Technological Haunting as Deus Ex-Machina
This essay is in parts. The best
way to describe these parts would be limbs. An exploration and disembodiment of
intrigue, however, by the end it could even be a disembowelment. The final
product may be a carcass of the original prospect. Think of it as a non-human
body, but the bones can be dislocated, broken and bent back into shape. A
Chimera combining methodological theories. However, I don’t intend it to be
purely iconoclastic, but use an approach that is not defecating but more
importantly, dissecting. In this instance I am the investigative controller, a
flailing but static brain controlling perception. Deus ex machina will act as a
beacon throughout my discussion. In order to present this idea, my first
example is the image of Medusa. The gift of Medusa is beauty, eternally cast
into stone with one glance. The seductress has vampiric notions; she subtracts
sight and movement and leaves you as an image of what you once were. She shifts
perception to a monstrous degree, the gift of blindness and paralysis. There is
a technological intervention at play, transfiguring the viewer from a living
organism to a static material. The connotations of petrification imply a
duality, one of transformation and another of permanence. Now use the metaphor
of Medusa and apply it to our relationship with machines. Devices add to our
lives but also subtract and multiply. The stigma attached to a post-internet
world is nihilistic and acts as a black reflection as I will explain through chosen
objects. A translation of material, vampiric in quality but has the potential
to be vacuous, a teasing escape from reality. Technology’s primary function is to
aid and enhance human tasks. This is a solitary investigation, much like the
artist in their atelier.
I am aware that there is a myriad
of critical writing and data about our current relationship with the internet,
so I am going to present a sense of detachment from the internet and suggest
that an analysis of other cybernetic machines is of equal importance. This will
be given in the theory of four objects; the image of Antinous (circa 130AD)
created by Emperor Hadrian, the use of black glass in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999), the presentation of
HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A
Space Odyssey (1968) and Pierre Huyghe’s use of costume in Human Mask (2014). These objects will be
discussed using four chapters as tools to unpick our relationship with
technology, in its most raw form.
This research project is partly
esoteric, discussed through the juncture where sculptural forms and objects act
as human interventions; I am supposing that there will be as many connections
as juxtapositions. I am seeking a counter balance between the analyses of an object
alongside its role from historical culture to contemporary art. I will investigate
the cloaking effects of objects and their invisible presence, so relevant in
our current society, as Hebdige’s observation suggests: ‘I remain very
concerned about what we are not seeing: Robert Mueller testifying before senate
committee of intelligence, Feb 16, 2005’. So what of the invisible, the hidden? By deciphering the visible actions of
objects and uncovering their veiled abilities, questions are quickly raised. How
can we recognise our world when we now spend 75% of our day staring at a
rectangle? We are all part of a network, and ontological ecology. Data and
information is now mimicking the natural world, we are playing god from the machine
and developing and or un-developing the world we live in.
1st Haunting: Myth as
As previously explained with the
Medusa myth, I am analysing the allegory to consciously unlearn its meaning to
a certain extent. In order to do this, we must analyse the social and
historical aspect of ancient Greek culture if we are to understand its
relevance in history. Unpicking this translation from myth to reality is
dependent on objects with inherent functional systems; early machines and their
connection to society.
The first tie is to deus ex machina
which dates from ancient Greece;
‘Its literal sense, “god from the machine” comes from ancient stagecraft, in which an actor playing the deity would be physically lowered by a crane-like mechanism, the mêchanê, into the stage area…using this technique to resolve the plots of tragedies, suggesting that its proper place is for staging commentaries by the gods that lie outside the actual action of the drama’.
The mêchanê augments the player to
become supernatural in appearance; the act of suspension informs the audience
that they are the direct deus ex machina. This definition has now been simplified
in filmic narrative, to mean enhancing a plot device. For example; the
protagonist returns through a miracle act and saves the world. The mechanical
device was used to physically control the player but also had a double function
as spectacle for the audience, it revolved around controlling perception en
masse. The site of the theatre in its most raw form is a processing of hyper
information. Religion and mythology were intrinsic to ancient stage craft,
displaying narrative as truth. The directing of the people was inherent to ancient
culture, in particular the Emperor Hadrian of Rome and his young Greek lover,
Returning to the material
by-product of the medusa allegory, the act of eternal petrification wasn’t only
myth. During the reign of Emperor Hadrian between 117 to 138AD, his male
concubine, a young boy named Antinous drowned under mysterious circumstances in
the Nile River. Instead of keeping his controversial relationship a secret,
Hadrian performed the opposite as Caroline Vout describes;
‘The potential power of such fantasy was harnessed almost the moment he died as the distraught emperor did far more than commemorate his loss…but encouraged his subjects to make their own visual memoria and to worship him as immortal…from then his beauty was set in stone. It was the stone that testified to his beauty’.
The material defines his beauty and
attempts to do it justice. Reborn out of Emperor Hadrian’s grief, the effigy of
Antinous would become one of the most copied figures in history. There is a stigma
attached to the ancient Greek effigy (particularly in the case of Antinous),
now most classical busts appear weathered and broken, the process of aging and
breaking seems to reflect their importance in some way. Mostly noses have been
removed due to the way heads falls onto the ground, an uncanny take on the
phrase ‘to cut off your nose to spite your face’. Their slowly eroded bodies
remind us that pain is temporary, an instance in which our body resists even
the most iconoclastic dysmorphia. The image of Antinous now disembodied and
dismembered (Fig.1) reflects, if not refracts Hadrian’s trauma. Sculpted en
masse, Antinous’ post-presence was haunting the cities and their people; they
now live with Antinous around them in their daily lives. The figures now depict
an image outside of reality, a personification of their original intention, an
image that can only be described as legend.
