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Artificial Life: a hard call

Liminal Product*

*Liminal Product is a business enterprise comprising Frances Dyson and Douglas Kahn

Michelle Barker, Praeturnatural, CD-ROM Michelle Barker, Praeturnatural, CD-ROM
Artificial Life was the theme of futureScreen00, curated by Leah Grycewicz and organised by dLux media arts, in collaboration with The Powerhouse Museum, Australian Centre for Photography and Artspace. A 3-day symposium and a series of exhibitions, Artificial Life: Hard/Soft/Wet explored, manifested, challenged and sometimes confused the discourse and scientific/technological/artistic practice of artificial life (a-life).

To begin at the beginning, which in this case is a very confused point, Chris Langton, professed ‘founder’ of artificial life, gave a “Millennium Retrospective” of a-life in which human evolution moves inexorably from microbial organisms towards virtuality and artificial life, propelled by technological development and cultural evolution. Inversions are common in this scenario; the map becomes the territory, the code (be it genetic or computational) is independent of the medium or host, natural life is superseded by the next hierarchical level of organization, which happens to be ‘artificial life.’ Despite the hair-raising simplifications Langton managed to pull out of some fairytale hat, his examples gave a good historical footing and his ‘retrospective’ a fairly clear map of the conceptual field, including complexity theory, emergence and evolution.

The next paper cut through some of the conceptual quagmire Langton’s ideas had generated, by outlining the relevance of a-life for artists. In “Metacreation: Artists Using Artificial Life”, Mitchell Whitelaw identified “meta-creation”—or the making of a creative process, rather than a work in itself—as one of the key characteristics of a-life art. Whitelaw surveyed a range of artistic approaches, discussing works using artificial evolution and genetic algorithms to “breed” images; interactive ecologies (such as Jon McCormack’s Eden, concurrently exhibited at Casula Powerhouse) and artworks generated by cellular automata, of which Ima Traveller by Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen (exhibited at Artspace as part of the event) is exemplary, both for its technique and for “re-engineering a-life science in both artistic and conceptual ways.” Ima Traveller, with its continuous zoom towards a landscape or object that is never reached, invokes the vertigo of perpetual specular journeying and speculation. As the “landing” is infinitely deferred, the beauty of the images and the seductive pull of the zoom develop uneasiness. Moving forward (think progress) becomes hyperbolic and fatal. Zooming quickly becomes falling; the inability to land becomes the impossibility of stopping.

This sense of being on some kind of juggernaut towards the immaterial was echoed in Jon McCormack’s presentation “(Re)Designing Nature.” Making the fundamental point that “nature is boundless while the artificial requires a container”, McCormack cautioned against replacing biological evolution with technological evolution, as this involves a redefinition of life in terms of the product of mechanisms rather than any particular materialisations. In that respect it is synthetic and reductionist. Crucially, McCormack discussed the anthropomorphism and supervenience integral to a-life rhetoric. While it’s common to project biological behaviors such as mating or eating or dying onto a-life creatures on the screen really, he stresses, we’re only looking at pixels, representations rather than organisms.

While a-life enthusiasts often like to present their creations as cute, lovable, evolving little entities, the uglier side of all this code rarely rates a mention. Michelle Barker’s beautiful and very powerful Praeturnatural, exhibited at ACP, opens up the monstrous as a dimension of scientific discourse, biotech and genetic engineering. Both this artwork and her symposium presentation “Digital Physicalities” revealed the kind of ‘distortions’ of supposedly rational systems (such as a-life and genetics) that develop under the weight of reductionism on the one hand, and market forces on the other. The preference for code over content, form over matter, creates a closed system that can hardly replicate the openness of life processes. These, Barker argued, have an essential relation to time, space and environment, factors that produce variation, difference, mutation and evolution. Similarly, the elimination of ‘defects’ in the human form is deeply influenced by consumer prejudices, a point well made in Praeternatural, when a semi-fictional survey asks a series of questions that elicit contradictory responses (in a test case, GMO foods were unacceptable, but the genetic manipulation of embryos didn’t raise an eyebrow).

