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.

Prudery isn’t justice

We want the law to be fair and objective. We also want laws that work in the real world, protecting and reassuring us, and maintaining our social and cultural values. The moral dilemma is that we can’t have both. This may be because humans are hopelessly irrational and need a rational legal system to keep them in check. But it may also be that rationality has limits, and that trying to sit in judgement over everything is as cruel and farcical as gathering cats in a sack.

Reading Objection: Disgust, morality, and the law by Debra Lieberman and Carlton Patrick for New Scientist, 15 September 2018

Is boredom good for us?

time

Sandi Mann’s The Upside of Downtime and Felt Time: The psychology of how we perceive time by Marc Wittmann reviewed for New Scientist, 13 April 2016.

 

VISITORS to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010 got to meet time, face-to-face. For her show The Artist is Present, Marina Abramovic sat, motionless, for 7.5 hours at a stretch while visitors wandered past her.

Unlike all the other art on show, she hadn’t “dropped out” of time: this was no cold, unbreathing sculpture. Neither was she time’s plaything, as she surely would have been had some task engaged her. Instead, Marc Wittmann, a psychologist based in Freiburg, Germany, reckons that Abramovic became time.

Wittmann’s book Felt Time explains how we experience time, posit it and remember it, all in the same moment. We access the future and the past through the 3-second chink that constitutes our experience of the present. Beyond this interval, metronome beats lose their rhythm and words fall apart in the ear.

As unhurried and efficient as an ophthalmologist arriving at a prescription by placing different lenses before the eye, Wittmann reveals, chapter by chapter, how our view through that 3-second chink is shaped by anxiety, age, boredom, appetite and feeling.

Unfortunately, his approach smacks of the textbook, and his attempt at a “new solution to the mind-body problem” is a mess. However, his literary allusions – from Thomas Mann’s study of habituation in The Magic Mountain to Sten Nadolny’s evocation of the present moment in The Discovery of Slowness – offer real insight. Indeed, they are an education in themselves for anyone with an Amazon “buy” button to hand.

As we read Felt Time, do we gain most by mulling Wittmann’s words, even if some allusions are unfamiliar? Or are we better off chasing down his references on the internet? Which is the more interesting option? Or rather: which is “less boring”?

Sandi Mann’s The Upside of Downtime is also about time, inasmuch as it is about boredom.

Once we delighted in devices that put all knowledge and culture into our pockets. But our means of obtaining stimulation have become so routine that they have themselves become a source of boredom. By removing the tedium of waiting, says psychologist Mann, we have turned ourselves into sensation junkies. It’s hard for us to pay attention to a task when more exciting stimuli are on offer, and being exposed to even subtle distractions can make us feel more bored.

Sadly, Mann’s book demonstrates the point all too well. It is a design horror: a mess of boxed-out paragraphs and bullet-pointed lists. Each is entertaining in itself, yet together they render Mann’s central argument less and less engaging, for exactly the reasons she has identified. Reading her is like watching a magician take a bullet to the head while “performing” Russian roulette.

In the end Mann can’t decide whether boredom is a good or bad thing, while Wittmann’s more organised approach gives him the confidence he needs to walk off a cliff as he tries to use the brain alone to account for consciousness. But despite the flaws, Wittmann is insightful and Mann is engaging, and, praise be, there’s always next time.

 

Albert Hofmann vs The West

New Scientist sent me down the LSD rabbit-hole recently in pursuit of its discoverer, Albert Hofmann. The subs did a cracking job as usual; but here’s the  unwound version for those who have the time.

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Image swiped from Leonard Freed/Magnum

A cloud of scorn fogs our understanding of LSD. It is justified. Those who fear The Man may remember the murderous human experiments conducted for the CIA’s MK-Ultra programme. Those who deplore social breakdown will recall Timothy Leary’s plan for young Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out” – fuelled by his insouciant purchase order, in 1963, for one million doses of LSD and 2.5 million doses of psilocybine.

What of the substance itself, and the Swiss chemist who invented it, Albert Hofmann? In March this year, Hofmann’s own memoir, LSD: my problem child, was published by the Beckley Foundation Press in association with the OUP, in a new translation by Jonathan Ott. At once stiff as a board and lush as a jungle, Ott’s translation neatly captures the romance of Hofmann’s discovery. LSD provides the capstone for  a grand European project to explore the psyche, begun by Goethe, developed by Purkinje and Mach,  von Helmholtz and Exner, and obliterated by the rise of National Socialism in Germany. LSD is also the foundation of modern popular culture, inspiring everything from the personal computer to Gaia theory. For this reason, all writings about LSD are unavoidably – often comically – anachronistic. Whole pages of Hofmann’s own, deeply felt and beautifully written memoir could be dropped wholesale into a Thomas Pynchon novel with no-one any the wiser.

In an attempt to bring the LSD story up to date in time for the seventieth anniversary of its discovery,  two of Hoffman’s close acquaintances, Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller, have assembled a copiously illustrated volume of stories, biographies, memoirs and reflections. Mystic Chemist is the sort of mess you get when your aspiration gets ahead of your writing time. Its by-the-numbers approach contains spadefuls of trivia of the  “Mexico is the fifth largest country on the American continent” variety. It is horrible. It is also touching, sad and angry. And – so long as it’s not the first book a reader picks up about LSD – it is pretty much indispensable.

LSD is a psychiatric and medical tool. Not a medicine, since it tends to reinforce a person’s prevailing mood. Not a recreational substance: it triggers a psychosis, still poorly understood, that exposes to consciousness, and temporarily deconstructs, the processes by which a self maintains itself. Psychedelics were used as a spiritual aid for millennia, before falling as collateral damage in the West’s “war on drugs”. But regret at such a profound cultural loss cannot but be tempered by the thought that Greece, powered by the Eleusinian mysteries, still succumbed to decline, and Mexico, in its psilocybine haze, is a violent and impoverished political backwater. LSD does not harm people; nor does it make humanity evolve. The fault is not in LSD but in ourselves, says Hofmann: in “hypermaterialism, alienation from Nature through industrialisation and increasing urbanisation, lack of satisfaction with professional employment in an increasingly mechanised, lifeless, workaday world, ennui and purposelessness in a wealthy, oversaturated society, and the utter lack of a religious, nurturing, and meaningful philosophical foundation for life.”

Healthify yourself!

Come along on Wednesday 16 May at 7pm to the last of my talks at Pushkin House; I’m exploring Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.

 

 

The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example.

Tickets: £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs)

More details here

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.