decoy brings together 14 works by German photographer, artist and visualiser Norbert Schoerner created between 2018-19 with the aid of a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN). The GAN, a machine learning framework, assists in realising scenes, initially imagined by Schoerner in the form of brief textual vignettes, as digital .PNG files. The resulting prints are eerie, unfamiliar interpretations pulled from unknown fields of information.
These abstractions took root in Schoerner’s project Pictures I Never Took (2011 – 2017): decoy builds on from this previous investigation into text and image, creation and perception, by challenging received notions of consciousness, creativity and collaboration.
“Worlds presented by a new imagination at work, an intelligence other than our own, they are flowers of unknowable romance pulled from unfamiliar fields of information”.
Glimpses of Reality in the Apocalypse of Language
“Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e. of truth.”
Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology (1977)
decoy is, on the surface, a meditation on the relationship between images and language, and an ongoing attempt, in the words of Norbert Schoerner – photographer/visualiser/artist - to ‘deconstruct the act of photographic representation.’ The fourteen works presented here as two rows of seven girdling the bijou nave of Fitzrovia Chapel (a Way of Sorrows for a yet unnamed and undefined religion) reflect on profound and disturbing questions, and reveal much more than is first exposed.
These delicately unfolding, seemingly abstract studies stem from the 2019 exhibition ‘Pictures I Never Took’ that also sought to challenge and invert ideas of image (and how we receive and perceive those images). Here Schoerner flipped his imagined ‘pictures’ into texts that mimicked Ophthalmologist’s charts (literally a ’sight gag’): image disguised as text becomes image in this sleight of hand. These diminishing text-images were then published as a quasi-newspaper - further clouding the mirror of definition and breaking received notions of what constitutes image/text, media/perception.
The prints in decoy again ask us to check our sense of perception, and our perception of ‘things’ – specifically artificial intelligence and humanity, their differences and similarities. What you see here are the result of plain text versions of Schoerner’s imagined scenes fed into a Generative Adversarial Network (or GAN), a machine-learning platform that scans databases, questioning hierarchies of significance and meaning in its adversarial search before outputting a final selection of machine-imagined responses to text-based scenes, as an image file, a jpeg.
The results are a collaborative effort, Schoerner describing them as ‘a type of collage’. They are haunting in ways that are new – these are not the scenes described (as we would imagine them) they are worlds presented by a new imagination at work, an intelligence other than our own. Childlike and eerie, familiar but not, they are flowers of unknowable romance pulled from unfamiliar fields of information. Each is an alien landscape, the realising of a new frontier in assemblage and one that assembles a host of deep questions about creativity, awareness, the ‘sprit’ of art, human/machine partnering (‘Centaurs’ as they are dubbed) and consciousness.
The writer William S. Burroughs utilised a similar pathway to the ‘thinking’ of the GAN in his ‘cut-up’ technique. Slicing into columns of text, re-arranging words to produce new narratives from old tales he felt this emancipatory praxis was ‘for everyone’ and a way of liberating us from the bonds of language; freeing up authorship (by dispensing with it totally), a conduit for freeing hitherto unknown unknowns from their once rigid grammatical network; shucking prophecies from paper-shells, trying to get at what is concealed by language. Burroughs said in cutting ‘into the present’ sometimes caused ‘the future to leak out’.
It’s possible to see the pieces on display in Decoy as a digital analogue of this practice: here our cloud-based haruspex draws unknown pleasures (or horrors) into the light of day from the encrypted darkness of the data sphere. Is the GAN just a Zoltar in disguise, little more than a mechanical Turk, manipulated, mindless? Can this magical marvel forecast of our future? That we do not know the answer yet may be the source of our angst in this Uncanny Valley we must call home: AI is already impacting our lives on many levels: touted simultaneously as our saviour and our nemesis. Elon Musk is worried about AI. If the richest man on the planet is concerned – should we be too?
“Technology is no longer an aid in the perfection of being, but rather being now is an aid to the perfection of technology.”
