Ultramono: Research, Development & Production of Intermedia Art
Tanja Vujinović, Media Artist & Researcher
ULTRAMONO: Research, Development & Production of (Inter)media Art
Intermedia Art and Research Project
Installations (objects, liquid substances, custom made software and electronics, generative sound and video), publication
Author: Tanja Vujinović
Production: Ultramono, 2018-ongoing
Coproducers: ACE KIBLA, Maribor; Department of Knowledge Technologies, Jožef Stefan Institute, Ljubljana,
Executive producers: Tanja Vujinović, Jan Kušej (Ultramono)
Software, electronics: Tanja Vujinović, Miloš Roglić (Unity3D), Borut Savski (Arduino), Stefan Doepner (3D printing, pneumatics)
Project is carried out as part of the Postdoctoral residency at the Department of Knowledge Technologies, Jožef Stefan Institute, Ljubljana
Homunculus∞Agens project joins the research of the technological uncanny, reflection of the state-of-the-art of life extension through technology, the construction of the technological “other” through employing various anthropomorphic & abstract agents and machines inspired by historical artworks of Surrealists and Dada.
Homunculus∞Agens project by Tanja Vujinović produced by Ultramono Institute, opens many questions regarding our relationship towards technology. This interdisciplinary project merges elements of technology, science and arts, with final outcome of the research taking shape in forms of cybernetic installations and accompanying theory. More so, it includes elements of philosophy, psychology, art and media theory, theory of visual culture, and artificial intelligence with its sub disciplines of machine learning, data mining, and robotics. Project is inspired by historical avant-garde artists’ machines and current research breakthroughs in science and technology. It is carried as part of the Tanja Vujinović’s interdisciplinary postdoctoral residency at the Department of Knowledge Technologies, Jožef Stefan Institute, Ljubljana.
Through the Homunculus∞Agens project we are thinking about the future of humanity and relationship of consciousness, body and technology. Role of the technological artificial agents, transfer of consciousness into virtual domain, quest for new approaches towards curing, longevity, and life extension, are real-to-utopian ideas. From cryonisation of human body to finding panacea for all bodily-physical problems, these phenomena cycle through real, utopian, and dystopian domains. Regardless of various understandings of technological upgrading of human life, there are many research projects happening currently whose goal is to employ latest technologies in order to radically expand the limits of human life.
Contemporary tendency of creation of artificial intelligence agents that resemble humans, is happening simultaneously with the processes of upgrading of humans through technology resulting in artificial agents (bots, avatars) on one side, and improved cyborg-like humans on the other. Project emerges out of the meeting point of these two tendencies, and it helps us to rethink some aspects of these processes within society in general, taking into consideration both scientific research as well as general speculations about the future of technology. This is carried out through employment of anthropomorphic and abstract objects.
Technological enhancement of human body through technology like expansion of sensorial scope, or life extension are few among many of the important tendencies through which we try to envision how will the complex relationship between human being and technology continue to develop in the future. What types of cyborgian conglomerates of man and machine will appear on the horizon as practical realisations of these tendencies?
Synthetic technological creatures were always present in our lives. Concrete or imaginary beings or anthropomorphic data have been present ever since ancient figurines or antique statues, automatons and robots, to contemporary creations of artificial intelligence agents into which we pour characteristic of human perception.
Objects A and B that appear in the project are virtual, philosophical, conceptual and research objects that gain physical shapes in concrete situations. Objects A and B are “ambassadorial” objects. Object A represents tendencies of a man to create a synthetic being - an avatar or a (ro)bot. Object B represents a human being itself - a man who is a robomorphic being, a cyborg-becoming thing. These transitional objects, or “objects-to-think-with” as Sherry Turkle would say, are inspired by the history of anthropomorphisation that we could understand as packaging of data into anthropomorphic forms.
Spiritus-Agens and Elixir-Machine emerge from the mythological and sometimes actual quests for “The Elixir of Life”. Works are inspired by drawings of absurd machines by Francis Picabia, an Avantgarde artist of Surrealism and Dada, and contain several elements. They were also inspired by a group of metaphors from Greek mythology associated with health that keep reemerging throughout history in variety of mutated ideo-forms. Mythological characters of Telesphorus, Panacea, and Hygea were children of Asclepius, the Ancient Greek god of medicine and Epione, the goddess of healing. Numerous times Telesphoros was represented as a dwarf-like creature, and symbolised the achievement and recovery from illness, Hygiea represented the personification of health and hygiene, while Panacea stood for universal medicine for all illnesses. Inspired by these personifications, works are based on ideas of anthropomorphic objects that offer protection, universal medicine and preventative care.
