As Pierre Huyghe’s season moves into early summer, the basement shows signs of expansion. Ancient yeast couples with flour and bacteria to produce warm bread, and further excavation of our walls creates new layers of grey dust. A humming plant, simulated creatures, and animated lights suggest that growth is neither a linear nor a self-contained process, and amongst them we begin to sense the leaks that cultivate change. To better understand the genetic basis for evolving bodies, we’ve invited a scientist to speak about stem cells. And to appreciate Huyghe’s own exploration of auto-generative systems, we will screen his film The Host and the Cloud with our friends at Anthology Film Archive.
MAY 29 – JUL. 20, 2014
Evolved Virtual Creatures, Karl Sims, computer animation, 4 min., 1994.
In 1994, computer scientist and graphics researcher Karl Sims combined the abstract mathematics of genetic algorithms with the possibilities of 3D computer-generated simulations. Sims was trying to solve the quintessential problem of control vs. complexity in computer generated animations: users were excellent at controlling design variables but were limited in scaling their work to make highly complex worlds. Autonomous digital systems could crunch enough data to simulate high levels of complexity but only allowed for limited control over the quality. His solution was to integrate the natural laws of evolution with computational power using so-called “genetic algorithms”.
Genetic algorithms, which provide mathematical formulas for evolution, had existed since the early 50s, though Sims, using only recently available technology, was the first to apply them to generating 3D models animated using the laws of physics. Each 3D “creature” is the product of randomized choices that select for their shape and behavior. They are then subjected to the rules of specific simulated challenges like swimming, or snatching a block from another creature, and then selected for reproduction based on the effectiveness of their solutions, after which they are given random mutations and reintroduced to the system.
In the conclusion to his presentation to the interactive graphics convention SIGGRAPH’94, Sims suggests his approach could induct a new era in virtual animation, unburdened by the necessity of technical know-how or obsessive oversight. In other words, a new generation of sophisticated computer generated images without intelligent design.
More & Less Than Human, Ian Cheng, paper and tape, 2013.
This intuitive guide to the history of consciousness by Ian Cheng maps a path through three compounding models of being– from the base of surviving the Umwelt (self-centered world) of material, biological, and social realities; to exercising the painful growth cycles of creative destruction; to imagining a speculative existence in which chaos is absorbed as a source of energy. Consciousness is only one of many “mental apps”, and life itself is considered material for an infinitely variable game. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Saccharomyces Cerevisia, or Baker’s Yeast, is considered by many to be the oldest domesticated organism, dating back some 4,000 years. In addition to being the main strain of yeast responsible for making our doughs rise, S. Cerevisia is of special interest to those who study the biology of life cycles, contributing to the identification of more genes affecting aging in mammals than any other model organism.
When S. Cerevisia is mixed with the bacteria Lactobacillus, flour, and water it grows into a thick, frothing soup, that will double in size every four to eight hours; the foundation for the bread known as Sourdough or Pain Levain. Every such “starter” gives its bread a unique flavor profile by the chance co-ordination of S. Cerevisia with locally available strains of yeast and Lactobacilli. Because any given yeast population is immortal–it can continue to divide and rejuvenate itself forever, even reverting to asexual reproduction if necessary–there is technically no limit on how long a starter can grow.
The starter used to make this bread was “born” in the 1890s in Klondike, Alaska, during the infamous Klondike Gold Rush. It was probably brought to the region by eager prospectors from San Francisco, the fabled home of American Sourdough. Over 100,000 such hopefuls left California for long trek to the frozen Klondike region, packed with a year’s worth of food (part of the government’s immigration mandate), though only a third of them persevered to their destination, with just a fraction of that number finding fortune.
Untitled (Plant), Martin Roth, 2014, Devil’s Backbone plant and Damanhur device.
Devil’s Backbone, or Pedilanthus tithymaloides, is a foot-shaped flower native to the American tropics. In the 1970s a team of researchers with a background in electronics embarked on a series of tests designed to investigate how plants perceive and act. Informed by more than forty years of explorations into plant perception, they eventually developed a device that enables plants and trees to play music. This device functions as a biofeedback system, which controls the MIDI synthesizer by measuring the electrical resistance of the vegetable tissues of a plant or a tree and then converting the variations of this physical parameter into control signals.