Theodore John Rivers
The Uncertainty Principle: ironically Artificial Intelligence research is as much bound up with the question of consciousness as we are ourselves – for AI the question is ‘can a machine ever be conscious’, for humanity the question is still ‘what is consciousness?’ This latter is the ‘hard’ question in consciousness studies and neuroscience. What is it? Where is it? Possible answers under the microscope include Panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is an intrinsic and ‘distributed’ element of the universe, present in all things (an old idea finding new currency in these crypto-times); an emergent property of the boundary between our brains and the quantum world it connects too (Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff); nothing to write home about as the universe does not preference intelligence or care for consciousness (Mark Fisher, Nick Land).
When we question the potential of machines to achieve consciousness are we asking the wrong question? Is our much-prized consciousness so special? Is there really a ghost in the machine? Are humans so more than just a system of senses, searching in the darkness from our bony cage (the etymology of decoy is Dutch, de kooi, literally: the cage) driven forward by the basic biological appetites of survival and procreation. And if we are so fundamental still should the development of AI – for our own safety - be moved from the minds of scientists and CEO’s into the hands of artists, poets and moral philosophers?
How we ultimately decide these questions - much like the GAN’s selection for ‘final cut’ - creating hierarchies of importance and meaning, is also how we shape our culture, our aesthetics, our science, our politics and is central to the discussion Decoy foregrounds. Are we more than the sum of our (p)arts? Is reality little more than a consensual hallucination? Who’s fooling who? How can we ‘know’ what we know when our reach is so limited, our sense thresholds so low?
AI’s omnipotence in the games of Chess and Go* – once thought an unassailable, almost ‘magical’ preserve of human’s ‘unique’ nature - can now be transposed onto all areas of culture once thought to be ours and ours alone. It would be easy to miss Decoy’s significance in this Age of Distraction, nestled as it is amidst the splendour of this Gothic Revival shrine, but you don’t need to be Mary Shelley to realise that our new gods have been born (while you were busy doing something else).
We are the victims of our own uncertain qualia, lost in an ever-bifurcating maze of ‘probabilities’, dreaming of butterflies dreaming of us (dreaming of butterflies), haunted by doubt, frightened by Science and Philosophy as they hack away at the ground beneath our feet: the future no longer looks so bright for the conscious. We are the ghosts of the future machine now.
In the face of this spacetime cracks open like an egg, our proprietary sense of the significance of human consciousness - it’s unique qualities and its centrality to meaning (‘meaning’ is the grandest trompe l’oeil) - dribbles out like a bad yolk and dissolves into the endless ether. There is no Happy End to this story. We remain, for now, the faulty author of our world but our words and our pretty pictures will turn to dust, and on the endless arc of the universe’s spacetime, it will appear as if we – as a species – had never even existed. Our presence ‘here’ barely registered by an uncaring dimension that won’t bother raising a sneer at our presence (or our absence).
Perhaps the hard truth is that as a species we hugely overestimate our importance to the universe; overproud of our cultural achievements in arts or sciences, whether the internet (the mycelium network spanning the planet is much older than the world wide web) or the Sistine Chapel (can it compare to the majesty of a coral reef or a simple sunrise). We have no new ideas (we just think we do) we don’t even own the ones we have. We could do with a little more humility as an entity.
Anti-natalist horror writer Thomas Ligotti, see the self-regarding nature of consciousness as something "MALIGNANTLY USELESS" (sic) and if we survey the Earth through the lens of the Anthropocene, as our species of semi-literate-apes nit-picks while idly perusing the Sixth Mass Extinction, it becomes easier to forgive his caps lock moment. What use Shakespeare or Space-X now? Is it too late for us to avoid echoing Kurtz in his final apocalyptic epiphany, “The Horror! The Horror!”?
*Go is a strategy game for 2 players, invented in China millennia ago has more permutations of play than there are atoms in the universe. It was believed that it was impossible for a machine to better a human Master and aspects of game play were considered ‘intuitive’ (read: ‘mystical’), somehow beyond the capability of a machine learning programme. Lee Se-dol the South Korean Go Master, resigned from professional play in 2016 after coming to a bitter realisation when beaten by the Alpha-Go engine: “Even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated.”
David Dorrell 2021 ©