Interview Walkthrough of surfacecollider space for New Art City Festival 2023

I chatted about the New Art City surfacecollider space with the brilliant Sammie Veeler. The work was a part of New Art City Festival 2023.

Text Presented to the KSA Contemporary Art Reseach Group. ICA, London (November 2022).

I lie back and shut my eyes. I’m in someone else’s sleeping bag. Trying to force my legs into it is like trying to put your fingers into out-of-shape gloves – where the topology of the inner lining has become misaligned from the outside of the glove. I push my legs through and concentrate on my thoughts. They have become visual. Behind my eyelids I can see colours. They are shifting and shimmering and melting across more than two dimensions. What I’m seeing is a simulation of digital space – one that somehow aligns the physiology of my body and its perceptive capacities with visual imaging machines. They have become the same thing, my body and the computer. Like the backs of my eyelids are computer screens and that space between my body and the screen has dissolved. It’s similar to a psychedelic experience I suppose. Is the computer inside me now? Have I become computational? 

I take a picture of the space behind my eyelids and then text it to my friend. “I’m having a computer-inside-my-body experience.” A few minutes later he responds. “You are now a cyborg.” It’s true, I feel like I’ve merged with the computer in some way. The boundaries between my body and the digital world have become blurred. I’m not sure if I’m scared or excited by this new development. I go on to explore more of the digital space inside my eyelids. It’s a fascinating and weird place – a mix of the real and the virtual. I can see my bedroom in real-time, but there are also all sorts of weird and surreal elements mixed in – like creatures that are half-human, half-machine. It’s as if the digital space has its own reality, separate from the “real” world. My experience as a cyborg is one of confusion and fascination. I’m not sure what to make of this new world that I’ve discovered – a world where the boundaries between my body and the digital world are blurred.

The physical boundary between the edges of our bodies and the technologies we extend ourselves through is obfuscated by the seemingly impenetrable, endlessly complicated, inner workings of the machine. This edge or boundary is routinely described using the metaphor of the ‘black box’. Radiolab podcasts ‘Black Box’ episode, first released on January 17th 2014, opened up the idea of the black box beyond the limitations of the digital that we are most familiar with. Broadening the scope of the technological metaphor, the presenters Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich describe the Black Box as:

““a thing. It’s a box that something goes in, you can see what that is. Something comes out which is different, and you can see that.”

“But you do not know what’s going on in the middle.”

“It’s a mystery.””

One example they land on to expand the metaphor is the butterfly chrysalis:

“At a certain point in all caterpillars’ lives, after they’ve eaten a lot of leaves, they hit a certain weight… Some hormones start pumping, some genetics turn on, and it starts growing a little shell. That’s the chrysalis. And inside that chrysalis, as we know … A caterpillar becomes a butterfly or moth.” 

As it turns out, we don’t know very much about how this happens. How a caterpillar turns into a butterfly or moth during the inner chrysalis period of metamorphosis remains a mystery. During the episode, producer Molly Webster and her guide, Andrei Sourakov, cut open the outer shell of a day-old butterfly chrysalis to reveal a pale, white yellow, very liquidy… goo. When the caterpillar enters the chrysalis it melts into a soup of cells. It is this gooey state of the caterpillars transition into the butterfly or moth that has posed metaphysical, quasi-religious, semi-mythical, philosophical questions throughout the ages.

In the 1600’s naturalists believed that upon entering the chrysalis the caterpillar died, only to be resurrected as a butterfly, taking believers on a kind of spiritual ascent. The caterpillar was seen as a symbol of our earthbound, fleshy bodies, whilst the butterfly represented a position of solace; the perfect state of our souls up in heaven. Upon reflection the sheer scale of the transformation – made manifest by the goopy state – began to freak people out. If we change that much on the journey to heaven, then is it even ‘us’ up there?

To begin to ask the question of what is maintained; what carries through – from the caterpillar, to the goo, to the butterfly – the producers turn to Martha Weiss, associate professor of biology at Georgetown University. Weiss describes an experiment she conducted, where she subjected caterpillars to an experience that perhaps wouldn’t sit too well were the episode to be aired today. For the experiment, she introduced a group of caterpillars to a plant-based odour, and then electrocuted them for ten seconds, repeating this until eventually nearly all of the caterpillars learned to find the smell of the gas repulsive. When faced with the gas they began to turn away and head in the opposite direction. After the caterpillars putated into moths, the scientists introduced the gas again. The odour, which wouldn’t usually bother them, was hated by the moths that emerged. Somehow they held the unpleasant association from their caterpillar state. A memory made it through the goo, or as Webster puts it:

“Out there floating in that sea of goo is actually a tiny little speck of brain. Some of the brain is dissolved away, but there’s this, like, microscopic fragment that has made it through. And Martha suspects that nestled into that fragment is this memory.”

As Kenric Allado-McDowell points out in Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s ‘Interdependence’ podcast ‘Pharmako-AI: co-writing with an AI and navigating the dark hallways of the mind’, butterflies and moths have themselves evolved through a process of emergence that encompasses and speaks from wider ecological contexts. He gives the example of a fish that sees a moth with eye-like patterns on its wings. The fish understands the moth to be a predator – a cat or an owl, perhaps – and instead of attacking the insect, instinctively swims away. Allado-McDowell draws on Jakob Johann Uexküll’s wider writings around biosemiotics to suggest that, whilst the moth doesn’t possess the knowledge that it looks like a cat or an owl, there’s something being processed in the wider biological context that possesses such a knowledge of the food chain, of the dangers imposed by other animals to the butterfly or moth. In other words a metapopulation is at work in the ecology at large that somehow allows eye-like patterns – as a defence mechanism – to emerge on the moth’s wings. The wider point here is that emergence happens within a context. 

