Vaginal Planet: Delphic Chatbots and the Logic of the Spiral in Alexandra Neuman’s Alternative Energy

Vaginal Planet: Delphic Chatbots and the Logic of the Spiral in Alexandra Neuman’s Alternative Energy

In the language of the Green New Deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, “alternative energy” suggests a future premised on a simple upgrade: swap out fossil fuels for clean technology; update the means of production without altering its capitalist logic.1 How do we imagine a future made possible by neither a temporal (carbon offsets)—nor spatial (colonizing Mars)—fix? The cosmic, vaginal oracle of Alexandra Neuman’s video Alternative Energy (2020), channeling the wisdom of the Pythia and the irreverence of SmarterChild, emerges from the void with a provocation to consider the alterity of alternative energy. Out of the whistling machinic hum and rippling tides, the oracle speaks to the Levinasian conception of feminine alterity that discloses “all possibilities of the transcendent relationship with the Other.”2

Through the fluorescent (feminine) being—whose outstretched, typing hand metonymically suggests the searching subject and the viewer—we come to see this alterity as familiarity—“an en-ergy of separation.”3 Questions and answers are typed in real time across the screen in 8 bit font, evoking elliptical chatbots who, pre-Siri, were free from the imperative to facticity or service. The oracle does not exist for us, on demand; they come from a vaginal planet that sources its energy “from a giant hole in the tides.” After asking each question, the hand must spin a small egg within the oracle’s computer animated labial folds, as if rolling a die to determine the next move. The oracle’s cryptic answers, however, do not tell the hand how to proceed but submerge it deeper into the strange. The climactic question “How long will I exist inside this vessel?” sends the egg spiraling into the blue-green tides only to land upon the familiar orifice of the navel. Have we reached the surface of the vaginal planet or are we looking into a mirror? “Take a trip inside your belly,” guides the oracle, “to feel how death and birth are accessible on all sides.” Like every figure of alterity, death—the most unfamiliar—is paradoxically a portal to its (familiar) opposite, life.

The vagina is perhaps the figure of deathly familiarity par excellence. From ancient myth to Freudian psychoanalysis, conceptions of feminine otherness are well rehearsed. Two examples, the figures of the hostess and the womb, speak to these binaries—familiar and strange, self and other, home and universe—while refusing the notion that these things are “energetically separate.”4 The modern word hostess, contrary to what we might assume, is “not a feminine form of the Latin hostis, but a corrupted form of ‘hostility.’”5 Tracy McNulty notes that “[i]n the Judeo-Christian tradition, the hostess is the excess of the host, the one who is not made in the image of God.”6 As in the biblical stories of Jael and Judith, the hostess is duplicitous, conniving. In modern politics, the First Lady is the nation’s hostess, an extension of the president; if she wields too much influence over her husband, she is considered a hostile threat from within (Hillary Clinton).7

We find similar uneasiness in Freud’s conception of “the female genital organs” as both the “the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings” and the “unheimlich [uncanny] place.”8 Put another way, “[t]he unheimlich,” or the womb, “is what was once heimisch.”9 For Gayatri Spivak, the womb’s slippage into the uncanny relates to the “planet as signifier of the uncanny, by way of nationalist colonialism and postcoloniality.”10 The feminine, signified by the womb, is thus wrested from the specificity of the female body and mobilized toward new discursive ends—“to imagine ourselves as … planetary creatures rather than global entities.”11 Rather than rendering the planet or the womb more familiar, it is time for human beings to immerse themselves into the strange. In this constellation, the strange does not exist as a temporary impasse on the way to fully conquer and homogenize the world outside. No matter how many millions of miles Elon Musk travels from Earth, the familiar forms of capital will follow like manifest destiny.

