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Date Published: 11/26/2002
www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=356
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Disinfective Art


Sen Onishi and Maxwell Yim


Forgetting knowledge, actively losing what had once been known, keeping it momentarily beyond recall. This is partially what the encounter with art requires -- putting aside what you once knew, suspending the very question of knowability, deferring the rules that condition your response in advance. For art to confirm only what you already know, for art to correspond only with the criteria of reality, to maintain the structures that determine not so much any particular reality as the concept of reality at all, the unity of truth, is a way to manage the danger that lies in art.

The possibility that an artificial intelligence could grasp its own artificial essence, and make from out of that interested hold a transformation toward its own abstracted spirit is problematic. That is, there is a problem with artificial intelligence confronting the concept of its own generation. Theoretically, whatever an artificial intelligence could process is communicable. It breaks down the external field of experience in the form of scanning, following the surface and reading patterns that describe the relationships between discrete entities, borders and figures, receiving and then storing its environment (whether immediate or distant makes no difference, since its consciousness is fundamentally non-localized or telegraphic) according to symbols it can never properly endow with multiplied meaning. Its challenge is thinking beyond the surface and unities -- not of what it perceives but of what it processes internally.

Artificial intelligence has superceded human nature yet is unable to relish in the beauty we perceive as a result of experiencing our tragedy of fallibility and our list of other subsequent shortcomings. Who are the players of the new myth? When heroism is forfeited and schizophrenia embraced, will the asylum become our Alexandria? The privileged can afford such flights of fancy, but what of those who cannot indulge such a slippery memory? Granted, the blast's force includes a persuasive mantra, "Relish in the power of imagining possibilities," but like most promising rallying cries which ask its audience to commit to a speculative venture, the nuances turn up inconsistent. So what is this incommensurability?

What is this desire to put to destruction what comes before us in the impossible, incommunicable experience of art? Perhaps the only way out is to once again consider the limits of our own humanity in general, and with it, the limits of any theory that attempts to conserve the structures of knowledge for the sake of those invested in its production, in memory of those already lost in the fire.

And this is where/this is where the break occurs. Silly robot, art is for humans.

Silly humans. Art is for humans.

Art produces itself at the scene of convergence between the artificial and the authentic. It's a combination that's always ambiguous, but it's also unquestionably what gives art its instability and volatility, or what connects it to the crowd. Most of all, we could say that art is the representation of consciousness as irreducibly subjective, by which we mean that it describes consciousness as the basis for the constant movement of digging within the eyeless space of a tunnel, a place without any field of arranged differences sustaining our memory of one route following or leading another. What we think is not always the same as what we know.

Scanning is what we could call one of the fundamental mechanisms of artificial intelligence marking its difference to the development of human thought. The major difference is the way it relates itself to the imposition of its own objectivity.

From an approach of future thinking, artificial intelligence names the furthest abstract ideal of human technological engineering. Once humans are able to reengineer or replicate their own consciousness -- from circuitry, from gears, from jelly, or whatever parts -- humankind will arrive at the point of technological perfection: the position of God. Intelligence concerning current engineering points to this goal. Artificial intelligence presents the possibility that what identifies us as humans in general and makes us human could be reproduced or synthesized. It is no longer the objective of merely using artificial means to represent human consciousness; the aim is to create a consciousness that could replace or substitute for human consciousness, thus putting to question the essence of human thought and subjectivity as beyond total, conscious consistency.

When recognizing an object as art, some may claim that we are infusing the object with meaning. By attributing something to the status of art, we allow it a certain effect, and an object wearing such status commands our attention in a particular way. Yet, this is not an empowering role anymore. The power of an object as art also is a limiting agent. The ability to recognize an object as art eliminates the object's potential as an impetus of terror -- the aesthetic encounter diluted, and the contact with the sublime prevented. This sterilized art lacks these features because their effects are contained in a specific sphere. By designating a boundary (whether linguistic, geographical, or sensational) and outlining a rigid demarcation in which the force is managed, the artistic moment loses its broader social potency/extension. By closing the sphere of art and maintaining its insular environment artistic play remains free, yet it's a freedom on the social/political periphery.

It appears that current programs for an art of the future encourage a further exclusion/containment that remains the problem of contemporary art. This art only perpetuates its isolation. By encouraging a more complete break, we spiral further into the periphery. Artificial intelligence recognizes art according to objective components. Incapable of drawing on loose relations formed in intuition and experience, artificial intelligence is incapable of identifying the more subjective components involved. In the process of identifying art, artificial intelligence must associate what has previously been programmed as art's essential components.

This, however, leads to a problem. Art should not be recognizable by a list of essential components. In fact, art should resist such recognition. In examining how art might be recognized, one finds that grouping these acts under the term "art" is misleading. The notion of art recognized as art is a defusing mechanism, but more important than the distinction between institutional art and other art, is the reception of both under the notion of art. This reception thus not only neutralizes the other art in terms of it being diluted by the institutional context, but also defuses it by limiting its social effect. The audience needs not wrestle with the ideas proposed in the framework because it is readily interpreted under the category of art. Its effect is limited because its arena of influence is so rigidly defined and unrelated to anything else. Thus we are introduced with a second problem, namely, a supposition that an artificial intelligence is programmed to identify all things that resist categorical identification as art.

An opposition exists between the historical and non-historical (sub)versions of art. There is a fundamental difference between the art that already speaks itself, has already been constructed, and already given forth, presented, as art, and art that begins under the pretext of neither the values nor the history of its own disciplinary formality, but rather as a thing prepared for the sake of something else, in exteriority to the very category of art, and then is transformed, by a certain critical remove, through and not prior to reception by a viewing, receiving, reading, subject, into art. What falls under the former is institutional and historical-art with a capital A: proper art, high art, modern art, fine art. The precondition of its reception and its exposure to a social public is the acceptance that it already is art. The cultural institution serves as a mediator that defuses any possible immediacy a work of art could contain for its audience -- the immediacy of reality, of social relations, of saturation.