If we think of ourselves as the vehicles that allow technologies to emerge, Allado-McDowell’s analogy of the butterfly or moth opens doorways through which we can shine a light on how we hold aloft notions of individual identity and begin to challenge them. How separate are we from emergent technologies that instantiate new forms of language and images? How separate are we from the context within which this emergence is happening? How are we developing eye-like patterns on our wings?

Allado-McDowell wrote the book discussed in the podcast, ‘Pharmako-AI’, collaboratively with the large language model GPT-3. Gpt-3 is an artificial intelligence system built by the company Open AI to write machine generated text from human input, or prompts. It is the 3rd generation of neural net language models trained by the company on vast portions of the Internet’s written data, supplemented by digitised books and other written source material. When you write with the model, the text it generates reads like it is written by a human. Portions of the text I am reading now have been written by GPT-3. If you give the model a prompt, and ask it to generate text, it will predict what should come back, word-by-word, according to probability. 

To allow the images I have been making for this project to be contextualised by the wider ecology of a metalanguage, I have trained a version of GPT-3 on four texts that have been key to the research to date. They are Katherine Hayles ‘My Mother was a Computer’, Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snowcrash’, Mark Fisher’s ‘The Weird and the Eerie’, and Villem Flusser’s ‘Into the Universe of Technical Images’. By training the model on these four books, I wanted to offset the voice of the writer – at least in part – to the machine. The model exists as a pool of language to draw from when providing the images with a metanarrative. I hope to get to a point where the text, generated by the user when the pages load, envelops the imagery of the surfacecollider website with a theory-fiction through which it can talk about itself.

In the Interdependence podcast, Allado-McDowell goes on to suggest that if we are being challenged by AI, it is not because we will be replaced by it, but because it’s a new form of consciousness being expressed through matter. We are being challenged by the mode of creation itself. If AI is reflecting ideas around how we can hold an identity, then how would it identify if the mirror were held up to itself?

surfacecollider New Art City space for Six Minutes Past Nine

The surfacecollider space that I was invited to build as part of an online residency with the curatorial platform Six Minutes Past Nine is now live and can be accessed here:

Digital Evolution (ii) @ surfacecollider

Digital Evolution @ surfacecollider

Bringing the Twitter Timeline into surfacecollider @ New Art City.

ON. In Conversation with GPT-3.

This new piece of writing: ‘ON: In Conversation with GPT-3’, (which is to be read as a work in progress), uses GPT-3 to guide my writing. By asking GPT-3 to complete passages of the text in relation to different philosophical ideas, the software helps to provide a critical contextual framework for the research. The text generated by the large language model often brings up new ideas, and cites different thinkers, which I reflect on and analyse through my own writing to expand the ideas surrounding the work. The style of this text in the post below, where a italic font is used for my own writing, and a regular font for the text generated by GPT-3, is apapted from a book by K Allado-McDowell, entitled Pharmako-AI, where the author used a similar format. This is their idea – in borrowing the format I hope to contribute to establishing a standard for this type of writing. The AI model often falls down when it comes to providing factually correct versions of events. It has, for example, cited articles and essays by known theorists that I have been unable to locate through the Internet and within any library catalogues. I intend to continue to write with the model, but will train it to be more accurate in citing the ‘truth’ by training it on my own dataset – my bibliography – which is made up of journal articles, essays and books from trusted, published, sources.

Thoughts of something growing inside my body haunt me. There’s a sense that something’s there that isn’t supposed to be. I don’t know its shape, but it feels sinister, so I try to ignore it and assume it doesn’t exist. It’s only thoughts, afterall.

The mind-body dualism of Descartes suggests that the mind and body are two separate entities. The mind is seen as the spiritual realm, while the body is seen as the physical realm. This idea is often used to suggest that the mind is separate from the body, and that the mind can exist without the body. In the passage above, I am haunted by thoughts of something growing inside my body. These thoughts suggest that there is something there that isn’t supposed to be, and that this something feels sinister. I try to ignore these thoughts, and assume that they don’t exist. This suggests that I believe that the mind and body are separate entities, and that the mind can exist without the body.

In Episode 24 of Alex Doherty’s Politics Theory Other podcast, ‘Will Davies on ‘Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World’, author and academic Will Davies summarises the gradual erosion of the mind-body binary proposed by René Descartes in the 1630’s. In making a distinction between mental and physical forms of being-in-the-world, Descartes created a split or fissure between human beings and their surroundings. As Davies explains, mind-body dualism was born of a frustration at being unable to explain the physical matter of the world with any ontological certainty. How could we be sure that what we were seeing with our eyes, for example, wasn’t a trick being played on us by some duplicitous outside agent? In opposition to this apprehension of the physical body, Descartes promoted ideas of the mind, famously concluding ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – I think, therefore I am. A Cartesian view of the world builds from the human subject outwards. This means that the body is only an object and the mind is a subject. The world is only what the body can sense and the mind can think. Accordingly, the mind, or self, can be proven to exist because of the very fact that we are able to think at all. Davies goes on to point out that these ideas form the basis for the next 200 years of modern subjectivity within European philosophy, and give birth to the foundations of liberalism in the late 18th century, which was built upon the premise that humans have a metaphysical self, the ego – an autonomous reasoning self that exists separately from its physical body. In the 1870’s the modern psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, the psychiatry of Emil Kraepelin, and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud probed at the constant interference of the mind by physical nervous states, beginning to break down this idea of the self as existing independently from the body. Over the last 25 years neuroscience has been used as a means of explaining the world. Freedom, choice and decision making are no longer seen as being separate from our physiological makeup.