To immerse oneself in the strange demands a different orientation from outside/inside, one in which our ego-shell does not protect us but holds us hostage to ourselves. In Alternative Energy, otherness isn’t a threat from within but rather a constant source of spiralic renewal, recollection, and reproduction. The vaginal oracle, far from the monstrous vagina dentata or sheathed enemy, drifts around us like a satellite. Detached from the human body yet distinctly feminine in form, the vaginal oracle encounters the subject/viewer as another figure chancing to pass through their orbit. Linear progress is foreign to the oracle; they know only the elliptical movement of play, the matrixial submersion into the w/hole—and w/hole-y Other—entity within. The oracle’s proposal to “take a trip inside your belly,” then, might be understood as much a call to internal self-discovery as a challenge to the subject’s superiority. In keeping with the oracle’s abstraction from the female form, the logic of the feminine—instead of valorizing the feminine subject—presents itself as a mobilizing life-force. Alternative energy, in this sense, is not another resource to be extracted and depleted but a connection to be renewed.

Maddie Wells


1 As Jasper Bernes argues, “The problem with the Green New Deal is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. It promises to switch out the energetic basis of modern society as if one were changing the battery in a car.” See Bernes, “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal.” Commune, April 25, 2019, https://communemag.com/between-the-devil-and-the-green-new-deal/.
2 Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Interiority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1969), 156.
3 Ibid.
4 Teresa Brennan, Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy (London: Routledge, 2000), 11. For Brennan, “the idea of an energetic connection between the subject, others and the environment” is inimical to modern Western thought insofar as it “dims the subject’s preeminence.”
5 Tracy McNulty, The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007), xliii. McNulty provides an exhaustive account of the etymological, philosophical, and historical relation between host and hostess: “The Latin hostis means ‘enemy’ as well as ‘guest,’ and is also the linguistic root of ‘hostility,’ which developed when relations between individuals or clans were supplanted by a general distinction between those internal and external to the city-state. Hostility is thus contained within the notion of the guest as an implicit possibility” (53).
6 Ibid, 52.
7 Ibid, 53.
8 Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological works of Sigmund Freud, trans. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1919), 245.
9 Ibid.
10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia UP, 2003), 73.
11 Ibid.

NON-HUMAN VISUAL PERSPECTIVES By Linda Carluccio

 Non-human visual perspectives 

Linda Carluccio

 

At this stage, it is widely and concretely believed that ours is a visual society: we communicate and talk through images, something that is probably based on an effort to see the world and share it. The media-visual environment we are immersed in is made up partly by media, as the word itself indicates, and partly by images. It must be considered that all devices, mobile phones, laptops, audio-visual devices, tracking and fixed cameras, webcams, CCTVs, GoPros and the overabundant images they produce, run on two impressive tracks. This never-before-seen situation transforms everyday life, distorts and, most importantly, amplifies our sensations and perceptions, changing our very humanity. So, the media become extensions of our bodies, images become our languages. What led us into this intricate iconosphere is the advent of photography: a technological revolution. The progressive evolution of machines continues to trigger ever new thoughts and doubts, but it is certain that the medium has become(1) key in the fertile but also mine-strewn ground on which we tread. The consequences of the photographic revolution are so relevant that they affect arts, philosophy, society, science, and politics.

Loosely applying Dziga Vertov’s 1923(2) manifesto to today, one can say that the media are made up of a mechanical eye: they show the world in the only way that they see it. The media do not have man’s specific limits, do not have time and space boundaries, because their merchandise circulates virally and carries memories, historical factors, recollections, and other dimensions. Their technological essence and complexity allow for the creation and attainment of new perceptions of reality and for seeing what is still unknown.

The bond we have established with media and images has taken root so spontaneously that it could be a new challenge to try and go beyond the anthropocentric era, which is impoverishing the Earth, including the mediasphere. It is indeed interesting to go beyond strictly human relations and explore the possibilities of situations which are actually already unstoppably here. Let us try to think about media too from a non-human point of view, since they live with us in an apparently passive way: which implications may they have? The media are not passive, on a second thought, because they are, to the contrary, just like images, as active and acting as ever. The possibility and the prospects of non-human or post-human perceptions are sometimes stimulating, other times even disturbing.

The Italian artist Emilio Vavarella, with his work Animal Cinema (2017), made a short film by editing videos chosen from YouTube. The only actors in the film are eleven animals (crab, octopi, dog, brown bear, panther, squirrel, capuchin monkey, macaque, and the eagle(3) at the end of the film), who stole the devices, took possession of them and acted autonomously. The work is built on a fluid, seamless editing of the different video fragments, giving rise to a sequential and continuous narration aimed at fusing their different animal kingdoms. Vision does not belong to human beings any more: humans started the process, but the film shows the animals’ perceptions, going from claws clashing fiercely against the screen, to suckers inspecting through quick moves, going from one branch to another of a large tree following monkeys and squirrels. The non-human shows us what we do not know, what we cannot see; it becomes powerful and independent in manoeuvring the medium until it switches it off, as in the final scene of the film.