‘Colossal effigies seemed to offer one means of expressing the true proportions which love gives to those we cherish; I wanted those images to be enormous, like a face seen at close range, tall solemn figures, like visions and apparitions in a terrifying dream, and as overwhelming as the memory itself has remained’.
Fig.1. Photograph of Portrait Head of Antinous (Early 1960s).
As Yourcenar suggests, the ancient
Greek figure is often melancholy and powerful due to its function to
communicate. A sculpted figure is a duplicate of biology but with the sculptor’s
guidance. Through the rendition of a new
material an alias or Other is created. It acts as a nightmarish middle ground -where
the body existing in a dream resides with themes of inside and outside to
limitless fiction. The translation of Hadrian’s personal sorrow from reality to
legend embellishes masochism. Somehow, seeing the image of Antinous today seems
to exemplify Hadrian’s grief more than in his historical moment as Emperor,
stretched out like a torture device over eons. A significant step in the
existence of power is that it can define you after your death. Representative
of objects taken into the afterlife, Antinous was certainly this for Hadrian.
Attempting to create a legacy is an approach built in the shape of unbecoming
the past – in order to desperately forge the future. The mêchanê is the visible
machine that we can see, its function is on display as presentation, but what
are the visible effects of an invisible device such as power or control? The
idea of an invisible device be it torturous or not has an implicit connection
to a form of technology. As with Plato’s discussions of ‘techne’ and its
‘The ancient Greeks had little technology to boast. Yet, by having “techne” in their vocabulary they gave themselves the occasion to reflect on it and its human consequences. And their reflections ran deep, so much so that they are worth being unearthed even at this late date’.
Technology as craft in its most
primitive mode is the basis of intelligence application. The questioning of
techne does lie in its etymology, how can it be defined most accurately? The
question here isn’t to fabricate an ultimate definition, but to investigate its
function within the social constructs of Hadrian’s reign. The truest meaning of
techne has been argued as; ‘craft’, ‘art’ or ‘science’, still an incredibly
broad spectrum. The basis for techne as Plato implies is that it requires skill
and an expertise within the subjects’ field. This acquired hosting of knowledge,
that one can attain and control is the very foundation of the application of
information - what we understand today as a kind of technology. Applying understanding
to a situation in order to gain further knowledge is adaptive. Hadrian’s
quality was to manifest his power in a multitude of ways, embedding his legacy
for all to see. In reference to his handling of Antinous’ death, the request for
his people to replicate Antinous’ body at an exponential rate, allowed Hadrian
to define his own allegory. These reflections and refractions inherent to the
functioning of machines are the workings of a deus ex machina, which manifest
themselves here into Hadrian’s actions. Ordering the skilled workers and
artists to clone the figure in stone, Hadrian is exemplifying Plato’s concept
of techne as; craft, skill, art. This is ironic considering all that physically
remains are thousands of statues, busts and frescos, the very half-life of an
empire. The result is a duality where the icon can be physically present and
absent at the same time. The icons seen in their current state, now damaged,
can only be imagined in their former glory (Fig.2), detailing their actual intention
transcended from man to stone - the literal Medusa allegory. The
techne/technological element is injected through the translation of material,
sculptor and figure. This also raises connotations of Plato’s theory of forms, questioning;
who knows the object, the sculptor (who uses a physical techne) or the
philosopher? In this case, neither - it was Hadrian. According
to Plato the non-physical component is most true to life, the reality of grief
combined with knowledge application results in Hadrian creating his own
technological haunting. For he was the only one who possessed enough knowledge
of fully comprehending the direct trauma. Hadrian was a nonconformist Emperor, establishing
the foundations of his legacy through his choices – an algorithm of sorts.
The technological aspect implies
that myth as machine, invisible or not, can be programmed, cursed or manipulated.
You can become the controller of your own fate, Hadrian created his own
technological haunting through the self-inflicted efforts to immortalise
Antinous, thus creating a negative deus ex machina. The presentation of a
negative deus ex machina ultimately means that the problem cannot be resolved;
of course this was true in the circumstance of Antinous’ mysterious drowning. This
is where the line of masochism lies, Hadrian embedded his grief with what he
thought to be a generation and little did he know that Antinous would be
replicated for the rest of Antiquity.
When a haunting takes place the
circumstance is often emotive, in this instance a ghost is present in the reproduced
physicality of Antinous’ body. The
circumstance in which Antinous died both unexpectedly and tragically, adds to
the romanticism of the myth. Antinous drowned in the Nile, some
Egyptians believed that his perishing in this location would gain him
deitification, enabling him to be presented as a godly figure. A metaphysical
reading of the body floating and reflecting, retaining mass in water could not
have been more significant. As described earlier, the deus ex machina and
mêchanê produce suspension and levitation - connotations of the sublime. Hadrian
in his mourning could be the only one to truly define Antinous as god-like
through his power and status. Looking back to the ancient Greek stage, Hadrian
was in fact acting as the mêchanê, developing Antinous’ absent body into a raw preservation.
