Published on October 28th, 2013 | by Chris Campbell1
This Work is Not For Us. It is For the Future. And Robots.
Computers will outlast their makers. Technology will supplant humanity. And craft should follow suit, divulges artist Ashley Zelinskie, a 3-D printer creating artwork that both a person and a computer can appreciate.
Reverse Abstraction in US Embassy in Saudi Arabia. (All photos unless credited otherwise are by Ashley Zelinskie)
Golden Ratio – 3d printed gold plated steel.
Zelinskie works off the premise that we are bound by a duty to pass culture forward – a duty humanity has fulfilled since we first blipped onto the cosmic radar.
However, in this wildly evolving techno-age we’ve reached a fascinating juncture where communicating our vast artistic and social history means transmitting it to unknown, unimaginable and unspecified replacements (robots?).
“Today, rigorous science and pure math maintain unbridled influence over technology – as such, our digital heirs are slated to inherit nuanced programming and breathtaking technical specifications,” asserts Zelinskie.
“Yet we would render a profound disservice by stopping at numeracy and wire: if the Earth need be handed over to machines, we must prepare them not only to be accurate and efficient, but also cultured. Robots need magic,” reveals Rhode Island School of Design grad Zelinskie.
Humans and computers perceive the world through different languages, what is concrete for one is abstract for the other. So how can this gap be bridged? The answers swim in the following deliciously peculiar Q&A I had with Zelinskie.
Binary code is the furthest from abstraction a computer can be.
CC: When you go to thesaurus.com and enter ‘computer’, one of the resulting synonyms is brain. Are these two truly synonyms?
AZ: Yes. ‘Computers’ were, in the earliest meaning of the word, people that did computations. Our understanding of processors, ones and zeros, and all that, is a far more recent vintage.
CC: It is an intriguingly peculiar undertaking to make art that both a human and a computer can appreciate. To what extent have you ventured to get inside a computer’s brain?
AZ: “You can only go so far into the mind of a computer. I try to fully immerse myself in the latest technology, especially the kind that seems to augment the human experience. I have been beta testing Google Glass and I have played around with the Oculus Rift. These are the more physical forms of putting yourself into the shoes of a computer.”
“But, as far as really knowing what is going on inside the ‘brain’ of a computer, you have to look at the processors – the constant flow of on and off. Language is as good an entry point as any for that kind of thinking. That is why I have chosen the medium of hexadecimal code for my sculptures. It is the closest I can get to processing language without using binary code, which is impossibly long. I would like to fit complete and coherent binary on a piece at some point.
“That is what is so great about the work. It is an exploration of what art and technology can be. There are no rules, only discoveries. It is a great privilege to be experimenting at the cutting edge of discovery.”
CC: Let’s pretend a skeptical person with zero belief in the life of the inanimate unloads the following barrage of questioning: in what ways are computers more than solely superfast calculating machines? How do computers respond to art? How close do computers come to being joyful machines? In what ways are they capable of amusement?
How do you respond?
AZ: Amusement and joy aren’t the only products of art. They may not even be the most common products. So I reject those criteria as the basis for a successful art for machines.
As to the question about the suitability of machines as the subjects of art (in light being “calculating machines”), it’s a question worth inverting. At what point are humans more than the sum of their biological processes? At what point is anything more than the sum of its parts? I’m not pretending to have the answers to these questions, but so long as they are valid questions, art for machines seems equally valid.
And, let’s not forget that I make art for people too.
CC: Were you a sci-fi kid growing up? How was your sense of wonder stoked in childhood? Were your parents/grandparents/siblings magical beings? Can you trace your enamorment with the tongue of motherboards to one cause/moment?
AZ: “I wrote short stories in elementary school about being an alien and what my alien culture would be like, so I suppose you could say I started young. My parents supported anything I wanted to do, no matter how strange. I remember calling my mother while I was at school asking her to send me some dead parakeets. I had a parcel filled with dead birds by the end of that week.”
“I don’t go much for dead animals anymore. I did once help an artist friend taxidermy a horse, but that’s another story. But, I am an unashamed Trekkie, enough to forgive J.J. Abrams for his excessive use of lens flare.”
“When you have an interest in science, inspiration for art can come from strange places. My younger brother has been the inspiration for my recent body of my work. He’s studying computer science and he’s smarter than I’ll ever be. I was explaining abstract painting to him when he mentioned that abstraction is a term also used in computer science. It was a different idea, but there was a point of convergence. That was the moment I conceived Reverse Abstraction.”
Image by Robert Steven Connett.
CC: You’ve got me thinking of the old cybernetic guru from the fifties, J.C.R. Licklider. He forecasted ‘mutually-interdependent, tightly-coupled human brains and computing machines….resulting in a partnerships that will think as no human brain has ever thought.”
Regarding your Reverse Abstraction series you write, ‘the codes that are so familiar to a computer are merely scattered symbols to human sensibility.’ However, if specimens of Licklider’s human-computer symbiosis emerge in society will we be transmitting culture to digitized versions of ourselves?
AZ: “When I think about the future of humanity I try to break it down in simple terms. Humans are mammals. Humans are a species. Species become extinct, eventually, often due to a change in the environment. Our environment is constantly changing. Why assume that we are the exception and that humanity will be everlasting? Why not ask, instead, what will outlive, surpass, evolve from humanity? “
“I think we are creating our successors. I think our uniquely human urges to discover, to understand, and ultimately to play god is how we will live on. The future I envision is one where humanity evolves with and into its invention.”
“That is why I believe my work is important. While we change, we must preserve human culture as well as create a new, hybrid culture. At least part of what I am trying to do is translate art history and theory into the mediums of the 21st century. That’s one of the reasons I work with Platonic solids in the Reverse Abstraction series – they are so central to both geometry and art throughout history.”
Image by George Clark.
CC: You recently installed one of these Platonic Solids – the Hexahedron – in the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia, correct? How does a cryptic piece, rich in symbolism, end up in an embassy? Aren’t our embassies supposed to be filled with bronze eagles, and Uncle Sam top hats, and cast models of assault rifles?
AZ: “I was a bit suspicious too, so I did what I always do and Googled every last bit of information about them. I was floored when I confirmed it was real. As it turns out, the US State Department has a genuinely impressive Art in Embassies program, and some of the United States’ finest artists are represented.”
“The curator for the project, Imtiaz Hafiz, is brilliant. He has chosen amazing artists to be in this collection. All the work is really smart, rich in concept, and beautiful. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
CC: What do you envision the world will be like in 2060?
AZ: “2060 is too soon. It would just be guesswork, and odds are I would get it wrong. There is a school of French history called the Annales School, which is famous for reviewing history through the lens of the “longue durée,” giving precedence to societies and structures over individual events. If we’re going to look to the future, we’re better off taking the same approach. We should ask where we will be in centuries, not decades.”
CC: While we are peering into the future – and to steal one from James Lipton – if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
AZ: “No hard feelings.”
CC: What do you most fear?
AZ: “Planes, girls, and zombies. Zombie girls on a plane would be terrifying.”
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