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’.[1] 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 Machine

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’.[2]

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, Antinous.

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’.[3]

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’.[4]

Fig.1. Photograph of Portrait Head of Antinous (Early 1960s).[5]

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 etymology;

‘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’.[6]

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 machine.

Fig.2. Discovery of Statue of Antinous at Delphi, 1894.[7]

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 (1999).

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).[8]

‘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’.[9]

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’.[10] 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’.[11] 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’.[12]

Fig.4.The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999).[13]

Fig.5.The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999). [14]

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’.[15]

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’.[16]

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).[17]

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).[18]

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 Berthing

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)[19] 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’.[20]

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).[21]

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, and microphones.

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’.[22]

Fig.9. Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).[23]

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’.[24]

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).[25]

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’.[26]

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).[27]

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 unanswered.

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 instinct;

‘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’.[28]

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’.[29]

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.

Human 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?’ [30]

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 for ourselves.

[1]Dick Hebdige, ‘The Trapper and the Fall: An Amnesiac’s Diary’ in Amnesiac Hide, (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005), preface.

[2]Thomas G. Chondros, Kypros Milidonis, George Vitzilaios, John Vaitsis, ‘Deus-Ex-Machina, reconstruction in the Athens theater of Dionysus’ in Mechanism and Machine Theory (Netherlands: Elsevier, September 2013), pp.172-191.

[3]Caroline Vout, ‘Biography as Fantasy, History as Image’ in Antinous: the face of the Antique (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute 2006), p.23.

[4]Marguerite Yourcenar, ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ in Antinous: the face of the Antique (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute 2006), p.13.

[5] Photograph of Portrait Head of Antinous, in Henry Geldzahler Papers (Yale: Yale University Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Early 1960s).

[6]David Roochnik, Of Art and Wisdom: Plato's Understanding of Techne (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2010), preface xi.

[7] Discovery of Statue of Antinous at Delphi, 1894 (École française d'Athènes: C.304, 1894).

[8] The Ballad of Max Jensen, still from Cremaster 2 (1999) in Cremaster 2 (Minnesota: Walker Art Center, 1999).

[9]Matthew Barney, ‘Cremaster 2 Synopsis’, 1999, <> [accessed 19/10/16]

[10] Matthew Barney, ‘Cremaster 2 Synopsis’, 1999, <> [accessed 19/10/16]

[11] Jacques Lacan, Trans. Alan Sheridan, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’ in Écrits: a Selection (London: Tavistock, 1977), p.502.

[12]Hans Ulrich Obrist and Matthew Barney, The Conversation Series 27 (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2001), p.20.

[13] Video still from Cremaster 2, dir. by Matthew Barney, (Palm Pictures, 1999).

[14] Video still from Cremaster 2, dir. by Matthew Barney, (Palm Pictures, 1999).

[15]Alexandra Keller and Frazer Ward, ‘Matthew Barney and the Paradox of the Neo-Avant-Garde Blockbuster’ in Cinema Journal, 45, No.2 (Texas: University of Texas Press, winter 2006), p.4.

[16]Lynn Brunet, ‘Homage to Freemasonry or Indictment? The Cremaster Cycle’, in Performance Art Journal, 91 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), p.98.

[17] Video still from Cremaster 2, dir. by Matthew Barney (Palm Pictures, 1999).

[18] Video still from Cremaster 2, dir. by Matthew Barney (Palm Pictures, 1999).

[19]Clarke, Arthur C., 2001: A Space Odyssey (London:  Hachette, 1968).

[20] HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. by Stanley Kubrick (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968).

[21] Video still from 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. by Stanley Kubrick (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968).

[22]René Descartes, ‘Meditations On First Philosophy’ in The Philosophical Works of Descartes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p.6.

[23] Video still from 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. by Stanley Kubrick (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968).

[24]Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science technology and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century’ in The Cybercultures Reader (London: Routledge, 2000), p.293.

[25]Video still, Human Mask, dir. by Pierre Huyghe, All images courtesy: the artist (Hauser & Wirth, London, and Anna Lena Films, Paris, 2014).

[26] Tim Morton, ‘They Are Here’ in The Nonhuman Turn, Edited by Richard Grusin (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p.189.

[27]Video still, Human Mask, dir. by Pierre Huyghe (Hauser & Wirth, London, and Anna Lena Films, Paris, 2014).

[28]Brian Massumi, ‘The Supernormal Animal’ in Documents of Contemporary Art: Animals, Edited by Filipa Ramos (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016), p.175.

[29]Andrew Russeth, ‘Pierre Huyghe: Traveller of Both Time and Space’, 18/11/14< 2014/11/18/pierre-huyghe/> [accessed 28/12/16]

[30] Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (London: Penguin, 2015).


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Benjamin Warner is a British artist based in London who has exhibited at Tate Modern, Firstsite and Leeds Art Gallery. He was one of the participating artists for the Zabludowicz Collection’s, Master Class 2020. He cut his teeth working for Jake & Dinos Chapman, Aitor Throup, Sam Belinfante, Nasir Mazhar, British Art Show 8 and Canon at London Fashion Week. Contact: Copyright © 2023 Benjamin Warner. All rights reserved.