Spiritus-Agens is a cybernetic art installation containing Object A that “purifies” the solution of alcohol in order to keep the Object B “alive”, or to put it simply, artificial agent is helping the human to stay alive. Installation, resembling a distill machine, is inspired by Surrealists and Dada apparatuses. Solution circulates through the system - Object B, submerged in processed solution, is sending bubbles of air Morse Code signals of the message “I Am Still Alive” through his mouth; his state is additionally monitored - if solution disappears signal stops. Surreal installation Spiritus-Agens questions how future technologies will deal with process of degeneration of the human body, and whether alcohol might hold one of the keys of modifying such processes, like for example innovative application of its nano-particles onto human DNA. As an old saying goes, sometimes what we search for might be right in front of us all along.
Within Spiritus-agens, alcohol runs through the Object A containing charcoal particles, after which it drops into the container that preserves the other object - Object B, which is immersed into the processed alcoholic “quintessence”. Through the use of Morse code, Object B emits the signal of life, by using the famous message “I am still alive” borrowed from the conceptual artist On Kawara, who used this maxim as part of his art practice.
Legendary eccentric scientist Nikola Tesla, famous for his inventions and numerous forecasts of the developments of future technologies, said in one of his interviews that alcohol is in a way an elixir of life. Few alchemists, the forerunners of contemporary scientists, also used to assign various omnipotent properties to alcohol, considering it to be the “quintessence of life”, especially if it was distilled seven times. The exact procedure for creation of this mythic matter is mentioned within The Book of Quintessence from 15th century. Medicinal alchemists tried to isolate this special substance in order to use it in the manufacturing of medicaments - because of its cosmic purity, “quintessence” was supposed to cure all diseases. Aqua vita or the water of life, archaic and generic name for all types of alcohol distillates, originated in middle ages, when it was used as a medication against black plague. Nowadays, alcohol is synthesised in various forms and used in food industry, medicine and various researches. Within nature it appears as a by-product of fermentation and metabolism of microscopic organisms, and it was even found outside of the Solar system in regions where stars are being formed.
Elixir-Machine spanning across physical and virtual domains, is inspired by Surrealists and Dada Apparatuses. Physical part of the installation is an apparatus producing a solution of multiple particles of health improving substances in distilled water; solution also passes through active charcoal placed in segments of Objects A and B, after which it is being collected and dispersed in air through evaporation mechanism. Virtual domain action mechanism uses the camera that transposes visitors into virtual space where their presence is kept in database in form of a unique geometric object that can theoretically last forever.
Elixir-Machine influenced by phantasmagoric avant-garde machines, is a realistically -absurd artefact that tries to produce the ultimate elixir of life and also help us to save the digital (backup) copy of ourselves within the virtual domain. Machine is, similarly to Spiritus-Agens object, shaped like a laboratory stand holding various objects, of which one is a camera through which visitors of exhibitions are being transported into virtual location, where they continue to exist as unique generated geometrical objects. This database is gathering new visitors that are kept in forms of abstract synthetic beings that continue to live in this half-real, semi-material environment. Elixir-Machine formally resembles distill apparatuses, and processes distilled water and multiple possibly healing substances. The solution has to pass through parts of “bodies” of Objects A and B that additionally purify the elixir with active charcoal, and at the end of the process, the elixir is being dispersed as aerosol particles in the air of the exhibition space. Individual substances that end up in the making of the elixir are found in encyclopaedias of healing plants, and through various search engines by using the following keywords: “healing”, “eternal life”, “elixir of youth”, and “fountain of youth”. Idea of old saying that what we are looking for might be right in front of us all along is applied so preference is given to readily available materials. Similar to homeopathic solutions, very small amounts of substances are used and diluted. Placebo, itself very successful medicating tool, might play the big role in the action of this particular machine.
Elixir-Station is an object with samples of health improving substances that are used in Elixir-Machine. Like other elements of the project, station is also an “object-to-think-with” about the current condition of a human being enhanced by technology. Elixir-Station is presented together with one possible formulation of elixir, the mixture of alcohol, active charcoal, and numerous trace elements, emanating from both Spiritus-Agens and Elixir-Machine.
This particular formulation condenses part of the history of search for panaceas and elixirs within mythical, art, religious, and proto-scientific practices; both ash and alcohol were widely used throughout history - originating from the Arabic word al-kuḥūl, word alcohol was popularised by European alchemists. Its roots are also in Al-Kohl, a make-up preparation of mineral or resin ash that was and is still used for highlighting eyes for decorative purposes but also as a practice of warding off evil in many cultures.
Inspiration for the cybernetic (Infinity) Gate object comes from Shintoism, Zen Buddhism and the current state-of-the-art technology related to human life extension. This object, that stands for our potential gate towards infinity, with a powerful built-in server, is processing numerous databases related to medical records and research data, and it uses machine learning and data mining technologies.