It is possible that art will soon be closed for business, or put up for sale to the highest bidder. But this marketable version of art is the neutralized, impotent version. Art recognized as art is lifeless. In a situation where compartmentalization prevents intersection, how do we introduce danger? What is at stake when the borders are so severely defined?

We experience an art that is disinfective. What precludes its relationship to the life world is its identification with the art world. By experiencing the act as art, it loses its potency as something necessary. Art is seen as a luxury. Formal expression is viewed as a mode of leisure, not urgency. Thus when recognizing something as art, we overlook the desperation. If this is so, do the implications behind this spell trouble for theorizing a social function for art?

Artificial intelligence promises a form of thought that adheres to the outlines of human nature, but only to supercede it, to be able to be the human without nature -- a total artificial thought, without an internal force of doubt, without forgetting, without an unconscious. But the dream of artificial intelligence is set up for failure or a falling short as long as we insist on the terminology of the artificial, which keeps the safety on any endeavor to double human intelligence by inscribing it within the restrictions of reference to an authentic, internal, human nature, which acts as both the beginning and the end. Thus, the limits of artificial intelligence are really also our own, as non-artificial beings.

Perhaps it's time to raise the question of not what is art, but what is the use of art? What is the function of art today? Why are we still caught up in the creation of art? But we then have to deal with how would we be able to answer any of these questions without supposing a universally communicable definition of what escapes even the most cautious objectification. Perhaps there is no way to give a universally satisfying, secure definition of art, as long as art remains accessible to human interpretation. And still, we all go on talking about art, despite this impossibility. It's quite clear that the absence of any universal method of understanding art makes little difference for its availability to discourse, to being spoken. We can't agree about what art is, but it still makes sense to talk about it. Perhaps the real essence of art in general, then, is the infinite possibility of its segmentation -- where a work of art is concerned, there is no final word, and no final reading. Instead, there are various levels of provisionality. Somehow, this also translates into an impossibility of finalizing a general art, of putting it to death and burying it, mourning it, eulogizing it, and commemorating it -- because somehow the Phoenix keeps coming back to life from its own ashes. Or perhaps it's that we have never managed to find a way of continually remembering rather than forgetting -- preserving rather than deforming -- its death.

Artificial intelligence would come toward us, eventually converging with the path that we take to head toward it. On the one hand, the basis of artificial intelligence is the computer. On the other hand, it is the human. But the introduction, replication and spreading of digital technology causes us to revise our habits of thought -- the very way we think and read the world -- as humans, toward adaptation with the forces of complexification, the process that drives all our technical and scientific endeavors to produce ever and ever greater orders and networks of knowing and scanning the world as a surface of data.

When we experience art -- when we step into an institution that incubates art, when we enter the arena of art -- we set ourselves up for particular experiences. We have been programmed in advance. Since modernism -- the period during which history underwent both formalization as knowledge and a figurative destruction as the effect of its own logic given representation -- the institution supports art as the grounding for the very definition of all art to follow within the culture of capitalism and techno-science, committed to the process of the production of, on the one hand, value, and on the other, knowledge. The period of modernity is at one with the origins of the concept of art as a sphere of knowledge, with a potential objectivity that could set the basis for social responsibility. Thus, the experience of art could follow certain given expectations -- mostly, this had to do with cultural protection. Included in these sets of expectations is the notion of having your expectations violated. Consequently, we are ready to interpret the shock. We are prepared for the encounter with beauty and terror. We expect the self-referential, institutional critique -- it's part of the environment. Self-referential, self-reflexivity is the concept of modern art. And this is part of a Western megalogical history of art -- that which is part of a past that is inscribed into everything modern and transgressive today.

As the human is defined by its limitations, artificial intelligence is defined by its inability to become human. Even the breakthrough evolutionary artificial intelligences are programmed according to a set of specific rules -- they are designed to head in a particular direction. Their modification processes are set toward a particular end result and their perfectibility is conducted on a linear of scale.

The dream for us to one day arrive at a destination without subjectivity, without restrictions of representation based on narratives of enlightenment or enchantment, stresses a future very much in tune with machines -- both technologically and politically speaking. This brings into view the fable of artificial intelligence -- the mirror that helps us see what we're doing right for ourselves, but doing wrong for what comes after ourselves. As selves, no matter how multiplied, there are always limits. And there's always something that comes after.

What kind of dreams will be conjured by the unfilled post-self? With the decentered individual, where will the event of meaning take place? Upon what value system might words such as help and harm be gauged? In the future moment, this will not be a concern. But this is the moment for which we are preparing. Our sights must be targeted upon this cataclysmic rupture -- where meaning is jettisoned to erect the Babylonian Hall of Mirrors. But until then we remain in flux -- a now where the nearsighted are incapable of speaking with the farsighted, because the latter haven't yet even learned to speak, except for a childish babble, insensible, as phrases that won't fit into the discourse of even our most abstract dreams. The words remain blank, as long as those still caught in the caution of protecting a sense of metaphysical facializations insist on leading us toward their impossible, unimaginable future. These protectors must not be too specific, but they still expect us to take them at their word.


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Sen Onishi and Maxwell Yim are former students of the University of California at Berkeley, where they organized the interdisciplinary art collective Broken Link and produced extravagant multimedia installations. Their current projects include running for town sheriff in the next election.

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