“I thought that each of my words (that each of my movements) would persist in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying useless gestures.”
—Funes the Memorious, Jorge Luis Borges (1942)
In Jorge Borges’s 1942 novel Funes the Memorious, the protagonist Ireneo Funes has infallible memory. Funes can list and number 70,000 memories every day, but he cannot distinguish the front and profile of a dog. His world is a “garbage heap” of details, which results in the withdrawal from pointless behaviors of people around him.
Looking back at this novel today, Funes is comparable to a 20th century computer that lacks computational intelligence. Just like what former US vice president Al Gore contends in his 1998 “Digital Earth” project, both Funes and a 20th century computer store a colossal amount of information that goes to waste. We need a practical and visible atlas of the virtual world, since “the vast majority of those images have never fired a single neuron in a single human brain.” Today, new technologies have begun to act as proxies for some human senses. Artificial intelligence knows humans better than humans themselves. When the former database becomes the present proxy, for both the new and the old Funes, the difference between not daring to act rashly and acting in accordance with instructions is insignificant.
This exhibition is a revisit to technical images, an exploration of images and neurons. If we question the current state of technological proxies, perhaps it reveals how the images that “fire our neurons” today are not more than those in 1998. As such, if we return to the technological optimism of the millennium, we will discover that projects like the “Digital Earth” cannot fulfil the promise by simply liberating the database. The models that are designed to foresee crises and formulate the grand vision of humanity are products of the integration of satellite telemetry and virtual modeling technology. The image of an omniscient perspective is just the surface of the future. When we look at the earth on a screen, the boundary between the virtual and the real is surreptitiously reorganizing information as well as our cognition.
A process of migrating towards the virtual world, this exhibition serves as an exploration of the technological evolution of humankind. It is an experiment of allopatric speciation.
To understand the evolution of cognition, let’s return to the “Digital Earth.” This project encompasses images of cloud atlas, landforms, cities, houses, etc., not to make spectacular, but to simulate the future. A simulation entails the variable control of limited conditions, which entails speculating and intervening as accurately as possible within a certain range. In fact, in Al Gore’s speech, the “Digital Earth” carried the expectation as a future “laboratory without walls”: a boundless, marginal space that is on the scale of the planetary and an observable, closed sphere.
Regarding how a closed environment conditions a species, we can reference the theory of allopatric speciation: a species evolves into its subspecies in a migratory environment. If the isolation stands long enough, the subspecies may even become new species. As such, what evolution and technology have in common is that a secluded space provides the basis for change. Hence, when people begin to make decisions with reference to technical images, it is like a self-made evolution.
Our world is being transformed into information and then reorganized, while reorganization is based upon reality but not entirely so, as the prediction of the future is itself a fictional act. This leads to the virtual world’s indifference to the authenticity of events. Instead, it takes all possibilities into consideration. Therefore, the diversity of information determines the significance during the process of which technology expropriates information from reality.
In this exhibition, we trace the movement of information between the two worlds following the aforementioned conceptions. As we observe the migration of information and the devices that controls contemporary human senses, we strive to reorganize the world that itself comprises reordered information.
Zhi Wei’s Jax Duplicated No.1/ No.2 is a series of two paintings that depict the same robot, a character modeled after the AI pet Jax in science fiction writer Ted Chiang’s book The Lifecycle of Software Objects. The form is taken from the spoof historical robot “Boilerplate” that was widely circulated on the internet in 2000. The two robots of varied backgrounds are fused, deformed, and iterated into a new robot, which is then drawn onto two jacquard fabrics of different shades. The uniqueness of painting is complicated by the concept of reproducing and retouching, where the two paintings are not affiliated with each other but are different iterations. Here, the vocabulary of the virtual is deployed to describe reality, and the gauze texture wrapped around the canvases resembles the Moiré pattern on a computer screen. Contrary to Zhi Wei, we can see Liu Xin’s Ground Station as a method of creating a monotype in a technical image: when the artist is quarantining at home in New York, the satellites that orbit the earth every day become the amplifier of senses. Liu Xiu’s self-made antenna captures the satellite signals above her apartment, relocating the time-space in which she is situated from the perspective of the satellite. Due to the interference caused by the gestures of signal reception or adjacent buildings, the translated image retains noise of various degrees, which is a unique signal left by human intervention.
On the other hand, Liu Guangli and Tarak focus on the difference in people’s attention in both worlds. In Very, Very, Tremendously, Liu sees the inversion of the virtual and the real: the garbage that is overlooked in reality, the realistic indicators in the game world; the exaggerated speech in the real world, gets the most reposted on social media; the frenzy of the soaring Bitcoin, comes from the dilapidated mines in remote areas. Liu Guangli compares the two worlds in images; the bright light in the virtual world casts into the shadow of reality. Tarak’s Open Ended Objects (OEO) attempts to establish the ecological cycle of objects, exploring the aesthetic gene of a place from the form of objects and imagine their future. He classifies the forms of quotidian objects in the Hutong, using which he then creates new objects based on the extracted form. As such, the two worlds attract opposing attentions. The backdrop of the real world contains important information of the virtual world. Thus, when we practice reverse looking, we may find a way to reinterpret both. Guo Cheng’s The Net Wanderer is an exploration of the boundaries of internet, as the artist investigates the actual localities of critical network gateways as an attempt to paint the map of proxies of the Chinese cyberspace. The ideally borderless network is controlled by real geography, as these nodes are hidden in the unremarkable everyday landscape, shaping the recognition and ideology of the land in an almost imperceptible manner. Wu Qiyu’s Atlas of the Closed Worlds: A Trip Around of the Island Under the Global Lockdown considers human history from the angle of evolution. Wu reconstructs the colonizers and the colonized from the reclamation sites of the colonies, describing the clash of civilization from an ecological perspective. The artist extends this conflict into a potential crisis of the interstellar civilization that is facing humanity as a whole.
From the moment we created virtual objects, a haphazard consciousness of the subjective and the objective began to develop. We are the observer and the observed, and our future is slowly taking shape in the corners of reality.