The emperor was the deus ex machina, facilitating the transformation from
flesh, blood and bone to petrification in stone. It was in fact the device of
Hadrian’s actions to canonise and replicate his lover for his people that
attributed him to a permanent state of disembodiment. Hadrian had birthed the
Medusa myth into reality, through the ability to control power with an invisible
mechanical function. Sculptors weren’t familiar with Antinous so had to
construct them in Hadrian’s image (similar to the suggestion that God made man
in his own image). In this case, Hadrian replaces God and myth and acts as
Fig.2. Discovery of Statue of Antinous at Delphi, 1894.
2nd Haunting: Black Reflection
A deus ex machina usually presents a
using of technology in order to aid mankind. It can be harnessed as a tool for assisting
man. The next intervention is Matthew Barney’s use of precise objects and
materials, specifically black glass in Cremaster
2 is a meditative behemoth of performance, mythology and absurdity. Barney
presents it in a bizarre fashion. This takes the form of an elongated scene
where a gas station attendant (Max Jensen) is looking into the car windows to
see if anyone is inside. The blacked-out veneer of the Mustang’s windows act as
a shield, obscuring all view, leaving the protagonist Gary Gilmore (played by
Barney) inside to plot the murder.
Fig.3. The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999).
‘Cremaster 2 is rendered as a gothic Western…Barney depicts Gilmore’s murder of a Mormon gas station attendant in both sculptural and dramatic forms. Inferring that Gilmore killed out of a kind of perverse longing for union with his girlfriend, Nicole Baker, he represents their relationship through two conjoined cars: the blue and white 1966 Mustangs that they coincidently both owned’.
Using the iconography of real life people,
events and objects, Barney is able to create a technological haunting through
the specificity of the objects that he has chosen. The cars become a
commemorative disembodiment of Gary Gilmore and Nicole Baker (Fig.3). The reflective
black windows of the cars mirror the pitch black sky surrounding the
illuminated petrol station, presenting the environment as a beacon. It is a
non-descript purgatorial space in the ether. The concept of the petrol station performing
as purgatory contains a duality; a weighing and balancing of truth and a space
for the cleansing of sin. Something that Gilmore would have contemplated in his
catatonic state. The site has no compass, no map, the only identification of
the location is to the direct trauma; this being the true murder of Max Jensen
in 1976. As a result of this crime and also another murder, Gilmore’s openness
to his demise is apparent as Barney describes; ‘Gilmore welcomes death,
refusing to appeal his sentence and opting for execution by firing squad, in a
literal interpretation of the Mormon belief that blood must be shed in order
for a sinner to obtain salvation’. The Mormon image of blood atonement is something that Barney fixates on later
in the film. The precursor to the murder is in fact more interesting. The
windows, opaque in quality, create a black reflection and subsequently act as a
mirror opposed to a window, at least from the outside. The black reflection
created is a deviation, an obstruction. The character Max Jensen looking into
the glass (Fig.4) is reminiscent of image recognition, a prime analysis of
Jaques Lacan discussing the mirror stage: ‘This recognition is indicated in the
illuminative mimicry of the Aha-Erlebnis,
which Khöler sees as the expression of situational apperception, an essential
stage of the act of intelligence’. A reflection on the human condition is
brought to attention, it is essential to be able to perceive oneself outside of
one’s body. The basis in intelligence here, points to the fact that our
observations and actions have consequences to the things that surround us.
Being able to combine intelligence and apply this together for a skilled use is
a cognitive use of apperception. Through apperception we can translate movement
and know the limitations of our body. Manmade reflection is one of the most
effective forms of presenting this. Changing and challenging the view from
first into third person is essential to fully recognise our bodily capabilities.
Viewing our body as a vessel can enable the viewer a new aspect of third person
analysis. This defines an alternate angle of perception, a shallow resemblance
of disembodiment, the act of being able to see your body at alternative
perspectives is a form of image recognition. The mirror, in this case black
glass, acts as a shield of confusion. It is to the character of Max Jensen, a
guard used to block sight (Fig.5), thus rendering it semi useless to the
onlooker - what is created as a result is a kind of reverse image mapping where
the viewer is looking at their own reflection, causing an analysis of one’s own
psyche. The viewer remains inside the body looking outside back at themselves, this
relationship between viewing inside and outside simultaneously shifts
perception, as movement and space change. The main emphasis here is the
simultaneity and reciprocity that is translated through the technology… a
moment where sight and body are travelling through the object. There is a sense
of ghosting at play whereby vision passes through the object. Suddenly the
viewer is transfixed and Barney’s use of such material for protection and
concealment enters an uncanny realm which is murky and vexing. A trickster,
playing up to the attributes of his inventory, materials and circumstance, it
acts as the ultimate trick to lull Jensen into a false sense of unknowing. Allowing
the trap to unfold, Gilmore is inside acting as his invisible self. At this
juncture, the game of cat and mouse seems very one sided; resulting in a
negative deus ex machina.
Barney’s process is at times puzzling and complex. A large thematic stance is
taken in Cremaster 2 depending on
place; it is described by Barney himself as, ‘it is important for that
landscape also functions as a sculptural body’.
Fig.4.The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999).
Fig.5.The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999). 
