Pierre Huyghe: Digital canvases and mind-reading machines

Visiting UUmwelt, Pierre Huyghe’s show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, for the Financial Times, 4 October 2018

On paper, Pierre Huyghe’s new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London is a rather Spartan effort. Gone are the fictional characters, the films, the drawings; the collaborative manga flim-flam of No Ghost Just a Shell; the nested, we’re not-in-Kansas-any-more fictions, meta-fictions and crypto-documentaries of Streamside Day Follies. In place of Huyghe’s usual stage blarney come five large LED screens. Each displays a picture that, as we watch, shivers through countless mutations, teetering between snapshot clarity and monumental abstraction. One display is meaty; another, vaguely nautical. A third occupies a discomforting interzone between elephant and milk bottle.

Huyghe has not abandoned all his old habits. There are smells (suggesting animal and machine worlds), sounds (derived from brain-scan data, but which sound oddly domestic: was that not a knife-drawer being tidied?) and a great many flies. Their random movements cause the five monumental screens to pause and stutter, and this is a canny move, because without that  arbitrary grammar, Huyghe’s barrage of visual transformations would overwhelm us, rather than excite us. There is, in short, more going on here than meets the eye. But that, of course, is true of everywhere: the show’s title nods to the notion of “Umwelt” coined by the zoologist Jacob von Uexküll in 1909, when he proposed that the significant world of an animal was the sum of  things to which it responds, the rest going by virtually unnoticed. Huyghe’s speculations about machine intelligence are bringing this story up to date.

That UUmwelt turns out to be a show of great beauty as well; that the gallery-goer emerges from this most abstruse of high-tech shows with a re-invigorated appetite for the arch-traditional business of putting paint on canvas: that the gallery-goer does all the work, yet leaves feeling exhilarated, not exploited — all this is going to require some explanation.

To begin at the beginning, then: Yukiyasu Kamitani , who works at Kyoto University in Japan, made headlines in 2012 when he fed the data from fMRI brain scans of sleeping subjects into neural networks. These computer systems eventually succeeded in capturing shadowy images of his volunteers’ dreams. Since then his lab has been teaching computers to see inside people’s heads. It’s not there yet, but there are interesting blossoms to be plucked along the way.

UUmwelt is one of these blossoms. A recursive neural net has been shown about a million pictures, alongside accompanying fMRI data gathered from a human observer. Next, the neural net has been handed some raw fMRI data, and told to recreate the picture the volunteer was looking at.

Huyghe has turned the ensuing, abstruse struggles of the Kamitani Lab’s unthinking neural net into an exhibition quite as dramatic as anything he has ever made. Only, this time, the theatrics are taking place almost entirely in our own heads. What are we looking at here? A bottle. No, an elephant, no, a Francis Bacon screaming pig, goose, skyscraper, mixer tap, steam train mole dog bat’s wing…

The closer we look, the more engaged we become, the less we are able to describe what we are seeing. (This is literally true, in fact, since visual recognition works just that little bit faster than linguistic processing.) So, as we watch these digital canvases, we are drawn into dreamlike, timeless lucidity: a state of concentration without conscious effort that sports psychologists like to call “flow”. (How the Serpentine will ever clear the gallery at the end of the day I have no idea: I for one was transfixed.)

UUmwelt, far from being a show about how machines will make artists redundant, turns out to be a machine for teaching the rest of us how to read and truly appreciate the things artists make. It exercises and strengthens that bit of us that looks beyond the normative content of images and tries to make sense of them through the study of volume, colour, light, line, and texture. Students of Mondrian, Duffy and Bacon, in particular, will lap up this show.

Remember those science-fictional devices and medicines that provide hits of concentrated education? Quantum physics in one injection! Civics in a pill! I think Huyghe may have come closer than anyone to making this silly dream a solid and compelling reality. His machines are teaching us how to read pictures, and they’re doing a good job of it, too.

 A History of Silence reviewed: Unlocking the world of infinitely small noises

The present, properly attended to, alone and in silence, reveals time’s awful scale. When we think about the past or the future, what we’re actually doing is telling ourselves stories. It’s in the present moment, if we dare attend to it, that we glimpse the Void.

Reading Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence (Polity Press) for The Telegraph, 3 September 2018

“I have nothing to say as an artist”

That, anyway, was the provocative start to my interview with Anish Kapoor. He had a terrifying new show on at Lisson Gallery in London, all blood and sinew (well, latex…). Comparisons with Bacon are inevitable, though he says there’s something hysterical about Bacon’s work which he’s not entirely easy with.

 

Liz Else and I talked to the sculptor for New Scientist.

 

I have said this over and over again: you make what you make, and you put it in front of yourself first of all. Inevitably, a certain concept arises, and exploring that concept is the real work. If I started off with some big message for the world, it would keep getting in the way.