Barker identified important beliefs that shape the discourses of a-life and genetics: that living organisms are kind of machines, that code is independent of and superior to the medium in which it is housed, and that genetic makeup and evolutionary imperatives supersede both the environment and individual responsibility. These were elaborated in Professor Lesley Johnson’s paper “The so called ‘Book of Life’ and what it means for humans and animals.” Johnson made a number of important connections between new evolutionary psychology and genetic research which, for instance, has allowed researchers to argue that core personality traits, IQ, sexual preference, race and ‘characteristics’ like homelessness, are genetically determined. As such, they are beyond questions of social justice or responsibility and may ultimately be manipulated through gene therapy. Equating living organisms with machines is part of a process of redefining life to suit certain interests, a dumbing down that loses sight of the different levels of organization of living systems and their incomparable complexity. “Molecular explanations for human organisation and culture,” she argues “turn the eyes of society away from political seeing it inside the individual’s biology.”

Johnson began her paper with the observation that the unravelling of the Genome has been reported with references to “the code of codes”, the “book of life” and “reading the mind of God.” The religiosity of biotech and a-life was emphasised by Steve Kurtz, from Critical Art Ensemble (US). Kurtz’s interest in a-life and biotech has a lot to do with the ideological crises that both are provoking. Nature, he stressed, “is our primary legitimiser, a metanarrative of how we know what’s good and what we think we should do.” Its technological redesign has created a mass of contradictions that provide fertile ground for artists. For instance, transgenics transgresses the ‘like must be with like’ law that has dominated the notion of species intermingling, and allowed capitalism to deem separations based on class, race or gender, as ‘natural.’ A ‘double think’ is now necessary as capitalism sees wonderful opportunities to control food resources at the molecular level. Similar contradictions haunt notions of progress and technological development as the material abundance, increased leisure time and great convenience technology has promised fails to materialize. So, Kurtz asks, “what’s happening with the various pitch cycles? Well there’s only one rhetoric left and it’s Christian, and right now, it doesn’t have such a bad reputation.”

By far the most provocative moment in the symposium resulted from an entirely different order of emergence than the one being discussed. Tom Ray’s remote presentation “A Wildlife Reserve in Cyberspace” was divided into 2 distinct parts. The first was a eulogy for the absolute immateriality of cyberspace and virtual being; the second was, in contradiction, devoted to his project to develop an artificial “wilderness” in cyberspace. With great enthusiasm, Ray demonstrated how the different “species” would “breed”, how their DNA would couple and multiply, how evolution would work its way through this global artificial system. In response to heavy criticisms from the audience that he was too liberally borrowing metaphors from the biological sciences to represent his computer simulations, Ray answered that he was “interested in evolution, regardless of the medium, whether it’s digital or biological.” But although evolution might be the new progress or the mega-code, it is not, apparently, a speakable word in the state of Oklahoma, from where Ray was broadcasting. Mention of this fact immediately grounded Ray’s discourse of immateriality in a particular locale while, coincidentally, the interruption of his tele-cast by a hurricane warning, grounded it in time. This particular space-time turned out to be a hurricane prone, fundamentalist Christian, creationist preaching state in a part of the US that is probably uninsurable due to the effects of climate change. If Ray’s presentation showed how close evangelism—either Christian or techno—is to this area, it also reveals the extent to which religious fundamentalism and the reality of another non-linear system, global warming, is shaping the discourse in entirely unexpected, non-rational, non-linear, emergent, but scarcely artificial ways.

FutureScreen 00: Hard/Soft/Wet Artificial Life, Symposium, Powerhouse Musuem, Oct 27-29; Exhibition, Artspace, October 5-28; Exhibition, ustralian Centre for Photograph Oct 20-Nov 19, 2000.

*Liminal Product is a business enterprise comprising Frances Dyson and Douglas Kahn

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 21

© Liminal Product; for permission to reproduce apply to

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