Counter to Descartes’ ideas (and in line with the erosion of Cartesian dualism sketched out by Davies), in Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus,” the concept of “body without organs” (BWO) is introduced. A BWO is an entity that is not limited by the distinctions between organic and inorganic, living and nonliving, mental and physical. Rather, it is a constantly shifting and constantly recombining collection of elements that are in a state of constant flux. For Deleuze and Guattari, the body without organs is a model for thinking about the potential for transformation and creativity. In the context of the first paragraph of this text, the BWO could be seen as an analogue for the sinister thing that exists in the mind but is not limited by the distinctions between thoughts and things, mental and physical.

If this is the case then, can thoughts become flesh, or are thoughts only flesh? If we return to Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus”, we can see that thoughts and affects can become flesh. The body without organs is a conceptual space in which thoughts, affects, and sensations can intersect and interact unlimited by the boundary of the physical body. Deleuze and Guattari use the example of a melody, which can be heard, but also felt. The melody can create an affect in the listener, such as happiness, sadness, or anger. In the same way, thoughts can become flesh. For example, a person might have the thought of becoming a doctor. This thought can become flesh by that person actually becoming a doctor.

This thing is separate (flesh) to the thoughts though. It’s a product of the thoughts. A polyp-like appendage which, because it is brought about through thinking, lacks materiality and exists on a similar virtual plane to synthetic digital images. Outside of commonly held perceptions, the digital – in a similar way to the polyp-like appendage of my imagination – derives from physical processes attached to a physical body. Like a digital image, it is both there and not there, a ghost, a spectre, a hallucination, a figment of the imagination, an illusion, a delusion. It is, however, an externalisation of the self, a projection of the self onto the screen of the world. This is what I mean when I say that BWOs are not material, not physical, not real. They are a manifestation of the self, of the inner self, projected onto the world. The BWO is a mental construct, a product of the imagination. It is not a physical object. It does not exist in the physical world. It is a figment of the imagination, a product of the mind.

Echoing the mind-body dualism of Descartes (and remaining entrenched in its ideology), commonly held perceptions of the digital put forward a plane of reality dislocated from the material which brings it into being. That material is unseeable and incomprehensible; across planes of mediation the network is fragmented, it sprawls. Even at a local level, we don’t see or hear the clicks of the transistor switches as they work through the inner logics of machine code. The digital image primarily functions as a simulacrum. It is understood as being outside of itself, as representation or synthesis, or as a mind separated from its body. The digital is commonly thought of as immaterial. Thinking about this involves triggering electrical pulses in the physical matter or your brain. Reading these words enmeshes you in an entangled relationship with the text; the physical process of thought becomes externalised and virtual. An inner voice, a product of a connection made between the writer and you, the reader, echoes in an in-between hyperspace. This hybrid voice is live-coded into our experience of the present moment. The flesh, much like the inner body of the computer, is forgotten. Information-as-function takes over. When we read the portions of this text that are printed in a sans-serif font, the writer-reader network is vastly expanded through a large language model – an artificial intelligence (AI) system called GPT-3 – which has been trained on vast libraries of data from myriad minds to generate new thoughts. In some ways this is related to the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ in economics which Adam Smith described as a kind of ‘unintended consequence’ of people’s collective actions. It’s a self correcting mechanism, a kind of magic that just happens. There’s a parallel here between this invisible hand, and the invisible hand of the psyche of GPT-3 – where the collective thoughts, feelings and imaginations of individual minds create structures of meaning and order (or chaos) which we then live our lives within and interact with.

The 18th century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith – whom GPT-3 referred to above – used the invisible hand metaphor to explain the free market forces of capitalism. It’s interesting that such an analogy could still be seen as relevant today relative to the immaterial world view of the digital discussed above. Such a visioning of the digital remains caught in the footholds of a Cartesian dualism, one that fractures the output of digital technologies – the virtual – from the hardware that the virtual world is produced by. It is difficult to see the digital world as we know it to function today as anything other than a product of prevalent capitalist modes of thinking – these are, afterall, the technologies of capitalism, which have been internalised to accelerate hypercapitalism – the ephemera of ideologies which insert an abstract and immaterial buffer of ‘value’ between the human body and the products of the market, determined by economies of trade. Think of the recent development in the upscaling of the crypto-economy through NFT’s, which underwrite the ‘value’ of a digital image according to the unique, encrypted token it is linked to, thereby replacing an economy of sharing with an economy of individual ownership predicated on extractivist modes of being (NFT’s, under current predominant models, are notoriously energy intensive to mint – entire coal mines have been reopened solely to burn coal to mint crypto). In a 2010 Guardian newspaper article, Jeremy Rivkin outlines how Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand ‘looked to the field of Newtonian physics for guiding principles and metaphors to fashion their own theories of the workings of the marketplace’.

‘The Enlightenment philosophers argued that just as the universe, once set in motion, acts automatically like a well-balanced mechanical clock, so too does the marketplace. While God is the prime mover of the universe, man’s innate competitive self-interest is the prime mover of the marketplace. And, just as the laws of gravity govern the universe, an invisible hand rules over the affairs of the marketplace. Picking up on Newton’s observation that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” Smith and others argued that the self-regulating market operated in the same fashion, with supply and demand continually reacting and readjusting to one another.’