Plants that have been trained with this device are quicker to find the right balance and produce pleasant, gentle sounds. A “beginner” plant usually needs more time to start playing and may not play at all.
Pierre Huyghe selections from: The Garden of the Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges; The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares; and The Preserving Machine by Philip K. Dick.
“A strange destiny,” said Stephen Albert, “that of Ts’ui Pén Governor of his native province, learned in astronomy, in astrology and tireless in the interpretation of the canonical books, a chess player, a famous poet and a calligrapher. Yet he abandoned all to make a book and a labyrinth. He gave up all the pleasures of oppression, justice, of a well-stocked bed, of banquets, and even of erudition, and shut himself up in the Pavilion of the Limpid Sun for thirteen years. At his death, his heirs found only a mess of manuscripts. The family, as you doubtless know, wished to consign them to the fire, but the executor of the estate–a Taoist or a Buddhist monk–insisted on their publication.”
“The descendants of Tsu’ui Pen,” I replied, “still curse the memory of that monk. Such a publication was madness. The book is a shapeless mass of contradictory rough drafts. I examined it once upon a time: the hero dies in the third chapter, while in the fourth he is alive. As for that other enterprise of Ts’ui Pen…his Labyrinth….”
“Here is the Labyrinth,” Albert said, pointing to a tall, lacquered writing cabinet.
“An ivory labyrinth?” I exclaimed. “A tiny labyrinth indeed…!”
“A symbolic labyrinth,” he corrected me. “An invisible labyrinth of time. I, a barbarous Englishman, have been given the key to this transparent mystery. After more than a hundred years most of the details are irrecoverable, lost beyond all recall, but it isn’t hard to imagine what must have happened. At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said; ‘I am retiring to construct a maze.’ Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same. The Pavilion of the Limpid Sun was set in the middle of an intricate garden. This may have suggested the idea of a physical maze.
“Ts’ui Pen died. In all the vast lands which once belonged to your family, no one could find the labyrinth. The novel’s confusion suggested that it was the labyrinth. Two circumstances showed me the direct solution to the problem. First, the curious legend that Ts’ui Pen had proposed to create an infinite maze, second, a fragment of a letter which I discovered.”
Albert rose. For a few moments he turned his back to me. He opened the top drawer in the high black and gilded writing cabinet. He returned holding in his hand a piece of paper which had once been crimson but which had faded with the passage of time: it was rose colored, tenuous, quadrangular. Ts’ui Pen’s calligraphy was justly famous. Eagerly, but without understanding, I read the words which a man of my own blood had written with a small brush: “I leave to various future times, but not to all, my garden of forking paths.”
I handed back the sheet of paper in silene. Albert went on:
“Before I discovered this letter, I kept asking myself how a book could be infinite. I could not imagine any other than a circular volume. A volume whose last page would be the same as the first and so have the possibility of continuing indefinitely. I recalled, too, the night in the middle of The Thousand and One Nights when Queen Scheherezade, through a magical mistake on the part of her copyist, started to tell the story of The Thousand and One Nights, with the risk of again arriving at the night upon which she will relate it, and thus on to infinity. I also imagined a Platonic hereditary work, passed on from father to son, to which each individual would add a new chapter or correct, with pious care, the work of his elders.”
“The conjectures gave me amusement, but none seemed to have the remotest application to the contradictory chapters of Ts’ui Pen. At this point, I was sent from Oxford the manuscript you have just seen.”
“Naturally, my attention was caught by the sentence, ‘I leave to various future times, but not to all, my garden of forking paths.’ I had no sooner read this, than I understood. The Garden of Forking Paths was the chaotic novel itself. The phrase “to various future times, but not to all” suggested the image of bifurcating in time, not in space. Rereading the whole work confirmed this theory. In all fiction, when a man in faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses–simultaneously–all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel.”
“Fang, let us say, has a secret. A stranger knocks at his door. Fang makes up his mind to kill him. Naturally there are various possible outcomes. Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, both can be saved, both can die and so on and so on. In Ts’ui Pen’s work, all the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of departure for other bifurcations. Sometimes the pathways of this labyrinth converge. For example, you come to this house; but in other possible pasts you are my enemy; in others my friend.”