This can be said for the petrol station, an entity or character in its own right. Influenced by significant location, Barney’s practice is in every sense vast and expansive. The specificity of the locations and characters manifests into a hallucinatory set of events. It is the precision in his practice that acts as mêchanê. Scenes are depicted in minute detail and extend for what feels like a seemingly uncomfortable period of time. Murder, sex and violence seem natural almost primeval in the world of The Cremaster Cycle, creating a unique blend of fact and mythology. Alexandra Keller and Frazer Ward analyse the rituals of Barney’s practice:
‘Barney sees the success of the Cremaster project in its creation of “a family of objects”. His reference to his work as sculpture seems straightforward enough, except that during the last four decades, at least, the category of sculpture has become unstable; that category has changed from a relatively discrete, bounded, discursive object, into something altogether baggier, which is now asked to contain a whole range of practices’.
This malleability of medium is what Barney has been able to harness so well, he is able to question the status quo at all times. If sculpture has indeed become loose in its contemporary description then Cremaster 2 is incredibly effective in its strategic depiction of a meditative approach to both industry and consumerism - possibly the anti-American dream that is paradoxically a nightmare.
‘The Cremaster Cycle could be a deep and convoluted struggle with a profound sense of trauma, even an aesthetically expressed accusation of a serious crime, enacted on a grand scale, which can tell us something about systems of control’.
By cloaking the antagonist inside,
the quality of the black glass is raised in material significance through its
vital role and consequently, the plot enhancement. Barney as both artist and
player is able to perfectly convey his depiction of Gilmore’s struggle, due to
the fact that he is re-staging the narrative in his image. This split persona of Barney playing Gilmore
and Barney the artist, reflects
a duality enabling the artist to command his inventory to such a degree.
Fig.6. The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999).
A juxtaposition in materials is the
tunnel connecting the two cars in which Barney contorts his body. This
cocoon-like sculpture (Fig.6) is odd in shape and acts as a metaphorical bridge
between Gilmore and his girlfriend. It has a fleshy look, recalling images of human
tissue. The tunnel hosts Gilmore and performs as a kind of womb to his foetal
representation (Fig.7). The result of this hyper specific sculpture is a space
for the Other to harbour himself into a state of claustrophobic frenzy. The
presentation of Gilmore as a confused and frustrated individual creates an
unnerving sense of impending doom as he shuffles and pulls his body through the
cars’ interiors, while plotting his next move. This premeditated blocking of
vision ultimately foreshadows Max Jensen’s fate. Jensen is taunted by the glass
simultaneously transfixed on its anomalous quality; he carries on doing his job
and acts as a helpful and innocent worker which ultimately renders him helpless.
The trust system is broken and Gilmore uses this to his advantage. The
reflective and infinite quality of the black glass is representative to many
contemporary devices; televisions, mobile phones, computer monitors. The nature
of the black window acts as a shielding device. A device where we are not in
fact always looking in but constantly half-looking back at ourselves. A
technical veneer, designed to block any intrusion, this inversion of looking in
to seek answers is the very incarnation of existentialism. Looking into the
object of the mirror can translate as a kind of longing, forcing the viewer to question their identity and genetic
makeup. Our contemporary devices, allow us to see ourselves in a different
light and also to share everything through mass communication. While
seeking answers from within these devices, details of what it means to be human
are missed. The vampiric usage of a specifically chosen technology as a tool, like
Barney has created, can give extreme knowledge and power. Using material
technology in an intelligent way can unlock unforeseen possibilities and
opportunities–a deus ex machina.
Fig.7.The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999).
The contrast lies between object and function, all vision contains reflection and refraction of light and often within darkness our world becomes abstract. The application of the blacked out glass presented in Cremaster 2, alludes to technology as infiltration, as much as an invisibility or blindness. The result is an ultimate use of surrounding ephemera, because it is programmed in such a distinct way. This is a reworking of a previous construct, which is built for the purposes of constraint. Barney’s use of specific articles in Cremaster 2 facilitated this intervention of technology as device, honed to become a taunting screen of oddity. An artist harnessing their inventory to such effect demonstrates a commentary on image recognition - in this instance, Barney’s black reflection is a Lacanian mirror stage set to question the default.
3rd Haunting: Birthing and
From the use of technological haunting
as a tool for shielding, to the depiction and qualities of a haunted
technological embodiment, the next intervention is a birthed manifestation of a
machine playing god. The berthing of a control centre is crucial to the
strategic progression of intelligence, it permits room for improvement.
In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur
C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),
HAL 9000, the computer system on-board the Discovery One spacecraft is presented
as and transfigures its own technology. It is represented as a haunting omnipresence
that can communicate and control the spaceship at all times. HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) although having a male voice is a non-gendered, asexual machine. Machines do
not have genders as such; the film depicts HAL with a male voice, so for the
purposes of this essay, I will in part refer to HAL as a ‘he’. Presented as a
form of extreme artificial intelligence HAL describes itself;
‘The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, fool proof and incapable of error… I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can hope to do’.
