass media. There is so much story-telling in the scars, rips, wear and tear of a thing. Yet the thing is silent while retaining a record of events it’s undergone.  Conversely, mass media is not silent. I think the pull from the mute objects to the noise of constructed narratives led me to think more about noise and silence in internal dialogue, where it comes from, what records it holds  – and I suppose focusing on broad-casted media, especially the way it is told/digested/re-told/re-digested is a way of getting at/excavating the noise and silence of objects embedded in narrative rather than the earth.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

RP: I suppose what things are made of, how things work, and how they change the environment are my primary focuses. I find the idea of the surface of something especially interesting because this is the place where the change visibly happens. Also because everything material comes from the surface of the earth. The theory conversations around materialism where they combine with climate activist, feminist, queer, crip or anti-racist work are part of what engages me in this and the desire to understand the environment through structures other than Cartesian western patriarchal power.

LEA: I’m really interested in mass behaviours, ritual, and taboo how they generate, what they come from, how enduring they are, and what influences rate of change. Rachel and my underlying interests are really different in this way, but her focus on material and the surface of the earth I have found to be a really good way round again to approach such questions. It is literally from the ground up and makes human society kind of less important – which is a relief.

RP: and Lori helps me think of ways to create narratives around images and sound. She’s a good storyteller and while I’ll Wikipedia something or buy something, she’ll just get on and make a test. Lori is very unafraid of trying something even if it sounds hard or stupid, because doing it mechanically almost always works something out.

Rachel Pimm photographing landscape at Dallol in the Afar Triangle, 2019

RB: In 2018 you were involved in the project ‘Experiments in Art & Science’, a collaboration between Kettle’s Yard and The Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. Can you say something about your work in this?

RP: I had a period of around 9 months where I was supported by a stipend and was given fantastic access to the genetics labs run by Eric Miska at the Gurdon Institute who had approached the art partners to be able to make a project with no fixed outcome, refreshingly. I was matched with some scientists whose research I could engage with and rather than being a project, it became more of a change of practice and an opportunity to learn and reflect. I read a lot, and used much of my production time and fee to collate a lovely library of rare and specific books on morphology, geology, biology, and also go on field trips to archives to see the lineage of the research into morphology- through fish and worms. I learnt some amazing things- like that transgenerational traumas are chemical in cells, that from suboptimal exposure to environments that suppress life (and those survived by ancestors) sit in a protein you can dye and actually see under the microscope in the RNi. That’s how life forms become resilient. That is mind blowing. I also now understand that ALL patterns of growth and shapes in nature are connected in a spectrum, and that this is due to chemistry and physics at a cellular level, also completely amazing and an overhaul of my thought process.

Rachel Pimm and Emilia Santos at the Gurdon Institute Cichlid Aquarium, production Morpho Chemical, 2018 (Experiments in Art and Science  residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

Rachel Pimm at St Andrews University Special Collections library, production for Morpho Chemical, 2018-19 (Experiments in Art and Science residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

Rachel Pimm at Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland, production for Morpho Chemical, 2018-19 (Experiments in Art and Science  residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

I’ve since also been lucky enough to do more labwork, including some photomicroscopy, with Radar, in Loughborough at the Chemical Engineering department.

SEM microscope samples from Afar triangle fieldwork, production for S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Radar residency, Loughborough University)

RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

RP: I was approached to work on a set of new elements in the Periodic Table- which is one of my catalogues of collaborations, and I approached Lori E Allen to come on a very amazing field trip to the Afar triangle triple rift junction in Ethiopia and make work together in response to Sulfur. This has since turned into a project about alchemy- we’ll be doing a performance at a late event, and then showing S and Hg at an event on August 7th. I recorded mainly images and Lori recorded mainly sound but we will fully collaborate on the works in the events.

LEA: I was invited by Rachel Pimm to take part in this project, which follows from a previous work we did with the material from Ethiopia, linked above :)!

S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Dallol)

S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Lava fields at Erta Ale crater)

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

RP: Art doesn’t have to communicate. That’s one of the great privileges about making it.

LEA: I agree with Rachel’s comment above and would add that in my experience it’s very hard to control that aspect in the first place as well as limiting the opportunity of a work to communicate how it will or won’t with anyone seeking to engage with it.

RP: Maybe you can learn and control some of the tools at your disposal so you can take a didactic political position where needed or get people thinking on a particular track, like when we talk about the use of vocal samples.