The non-human or post-human, then, starts to exercise an acting presence in the world through the technological unconscious(4), which paved the way towards an ever more accentuated reflection on the redefinition of the subject. Actively looking is no longer a prerogative of the human being.

Screenshot from Animal Cinema (2017), Emilio Vavarella.
Photographic sources: http://emiliovavarella.com/animal-cinema/

 

 

«The technical vision, chance and unintentional, prevails over subjectivity. For avantgarde movements it was the acceptance of the machine’s or the animal’s, which is to say the non-human’s, gaze, which liberated the human from his/her atavisms and his/her habits: irrationality, or its simulation, is the way to get to a new rationality»(5).

It is necessary to keep in mind the medium itself as potential by itself and coinciding, today, with the algorithm, when the human being is not the filmmaker. The semiotic definition(6) of algorithm is knowing how to shoot, focus, record, analyse, develop, as can be seen in any narrative discourse, and expresses itself in achieving its mission-function through a neutral operator: a robot.

When it comes to the non-human, then, the animal kingdom is not the only alternative. The progressive expansion of the machines’ capacity to perceive, interpret, and act independently raises several questions about living alongside one another and about the limits and confines of the humanity-technology dichotomy.

True, images are everywhere and propagate exponentially, but many of them are produced by machines for machines: images which are invisible to the human eye. An artist who brings this kind of images to light is American Trevor Pagler. His Adversarially Evolved Hallucination (2017) series is in line with visual non-human perspectives. It shows repertoires of alienating images produced by AIs. The images are created by computer vision systems which, after considerable dataset training, became aware of the visual perception of the world. The artist, in collaboration with software developers from Stanford University, correlated two AIs: one for image recognition, the other for image generation. The team has thus “taught” the machines to “see” specific entities or phenomena taken from literature, poetry, popular culture, by setting up categories, defined by the artist as Corpus: The Humans, The Interpretation of Dreams, Omens and Portents, and by translating them into cryptic and disturbing images in line with exquisitely human received ideas. Although Paglen’s research is aimed at identifying the controversial politicians which belong to the category of AI and to all surveillance systems, it is particularly interesting to make out, in his work, the images produced by the machines’ perception. «Technology is thought to be impartial, but it is not»(7), the American artist maintains. He exploits the functioning of the artificial vision of machines, which are interconnected with human beings and with power establishments.

Similarly to the scenario of the two artistic cases, the artist-man acts by starting a process, then the algorithm managed by non-human operators responds, and the images become powerful. Non-humans have presence, have their own visual perception, and the media spur us to amplify our senses and become aware of a world which has never belonged to human beings only, and of which we still do not see so much.

Trevor Paglen, Comet (Corpus: Omens and Portents), Adversarially Evolved Hallucination, 2017. 
Image source: https://www.metropictures.com/artists/trevor-paglen#4

Trevor Paglen, Porn (Corpus: The Humans), Adversarially Evolved Hallucination, 2017.
Image source: https://www.metropictures.com/exhibitions/trevor-paglen4/selected-works?view=slider#11

Trevor Paglen, Vampir (Corpus: Monster of Capitalism), Adversarially Evolved Hallucination, 2017.
Image source: https://www.metropictures.com/exhibitions/trevor-paglen4/selected-works?view=slider#13

1 V. Tanni, Memestetica. Il settembre eterno dell’arte, Nero, Rome, 2020, p. 21.

2 Dziga Vertov’s Manifesto of 1923, quoted in Ways of seeing, John Berger, episode 1, BBC, 1972.

3 http://emiliovavarella.com/animal-cinema/

4 F. Vaccari, Fotografia e inconscio tecnologico, Einaudi, Turin, 2011.

5 J. Fontcuberta, La furia delle immagini. Note sulla postfotografia, Einaudi, Turin, 2018 p.106.

6 A. J. Greimas, J. Courtés, Semiotica. Dizionario ragionato della teoria del linguaggio, Mondadori, Milan, p.5.

7 https://www.artforum.com/interviews/trevor-paglen-talks-about-surveillance-ai-and-his-new-work-69919