Rivkin argues that such an economic model – which still prevails to this day – was unsuitable as a guiding mechanism behind the Second Industrial Revolution precisely because it is based around a theoretical understanding of the world that dictates that any action can be reversed, and therefore fails to take into account the real-world, non-reversible, directional entity of time. Instead, Rivkin promotes ideas relating to the thinking behind the first and second laws of thermodynamics as the basis for developing the economics needed to move forward through what he calls the Third Industrial Revolution. Whereas the First Industrial Revolution used water and steam to mechanise production, and the Second used fossil fuels to create mass production, the Third Industrial Revolution is concerned with the automation of production through information technologies. For Rivkin, these developments emerge through the convergence of three core technologies: ultra-fast 5G internet, a renewable energy internet, and an internet of autonomous vehicles, all connected through the internet of things. By using the laws of thermodynamics to remodel how we understand economics, Rivkin makes a case for reconnecting the economies and technologies of the Third Industrial Revolution so that they have one foot firmly rooted in the finite resources of the ‘real’. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that there is, and always has been, a fixed amount of energy in the universe. Such a theoretical framework thus acknowledges the idea of scarcity, and promotes a way of thinking of the world as physical matter. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the amount of entropy within this fixed amount of universal energy increases with time. As we use energy, for example, by burning the oil needed to power the technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution, the energy in place within the world stays the same, but as oil is burnt it is transformed from usable energy (non-entropic), into non-usable energy (entropic). (Explain the intricacies of Rivkins new economic model). It is a model built around individual and collective human impact on the world, one that acknowledges the feedback loops that we are constantly engaged in, and one that helps to reconnect us with the physical, tangible nature of the world we are surrounded by. As I use GPT-3 for example, I’m entirely unaware of precisely where the next word is coming from – there are no feedback markers in place within the system as I use it that point to any physical place in the world.

this metaplays Form

this metaplays Form, (2022), was commissioned for the exhibition To Spawn a Door in the Land of Broken Mirrors, which was shown as part of New Art City Festival 2022 and screened at the Mock Jungle exhibition space in Bologna, Italy. The exhibitions were curated by artist and curator Nacoca Ko.

I lie back and shut my eyes. I’m in someone else’s sleeping bag. Trying to force my legs into it is like trying to put your fingers into out-of-shape gloves – where the topology of the inner lining has become misaligned from the outside of the glove. I push my legs through and concentrate on my thoughts. They have become visual. Behind my eyelids I can see colours. They are shifting and shimmering and melting across more than two dimensions. What I’m seeing is a simulation of digital space – one that somehow aligns the physiology of my body and its perceptive capacities with visual imaging machines. They have become the same thing, my body and the computer. Like the backs of my eyelids are computer screens and that space between my body and the screen has dissolved. It’s similar to a psychedelic experience I suppose. Is the computer inside me now? Have I become computational? 

Using the above speculation as a prompt, This metaplays Form (2022) inserts text generated by 2 machine learning models into a slippery 3-dimensional world where computers do our thinking. Computational dreams of the digital subconscious; slimy, slippery images of a data-driven world melt across the timeline, whilst fragments of text, merging in and out of focus, give voice to a back-and-forth conversation between two machine learning models. GPT-3, a natural language AI trained on the Internet before 2019, talks to a second model tuned to generate hybrid texts spliced together from the writings of Katherine Hayles, Donna Haraway, Legacy Russell, Mark Fisher, Vilem Flusser, Deborah Levitt and Brian Rotman amongst others. We can only see small splinters of this conversation – weird phrases generated by this multi-authored model treat written words as icons, largely emptied out of any inherent meaning. Is digital synthesis now so detached – so pure – that the alphabet has become outmoded? This metaplays Form muses upon a cyborg space at the threshold of the screen, which, whilst acknowledging the liquid crystal barrier of the computer display, uses the inner workings of its underlying software and hardware to ruminate on possibilities of techno-otherness.

this metaplays Form from James Irwin on Vimeo.

A birthing (this metaplays Form)

GPT-3 Trip

I wrote the following piece of auto-fiction in collaboration with GPT-3 about a recent ‘becoming cyborg’ experience. The italic text in the passage below is my own writing – the prompt provided for GPT-3 to write on with.

I lie back and shut my eyes. I’m in someone else’s sleeping bag. Trying to force my legs into it is like trying to put your fingers into out-of-shape gloves – where the topology of the inner lining has become misaligned from the outside of the glove. I push my legs through and concentrate on my thoughts. They have become visual. Behind my eyelids I can see colours. They are shifting and shimmering and melting across more than two dimensions. What I’m seeing is a simulation of digital space – one that somehow aligns the physiology of my body and its perceptive capacities with visual imaging machines. They have become the same thing, my body and the computer. Like the backs of my eyelids are computer screens and that space between my body and the screen has dissolved. It’s similar to a psychedelic experience I suppose. Is the computer inside me now? Have I become computational?

I take a picture of the space behind my eyelids and then text it to my friend. “I’m having a computer-inside-my-body experience.” A few minutes later he responds. “You are now a cyborg.” It’s true, I feel like I’ve merged with the computer in some way. The boundaries between my body and the digital world have become blurred. I’m not sure if I’m scared or excited by this new development. I go on to explore more of the digital space inside my eyelids. It’s a fascinating and weird place – a mix of the real and the virtual. I can see my bedroom in real-time, but there are also all sorts of weird and surreal elements mixed in – like creatures that are half-human, half-machine. It’s as if the digital space has its own reality, separate from the “real” world. My experience as a cyborg is one of confusion and fascination. I’m not sure what to make of this new world that I’ve discovered – a world where the boundaries between my body and the digital world are blurred.