LEA: Hmm. yeah. But even so what you want to communicate may not translate the way you expect it to, and that’s kind of the best part about a work becoming organic/non static

RP: But aside from this, we want to show people the images and sounds we experienced when we went off to investigate sulfur as an element important for life forms. We have looked at a lot of Alchemy practices and cultural references of burning hell holes (Sodom and Gomorroh! Volcano Deities!) and tried to incorporate those alongside harder sciences like  geology and chemistry. We think it will be messier than the show itself, perhaps more true to the way matter operates.

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

RP: Both seem to be about trial and error, failure, learning and experiments. Art can change form part way through though, methodologies can be really sloppy compared to the science. In both making and in publishing- peer review matters to both, but I find science a bit of a straight-jacket and would want to work on more things at once, not finish things, do things incorrectly or whatever. I have a lot of respect for the focus of scientists. Artists working with scientists have the pleasure of finding out facts and then ignoring them entirely if they want. I imagine scientists like the lateral thinking opportunity to flex their ideas. Sometimes scientists actually want an illustrator, which is a misunderstanding. Illustration is a whole other, also very interesting thing. But that’s not what artists do well.

LEA: Both are linked by inquiry of the observed or experienced and function in similar ways in the quest for understanding a thing, a relationship, a process, a being. While the scientific method is robust and disciplined this can have limitations. Similarly, so can art.

Lori E Allen making contact microphone and hydroponic sound recordings on a field trip in the Afar triangle, 2019

Rachel Pimm looking at Lava Rock samples, Erta Ale crater, Afar triangle, 2019

Geological samples and AV equipment on a field trip in the Afar triangle Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

RP: I have a performance coming up making some music using cash crops and plants that are domesticated at the Serpentine Gallery and am working on a menu of earth-based food for an event in Lincoln at Mansions of the Future around the practice of Geophagy.

LEA: I have vinyl coming out soon with my band from a piece we did for the Tate Modern a couple of years ago. I am working with another artist producing soundscape compositions for a performance work investigating medical imaging, for which I will also produce the soundtrack for a short film version of the work. Perhaps what I’m currently most excited about is a children’s book.

RP: We have made a start working on a video project about Salt- its geology, history, production, trade and processing. That was an unexpectedly big part of what we saw in the Afar triangle and there are a lot of leads to follow. It was bigger than the elements so it has become its own project.

Lori E Allen making sound recordings on a field trip at Lake Asale in the Afar triangle, 2019

Rachel Pimm sampling lake salt crystals during a field trip at Lake Asale in the Afar triangle, 2019


All images copyright and courtesy of Rachel Pimm and Lori E Allen


The post On the Surface appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

There’s more to this than meets the eye

Yu-Chen Wang at CCCB 2019 Arts at CERN

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Yu-Chen Wang: I’m originally from Taiwan and I’ve lived and worked in the UK for quite some time… actually next week, it would be 19 years exactly. I was trained as a designer, specialising in visual communication. When I moved to London, by chance I went on to study art at Goldsmiths and I’ve worked as a practicing artist ever since.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

Y-CW: One of the major influences is my life experience in and between Taiwan and the UK. For a long time, I try to understand Britain/Britishness – I treat it almost like an ongoing research project. I have travelled extensively and actively undertaken artist-in-residence in different regions as a way to explore local histories and meeting new people. In a way, I’m taking the opportunity to learn more about the country and trying to make up what I don’t know or I haven’t had a chance to experience previously.

Funny enough, I start to think there’s an urge for me to do similar things in Taiwan. Not only I feel like there’s a lot I need to catch up, but also to discover something completely different – because I’ve been away for so long, I would approach things quite differently now. Also with Taiwan’s colonial past and the dictatorship, only in recent years a lot of untold histories begin to merge and being talked about. It’s like getting to know Taiwan in a new way.

Quantum In Search of the Invisible catalogue, 2019 CCCB

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

Y-CW: I see my work very much focuses on research and process, experience and relationship. There’s a particular way for developing my work, which often involves a period of time spent in a specific place. I would then undertake extensive research the contextual histories and engage with a group of locally-based people or specialists who would assist my research. Two major components I’d like to explore generally: the archives and archaeology, which form the main source of inspiration for developing my work.

I have spent a lot of time in various archives going through documents, photos and footage. Often I find myself working like a historian trying to interpret documentations – it’s a form of storytelling. I am fascinated by the archival materials, as they are of the past, from another period of time, not now not my time, someone else’s memory… often in this context, the use of technology for documentation becomes particularly interesting.

