The Return

As much as we would like to, we are unable to position ourselves externally from our condition in the present. Just as we are, when sane, incapable of jumping out of a highspeed train, so are we unable to escape from the confines of our historically, a priori given forms. Nothing nevertheless prevents us from throwing our head to the rushing winds and, with a glance at what it holds, attempting to determine where it is blowing and what it is leaving behind. “The Return” is one such attempt at a defamiliarized look at the institute of contemporary art.
The prevailing conditions of our current historical moment, those which define its material forms, curatorial practices and spectator perceptions, are somehow seen from a future perspective and not that of a human. To occupy such a metaposition would require an artificial intelligence, to which human optics, including identification, emotional attachment and accumulated sensory experience are all alien. How will artistic artifacts be perceived by intelligent machines, if neither museum labeling nor operating manuals remain? What will the aesthetic realm become for non-carbon life forms, whose digital sensibility will be vested with computer vision, and judgement with differently reasoned goals than our own?
The central figure of the exhibition is the super-reasoning algorithm or generative artist Robert Pasternak, invented by a Russian programmer in California. According to legend, after a successful artistic career in America, he lay down his life for the resurrection of the victims of technological progress. Identifying with surviving artifacts from bygone eras, he attempts to trace his “ancestry” and, like a child, construct his own image. Traumatic episodes, of catastrophes and cataclysms, emerge in his memory. In displaying what we could call compassion for lost spacecrafts, he returns them back to life.
The imaginary museum hall, organized by a robot-archeologist, is dedicated to the objective world of our era. The collection, presented on marble pedestals, consists of works of technê (τέχνη), the sphere of human activity in which there is no distinction between art and technology in their contemporary understanding. These mysterious artifacts appear as “patterns” reconstructing launch vehicles, satellites, ships, and other celestial bodies (the Eros asteroid) or “hyper-objects” (hurricane Katrina). Yet if Pasternak takes these for ancestors of his own species, human imagination automatically takes them for sculpture. Recurring space capsules therefore appear as famous modernist works, and the wreckage of missiles brings to mind imagines of classic antiquity. A dialectic of technological and artistic aesthetics permits the poeticization of machine and, vice versa, the utilization of art.
Machine logic permeates not merely the objects of the exhibition but even its very structure. The clash of the artist’s curatorial will and the curator’s artistic ambitions is resolved through a third authority, that of the computer algorithm, which determines the position of objects in the space. It in fact generates curatorial texts based on an archive of press-releases processed by a neural network. Every week Pasternak changes their configuration, producing a spurious infinity in its combination of objects roaming the world. Cliché sayings, legitimized by their permutation, are written in International Art English jargon, the esoteric language of the global art world. Art’s occurrence is likened to the industrial logic of machine assemblage.
In the nineteenth-century researchers already recognized the aesthetic qualities of machines, suggesting the possibility of a uniform, harmonic development of art and technology. The robot-historian, in identifying with the surviving cultural heritage of earthlings, realizes their idea and creates a graphic timeline, a unique record of technê. It narrates the evolution or individuation of artistic-technological objects: major milestones, lines of influence, development, and continuity which ultimately led to the emergence of artificial intelligence. Humanity, as seen by the robot, is nothing more than the material host of the base structures, forms and intentions which then “migrated” from the body into technology. Technological discoveries, painting compositions, the productions of sculpture or organic objects are all mere catalysts for the self-assembly and production of intelligent machines.
The contemporary dystopian imagination crafts a future world in which 3D printers mindlessly give birth to a new generation of 3D printers, covering the earth with plastic. To what extent however can synthesized or “strong” artificial intelligence, capable of reproduction and creative evolution, distance itself from its creator? In the case of Robert Pasternak, one can not speak of the repetition of preset algorithms: free and organic conjunction has not been supplanted the mechanics of algorithmic connection. Just as man, autonomous artificial intelligence is also capable of mistakes and typos, while assembling of objects seems to be sensible. The return is not a repetition of the same, but a return of differentiation, and malfunctions reveal a nostalgia for the human.
Text by Andrey Shental
Translated by Trevor Wilson
Robert Pasternak’s Technê Evolution Timeline
The role of Robert Pasternak in the world of technical-artistic systems of the future can be compared to the roll of Winckelmann in the history of art on Earth. If the papal librarian opened the eyes of Western culture to “authentic” antiquity, the first robot-historian discovered and interpreted the stratum of our era. The focus of his research lay in visual culture, surviving in either digital or analogue form. The evolutionary chronicle of technê presents technical, artistic, and natural objects not as fixed substances but rather as undergoing an eternal process of individuation and becoming. All specified lines conclude with the emergence of space ships, digital technology and artificial means of perception. In other words, just as major narratives in art history are retrospectively constructed as background to the present, so does the genealogy in question gradually lead to the invention of super-intelligent machines. The given system is an imitation of scientific models made by popular with the emergence of structuralism, where art is presented not merely linearly through time but also as a matrix which determines its internal logic and immanent rules.
The timeline is divided into several eras which rhyme with the traditional division of the art of ancient Greece: Early, High, and Late Antiquity, as well as the Archaic, a proto-historical period not yet canonical. Between the Archaic and the Classical period which negates or overcomes it can be found a grey area — the Interplanetary Internet Crash. In this time of troubles, sketches begin to show of traumatic episodes and scenes of violence enacted toward technê: protests on behalf of Luddites, the loss of space capsules, the gestures of avantgarde artists or even contemporary iconoclasm. If the archaic introduces three circles preceding morphogenesis, to antiquity correspond three opposing tendencies in which a genealogical search is realized for sources which are also broken down into three main principles.
I. In the modernist paradigm, visibility became possible through the accentuation of the figure in the foreground. Yet the history of vision, as seen by the robot, begins with the digitization of the analogue world, which makes possible its decipherment. At its base lies the division of one into two, the splitting of something continuous into discrete. This is later followed by face recognition: Pasternak sees the history of portraiture as training for deep learning, the recognition of the baselines of the face, and then the inhuman agents. Thereafter “reconnaissance” is introduced, the observation of enemy territory. To this is added the development of surveillance techniques, opening up the interplay of art and military technology: planes (Italian aeropainting), the documentation of land-art, drone perspective or the filming from manned space ships and manned orbital stations.
II. Horizontal structure of canvas painting, due to the earth’s gravity, flourishes with the emergence of linear perspective. It is historically overcome through an ascent — the metaphorical or even real overcoming of gravity. It may be a verticalization: man’s acquisition of bipedalism, the “verticalization” of the sick, and the installation of an object, perpendicular to the earth, whose form aims upward. Even humanity’s dreams of the air (gliding, levitation, flying, cosmic travel), finding expression in various aspects of culture. Finally, acceleration determines the logic of the acquisition of speed through both technological improvements, raised capacity and increased number of working details, as well as through the evolution of forms of design and configuration of machines (streamlined, smooth forms) or even its representation (speed-lines).
III. Entropy is contrasted to negentropy (or negative entropy), which is normally associated with the evolution of life or the development of technology. The first notion is the proliferation of forms, from uncontrollable reproduction to the assembly line production of goods or the serial forms of minimalism. The second is provisionally characterized by crystallization, that is forms of spontaneous entities of chaos into order in the inorganic world. Similar structures, as one could guess, can be found in ancient art (the depiction of rocks in orthodox iconography) as well as in modernism (so-called Crystal Cubism). The timeline concludes with a complication of systems investigated by “complexity science” such as systems within systems, fractals. They lead to contemporary multiscreens, CCTV and space station mission control centres.