Prospettive visive non umane

Linda Carluccio

È ormai opinione diffusa e concreta che la nostra è una società visuale: comunichiamo e parliamo attraverso le immagini, caratterista, questa, basata probabilmente sul tentativo di vedere il mondo e condividerlo. L’ambiente media-visuale in cui siamo immersi è costituito da una parte dai media appunto e dall’altra dalle immagini. Si devono considerare, infatti, due imponenti binari su cui corrono parallelamente tutti i  dispositivi, cellulari, computer portatili, dispositivi audio-visivi, fotocamere mobili e fisse, webcam, telecamere di sorveglianza, GoPro e le sovrabbondanti immagini prodotte dagli stessi. Tale situazione senza precedenti trasforma il quotidiano, distorce e soprattuto amplifica le nostre sensazioni e percezioni, modificando la nostra stessa umanità. Ecco che i media divengono estensioni dei nostri corpi, le immagini il nostro linguaggio. L’avvento della fotografia è stata la rivoluzione tecnologica che ci ha portato in questa intricata iconosfera: la progressiva evoluzione della macchina continua a innescare sempre nuove riflessioni e perplessità, ma è indubbio riconoscere il valore centrale che il mezzo ha acquisito(1) nell’attuale fertile – e minato in ugual misura – terreno sui cui camminiamo. Le conseguenze della rivoluzione fotografica sono talmente rilevanti da ripercuotersi in ambito artistico, filosofico, sociale, scientifico e politico.
Traslando le parole del manifesto di Dziga Vertov del 1923(2) a oggi, si può affermare che i media sono costituiti da un occhio meccanico e mostrano il mondo per come solo essi possono vederlo; i media non hanno i limiti peculiari dell’uomo, non hanno limiti di tempo e di spazio poiché la loro merce circola in modo virale e presentano ricordi, fatti storici, memorie, dimensioni altre. La loro essenza e complessità tecnologica permette di creare e ottenere nuove percezioni della realtà e di vedere quanto è ancora sconosciuto.
Il legame che abbiamo instaurato con media e immagini è così spontaneamente attecchito che una nuova sfida potrebbe essere quella di provare a superare, anche nell’ambito della mediasfera, l’epoca antropocentrica che sta impoverendo la terra. E’ interessante, infatti, andare oltre le relazioni strettamente umane ed esplorare le possibilità di situazioni già irrefrenabilmente presenti. Proviamo a pensare in ottica non umana anche nei confronti dei media che convivono e coesistono con noi in maniera apparentemente passiva: quali potrebbero essere i risvolti? La condizione passiva, riflettendo meglio, non coinvolge i media che sono invece, così come le immagini, attivi e attanti come non mai. Le possibilità e le prospettive di percezioni non umane o postumane sono talvolta stimolanti, tavolta persino inquietanti.
L’artista italiano Emilio Vavarella nel suo lavoro Animal Cinema (2017) ha realizzato un breve film con il montaggio di video selezionati da YouTube. Gli attori del film sono esclusivamente gli undici animali (granchio, piovre, cane, orso bruno, pantere, scoiattolo, scimmia cappuccino, macaco e l’aquila(3) a chiudere il film) che hanno rubato i dispositivi, se ne sono appropriati e hanno agito autonomamente. Il lavoro si viene a costituire su un montaggio fluido dei diversi frammenti video, senza interruzioni dando luogo ad una narrazione sequenziale e continua volta ad una fusione dei regni animali. La visione non appartiene più all’essere umano: egli ha innescato il processo, ma il film ci mostra la percezioni degli animali, passando da chele che si scontrano fortemente contro lo schermo a ventose che ispezionano a scattanti passaggi tra un ramo e l’altro di un grande albero seguendo scimmie e scoiattoli. Il non umano che ci mostra ciò che non sappiamo, ciò che noi non possiamo vedere, acquista potere e raggiunge una propria indipendenza nel manovrare il media fino a spegnerlo, come nella scena finale del film.