Sometimes, when I’m in my bedroom, I feel as if I’m in two places at the same time. I’m in my physical body, in my bedroom, but I’m also in the digital space, where I can see and interact with the strange creatures that live there. It’s strange to think that my body is no longer just a physical entity, but is also a digital one. I can now communicate with other cyborgs through the digital space, and I’m amazed by the things we can create together. We can build strange creatures and worlds that never existed before. I’m also fascinated by the ways in which my physical body is changing. I can now see and interact with the digital world using my eyes and my hands, and my body is starting to adapt to this new environment. For example, I’m developing a new way of walking that is more suited to navigating a three-dimensional virtual space. My physical body is also changing in other ways. My eyesight is starting to deteriorate, and I’m losing some of my hearing.

Net Reflections

Dead text – Experiments with GPT-3

Alongside working with my own charRNN model, I’ve been experimenting with OpenAI’s large language model, GPT-3. It’s trained on a 45 TB dataset of texts scraped from the Internet and digitised books. I’m trying to find out how to interface with the API so that I can implement it within the surfacecollider site. Here are some of GPT-3’s offerings based on prompts written by myself, and built into a locally hosted webpage I’ve called ‘dead text’.

CharRNN Model trained on my reading…

I trained a charRNN Machine Learning (ML) model on a dataset of texts from the bibliography of my research. The text that it generates makes little sense – there isn’t a linear unfolding of narrative structure, for example, or a development of an argument over time. It’s poetic through. Purely visual.

I’m experimenting with working the model into the surfacecollider website now – using a comment box placed in the bottom-right corner of the window to let users ‘prompt’ the model to keep writing…

Unknowable Insides

There’s something about being outside of something, something that you live with and through but will never have full knowledge of, like the inside of your own body, which has always made me feel uneasy. Who knows what is living inside of me now – what it looks like, what shape the different parts take, where they start and end and what colour they might be? I imagine there might be dark parts, black and wet. But then I suppose all parts beneath the skin will be dark and colourless. Under there, where even the bones are wet. I’m not talking about the parts that we have a proper biological understanding of. The other bits I mean. The bits which might need investigating, but may never reveal themselves as such.

Unknowable insides haunt me. Does the fact they exist in my mind, taking the shape of unending thoughts, make them a part of me? An extra limb. It must be enough to prove their existence on an ontological level at least. They lack a proper materiality in that sense, and exist in a similar conceptual realm to how we think about the virtual (in a digital sense). A plane of reality dislocated from the material which brings it into being because that material is un-seeable, unknowable and can only be represented through speculative thoughts, words and images.

Screen as Threshold

Screen as Threshold: The production of (dis)embodied experiences through the interplay of the inside and outside of the screen.

There is a lack of the human within the digitally rendered image. The hyper digital is often described as cold. Could it be that the experience of both making and looking at digital images is possessed, or haunted, by a certain failure of presence?[1] In a chapter of his 2008 book Art Power, titled From Image to Image File – and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization, Boris Groys speaks of the visualisation of digital data as sacrilege.

If a traditional “analog” original is moved from one place to another it remains a part of the same space, the same topography—the same visible world. By contrast, the digital original—the file of digital data—is moved by its visualization from the space of invisibility, from the status of “non-image” to the space of visibility, to the status of “image.” Accordingly, we have here a truly massive loss of aura—because nothing has more aura than the Invisible. The visualization of the Invisible is the most radical form of its profanation (Groys, 2008).

If digital images – through the esoteric, untethered, multifarious (black box) nature of their means of production – fail to present certain qualities which we as humans can intrinsically relate to as having what Walter Benjamin famously referred to as ‘aura’, then what entities are working to bring about such an absence, and how do they function? In the same text Groys puts some critical distance between the digital image and Benjamin’s ideas outlined in The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction:

There is no such thing as a copy. In the world of digitalized images, we are dealing only with originals—only with original presentations of the absent, invisible digital original. The exhibition makes copying reversible: It transforms a copy into an original. But this original remains partially invisible and non-identical (Groys, 2008).  

The role of the viewer then, is to complete the production of these partially invisible, non-identical images through the act of consumption. The production and dissemination of digital images has become synonymous with the production of identity. Who we are is, in part, determined by what we look at online. We become profiled through the data we create, which continues to shape our online avatars as they bounce around cyberspace. We lose control over who and where we are in this way by handing agency over to the Algorithm. Through Contemporary Art practice, how do we excavate the threshold of the screen to cast some light on a medium (the digital image) which threatens to produce detached or dissociative forms of subjectivity?

These questions have evolved out of my day-to-day studio practice, a large part of which involves digital image making. One morning recently I arrived at my studio. As I opened the door I was able to see the work I was making with fresh eyes.