“If you will put up with my atrocious pronunciation, I would like to read you a few pages of your ancestor’s work…”
… “I do not think that your illustrious ancestor toyed idly with variations. I do not find it believable that he would waste thirteen years laboring over a never ending experiment in rhetoric. In your country the novel is an inferior genre; in Ts’ui Pen’s period, it was a despised one. Ts’ui Pen was a fine novelist but he was also a man of letters who, doubtless, considered himself more than a mere novelist. The testimony of his contemporaries attests to this, and certainly the known facts of his life confirm his leanings towards the metaphysical and the mystical. Philosophical conjectures take up the greater part of his novel. I know that of all problems, none disquieted him more, and none concerned him more than the profound one of time. Now then, this is the only problem that does not figure in the pages of The Garden. He does not even use the word which means time. How can these voluntary omissions be explained?”
I proposed various solutions, all of them inadequate. We discussed them. Finally Stephen Albert said: “In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited?” I thought for a moment and then replied:
“The word is chess.”
“Precisely,” said Albert. “The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous guessing game, or parable, in which the subject is time. The rules of the game forbid the use of the word itself. To eliminate a word completely, to refer to it by means of inept phrases and obvious paraphrases, is perhaps the best way of drawing attention to it. This, then, is the tortuous method of approach preferred by the oblique Ts’ui Pen in every meandering of his interminable novel. I have gone over hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected errors introduced by careless copyists, I have worked out the plan from this chaos, I have restored, or believe I have restored, the original. I have translated the whole work. I can state categorically that not once has the word time been used in the whole book.
“The explanation is obvious. The Garden of Forking Paths is a picture, incomplete yet not false, of the universe such a Ts’ui Pen conceived it to be. Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of time, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time–the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries–embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. I this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.”
“With my machine a person or an animal or a thing is like the station that broadcasts the concert you hear on the radio. If you turn the dial for the olfactory waves, you will smell the jasmine perfume on Madeleine’s throat, without seeing her. By turning the dial of the tactile waves, you will be able to stroke her soft, invisible hair and learn, like the blind, to know things by your hands. But if you turn all the dials at once, Madeleine will be reproduced completely, and she will appear exactly as she is; you must not forget that I am speaking of images extracted from mirrors, with the sounds, tactile sensation, flavors, odors, temperatures, all synchronized perfectly.”
“An observer will not realize that they are images. And if our images were to appear now, you yourselves would not believe me. Instead, you would find it easier to think that I had engaged a group of actors, improbably doubles for each of you!”
“This is the first part of the machine; the second part makes recordings; the third is a projector. No screens or papers are needed; the projections can be received through space, and it does not matter whether it is day or night. To explain this more clearly, I shall attempt to compare the parts of my machine with the television set that shows the images from more or less distant transmitters, with the camera that takes a motion picture of the images transmitted by the television set; and with the motion-picture projector.”
“I thought I would synchronize all the parts of my machine and take scenes of our lives: an afternoon with Faustine, conversations with some of you; and in that way I would be able to make an album of very durable and clear images, which would be a legacy from the present to the future; they would please your children and friends, and the coming generations whose customs will differ from our own.”
“I reasoned that if the reproductions of objects would be objects–as a photograph of a house is an object that represents another object–the reproductions of animals and plants who would not be animals or plants. I was certain that my images of persons would lack consciousness of themselves (like the characters in a motion picture).”
“But I found, to my surprise, that when I succeeded in synchronizing the different parts of the machine, after much hard work, I obtained reconstituted persons who would disappear if I disconnected the projecting apparatus, and would live only the moments when the scene was taken; when the scene ended they would repeat these same moments again and again, like a phonograph record or a motion picture that would end and begin again; moreover, no one could distinguish them from living persons (they appear to be circulating in another world with which our own has made a chance encounter). If we grant consciousness, and all that distinguishes us from objects, to the persons who surround us, we shall have no valid reason to deny it to the persons created by my machinery.”
“When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges. That was to be expected. When Madeleine existed for the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Madeleine herself was actually there.”
“I have shown that Morel’s style is unpleasant, with a liberal sprinkling of technical terms, and that it attempts, vainly, to achieve a certain grandiloquence. Its banality is obvious: It is hard for you to accept such a mechanical and artificial system for the reproduction of life? It might help if you bear in mind that what changes the sleight-of-hand artist’s movements into magic is our inability to see!”
