Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week, I finally got a peek at the Spring syllabus for an undergraduate course I’m co-teaching. Sadly my students won’t be watching Blade Runner or reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this year. I will be teaching a session on ‘the death of the book’, though, and science fiction plays an increasingly important part in this discussion.

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© Deep Dream

Several years ago, Google released strange, surreal pictures its neural network ‘Deep Dream’ had painted from random noise. In an article entitled ‘Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep’, The Guardian described the process as follows:

What do machines dream of? New images released by Google give us one potential answer: hypnotic landscapes of buildings, fountains and bridges merging into one.

The pictures, which veer from beautiful to terrifying, were created by the company’s image recognition neural network, which has been “taught” to identify features such as buildings, animals and objects in photographs.

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© Deep Dream

They were created by feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognise a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasise the feature it recognises. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasise them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.

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© Deep Dream

Since then, Google has also launched Magenta, which aims to use ‘machine learning to create compelling art and music’. One of its first products was this computer-generated piano variation on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ (drum added later by a human):

 

And let’s not forget Aaron, the AI that’s been painting since the 1970s:

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© AARON
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© AARON

Early last year, MIT Technology Review‘s Martin Gayford looked at several of these examples of robotically generated art to try and get at the question of what makes art ‘art’ in the first place:

The unresolved questions about machine art are, first, what its potential is and, second, whether—irrespective of the quality of the work produced—it can truly be described as “creative” or “imaginative.” These are problems, profound and fascinating, that take us deep into the mysteries of human art-making.

Computers have broken into the art world, then, but what about writing? There, too, AI has been making great progress. The Verge‘s Josh Dzieza delved into the strange world of computer-generated novels back in 2014, shortly after Google released its ‘Deep Dream’ images:

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.

Some of it, like Darius Kazemi’s ‘Teens Wander Around a House’ or Michelle Fullwood’s ‘Twide and Twejudice’ I even want to read myself.

To top it all off, you have the trend of super-realist art, or human-made art that itself looks very similar to what these machines are producing. Writing about Juan Geuer’s Water in Suspense, scientist Michael Nielsen describes how this kind of art works:

Water in Suspense reveals a hidden world. We discover a rich structure immanent in the water droplet, a structure not ordinarily accessible to our senses. In this way it’s similar to the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which also reveals a hidden world. Both are examples of what I call Super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive. It’s art being used to reveal science.

Although I’m not an artist or an art critic, I find Super-realist art fascinating. Works like the Hubble Extreme Deep Field and Water in Suspense give us concrete, vivid representations of deep space and the interior structure of a water droplet. For most of us, these are usually little more than dry abstractions, remote from our understanding. By creating vivid representations, Super-realist art provides us with a new way of thinking about such phenomena.

Regardless of whether we think machines will kill art, or take it to the next level, I’m very much looking forward to bringing these kinds of questions to my first-years.

The Political Landscape

'Matalas Mountain' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Matalas Mountain’ by Jacob Pierneef

Could there be art less political than a landscape?

Despite agreeing wholeheartedly with Toni Morrison that ‘All good art is political! There is none that isn’t’, on first viewing of Jacob Pierneef’s paintings at the British Museum’s ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’ exhibition I would never have guessed that they were used in the defence of apartheid.

One online biography describes Pierneef’s influences as follows:

His early works reflect the fashions of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly pointillism and the landscapes of the Dutch masters that he was exposed to when his parents moved to the Netherlands during the Anglo-Boer War. But the most patent and lasting influence on his work was his architectural studies at Hilversum. Still, he was not European, he was African-born, and was drawn to the palette of Bushmen rock painters and the pastel shades of his beloved Highveld surrounds.

So far, so neutral, right?

'Composition in Blue' by Jacobus Pierneef
‘Composition in Blue’ by Jacobus Pierneef

Even if you don’t pick up on Pierneef’s Dutch influences, you do immediately get a sense of how quiet and empty his paintings are. This is no accident—the absence of people in Pierneef’s landscapes is a central part of his nationalist message. As Jennifer Beningfield writes in The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century:

A member of the Broerderbond from 1919, Pierneef increasingly embraced the agenda of the Afrikaner Nationalists, referring to himself as a ‘Voortrekker’ for the arts during the 1930s and 1940s. It has been argued by the art historian N.J. Coetzee that Pierneef’s landscapes are inseparable from the contemporary political agenda n which they were produced. Coetzee maintains that Pierneef’s work offers a visual means through which the veld, and in particular the landscape of the Transvaal province, could be imagined as the fatherland of the Afrikaner.

[…]

Pierneef’s success in developing a distinctive style of landscape painting which resonated with the contemporary Afrikaner cultural and political concerns meant that his paintings were collected as status symbols by those who considered themselves to be ‘true Afrikaners’ The majority of Pierneef’s wealthy patrons lived an urban existence and the paintings became almost displaced fragments of the land itself; magical totems invoking the land in its purity and stillness. Not only were the landscapes representations of remote ‘natural’ places, desired from within the confines of the city, but also they became integrated into the narration of the past, the political ambition for the future and the construction of Afrikaner identity.