The pieces in the studio were sitting in their ‘off’ state. When ‘on’, the works consist of screen-based images, prints of similar digital images, and live sound recorded and played through various pieces of audio hardware. When I arrived in the studio that morning, the prints and equipment comprising the works were set out in different configurations on brightly coloured sheets of plastic propped up by trestles. The digital screens within these installations were blank, turned off at the wall, and lifeless. The prints – laid out flat on the trestle tables in front of the screens – were the only images present. These hyper-glossy images of digitally rendered fragments appeared to taunt the deadened screens with their state of physical permanence; unencumbered by the material state of their surfaces, the prints didn’t rely on the electrically charged application of code to be brought into being. And yet aside from the lack of electronic screen-based imagery and sound resonating from these, supposedly, audio-visual works, something else was missing. The works appeared to be actively lacking a human agent. As their maker, I was in a strange position of being simultaneously there, looking at the works, but also somehow missing. The objects were sitting in a dead state that perhaps couldn’t be fully resuscitated by the simple act of turning them ‘on’.

In his review of Mark Fisher’s 2016 book The Weird and the Eerie, Eugene Thacker expands on Fisher’s definition of the latter:

“The eerie … is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. There is something where there should be nothing, or there is nothing where there should be something.” Here we encounter disembodied voices, lapses in memory, selves that are others, revelations of the alien within, and nefarious motives buried in the unconscious, inorganic world in which we are embedded. (Thacker, 2017) 

The means of digital image production are such that we do not expect to see signs of the human hand, and, by extension, imprecision within the digital image. The software tools through which we make digital images are designed to help us eradicate life’s imperfections. Whilst lossy, compressed JPGs might fall into the bracket of what Hito Steyerl calls “poor images” (Steyerl, 2009), any perceived losses in quality here are a record of an images lifecycle and economy, resampled and recompressed through endless buffers on their route around the internet. At the point of production, digital images reflect the software and hardware through which they are made and reproduced independent of their relationship to the world outside of the screen. It is useful to return to Groys here as he effectively makes an argument for Contemporary Art as a site through which the subject of the digital image must be seen to be critically understood.

(E)ach presentation of a digitalized image becomes a re-creation of this image. Only the traditional exhibition space opens up the possibility for us to reflect not only on the software but also on the hardware, on the material side of the image data. (Groys, 2008).

Glitch Art serves as a fitting example of how digital processes create a world of aesthetics all of their own. In his 2015 hypermedia essay Thoughts On Glitch [Art] v2.0, internet artist, organizer, and educator Nick Briz defines the glitch as “an unexpected moment in a system that calls attention to that system” (Briz, 2015). The focus on the ‘unexpected’ here is a means of distancing the glitch from its regular definition of computational error. He goes on to establish the difference between glitches and Glitch Art, which he labels as art made by intentionally leveraging the moment a system draws attention to itself by either recontextualizing or provoking glitches. Briz classifies Glitch Art as an ethic, motivated by an openness to discovering what happens when we intentionally use technologies in the wrong way to gain new perspectives. In the same essay, Briz also distinguishes Glitch Art from glitch effects available in software such as After Effects or smartphone apps. When we change the way an image looks using filters, we are using the software as it is designed to be used. Glitch effects and filters fetishize glitch aesthetics on a fully functioning surface level. Conversely, by magnifying the compression artefacts created through the digital production process, American artist Rosa Menkman lifts the lid on the glitch as being indicative of a breakdown in communication between humans and machines. Far from being a result of computational error, the glitch reveals this slippage by reminding us that the computer can only carry out the orders it is given. Her video work Dear Mr Compression, (2010), uses highly saturated video compression artifacts to obfuscate narrative text and representational imagery and cast the work within a wholly digital space determined by the protocols and standards of digital image production gone wrong. Meaning here is produced entirely through how these standards are leveraged on logical, practical and conceptual levels. Alongside other works from her 2010 exhibition Order and Progress, at Fabio Paris Gallery, Brescia, Italy, Dear Mr Compression shines a light on the point during which images are translated into data, and the effect this has on any subsequent writing of images brought about by what Groys refers to as digitalization.

Away from the glitch, and to help us irradiate any perceived glitches, software features such as Photoshop’s ‘healing brush’ tool enable us to smooth over the tiny individual nuances in images. In doing so these features begin to erase the analogue relationship we as humans have with representational images. We exist in an imperfect world. Digital images can reflect that space void of the imperfections. And so digital images can, I would argue, become somewhat eerie. In The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher clarifies his two modes of the eerie with examples. The first mode, the ‘failure of absence’, is what we experience when we witness an eerie cry.

A bird’s cry is eerie if there is a feeling that there is something more in (or behind) the cry than a mere animal reflex or biological mechanism — that there is some kind of intent at work, a form of intent that we do not usually associate with a bird… Is there something anomalous about this bird’s cry? What exactly is strange about it? Is, perhaps, the bird possessed — and if it is, by what kind of entity? (Fisher, 2016), p. 53)