Gate symbolises the passage into the future of (near) perfect human health and longevity. Artificial intelligence agents within custom made software are finding solutions for degenerative processes in humans, computation can be observed via monitors, while ritual paper “offerings” are displayed on the Gate with printed code of artificial intelligence agents’ “starter cultures”. Work is inspired by Transhumanism discourse and numerous research groups that work towards improvement of the quality of life. Within this project, artificial agents are present in abstracted form, within the framework of a software. As a step within the research-art project Homunculus-Agens, cybernetic artwork (Infinity) Gate is a tool, and an “object-to-think-with” about the related ideas that span across arts, philosophy, sociology, religion, medicine, and computation among others. Gate machine contains a powerful processor that computes data by extracting statistically significant results about most efficient medical treatments through application of various methods of artificial intelligence. The work is structured as a machine that will search for most efficient treatments for improvement of health and promotion of wellbeing continually trough implementation of machine learning and data mining. As a super-server that searches for life extension technologies, this machine is utopian- realistic health promoting gate towards longer life span.
Formations8, part of the Homunculus-Agens project, is a virtual and physical sandbox for artificial agents - primitive electronic organisms resembling sponges and stones, and anthropomorphic bots that bridge the gap between physical and virtual domains. Within this cybernetic artwork we are observing the enclosed area designated for training of artificial agents in virtual reality simulation of the world.
Inspired by observatories, sandboxes and Zen gardens and accompanying symbolism, bots are organising their garden (that represents the model of the world) and rethinking the very essence of their existence. Custom made software using techniques of machine learning is promoting the emergence of neural network among the network’s actors. Data bases of three artificial organisms’ brains are the central feature of the work and they continue to develop and grow.
Installation has three levels of processing. First level, synthetic vivarium of simple artificial organisms, is a physical simulation with both elemental and advanced agents transmitted onto the second level. Some objects create order while other bring in the chaos, where in-betweenness of chaos and order accentuates the invisible and generates poetic content. Second level is the virtual surrounding, a processing of simple and developed artificial agents representativeness within cybernetic space where they roam, communicate, analyse the surrounding and train their brains. The third level, which exists as the enveloping element is the constant stream of radio waves coming from outer space transmitted into the installation from two radioastronomy stations. Initial “seeds” for some segments of the virtual world come from the physical components and some from signals coming from radioastronomy stations. Through these different levels of micro and macro view of the life-world, we are observing how complex behaviour emerges from simple rules, and we are rethinking about the ways we construct simulations of the world(s) and their elements. Most of the experiments involving artificial agents end up being heavily scripted, which will be avoided in this case. After the initial base for the “brains” and behavioural rules have been defined, the network is developed by itself, generating in real time the outcome of agents’ conversations and behaviour within both virtual and physical worlds.
Through the whole Homunculus∞Agens project, everything revolves around the Objects A and B, two “objects-to-think-with”, where A always represents unattainable object of desire, the little object A, a human clone, or anthropomorphised synthetic avatar in different digital and robotic iterations. Just as artificial intelligence has sometimes been referred to as that which has not been discovered and implemented yet, so too is the Object A, a slippery anti-matter that defies materialisation. As soon as it appears as a cast of itself, the synthetic object or a homunculus that can function autonomously, we move forward towards making of improved versions of it. Object B, on the other hand, stand for the human being that tries to become something else, in order to technologically upgrade its form and mental and physical limitations. Formations8 is devoted to the Object A. Abstract and concrete synthetic organisms are embodiments of countless invisible agents in our surroundings. Contemporary world is entangled with databases that readily offer access to those agents that analyse and extract data, where agents function as nodes that regulate digital flows.
Formations8 could be understood as an attempt of rethinking of ideal utopian surrounding within which people and machines live in harmony. Work is also inspired by traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism, that help us view these agents of artificial intelligence as autonomous beings, potential carriers of consciousness, or artificial personalities worthy of respect.
Part of the installation, an object holding the camera and loudspeakers, although initially resembles laboratory equipment is also inspired by antennas and archaic mountain monuments made of stones and branches.
Installation could be viewed as one possible future scenario, within which all bugs and glitches have been eradicated immediately by the neural networks themselves, computation functions flawlessly, technology has developed towards the point of invisibility, and shrinking of computer micro chips has reached the last measurable fractal. We have reached the “Perfect Frequency” or a point of Singularity, and artificial agents have acquired “citizens” rights. But, considering the fact that our synthetic machines have been modelled on the real world beings, they are imperfect and as such they also have to rest or lose their energy. When that happens, simulations of our simulations carry on with their lives within virtual domain.