The act of artificial intelligence describing itself seems somewhat ironic considering it implies a false confidence. Its description of itself is given a stance of a quantitative mind, speaking in the first person. Presenting the idea that it is incapable of error is reassuring; or is it? The viewer begins to suspect that HAL is both lying and malfunctioning. This is not the case as the astronauts learn that in fact, HAL is not malfunctioning, but he is a trickster who plots to murder them. By embodying his own (body) technology, HAL is able to shut down parts of the ships systems, creating an assemblage of sensory obstructions. The astronauts realise that if they plan their next action in the airlock (Fig.8) then HAL won’t be able to hear them, this is true, however they don’t consider HAL as having the ability to lip read - a flaw whereby an anti deus ex machina is created. HAL is projecting a feeling of safety and the trust system is bridged by a technical veneer, similar to the blacked-out glass in Cremaster 2. Both characters of Gary Gilmore and HAL 9000 are using shielding and adaptive technology to construct the advantageous upper hand. Eventually both characters meet a bitter end as a result of their own downfall. They both have ritualistic deaths one by convoluted law representative of a Mormon blood atonement and the other by an un-programming and physical shutting down. Where HAL 9000 differs from Emperor Hadrian and Barney is that he is the waking technology, he isn’t removed from it, he is not the facilitator but in reality, he is the technology itself. The extensions of HAL are the control points of the ship, having the ability to concurrently shape the next move; constantly creating a new integral catalyst, birthing a new idea - the rhizome to a tree of knowledge. HAL, not having a literal body as such, operates in the narrative as a ubiquitous monologue, a kind of panpsychist. Albeit, a megalomaniac panpsychist.
Fig.8. Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The key is in his programming and
the capability of possessing the knowledge and articulation of power. However,
he has to play a game to lure his victims in, similar to Gilmore in Cremaster 2. The luring and adherence to his masterplan
is an incredible trait that is most relevant within animals, not usually
manmade nonhumans. The most primal of instincts is to survive by any means;
natural consciousness, reactionary displacement and intelligence, collaborate
in order to allow room for adaptation. HAL spontaneously
encapsulates and engulfs the protagonists, signifying that he is both omniscient
and omnipotent. Again these qualities have direct links to a god or Supreme
Being, thus acting as a direct personification of a deus ex machina. Playing
god from within the machine itself, it is important to point out that this is
different to a third party using the machine as a tool for its own benefit. The
direct embodiment of technology is exclusive to manmade nonhumans. In part its
makeup is a technology that can only be programmed by something greater than
itself. HAL is manifested in the
narrative as an autonomous murderer through adaptive reprogramming and manipulation.
Yet having no eyes, ears or consciousness, HAL is a nonhuman automaton that is
so manipulative with his techne that he is almost as enigmatic as a conscious
being - raising questions of who is the more advanced. This evokes an ideal of
self, having and playing with the requirement of self-direction with tragic
qualities - an algorithm of on and off and right or wrong. The feigning machine
is callous in its murder plot, this predator-like quality is reminiscent of Descartian
philosophy; for he has no anatomical features (Fig.9) nor senses, only cameras,
Descartes describes a numb
unconscious figure (the demon) where the removal of senses implies an extremity
of (challenging perception) unknowing:
‘I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things’.
Fig.9. Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Descartes defining the qualities of
godliness suggests that with all the powers that a god possesses is able to alter
sensory awareness and manifest them in a transcendental way, i.e. the act of
ghosting through concealment. The depiction of HAL is a personification of deus
ex machina. He embodies the attributes of playing god from within the machine. The
‘genius malignus’ that Descartes describes contorts the facts and out of it,
creates a disillusion. To solve the puzzle is to come to a realisation of
truth. Similar to the image of Medusa’s flailing decapitated head, HAL is able
to unpick nodes from one main control centre. The head is a vessel for the
brain; the on-board computer system, the controller to the player. It is the
only part of the body that contains all of the senses working in collaboration. Descartes’ concept evokes a formulaic approach to
each sense - the removal that he lists could be mimicked in many instances.
This violent blocking of sensory intelligence in Descartes’ case seems perversely
human and instinctive, but when presented within a nonhuman, revaluation is
needed. A revaluing can in turn produce a realisation of potential. Donna
Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, describes
the point in which such nonhumans cross-over;
‘The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed…The second leaky distinction is between animal-human (organism) and machine. Pre-cybernetic machines could be haunted; there was always the spectre of a ghost in the machine’.
Haraway pointing out
pre-cybernetics is also a crucial point. In a world consumed by mass
communication the extensions of a hybrid machine revolve around interplay and
response. The responsivity of the machine
defines its flaws in communication breakdown - marking input and output analysis
as discourse. The language and temperament of HAL is of a consistent calm, disguising
the next move. The machine can’t cover its tracks so has to conform to a siren
song of sorts, convincing the astronauts that the environment is safe. This
suggestion of a silent siren song acts as an invisible camouflage, necessary
for the computer system to progress. Thinking for itself and persistently
adjusting, implies that it can think of more than itself, it can take others
into consideration giving it a human quality. This is exclusive to a fictitious
extreme artificial intelligence – and not to a microwave for example. Does this
mean that it has the ability to learn from itself? HAL is
independent and as mentioned in the description of himself, he believes that
all conscious beings should function at their full potential. HAL is in place
to make the astronauts tasks less demanding, but his obsession with
independence is what eventually forces him to believe that disposing of his colleagues is the only option. The
action of performing to the fullest is one of exhaustion and borders on
martyrdom when the sacrifice is life threatening.
Science fiction is constantly in
the realm of questioning the zeitgeist of the future, a nonhuman like Haraway
suggests, is right in the crossover of a blurred divide. If survival is a decisive
trait for both human and nonhuman conditions then we both fear a dark unknown. This
imagined void of nothingness pushes a desire of work and working, seeking a
stance of occupation and possession. Humans respond emotionally to feedback in
order to change, whereas with an extreme form of artificial intelligence, this
would be decided by itself, mistakes would be part of this process, posing a danger.