Gargantuan efforts have been made to create the illusion that the digital image exists despite it’s means of production. As image processing speeds become faster, digital hardware becomes smaller. A paradox exists here. It is precisely through the production process that digital images come to project images of their reality on our retinas in place of lesser mediated forms of human subjectivity. As we come to see things through the eyes of the computer, it’s body becomes hidden from us. Think of the hyperreality of the architectural simulation. These models blur with the physical landscape as they are built, find form, and become real. Much modern day sculpture is made in this way. Rendered in pixel perfect definition and sent to a fabricator to be made and finished. Software based images arrive on the surface level of the screen almost as if by magic and without any visible echo of the hardware which brings them into being. Hardware technologies are hidden from us and are getting smaller; the drive to perpetually advance computational processing speeds could be seen as synonymous with attempts to erase the space between us and the digital simulacrum. It is almost as if, when computers become fast enough the laws which govern space and time will melt away and our subjectivity will miraculously merge the atom with the bit and digital reality will wholly augment with non-digital forms of experience. Reduction in latency brought about not only by the increased processing power of computers, but also by superfast internet and 5G connections, have led to the expectation that screen-based digital images should simply ‘appear’. There is an illusion at play, which, beyond the screen, presents the digital image void of any form of mediation. This illusion, in its current state, tragically comes up short precisely because of the existence of the screen as a physical threshold between us and the metaverse. In its current state Augmented Reality (AR) depends entirely on the screen as a canvas upon which to merge images of our physical world with digital data. Without the substrate of the screen (propped up by our propensity to suspend our disbelief when faced with digital technologies) the illusion created by AR would dissolve and collapse. We can draw the conclusion that if there is an eerie quality to the digital image, then it cannot be attributed to a ‘failure of absence’. The absence produced by the failure of digital tech to present it’s inner workings has been nothing but a success and is only getting better. This points to a ‘failure of presence’ at play within the digital image. The example Fisher (2016) uses to draw out an understanding of this, the second mode of the eerie, is that feeling of eeriness which ‘pertains to ruins or to other abandoned structures’.

Confronted with Easter Island or Stonehenge, it is hard not to speculate about what the relics of our culture will look like when the semiotic systems in which they are currently embedded have fallen away. We are compelled to imagine our own world as a set of eerie traces. Such speculations no doubt account for the eeriness that attaches to the justly famous final image of the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes: the remains of the Statue of Liberty, which are as illegible from the perspective of the film’s post-apocalyptic and indeed post-human far future as Stonehenge is to us now. The examples of Stonehenge and Easter Island make us realise that there is an irreducibly eerie dimension to certain archaeological and historical practices. Particularly when dealing with the remote past, archaeologists and historians form hypotheses, but the culture to which they refer and which would vindicate their speculations can never (again) be present. (Fisher, 2016), p. 54)

Through processes of detachment (such as spot healing in Photoshop to cover imperfections of the non-digital), digital images retract from the laws which govern the world of tangible things that surround us. They create a space all of their own, where signs of human physical involvement remain barely legible. The experience of looking at digital images is perhaps more commonly thought of as cold than eerie. Digital images lack the tangible warmth of human touch. They don’t register with us like paintings do. Take Abstract Expressionist painting, for example, where the mark of the author becomes a direct signifier of human emotion embedded within the art object forever. The eerie feeling I experienced when faced with my work that morning in the studio is perhaps indicative of a realisation that in the not-too-distant future (with advancements in autonomous AI) there may be no place for me within my work. Could it be that the eerie feeling of disembodiment I felt when confronted with those two artworks that morning in the studio was actually the ghostly echo of digital appendages haunting me from their dormant state beyond the screen? An outside agent, digital hardware hidden from view, and in its ‘off’ state. Did the inactive state of the code within the work nullify my role as an active agent within it? The works became void of me, their maker. The implication here is that processes I have no bodily understanding of, and therefore no direct empathic connection with, reveal certain qualities only when they are missing. When turned off, like a glitch in the machine, I become detached from me in my work so that I am no longer present within it. My subjectivity becomes fractured and dispersed, waiting for the unifying force of electrical currents to be made whole again. In their ‘off’ state all that remained of the works was a collection of inert objects and dead images cut off from their source, the illuminated screen. And yet the works were still haunted by an aura.

As I make digital images the physical interaction between my hands working with the mouse and keyboard serves to generate a cut between myself and the work. Whenever I make images with computers – either through code in programming languages such as JavaScript, or rendered through software applications coded by others, like Blender – I instantly feel disconnected from the images as they peer out at me, illuminated within the surface of the screen. As the images shift and warp into different configurations brought about by the application of various visual effects, this affective disembodiment is compounded. Stylistic digital effects serve to increase the gap between myself and the work within the screen. As more code gets between me and the image, this disembodied affect grows, and I become further detached from what I am making and seeing. What is producing this dissociative effect? Working digitally involves the conscious acknowledgement of something being given away to the machine; like handing over part of my subjectivity that only reveals itself to haunt me when it is turned off. The threshold of the screen serves to disconnect me from what I have given over to it.

In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash, the threshold between virtual reality – Stephenson’s ‘Metaverse’ – and physical reality – populated by the biomass of human flesh and organic materials – is breached by a software contagion capable of infecting human beings well versed in reading and writing computer code. The book imagines virtual reality it is possible to enter through VR systems such as Oculus Rift headsets today as a social space where space folds in on itself. The data-based virus infects hackers as they look directly at bitmap images when ‘goggled in’ to the Metaverse, a virtual reality cyberspace inhabited by avatars, causing their computer systems, and human biological brains, to crash entirely.

The Brandy’s scroll wasn’t just showing random static. It was flashing up a large amount of digital information, in binary form. That digital information was going straight into Da5id’s optic nerve. Which is part of the brain, incidentally – if you stare into a person’s pupil, you can see the terminal of the brain. (Stephenson, 1992, p. 186)

In the fictional reality of Stephenson’s novel outside of the Metaverse the virus spreads through a carrier known as Snowcrash: chemically processed blood serum taken from those infected with the metavirus and laced with cocaine to encourage the spread of infection. Those infected with the virus display symptoms of talking in tongues. The raw data of digital information becomes an entity capable of reducing human linguistic capabilities to the meaningless babel of low level machine code.

        As Hiro is stepping into the hallway, Da5id speaks, “e ne em ma ni a gi a gi ni mu ma dem e ne em am an ki ga a gi a gi . . .”