In other words, Pierneef ‘didn’t celebrate South Africa’s people, he celebrated the land itself’—land that, in his view, belonged to the white Afrikaners and not to its black, native populations. As John Peffer wrote in 2003:

In Pierneef’s painting the South African landscape is cast as God’s land, and by extension the providence of His Chosen People, the Afrikaner volk. His view of Apies River, Pretoria, is one purged of any evidence of the Ndebele and other African people who were defeated by Boer commanodoes and scattered as labor onto white farms near Pretoria after 1883. Also erased from the picturesque landscape of rolling hills and bubbling stream is any hint of the city of Pretoria itself, especially the Union Buildings, which would have been an irksome reminder of British rule. Pierneef’s landscapes represent a form of idyl more extreme even than the utopic fantasies of some of his Afrikaner Nationalist colleagues. […] For Pierneef the landscape was frozen in a state of empty apartness, perpetually ready for white settlement, and timelessly open for the prospect of white prosperity.

Pierneef’s art will be joining my repertoire of teaching texts that, while seemingly neutral, can pack an intense ideological punch.

'Thorn Tree at Dusk' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Thorn Tree at Dusk’ by Jacob Pierneef

If you’re in the London area, I highly recommend ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’. It runs until 26 February 2017, and features a wide selection of South African art, from a variety of cultural and political backgrounds.

Left-Wing Populism and the Arts

© Ben Stainton
© Ben Stainton

All art is political. As Toni Morrison put it in a 2008 interview with Poets and Writers (issue 36.6):

All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS […] What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something.

If this is true (and I believe that it is), what kind of politics does the historical monster mashup represent, and how does this play out in the texts themselves? To help me answer this question, I’ve been reading up on contemporary political theory. Today’s selected readings were on populism – specifically Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008), edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, and Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (2012), edited by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. At first glance you might be wondering what the historical monster mashup could possibly have to do with populism or populist art. Surely it’s impossible for the realm of art, as a space of ‘free speech’, to conform to a populist aesthetic.

Populism in Europe and the Americas is specifically interested in whether populism should be seen as a good thing for democracy (and all its associated rights) or bad thing. First, though, it is tasked with actually defining  populism and democracy, which have both been approached from a wide number of directions. The introduction by Mudde and Kaltwasser ultimately concludes that populism can be minimally defined as an ideology

that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) or the people […]. This means that populism is in essence a form of moral politics, as the distinction between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ is first and foremost moral (i.e. pure versus corrupt), not situational (e.g. position of power), sociocultural (e.g. ethnicity, religion), or socio-economic (e.g. class). Moreover, both categories are to a certain extent ’empty signifiers’ (Laclau 1977), as it is the populists who construct the exact meanings of ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ [pp. 8-9, emphasis modified]

In other words, depending on the context and culture populism can potentially be found everywhere – among all social classes and backgrounds, and in both left-wing and right-wing politics.

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Twenty-First-Century Populism likewise opens by pointing out the frequent abuse of the term ‘populism’ in contemporary politics:

Much like Dylan Thomas’ definition of an alcoholic as ‘someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you’, the epithet ‘populist’ is often used in public debate to denigrate statements and measures  by parties and politicians which commentators or other politicians oppose. When an adversary promises to crack down on crime or lower taxes and yet increase spending on public services, it is ‘populist’. When one’s own side does so, it is dealing with the country’s problems [p. 2]

Before we can go about deciding what populism means, then, Albertazzi and McDonnell argue that we first need to account for the term’s negative connotations in politics and popular culture.

After an extensive definition of democracy (and its different facets and levels), Mudde and Kaltwasser conclude that populism is generally beneficial to a democracy when it opposes it from the outside [p.25], serving to critique the system and keep its power in check. Populism becomes most harmful to democracy when emerges from within the government, subverting the system’s own ‘checks and balances’ [p. 24] in the name of the popular majority to undermine minority rights, or for personal gain.

Neither of these books comments in any depth on the function of art in populist politics (though Twenty-First-Century Populism does contain a chapter by Gianpietro Mazzoleni on the role of the media in promoting and exploiting populist figureheads). Could historical monster mashup be categorised as populist? That will have to be a future blog post, but at the moment I’m just enjoying learning about a subject area I had never really engaged with. This week’s reading should come especially handy in the light of the American presidential elections.

‘Everything is Awesome’ is the Anthem of Our Age

So the Oscars were on over the weekend. And although The LEGO Movie may have been snubbed in the nominations for Best Animated Feature, it was very present in the evening’s rendition of ‘Everything is Awesome’, which included Oscar statuettes made out of LEGO blocks and a heavy metal interlude by Will Arnett (as Batman):

‘Everything is Awesome’ feels like the weird theme song of our times. Take this excerpt, rapped by SNL’s The Lonely Island:

Life is good, ‘cause everything’s awesome!

Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity—

more free time for my awesome community!

Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes:

It’s awesome to win, it’s awesome to lose!

Blue skies, bouncy springs, we just named

two awesome things!

A Nobel Prize, a piece of string,

you know what’s awesome? Everything!

Everything you see, think, or say is awesome!