There is an emotional world and an objective world, and the two mesh. Thirty years ago I began working with the idea that for every material thing, there’s a non-material thing alongside it – sometimes poetic, sometimes phenomenological. For example, I once made a stone chamber and painted it a very dark blue. Thanks to the psychological implications of the colour, if you look inside the chamber it’s as though this stone thing had a non-thing inside it. The cavity becomes an object. You get an effect like that when you look at a polished concave surface. The eye wants to fill the hollow with a sort of convex ghost.

I’ve been interested in what I call “void works” for many years: applying deep, dark colour to mostly concave forms so the space and object are confused. This lead me to Vantablack, a superblack made from carbon nanotubes. It’s extraordinary – the light gets in and is not able to get out. (Indeed, Vantablack absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light.) The discovery of a new material like this opens up the most incredible possibilities. I love the idea that one could walk into a room that isn’t dark and at the same time isn’t there. You could have lights on, but the room wouldn’t be there. There’s something magical about that. It’s that wonderful, liminal moment between wonder and fear – that’s what I aim for.

I don’t mind too much when people call me an illusionist. I’m pretty sure that everything we consider to be real is illusory, or has an illusory element. From a psychological point of view, there’s more deep truth in the unreal than there is in the real. After all, objectively speaking, colour doesn’t even exist. So that’s the game. Keep your balance. Whenever subjectivity and objectivity are put into opposition, never come down on either side.

I’ve always been deeply fascinated by raw pigment, which is at once a colour – a pure, psychological idea – and a real substance. It has this otherness you can’t quite point at. My latest works at Lisson Gallery are made with silicone, all very red and very visceral. I work with red a lot, because of its darkness. The psychology of the red generates a much darker dark than black or blue.

And I’ve always been deeply interested in geometry, and I’ve put some of my pieces into motion to get at forms I can’t produce by any other method. Descension is a whirlpool that produces a natural parabola. It took me 20 years to get it to work, because it needs to be built at a certain scale, and be spinning at a certain rate. What surprised me, once I’d achieved those wonderful parabolic curves, was what happened at the bottom of the pool. A void opened up, a form I never expected to find there, for all the world as though this thing was boring its way the centre of the Earth!

Art and science do sit naturally quite close to each other. But making a statement of that sort in a piece of art is just going to get in the way. Science is apparently rational and art, perhaps, more confused. But they both start out as experimental processes, and both are contained by rules. A poetic purpose is every bit as real as an apparently scientific one. There’s objectivity in art, just as much as there’s subjectivity in science.

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

I reviewed this for the Sunday Telegraph:

There is something very New York about the cultivated, yet horripilating glimpse Sacks gives of his own mortality. Years ago the actor Spalding Gray took a more brutal approach, screaming ‘DEATH!’ in the middle of an otherwise genial monologue.

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The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

I reviewed this for the Sunday Telegraph:

There is something very New York about the cultivated, yet horripilating glimpse Sacks gives of his own mortality. Years ago the actor Spalding Gray took a more brutal approach, screaming ‘DEATH!’ in the middle of an otherwise genial monologue.

Media_httpitelegraphc_roxlb

William Hudson’s elephant

Elephants

In 1962, the anthropologist William Hudson offered a group of adults and children living in the Zambian bush two drawings of an elephant. In one, the elephant was seen from above; in the other, the same elephant was squashed, as if by a steam-roller, so that its legs and trunk were splayed out to the sides of the body. The children preferred the ‘squashed’ drawing, because it contained more of the elephant.

When Westerners are shown the same drawings, they prefer the unsquashed one. Although there is less elephant in it, they consider the picture more realistic, since it captures what it would be like to see an elephant from a particular angle.

The choice, in both instances, is a sophisticated one. It is an aesthetic choice. The pictorial art of the veldt typically conveys ideas of value and meaning. The art of the post-Renaissance West typically simulates the rules of optics. People prefer some representations over others. Representations are plastic. They are modified over time. They change.

Read more in Deregowski, J.B. (1972) ‘Pictorial perception and culture.’ Scientific American 227, pp82-88.

William Hudson’s elephant

Elephants

In 1962, the anthropologist William Hudson offered a group of adults and children living in the Zambian bush two drawings of an elephant. In one, the elephant was seen from above; in the other, the same elephant was squashed, as if by a steam-roller, so that its legs and trunk were splayed out to the sides of the body. The children preferred the ‘squashed’ drawing, because it contained more of the elephant.

When Westerners are shown the same drawings, they prefer the unsquashed one. Although there is less elephant in it, they consider the picture more realistic, since it captures what it would be like to see an elephant from a particular angle.

The choice, in both instances, is a sophisticated one. It is an aesthetic choice. The pictorial art of the veldt typically conveys ideas of value and meaning. The art of the post-Renaissance West typically simulates the rules of optics. People prefer some representations over others. Representations are plastic. They are modified over time. They change.

Read more in Deregowski, J.B. (1972) ‘Pictorial perception and culture.’ Scientific American 227, pp82-88.