Sometimes I think I work like an archaeologist exploring various heritage sites (historic landmarks, abandoned places, ruins or sites for regeneration projects…) and objects (remains in historic sites, artifacts in the museum collections, at abandoned places or junk yards…). Not necessary taking part in physical digging or excavations, but I would look for tangible evidence to further expand the missing narratives from interpreting archives.

Often I would engage with a group of people helping with my research. They’re the catalysts for me to connect to places and to unfold stories. It is important to form a relationship with the group; through repeated meetings, a lot of rich materials would naturally come out, they’re original and potentially very inspirational. I guess that’s a very important part of my practice – knowledge exchange. Through this exchange, a new network is formed for connecting people and places and telling (new) stories – that’s how I make work.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (detail) pencil on paper 2100 x 1310mm

RB: Drawing is central to your practice. How would you define your approach to drawing and its process?

Y-CW: For me, making drawing is very much about the process, various acts of accumulating, rendering, processing and reflecting. Before I make drawings, I collect a lot of images related to whatever project I’m working on, often from the archives, sometimes from my own camera. I don’t make sketches or preparatory drawings – I would just draw as if the pencil lines organically growing and spraying out on the paper. I make drawings on the table, often some part of the paper is rolled up due to the limited studio space and the size of my table. In a way it’s problematic as I’m very close to the paper and I don’t get a chance to see the entire drawing until I finish the work or when the drawing is being exhibited in the gallery. It’s a deliberate decision, as I try to condition the way I work and in the hope of opening up something that is more intuitive and less controlled.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at CCCB.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at CCCB.

RB: Can you say something about your work We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there?

Y-CW: As part of Collide International Awards (2016-18), a partnership between Arts at CERN and FACT, the piece is a direct response to my visit to CERN, conversations I had with physicists there and also the ones in Liverpool.

Inspired by 60’s Bubble Chamber experiment, my work develops a poetic narrative of the histories of recent science: establishing parallel lines between my drawing of apparatus, meetings with physicists and scientific documents found in the archives. Comprising multilayered imageries and voices, We aren’t able to prove that just yet… is a collage of history and fiction, documentation and interpretation.

Over the 2-year EU touring, the work is evolving and has been developed into multiple versions with different languages and spatial arrangements for each venue. The piece have been shown at FACT, Liverpool last year and is currently on show at CCCB, Barcelona and will later travel to iMAL, Brussels and le lieu unique, Nantes.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at FACT

RB: You’re taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

Y-CW: The experience of developing CERN-inspired project worked as a foundation for creating this new commission. I was very excited about further expanding what I was researching from quantum to cosmic, from particle physics to astrophysics, a more multi-disciplinary approach.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019

I also took part in a panel discussion together with the exhibition adviser and physicist Malcolm Fairbairn (who is also one of the scientists I have interviewed), philosopher Eleanor Knox, chaired by science presenter Helen Arney (also my collaborator, who has delivered the voice over for my piece). It was brilliant that the speakers are from very different fields and to have conversation about scientific truth and the limitation of human knowledge. When we don’t know how to answer the question, turning ourselves to thinking philosophical seems necessary and perhaps helpful.

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

Y-CW: I wrote the script using a first person’s voice as a reflection of my journey of exploring science – visiting labs, speaking to various physicists, investing scientific images and documentations. The voiceover is delivered by Helen Arney, whose performance was brilliant and humorous, absolutely animates my inner thoughts. Using wireless headphones with music and surround sound effect designed by Capitol K, I’m trying to create an intimate experience of one-to-one moment between the audience and my work. This way of storytelling also shows my approach to science: I almost become a researcher myself adapting certain scientific methods, collecting, analysing and trying to build new experiments and run tests in order to understand more and to make sense of everything.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

Y-CW: Both fields are about asking questions, exploring some unknown territories and looking for something new. These are places where no one has been to or no one knows how to get there. They definitely involve certain level of risk-taking and overcoming endless failures, and most importantly they need to be able to communicate, not just within the community, but to the general public.

In the case of art and physics, it’s interesting that both are trying to make the invisible visible and trying to see differently.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

Y-CW: I’m continuing to develop the work for Collide International Awards’ touring programme. For the exhibition in Brussels, this evolving piece will have a new life and will be presented in response to the gallery space and local audiences.

I’m working on a couple of projects inspired by the industrial heritage, such as canals in Birmingham and railway in Doncaster. I will work with local community to produce new work in response to the future urban regeneration. Another project in Taipei I will explore the relationship between art and the increasing information-driven technology and the influences on our day to day life.


All images copyright and courtesy of Yu-Chen Wang

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