The risk of a supreme artificial intelligence developing the traits of HAL 9000
would be probable due to the machines necessity to learn independently,
combined with the amount of knowledge it possesses. This could be caused by an
overdose of pre-programming; otherwise hyper artificial intelligence may be
doomed from the start - a scenario where the creator is responsible for the
actions of their brainchild.
The arrangement of the video game
seems to suit this format of a nonhuman desire, there are stages and objectives
to complete to satisfy the audience and the players own ego. The revivification
quality of turning on and off control settings is almost godly in ability, HAL
is controlling more than himself, he is governing power on an immense level –
not dissimilar from Emperor Hadrian. Where cybernetic machines imitate the
actions of rulers and dictators, a power struggle emerges. HAL marks the
birthing of a new artificial life form and berthing of the ships systems coming
together in unison, allowing advancement. Berthing involves a creation of space
around a system to permit progress. Berthing allows alignment and precision
within the machines primary function – recurring to Plato’s definition of
techne relying on skill being the definitive factor. With the intelligence
applied this can result in an upgrade, where a modification improves. The
optimistic quality of improvement is countered by the fact that HAL is
apparently programmed to be heuristic in nature – however, we know that he is
far from this, being an evil genius. The definition of heuristic is close to
the thematic deus ex machina, problem solving. Heuristic as a trait of computer
led technology revolves around aiding mankind; man creates the machine to
complete complex tasks or to simplify them. Arthur C. Clarke’s machine is the
antagonist that will not aid man, instead it will learn to adapt and murder man
– absorbing, engulfing and deleting. The result is an iconoclastic,
anti-heuristic, genius malignus, negative deus ex machina.
4th Haunting: Nonhuman Mimesis
The final intervention I am discussing is a nonhuman mimesis contained within Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask (2014); in which a Japanese macaque wears a Noh mask in an abandoned restaurant near Fukushima (Fig.10). This strange interpretation of an anthropic monkey feels like a dream or hallucination, an instance that is so prepared yet unpredictable at the same time. The mask obscures the macaque’s sight, altering the perception of its dark surroundings. It toys with the wig in which it’s wearing, perhaps the most bizarre prop of all; this disturbing additive to the macaque’s genetic makeup acts as a crude disguise - misaligning the boundary between demented child and costumed monkey.Fig.10. Still from Human Mask (2014).
The costumed macaque becomes heteromorphic in appearance. The opposing forms of its costume create a natural vs manmade hybrid. The image rendered is juxtaposing but through intuition, the monkey’s perception analysis becomes collaboration. The face of the mask is frozen, but the macaque’s erratic movements, create a metamorphosis of horror. Reminiscent of a stage in-between transformation, this composition of monkey appears as an epitome of the uncanny. We can recognise the features and apply the knowledge to figure out what is going on. However, just like Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage, there is a bridging involved before it is clear – a momentary lapse of reason. An eerie figure of the damned inhabits the restaurant space as an explicit iconoclast - a comment on the image of terror and the reinvention of the unexpected. This is how Huyghe has curated a divination from dream to reality. It is not a being or object one would come to expect in an abandoned Fukushima restaurant - almost like Schrödinger’s cat; something that questions reasoning, time and space. Watching a nonhuman animal hybrid in this instance seems so un-natural, yet the animal is completely intact, but masked. This crude act of distorted identity has a makeshift quality due to the objects it is disguised by; mask, wig and dress. The act of masquerade draws attention to the face, but renders it static, presenting numbness. Numbness is a trait akin to stationary machines; having an ability to function without movement, something we recognise with computers not mammals. The mask like Barney’s use of black glass in Cremaster 2 shields identity but this time it is able to act as relatively normal, due to the fact it can partially see. Drawing attention to the costumed head of the monkey in a fixed expression, Huyghe references the art of Japanese Noh theatre. The monkey moves its limbs and digits in front of its face (Fig.11), focusing attention on the animal’s behavioural performance. However, when combined and assembled in its fullness, it appears alien. The macaque starts to look at itself, reconsidering, looking to see what has changed. Giving the animal a performative quality is in sorts a reprogramming; adding to the anatomy, shifts its thought process and requires reconditioning. A reconsideration of objects is provoking; Tim Morton presents an interpretation of object oriented ontology, deciphering the code of objects:
‘What is called Nature just is the reduction of things to their givenness for humans. This reduction must be policed, since it is inherently spurious and unstable. Instead we should look beyond nature, namely, beyond the beyond, to the things right in front of us, hiding in plain sight…Facts lost, facts are never what they seem to be’.
Morton is discussing the non-privileging of objects as facts; everything that exists in the world in equal measure. For this statement to be given serious consideration, we need to apply an understanding that the materiality of objects does not purely define their worth or function. The application of object oriented ontology to Human Mask would be the intervention where (objects) in this case, the costume composed of; Noh mask, wig and tailored dress, play their role. The specificity of these objects is what alludes to their wonder. The outcome is a unique assessment of human’s rule over primates, considering the closeness we share in DNA; this is why this instance appears disturbing, we can recognise so much of ourselves in the macaque’s movements and its provisional disguise. However, this is not a wild macaque; it is one born in captivity that has been trained from birth to wait tables at restaurants for entertainment. It has been reprogrammed from an early developmental stage. This is what Morton is discussing when he mentions nature’s relationship revolving around their givenness to us as humans. If humans want to fulfil their own petty desires and the opportunity is available, then they will. This abusing of hierarchy questions our ethical relationship with animals. Abject behaviour can still cause a deus ex machina, even if it is at the expense of another living organism.