“To make living reproductions, I need living transmitters. I do not create life.”
“The thing that is latent in a phonograph record, the thing that is revealed when I press a button and turn on the machine–shouldn’t we call that ‘life”’? Shall I insist, like the Chinese, that every life depends on a button which an unknown being can press? And you yourselves–how many times have you wondered about mankind’s destiny, or asked the old questions: ‘Where are we going? Like the unheard music that lies latent in a phonograph record, where are we until God orders us to be born?’ Don’t you see that there is a parallelism between the destinies of men and images?”
“The theory that the images have souls seems to be confirmed by the effects of my machine on persons, animals, and vegetables used as transmitters.”
“I understood that what Morel had said several hours ago was true (but very possibly he did not say it for the first time several hours ago but several years ago; he repeated it that night because it was part of the week, on the eternal record). I experienced a feeling of scorn, almost disgust, for those people and their indefatigable, repetitious activity. They appeared many times up there on the edge of the hill. To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares; to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).”
“The word museum, which I use to designate this house, is a survival of the time when I was working on plans for my invention, without knowing how it would eventually turn out. At that time I thought I would build large albums or museums, both public and private, filled with these images.”
“Now the time has come to make my announcement: This island, and its buildings, is our private paradise. I have taken some precautions–physical and moral ones–for its defense: I believe they will perfect it adequately. Even if we left tomorrow, we would be here eternally, repeating consecutively the moments of this week, powerless to escape from the consciousness we had in each one of them–the thoughts and feelings that the machine captured. We will be able to live a life that is always new, because in each moment of the projection we shall have no memories other than those we had in the corresponding moment of the eternal record, and because the future, left behind many times, will maintain its attributes forever.”
Logical reasons induce us to reject Morel’s hopes. Then images are not alive. But since his invention has blazed the trail, as it were, another machine should be invented to find out whether the images think and feel (or at least if they have the thoughts and the feelings that the people themselves had when the picture was made; of course, the relationship between their consciousness and these thoughts and feelings cannot be determined). The machine would be very similar to the one Morel invented and would be aimed at the thoughts and sensations of the transmitter; at any distance away from Faustine we should be able to have her thoughts and sensations (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory).
This month there were a number of higher tides; two of them were lunar, and the others, meteorological.
The appearances and disappearances: the machines project the images. The power from the tides causes the machines to operate.
After rather lengthy periods of low tides, there was a series of tides that came up to the mill in the lowlands. The machines began to run, and the eternal record started playing again where it had broken off.
If Morel’s speech was on the last night of the week, the first appearance must have occurred on the night of the third day.
Perhaps the absence of images during the long period before they first appeared was due to the change of the tides with the solar periods.
The two suns and the two moons: Since the week is repeated all through the year, some suns and moons do not coincide (and people complain of the cold when the weather on the island is warm, and swim in fetid water and dance in a thicket or during a storm). And if the whole island were submerged–except for the machines and projectors–the images, the museum, and the island itself would still be visible.
Perhaps the heat of the past few days has been so intense because the temperature of the day when the scene was photographed is superimposed on the present temperature.
When I was ready, I turned on the receivers of simultaneous action. Seven days have been recorded. I performed well: a casual observer would not suspect that I am not a part of the original scene. That came about naturally as the result of my painstaking preparation: I devoted two weeks to continuous study and experiment. I rehearsed my every action tirelessly. I studied what Faustine says, her questions and answers; I often inserted an appropriate sentence, so she appears to be answering me.
A bomber moved overhead. Bombs fell, bursting the museum to fragments, bringing the walls down in a roar of rubble and plaster. In the debris the last score disappeared, lost in the rubbish, to rot and mold.
And then, in Doc Labyrinth’s vision, he saw the score come burrowing out, like some buried mole. Quick like a mole, in fact, with claws and sharp teeth and a furious energy.
If music had that faculty, the ordinary, everyday instinct of survival which every worn and mole has, how different it would be! If music could be transformed into living creatures, animals with claws and teeth, then music might survive. If only a Machine could be built, a Machine to process musical scores into living forms…
Weeks passed. The Machine was coming along fine; in fact, it was almost finished. They had given it a trial run, feeding a couple of popular songs into it. The results? Two small mouse-like animals had come scampering out, rushing around the laboratory until the cat caught and ate them. But the Machine was a success.