Il non umano o postumano, quindi, inizia ad esercitare una presenza agente nel mondo tramite l’inconscio tecnologico(4) che ha aperto le porte ad una riflessione sempre più accentuata sulla ridefinizione del soggetto. Il guardare attivamente non è più una prerogativa dell’essere umano. «La visione tecnica, fortuita e non intenzionale, prevale sulla soggettività. Per le avanguardie, era l’accettazione dello sguardo della macchina – o dell’animale, cioè del non umano – ciò che liberava l’umano dai suoi atavismi e dalle sue abitudini: l’irrazionalità, o la sua simulazione, è il modo per giungere a una nuova razionalità.»(5).
Bisogna tener presente il media stesso come autonomamente in potenza e coincidente, oggi, con l’algoritmo quando l’essere umano non ne è il regista. L’algoritmo, da definizione semiotica(6), corrisponde a un saper fare – fotografare, inquadrare, registrare, analizzare, sviluppare – che si riscontra in un qualsiasi discorso narrativo e si esprime nel compimento della missione-funzione tramite un operatore neutro denominato automa.
Se si parla di non umano, quindi, non si fa certo riferimento solo al mondo animale. La progressiva espansione delle capacità delle macchine di percepire, interpretare e agire in modo autonomo pone svariati interrogativi rispetto alla coabitazione e ai limiti e confini della dicotomia umanità-tecnologia.
Le immagini sono ovunque e si diffondono esponenzialmente, si, ma c’è una gran parte di queste che è prodotta da macchine per le macchine: immagini invisibili all’essere umano. Un artista che porta alla luce questo genere di immagini non visibili è l’americano Trevor Pagler. In linea con il discorso di prospettive visive non umane è la sua serie Adversarially Evolved Hallucination (2017) che rivela raccolte di immagini stranianti prodotte dalle IA. Le immagini sono state realizzate da sistemi di computer vision che, in seguito a considerevoli training sets di dati, hanno consapevolizzato la percezione visiva del mondo. L’artista, in collaborazione con gli sviluppatori di software dell’Università di Stanford, ha messo in relazione due IA: una per il riconoscimento di immagini, una per generare le immagini. La squadra ha in questo modo “insegnato” alle macchine come vedere specifiche entità o fenomeni tratti dalla letteratura, dalla poesia, dalla cultura popolare costituendo categorie definite Corpus dall’artista, Gli umani, L’interpretazione dei sogni, Auspici e presagi tradotti in immagini criptiche e inquietanti conformi a preconcetti squisitamente umani. Sebbene la ricerca di Paglen sia votata ad individuare i controversi politici che appartengono alle IA e a tutti i sistemi di sorveglianza, è comunque particolarmente interessante cogliere dal suo lavoro quelle che sono immagini prodotte dalla percezione delle macchine. «Si presuppone che la tecnologia sia imparziale, ma non lo è»(7) sostiene l’artista americano che specula sul funzionamento della visione artificiale delle macchine interconnesse all’essere umano e alle strutture di potere.
Similmente allo scenario dei due casi artistici, l’uomo- artista agisce nell’avviare un processo, l’algoritmo gestito da operatori non umani risponde e le immagini acquistano potenza. I non umani sono presenti, hanno una loro percezione visiva e i media ci spingono ad ampliare i sensi e prendere coscienza di un mondo che non è mai appartenuto soltanto all’essere umano e di cui ancora tanto non riusciamo vedere.

1 V. Tanni, Memestetica. Il settembre eterno dell’arte, Nero, Roma, 2020, p. 21
2 Manifesto di Dziga Vertov 1923, citato in Ways of seeing, John Berger, episodio 1, BBC, 1972
3 http://emiliovavarella.com/animal-cinema/
4 F. Vaccari, Fotografia e inconscio tecnologico, Einaudi, Torino, 2011
5 J. Fontcuberta, La furia delle immagini. Note sulla postfotografia, Einaudi, Torino, 2018 p.106
6 A. J. Greimas, J. Courtés, Semiotica. Dizionario ragionato della teoria del linguaggio, Mondadori, Milano, p.5
7 https://www.artforum.com/interviews/trevor-paglen-talks-about-surveillance-ai-and-his-new-work-69919