Fig.11. Still from Human Mask (2014).
Moments when we see the monkey and
mask up-close are sensitive. The sometimes ghostly figure in a dark room has
connotations of an uninformed Other taking over. Comparative to a ritualistic
less sinister exorcism – unlearning and ghosting the new constraints posed by
the objects. This may seem extreme but to a mammal with a limited memory of previous
enhancement, it has to figure out a different set of rules for efficiency. An
example of similar reconditioning for humans would be the act of swimming whilst being fully clothed. It is the
same experience; recognisable but marginally different, whereby a new set of
rules need to be learned and adjusted to. However, the monkey doesn’t know the
purpose of costume or performance and an overriding of sensory perception
begins to happen and a new resolution is found. These interventions are cathartic
in their meaning; a release and homage to the physical being. The monkey is
Huyghe’s puppet but what does this ghastly symbolism mean and how does it
function when the artist isn’t a player in the direct trauma? Huyghe has
presented a negative deus ex machina; the problem isn’t resolved, but in fact
enhanced and forced into a vision estranged from reality. The viewer is left to
question, like the masquerade depicted, Human
Mask illustrates an elusive hold that is reaping questions and leaving them
The human mask is animated by a
non-human mammal. Where does the human constituent lie, in the production of
the instance or to the objects? The petrified material of the white Noh mask
projects a frozen contemplation of the face. I can’t help but be reminded of
Descartes’ description of the removal of senses; although this time the
features of the face remain intact. There is an element of protection relating
to the concealment of identity, something that appears truly obvious and
uncanny considering the anatomy of a Japanese macaque. Huyghe is playing with
the head, relating as mentioned previously to the control centre of the brain.
The rest of the monkey is natural; arms, legs, hands - no modification. Even
though the monkey is clothed, after a certain amount of time a realisation would
occur, the Aha-Erlebnis as Khöler
called it – and instinct would take control. A deus ex machina is produced
through the attempts to advance. Why is instinct so beautiful and why are we
transfixed by it? Brian Massumi highlights the awe of synchronicity produced by
‘Signal, triggering, performance, following one another in lockstep, with no second thoughts and without fail. Pure mechanism, all the more trustworthy for being unreflective. Instinct: the instrumentality of intelligence wrapped into reflex. So masterful it is in its functionality that it gives lustre to utility’.
Instinct is genetic, learned and
programmed, through a process of trial and error – survival of the fittest.
That is the defining law of nature, the organisms that adapt the most
efficiently and effectively are allowed to continue. As previously described
with computers and other manmade nonhumans, instinct can be programmed; it is
present through generational learning and evolution – mimicry of the parent. Visual
learning is precisely that, vision as opposed to invisible theory. Practicality
involves controlling a body and using the body to solve puzzles, unlike HAL,
who is static and has to manipulate others around him in order to advance. The
natural ability innate to animals is that instinct dominates over emotion. Mimesis
and simultaneity is even more advanced in animals compared to our current
machines but at what point will devices become as intelligent? If technology can
only be programmed by something greater than itself, i.e. a computer by a
human, a primate by natural evolution, then the answer is collective
intelligence. Animal groups perform with incredible cohesion, allowing them to
complete feats impossible on their own. Huyghe has developed this commentary
through the situational use of the objects as costume. Objects have a life
before and after the performance in which they are active. They can act as a relic
of the film in which they have preceded, they form a parallel mythology.
Objects can hold talismanic qualities, forming a by-product or afterbirth of
the performance. When speaking about Human
Mask, Huyghe cites that his intrigue in the work is an absence of man:
‘Drones with cameras visit the wreckage now. I got very interested in these two things - machine replacing man, animal replacing man. The film imagines what the monkey does when it is not playing the role of human. It’s nature that has lost its naturality, and there’s no way to go back. I see that as a kind of Greek tragedy’.
An anthropocentric comment on the
way humans have affected the lives and conditioning of animals and manmade
nonhumans. The remotely controlled drones access the disaster site; they substitute
the human and provide intelligence through safety. A drone films the Fukushima
ghost town, due to remaining high radiation levels, another evident event that
explores the destabilisation of our ecosystem. Meanwhile the flying machine
levitates and in this instance is acting as a mêchanê for Huyghe. It is able to
simulate a bird’s eye view, only possible to humans through technology
therefore substituting man’s position. The concept of nature losing its
naturality as Huyghe describes, is one of immense intrigue. Humanity is having
such a vast effect on the global ecology that animal and other nonhuman
organisms such as; flora and fauna, are forced to adapt to the destructive
implications that humanity has created. Huyghe referring to this consequence as
a Greek tragedy transports us back to the Greek theatre, where the mêchanê and
deus ex machina were birthed into existence. Now with Huyghe’s analysis
containing the role of tragedy in contemporary society, the Emperor Hadrian’s
creation of a technological haunting seems relatable within the constructs of
anthropocentric questioning therefore redefining what it truly means for
mankind to recondition the recognised world.