Many fleeting notions much have coursed through his mind as he adjusted the controls and made ready for the first transformation. He had selected a priceless score to begin with, the score of the Mozart G Minor Quintet. For a time he turned the pages, lost in thought, his mind far away. At last he carried it to Machine and dropped it in.
Labyrinth went ahead feeding the music of many composers into the Preserving machine, one after another, until the woods behind his house were filled with creeping, bleating things that screamed and crashed in the night. There were many oddities that come out, creations that startled and astonished him.
…So he let them go, off into the woods, and away they went, hopping and rolling and jumping as best they could. But already a sense of failure hung over him. Each time a creature came out he was astonished; he did not seem to have control over the results at all. It was out of his hands, subject to some strong, invisible law that had subtly taken over, and this worried him greatly. The creatures were bending, changing before a deep, impersonal force, a force that Labyrinth could neither see nor understand. And it made him afraid…
…He had ensured their survival, all right, but in so doing he had erased any meaning, any value in it.
…”There’s no doubt.” Labyrinth came over and sat down opposite me. “It’s undergone some metamorphosis. It certainly didn’t have poisoned spines to start with. you know, it’s a good thing that I played my Noah role carefully…”
…”What do you mean?”
“I made them all neuter. They can’t reproduce. There will be no second generation. When these die, that will be the end of it.”
“I must say I’m glad you thought of that.:
“I wonder,” Labyrinth murmured. “I wonder how it would sound, now this way.”
“The sphere, the Bach bug. That’s the real test, isn’t it? I could put it back through the Machine. We could see. Do you want to find out?…
…Labyrinth stirred. He pushed the slot-piece aside and reached into the Machine. His fingers came out grasping a slim sheet, a score of music. He handed it to me. “This is the result,” he said. “We can go upstairs and play it.”
We went back up to the music room. Labyrinth sat down before the grand piano and I passed him back the score. He opened it and studied it for a moment, his face blank, without expression. Then he began to play.
I listened to the music. It was hideous. I have never heard anything like it. It was distorted, diabolical, without sense or meaning, except, perhaps, an alien, disconcerting meaning that should never have been there. I could believe only with the greatest effort that it had once been a Bach Fugue, part of a most orderly and respected work.
“That settles it,” Labyrinth said. He stood up, took the score in his hands, and tore it to shreds.
As we made our way down the path to my car I said, “I guess the struggle for survival is a force bigger than any human ethos. It makes our precious morals and manners look a little thin.”
JUNE 24, 7:30 PM
The Host and the Cloud, Pierre Huyghe, 2009–10, 122 min, digital.
Join us for a screening of Pierre Huyghe’s The Host and the Cloud (2009–2010) at Anthology Film Archives. As Pierre Huyghe describes it:
“Set in a disused French ethnographic museum lying on an ancient human and animal zoo, an experiment unfolds over the course of one year. A small group of people is put under influence. Everything that happens is real. They are exposed to live situations that appear accidentally, simultaneously or without any sense of order within the building. They can imitate or transform them endlessly to variable intensity. From a trial to a dance, from a hypnosis session to sexual acts, from an archive to a coronation, all these figures are presented or re-interpreted. A set of operations unfolds: it is an auto-generating system in which cause and effect remain indeterminate and where everything that was written leaks into the contingent and the chaotic.
The Host and the Cloud is a ritual of separation. The relations structuring a subject to its context are cut. The conditions of a culture are recreated. Its influence, its mode of exhibition are exorcised. Some witnesses were chosen to penetrate the building during the Day of the Dead, on Saint Valentine’s and during May Day, but the experiment remains indifferent to their presence. The film documents a part of the event and shows the incapacity to represent the absent subject who has been affected.”
JULY 17, 7:00 PM
Dr. Ali Brivanlou’s research focuses on the molecular events and cellular interactions that regulate the emergence of key structures in the early embryo. Most of the work in his laboratory focuses on the molecular basis of cell fate specification and patterning during early embryonic development. The ultimate objective of the work is to understand the molecular circuitry underlying embryonic induction, with a special emphasis on the formation of the nervous system. Toward this aim, he performs comparative studies using both amphibian and mammalian model systems, including human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Dr. Brivanlou will come to speak about his research, and about its potential crossovers with artistic speculation.