Are they serious about handling adversity so positively? Maybe, maybe not. But in the wake of things like the credit crisis, the rapidly dwindling job market, and armed conflicts in Palestine, Syria, and Paris, these words feel at once ridiculous and right. What else can we do but handle the challenges thrown at us as best we can? Over on Vulture, LEGO Movie star Chris Pratt also weighed in on the song’s relevance to our contemporary world:

I think it follows the theme of this movie, which you think is just some Lego movie made to sell toys – and it’s actually a really subversive, interesting, thought-provoking commentary on society […] The song itself represents that, because it’s saying that everything is awesome, but it’s the anthem of this strange world that exists halfway between America and North Korea, you know what I mean? Twenty or 30 years from now, I think people will look back at ‘Everything Is Awesome’ and it’ll be more than just a cool pop song. It’s really reflective of where we are right now, and that’s what art is all about.

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‘Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.’

 

While it may seem strange to some that Pratt refers to a song from a children’s film as art, he’s put his finger on something that resonates with a lot of the theories on popular art in which I’m currently immersed. One thing I’m especially into at this moment is called metamodernism. Recently a lot of people have been speculating that postmodernism has run its course, and that something new is taking shape. What is this something, you ask? I’ll let Luke Turner explain:

[R]ather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.

Basically, modernism places us in a world that, ontologically speaking, may no longer exist, and postmodernism’s relentless deconstruction makes it epistemologically difficult to move forward. Metamodernist art (and criticism) lets us have our cake and eat it too, in ‘a kind of informed naivety’. It believes in a world that it logically knows will never come to be.

Bo Bartlett, School of the Americas, 2010, oil on board, 76 x76.”
Bo Bartlett, School of the Americas, 2010, oil on board. Originally 76 x76.” Click through for an article on metamodern art.

So what does this have to do with ‘Everything is Awesome’ and The LEGO Movie? More than you would think. Seth Abramson’s got a great article from almost exactly a year ago on how The LEGO Movie represents ‘the first unabashedly metamodern children’s film in Hollywood history’. Specifically, he talks about the simultaneously ironic and sincere impulse behind the song that swept the Oscars last weekend:

In the pre-metamodern world, these lyrics would be immediately (and rightly) received as ironic. These days, not so much. In fact, it’s impossible to tell whether the exuberance behind the song above is real or feigned, as it’s simultaneously the anthem for a repressive totalitarian state run by Lord Business and an unbearably catchy, optimistic tune the high-spirited Emmet continues to enjoy even after its sinister intentions are revealed.

Though it’s a lot to wrap your head around in practice, this pairing and blurring of the ‘real’ and the ‘feigned’ are everywhere in contemporary art. Appropriately, in a blog post over on Notes on Metamodernism, Kyle Karthauser explores the notion of ‘the awesome’ as the metamodern equivalent of the sublime:

Etymologically it gestures at the sublime through “awe,” an experience that mingles abject fear and profound ecstasy. In today’s vernacular, it denotes delight (“Hall & Oates is coming to the state fair? That’s awesome!”) And while the everyday use of “awesome” may be used to describe mundane, not-terribly-profound things, in the broadening of its definition it forces us to broaden our aesthetic understanding of the space between the sublime and the beautiful. From a classical or postmodern standpoint, there is no space between the two, and absolutely no overlap.

The entire post is well worth a read, even if you only skip through to Karthauser’s analysis of Evel Knievel as an emblem of the awesome. There’s also an interesting look at the opacity or surface-heavy quality of  the metamodern era, and the moments of revelation an encounter with these surfaces can produce:

After 30+ years of the postmodern paradigm, an experience of this sort is genuinely mind-boggling. When the dominant critical practice is that of dissolving texts into various discourses, of tracing allusions, sniffing out irony, and contemplating the terminally arbitrary nature of signification itself, you aren’t prepared for Evel Knievel. You aren’t prepared for the Star Wars Kid. When someone tattoos this permanently onto their body, your belief in irony as the be-all-end-all of enlightened cultural expression has to be shaken.

These experiences certainly don’t negate our cultural and political obligations to be informed in the long term, but they do allow us a few precious moments of naivety. They give us a break from the numbing cynicism that might otherwise threaten to overwhelm and immobilise us. Especially given the vast inundation of often-negative information with which we are continually bombarded.

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This guy is a pretty perfect example of ‘the awesome’ at work.

 

‘Everything is Awesome’ (and The LEGO Movie in general) hit a nerve in our culture because it’s simultaneously so simple and so over the top. You can read it on a number of levels – deeply and superficially, ironically and sincerely – and all of those readings would be correct. Is everything awesome? Probably not. But if we behave as though it is, we may well achieve something meaningful through that informed naivety. And we might actually enjoy ourselves in the process.

Embrace your metamodern side and listen to ‘Everything is Awesome’ here. And maybe also watch this video of hamsters eating tiny burritos.

Travis Louie and the Other Victorians

Artist Travis Louie paints some of my favourite portraits. Part Victorian photography, part monster mashup—no matter how hard I believe that his fantastical creations never actually existed, looking into their eyes I can never quite shake the feeling that they’re still out there somewhere, taking selfies and giving the paleo diet a go.