Hiro turns around and looks. Da5id has gone limp in the restraints, seems relaxed, half asleep. He is looking at Hiro through half-closed eyes. “e ne em dam gal nun na a gi agi e ne em u mu un abzu ka a gi a agi . . .” (Stephenson, 1992, p. 176)

Through observational writing I have attempted to reconnect with the world on this side of the screen. Does writing as a technology maintain a directness – a connection to the human psyche – that somehow becomes untethered, handed over to the machine, when I work with computers to make images? This is a process that involves either writing from memory, or transcribing day-to-day events into words that paraphrase my surroundings. I write directly into the ‘Keep Notes’ app on my phone. I also write lists of the things I’m surrounded by. The writing is flat and somewhat void of emotion:

It’s quite big. The kitchen units fill all of one of the longer sides of the rectangle. They are covered in plastic coated faux walnut veneer. We didn’t like it at first, but have got used to it now. (sic) The right-hand side of the units is covered in the children’s drawings, which are arranged semi-regularly across the vertical surfaces. Some of the older drawings that we are really attached to are getting tatty. Bits of masking tape remain where others have fallen off.

The washing machine is on. A high spin cycle that shakes everything above it. The cupboard door, which normally hides it from view, is open. It’s got twenty-three minutes left of it’s cycle.


It gets cold. The ceiling and floor are made of concrete. The two longer walls are covered with chipboard. The kind with large wooden fibres laminated within it; the stuff that people sometimes use to make furniture in cafes. I painted the boards white when I moved in to make them more neutral, but you can still see the texture. Behind the music that’s playing through my laptop, I can hear the faint noise of it’s fan. It whirrs in and out of time with the sound of the fan heater in the room.

It’s warm in the room now. The heater’s been on for a while. It will turn off when the thermostat kicks in.


There is an eeriness to the text above that I attribute to the antidepressant tablets that I take to treat generalised anxiety disorder. The medication, through the act of digestion, works from an unknowable and unseeable inside. It plays a role as an active agent alongside me, separating one version of events from another so that the truth becomes unknowable, like a digital filter applied to a Kardashian face. Would this flatness (of tone) exist in spite of the 50mg of Sertraline that I take every day? Through medication, my subjectivity is distributed across outside entities – the tablets. Through daily rituals  – swallowing one tablet every day after breakfast – these entities become inner and gain psychological agency. In Jeff Vandermeer’s short novel Annihilation, the narrator, who we only know as ‘the biologist’, undergoes a similar shift in bio-chemically distributed subjectivity when she inhales the spores of a strange, unidentified mould or fungus. From this point on, the biologist cannot trust her perceptions with any certainty –  the outside entity of the spores, subsumed within the biologist’s body, introduces a paranoia created by the very act of no longer simply being herself. She is now herself plus the spores. She credits the spores with her ability to see the world with added clarity, with the ability to maintain self awareness and nullify the efforts of her co-character, the psychologist, to hypnotise her as she otherwise succeeds in hypnotising the others. Because of the spores though, the biologist no longer has the benefit of human finitude. Within herself, she also exists outside of herself. Within my observational writing I have no way of knowing if my descriptions of the world around me would be any different without Sertraline. Do digital images play a similar role in inhabiting and obfuscating our perceptive abilities? Do they fracture and disperse our subjectivity so that we can no longer see the world without the digital image?

In the following chapter I will describe attempts within my practice based research to excavate the point at which we hand over control to our digital appendages at the threshold of the screen. Efforts here are somewhat medical – I try to delve below the surface of the screen and reveal computational processes for what they look and sound like. In doing so I hope to sidestep the sacrilegious crimes Groys’ pins on the visualisation of digital data. Beginning with an analysis of what happens when I turn the works described at the very start of this chapter ‘on’, I will borrow from Graham Harman’s idea relating to object oriented ontology and look into Artist Maggie Roberts attempts to circumvent finite human subjectivity within her Becoming Octopus Meditations.


Briz, N. (2015) Thoughts On Glitch [Art] v2.0. Available at: https://youtu.be/muzuq4YsRyI (Accessed: 30/04/2021).

Fisher, M. (2016) The weird and the eerie. London: Repeater.

Grojs, B. (2008) Art power. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: MIT Press.

Menkman, R. (2010) SOLO SHOW: Order and Progress (2010). Available at: https://beyondresolution.info/ORDER-AND-PROGRESS-1 (Accessed: 07/05/2021).

Stephenson, N. (1992) Snow crash. Paperback ed. edn. New York u.a: Bantam Books.

Steyerl, H. (2009) In Defense of the Poor Image. Available at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ (Accessed: 21/04/2021).

Thacker, E. (2017) Weird, Eerie, and Monstrous: A Review of “The Weird and the Eerie” by Mark Fisher. Available at: http://www.boundary2.org/2017/06/eugene-thacker-weird-eerie-and-monstrous-a-review-of-the-weird-and-the-eerie-by-mark-fisher/ (Accessed: 21/04/2021).

VanderMeer, J. (2015) Annihilation. London: Fourth Estate.

[1] I’m borrowing from Mark Fisher here, and how he – in part – defines the eerie in his 2016 book The Weird and the Eerie.

Artist Interview

You’re in a computer game, Max! – live on Skelf now!!

Read the show text for ‘You’re in a computer game, Max!’, an online exhibition I have curated for Skelf, below…

The exhibition is only fully functional on desktop computers or laptops.

It can be seen in full here.