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    Between Code and Mystery

    Author: Zhenzhen Qi


    Commissioned by ESP Culture Magazine, issue 2. April, 2021

    You and I no longer Live in the Same World.

    In a 2018 lecture titled A Tale of Seven Planets, philosopher Bruno Latour observed that “we no longer seem to live on the same planet.” Some of us believe that the earth is trembling, and others do not recognize climate issues. Deep-rooted disputes of what used to be referred to as Nature have further expanded into territorializing forces in culture and politics. How has our world become so fragmented? How have we lost the ability to see through each other’s eyes? Where can we begin to grasp the shape and form of the invisible, artificial divides?

    VRPlanet, A Multiple Planet Simulator created by Rory Barnes and co-authors. Source: https://www.washington.edu/

    Manufactured Reality Human experiences are increasingly digitized into numerical data, analyzed, and visualized on the computer screen. Cluster analysis is the task of data grouping that is commonly used in exploratory data mining. For example, the graph below illustrates Gaussian clustering. It plots out two-dimensional data collected on the internet. A software algorithm calculates each visual cluster’s center and edge based on the Gaussian distribution curve, which zooms in on the center as the edges are filtered, reduced, and deleted. In the cultural dimension, the graph can also be read as “White men eat white cream and strawberries with other white men…You are what your friends do”. (Steyerl, 2020). Today’s digital interactive medium is faced with an imperative – the negotiation between effectiveness and openness. With its buttons, search bars, data caches, software algorithms perform the god-trick(Haraway, 1988) of clustering, reducing, and correlating fragmented human experiences from nowhere. However, clouds, mythical creatures, and the human body whisper to us an alternative vision of reality that isn’t centered around division, competition, or winner-takes-all.

    Visualization of Gaussian-Clustering. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cluster_analysis

    Thinking Through Clouds To artist and architect Lucy Siyao Liu, current machine languages are constructed through predefined structures of meaning. Similar to how other monolinguistic languages(Liu, 2018), such as writing, reading rely on existing infrastructure, a machine can only highlight an object’s quality, so long as that quality can be represented and communicated via the predefined protocol. In an article for The Creative Independent, she noted that:

    Concepts, emotions, and values are siphoned through the filter of language to become programmable and efficient. In this way, today’s communication systems regulate how we think and perpetuate spaces where nothing can be said without immediate interpretation.

    Lucy Siyao Liu, Cloudy Lines, 2018. Source: https://lsyl.live/

    Driven by the curiosity for a more expansive mode of meaning-making, Lucy decides to teach machines to think through clouds. To an untrained eye, clouds invite a sense of simplicity. However, due to their delicate yet dynamic forms, clouds are among the most challenging subjects to be rendered through traditional drawing techniques. By combining historical research and intuition, Liu programmed a procedural line drawing system with mindfully designed interruptions, operating a plot machine to render drawing methods using graphite on mylar.

    Lucy Siyao Liu, Land Raster. Source: https://lsyl.live/

    Today, clouds are increasingly used as a metaphor for decentralized telecommunication infrastructure. To Liu, Cloud also carries the hope that “these technical frameworks can help us learn to know, think, and imagine in new ways—and can, as a whole, help to expand our knowledge toolkits to be more pluralistic”(2018). Liu named her own body of work A Curriculum on the Fabrication of Clouds, as a reminder that although incorporating indeterministic algorithmic design, her rendering of Clouds is still just one way, one method, one technique. Besides her own computational drawing, Liu also curated drawing-based instructional methods for thinking about designing pluralistic systems. Perhaps the real pleasure of admiring Clouds lies in the notion that no one can claim to be the authority of it.

    Mining The Secret Forces Of A World As an artist working with software and video games, Ian Cheng thinks that the medium of computation allows him to do two of his favorite things simultaneously: make worlds and make mistakes. Starting from the mental model of a gated garden(Cheng, 2019), Cheng contemplates a world defined by laws, borders, values, pleasure, dysfunction, and permissions to grow. However, he wonders if there is a more exciting way to think of a world that doesn’t assume a single vantage point, a single author, a single beginning or center. How can one instead thinks of a world that cannot be flattened to its effects or components alone?

    Ian Cheng, Emissary In The Squat Of Gods

    live simulation and story, infinite duration, 2015. Images courtesy of the artist.

    As an artist, Cheng turned to Worlding, a concept that draws from Heddiger’s notion of holding open “the Opening” of the world. In Cheng’s genre-defining, worlding project Emissaries Series, Cheng comprised three archetypal forces – Chaos: an encroaching, unknowable, nature force; Order: a dogmatic, conservative, structuring force; Transformer: A spiritual, open, metabolizing force. To Cheng, these forces enable any world to bypass the stagnation of utopian, the disorientation of dystopian, and instead always reveals but never concludes.

