I stopped in at the “Systematic” exhibit now on at the Project 176 in London and received a tour by two of the gallery assistants, David Angus and Chloe Cooper. The exhibit, curated by Ellen Mara De Wachter, confronts the question of the place of the human being and the role of the artist at a time when individuals and humans are being subsumed by rational, social, and scientific systems. Featuring 18 works by 8 artists, the exhibit raises the fundamental question of our time: what does it mean to be human in an increasingly inhuman age?
The works on display in “Systematic” provoke principally because they enthusiastically embrace the utopian optimism that underlies the thinking of prophets of singularity from Ray Kurzweil to Sergey Brin. The premise of the exhibit is the power of systems over individuals. As De Wachter writes in her essay that accompanies the exhibit, the system today represents the
emergent properties ‘of the combination as a whole—which are more than the sum of its individual parts.’
The artists in “Systematic” produce works that abandon themselves to systems that operate beyond the awareness or control of human intelligence.
Justin Beal offers glass and dry-wall tables that incorporate rotting fruit into their joints. The fruit rots and attracts insects, molds, and fungi that alter the “artwork” in ways that are outside of artistic control. For De Wachter, Beal “celebrates the unpredictability and undecidability that befall all works of art once they leave the artist’s hands.” The key word here is “celebrates.” For Beal, as for many in the artistic and technological worlds today, the power of the system over the individual is to be welcomed.
Katie Paterson’s “Earth-Moon-Earth” partakes in a similar bow to the power of systems. Paterson translates Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into morse code, beams it to the moon, and receives it back upon its reflection. She then translates the returned code into musical notes, with all the losses, transpositions, and gaps left in. This new sonata is then played and the spectator can listen to the new sonata played on vinyl through headphones in the gallery.
For De Wachter, artists like Beal and Paterson—and the other artists on exhibit—work by “surrendering a certain amount of control to the systems” with which they interact. In doing so, “these artists admit that the artworks they produce have a life of their own, and a life beyond the studio in which they were made.”
The language of artistic surrender is reminiscent of an older artistic ideal and also eerily different. Artists of the pre-modern and classic ages were often anonymous. The artistic ideal was to serve simply as a medium through which the divine truth flowed and manifested itself in the world as a work of art. The artist, bemused by his muse, lost himself in rapture and gave himself over to the fashioning of a work in which the truth came to stand in the world. Opposed to this tradition of the artist as medium is the ideal of artistic genius, the artist who composes works from the productive brilliance of his own mind.
In Systematic, the artists abandon control not to a divine, rational, or meaningful truth, but to the random, unpredictable, and meaningless systems of growth and decay, chance and circumstance. The celebration of this powerlessness is, I think, undoubtedly the result of a new faith that has swept up much of the artistic and technological intelligentsia today: the faith in an intelligent universe that goes by the popular name, The Singularity.
The Singularity, as Ray Kurzweil has popularized it, is the hope that humans and machines will merge into a new species that will be governed by super-rational and super-intelligent knowledge. As Kurzweil says:
Once nonbiological intelligence gets a foothold in the human brain (this has already started with computerized neural implants), the machine intelligence in our brains will grow exponentially (as it has been doing all along), at least doubling in power each year. Ultimately, the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe.
In the Singularity, knowledge that is inaccessible to the human brain, a system of all systems, will inaugurate a harmonious existence amongst man-machines and the natural world.
What needs to be remembered amidst this technological utopianism is that the singularity means the death of humanity. The super-intelligent consciousness is not something accessible by mere humans who live and die in mortal timelines. This is why there is a persistent anti-humanism in artistic and technological avant garde circles.
The celebratory anti-humanism exhibited inSystmatic is, of course, ambiguous. These artists claim at once to be celebrating systems and also pointing to their limits and dangers. The glass solitude booths in Damian Hirst’s “Sometimes I Avoid People” are, as De Wachter notes, reminiscent of cases at a natural history museum. In this early work from 1991, Hirst, in a way others in the exhibition do not, points to the dark side of the elevation of systems over humanity.
Above all, the exhibition reminded me of what Hannah Arendt calls Earth Alienation. The great event that inaugurates earth alienation is Galileo’s discovery of the telescope. While the telescope symbolizes the power of sense perception to see what had previously been invisible, it also challenges the adequacy of our human senses to make sense of the world. What the telescope shows us is not reality. It is not the earth or the moon or the stars. Similarly, social science does not show us individuals and persons. The scientific perspective views persons and objects as seen through systems and instruments and, as Sir Arthur Eddington wrote, the things we see have as much resemblance to their appearance in our instruments as a “telephone number to a subscriber.”
Science, for Arendt, is both anti-human and anti-earth. It is anti-earth, she writes, because
in physics—whether we release energy processes that ordinarily go on only in the sun, or attempt to initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, or penetrate with the help of telescopes the cosmic space to a limit of two and even six billion light years, or build machines for the production and control of energies unknown in the household of earthly nature, or attain speeds in atomic accelerators which approach the speed of light, or produce elements not to be found in nature, or disperse radioactive particles, created by us through the use of cosmic radiation, on the earth—we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth. And even at the risk of endangering the natural life process we expose the earth to universal, cosmic forces alien to nature’s household.
And science is anti-human:
[The humanist] view of man is even more alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat—the earth, together with earthbound laws—is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe. Surely the scientist cannot permit himself to ask: What consequences will the result of my investigations have for the stature of man? It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such anthropocentric, that is, truly humanistic, concerns.
The scientist cannot ask the question of whether science dehumanizes man. The scientist also cannot ask the question of whether science alienates man from the earth and his life on earth. The scientist can’t ask such questions because the scientific perspective is the universal, not the particular. It is to ask from an Archimedean point divorced from all reality. That is why the scientist speaks in no earthly language, but in the pure language of mathematics.
The scientist reasons, Arendt writes. He or she seeks to reveal the hidden causes of the universe. But the scientist does not think, does not ask whether such knowledge is good or bad.
But what of the artist? What struck me in Systematic was just how fully the artists today have given themselves over to a celebration of the scientific-technological world and its values. I value their art as a mark of the power of that discourse to shape contemporary thought. But I wonder: why have artists have followed scientists in celebrating the anti-human power of technology?
The question of art’s response to the power of systems and science is at the forefront of Human Being in an Inhuman Age, the Arendt Center’s October 2010 conference that explores the fate of humanity in an inhuman age. The conference features Ann Lauterbach, Nicholson Baker, Wyatt Mason, Gilles Peress, David Rothenberg on the question: “Is Art Human? The Fate of Art in the Age of Machines.”
The Zabludowicz Collection, London.