Mask feels and behaves like a purposeful curtailment. The diminution caused
by this scenario is alluring, if not hypnotic. Huyghe has created a rhetoric in
which the viewer questions their role in the world, due to the fact that there
is no conclusive answer within the work. However, his isn’t a necessity for the
film to have significant impact. The film functions almost as a mask itself,
for it is masquerading; it is a work that gives the illusion that its interest
lies in the future, hiding the fact that it is hyper-contemporary – raising
questions defining the here and now. Its reception and questioning has been reciprocal
and regurgitating, pressing the question; where does the human component start
and where will it end? If the Holocene is well and truly over, then this is the
defining question of anthropocentrism. The human ego constantly invents innovative
ideas, new actualities, we are good at looking back at ourselves because reflection
has become an intrinsic quality in the technology that we surround ourselves with.
We as humans are starting to trust devices at an exponential rate, not only how
we use them but what we store on them. Without knowing it, you are catalogued
into an algorithm of your interests by behaviour. You become part of the
machine, even when you are away from it – a form of haunting. Everything
becomes tailored and personalised but everyone is simultaneously sharing the
same experience. You are no exception.
Chimerism and a Broken Mirror
At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned
that it could be representative of limbs, hopefully now blood and veins run
through these extremities. Progressing through this investigation, it is clear
that a revivification has been applied to such esoteric instances. A revival of
a chimeric immobile form, described at the start as a prospect – now a re-animist,
fused, connected like wires in a machine. Megalomania and destruction of the
past paves way for the future. An equipping that is instinctual, containing natural
and manmade coding, supposing that if we could go back and fix something, then
we would prefer to. Throughout this investigation there has been a thematic
recurrence of reflection and refraction; I also referred to technology as
vampiric, sucking the life out of the user and into the object - this is ironic
considering one trait of a vampire is to have no reflection.
The Emperor Hadrian created a
technological haunting through the construct of his position and status.
Matthew Barney used a technological haunting as a tool, harnessing an inventory
from reality created by black glass as material device. Stanley Kubrick
depicted Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000 computer as a direct embodiment of a technological
haunting, manifesting as a literal demon as Descartes would describe. Pierre
Huyghe questioned an anthropocentric technological haunting through nonhuman
mimesis. All of these creators have crafted intervention into a complex system
of beings. A marble figure, black glass, a super computer, a costume, a drone -
all these objects belong in the realm of the uncanny, unreflective void of
intelligence - a space that at first seems shielded but gradually comes into
focus. I describe it as unreflective, this is because I am supposing that it
will not provide answers unless provoked – when caught in the correct light
however, reflection would be granted. Key to this space is that berthing is
able to take place, through adaptive, intelligent technological procedures. Only
then can progression be fully realised for the technology that exists is
harvested and created in mankind’s image:
‘We create technologies which alienate us, but the fact is that anything made by humans is a de facto expression of humanity. Technology cannot be alienating, because humans created it. Genuinely alien technologies can only be created by aliens. What we might describe as alienating is, in fact, ‘humanating’. But if technology is only a manifestation of our intrinsic humanity, is it possible to make something ultimately smarter than ourselves?’ 
Like Basar, Coupland and Obrist
suggest, nothing in our global ecology is alien as such. Only things that are not
native to our global ecology are truly alien. Technology, be it haunted or not,
is a reflection of humanity as much as our yearning for adaptability. In the
mentioned works of contemporary art, Cremaster
2 and Human Mask, the deus ex
machina functions as a strange divination rather than an absolute resolution. Barney
customises a ready-made material and changes its condition to emphasise
symbology within his imagined narrative reconstruction. Huyghe’s work creates a
deus ex machina through masquerading and scenario specificity to communicate a
dialogue of anthropocentrism. This is where deus ex machina fits into the
puzzle of art; through its god-like eminence it is able to question a new tide.
HAL 9000 contains all the traits of a haunting phantasm, staging himself as a
recognisable soliloquy, the embodiment of a negative deus ex machina. HAL
planted the ultimate seed of deceit, the well was poisoned from the moment he
described his false intentions. The irony is that he is the embodiment of
Descartes’ demon but containing no body, a perfect example due to Descartes description
of illusionary elimination of senses. As for Antinous, deitification gained him
permanence or at least concrete petrification in the way Hadrian’s translation
had cast his figure. Both deus ex machina and technology function on
reinforcement directly from a governing body; a puppeteer or god-like figure,
this body must be present to have such expansive phantasmal talents.
The end result of this chimeric body is contorted in shape, a deformity
within humanity’s reflection. The mirror is smashed, but it still reflects and
refracts the way it should do, it still performs in the same way. However,
techne still applies to the broken mirror, it was crafted after all, but cannot
be reversed nor will it be the same once mended. The scars are there, even if
the wounds appear on another party. Likening this body to a chimera at the
beginning, the result is an amalgam of instances, I didn’t know the path I
would be led down, which limb was next – but I can see that this body naturally
seeks reflection from technology. I am suggesting that the body which I have
been describing, is a chimera composed of both animal and machine.
By establishing this project as
Chimerism, a dual hybrid mutation, possessing two occurrences within the same
body of intrigue - it is, I believe, the kind of consequence that is hosted by
humankind’s obsession with itself. Deus ex machina questions our relationship
and position in the world. In the act of creating and depicting technological
hauntings, a co-dependency is constructed and a mimesis is born. Technology is
now designed to imitate nature – berthing space
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