    As artists, technologists, and researchers, we (zzyw) are drawn to the thought of looking at reality as interrelated yet partially withdrawn systems. We are fascinated by mythically captivating systems such as Lucy’s Clouds and Cheng’s Emissaries. We also co-create similar systems with friends and sometimes general audienced from museums or art spaces whom we have never met in person. For the past two years, we have been working on ThingThingThing, an open-source engine of Collective World Making that allows museum visitors from around the world to collectively stimulate a shared virtual world.

    zzyw(Yang Wang and Zhenzhen Qi),ThingThingThing, a virtual simulation made collaboratively, 2021.

    Source: zzyw.org

    This project taught us something humbling about worlding. Participants of our Worlding workshops are general museum audiences, moms, students, commuters, art lovers, teachers, and more. The experience of designing the rules for a simulated world revealed a hidden layer of their immediate reality with a sense of powerlessness, “I feel like my life is also becoming a video game, except that I can’t see or change the rules.”

    Body As Technology of Cipher

    Scytale made of hide. Source: mathcenter.oxford.emory.edu

    Instead of making new worlds, artist Lai Yi Ohlsen turns to Cipher, a primordial form of cryptography technology. One of the earliest cipher devices, scytale, appeared in ancient Greek around 400BC. According to the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Oxford College, the sender wraps a piece of fabric around a cylinder and writes the original message. The fabric alone is unwound and transported to the receiver, who then rewinds it back to decipher the message.

    Spartan warriors initially used the device to communicate during war times. Ohlsen instead asks, how can it be revitalized to protect the energy, the sensuality, and the uncomputability of the human body from contemporary digital media’s tendency to dehydrate(Wang and Qi, 2020). Ohlsen recorded a series of dance movements inspired by computers, and uploaded it into an Instagram account. She then orchestrated what she refers to as the ultimate collaboration, downloading and uploading the video over 100 times, with Instagram’s native compression algorithm acting as a cipher, gradually rendering the video bodiless, forever concealing the memory of the human body.

    Lai Yi Ohlsen, code poem, 2020. Source: Pioneerworks.org

    Lai Yi Ohlsen, Choreography Of Circulation, 2020. Source: Pioneerworks.org

    Commenting on the irony of digital reproduction as a force of protection, instead of disrupting the aura of the creative act, Ohlsen refers to the ancient Chinese concept of Shanzhai. Against the backdrop of private ownership, Shanzhai is commonly interpreted as fake in the western context. However, according to philosopher Byung-Chul Han, eastern tradition has a very different understanding of Law, which was initially derived from Quan, a piece of weight that can be adjusted by sliding its position on the scale. Eastern tradition considers rules as a relative, instead of an absolute concept. From this lens, Ohlsen’s work can also be viewed as an infinite man-machine ritual of remaking.

    Bubbly Foam A little more than half a decade ago, scientific discovery stumbled on a glimpse of life that resembled bundled yarns impossible to untangle. In 1961, Edward Norton Lorenz, a professor at MIT’s meteorology department, ran a weather pattern prediction model with 12 variables, representing factors such as wind speed and temperature. The computer Lorenz operated, a Royal McBee LGP-30, printed out variables as 3-digit numbers. Without realizing this, Lorenz input the initial condition as 0.506, instead of the actual value of 0.506127. To Lorenz’s surprise, this indiscernible difference resulted in a butterfly-shaped, wildly turbulent prediction result. Lorenz’s discovery was named Chaos theory, also popularly known as the butterfly effect.

    Visualization of Lorenz Attractor. Source: http://www.edc.ncl.ac.uk/

    Lorenz’s Chaos theory invites out a transient, vulnerable, and indeterministic dimension of human conditions. It echos the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, or 空, which has been interpreted as emptiness, the form of foam, or the sensation of water bubbles. Contrary to its face meaning, Sunyata alludes to a sense of Self that is rooted in a convoluted, directionless, and signless form of interconnection to the Other. In the Heart Sutra, the Buddha speaks of the metaphor of an Indra’s Net. In the heaven of Indra, there is said to be an infinite network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one, you see all the others reflected in it.

    Intra’s Net designed by Stress Engineering Services in Cincinnati, OH. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

    According to the scripture, the net was one of the mightiest weapons of the sky-god Indra. The intricacies of the connection generate a powerful illusion that entangles all forms of darkness, allowing life to prevail. Indra’s net has served as a mental image for envisioning multiplicity in Western civilization. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter borrowed the metaphor as a model to explain how systems can acquire meaning through cross-referring seemingly trivial individual components. In Society of Mind, Computer scientist Marvin Minsky proposed a similar idea of viewing artificial intelligence as a society of diverse agents instead of a fixed set of fundamental principles.

    In a time when we are constantly observing and observed, examining and examined, we are in desperate need of a different world that’s without Center and Edge. As Cheng’s dreamlike simulation, Ohlsen’s algorithmically corrupted images, and Liu’s procedural Clouds, Intra’s Net reorients towards a vital system situated somewhere between code and mystery, fused with vast, unified diversity. Perhaps what we need is no longer another ground-breaking technology, but a journey filled with glitches, ambiguities, and most importantly, infinite openings.