Silenus’ Cup, Drained by AI
A Review of The Dead Walk into a Bar
Commissioned as part of Hito Steyerl’s 2019 retrospective at The Park Avenue Armory, The Dead Walk into a Bar crosses Anton Vidokle’s long-standing investigation of Russian Cosmism with the museological and de-colonization interests of his co-writers / co-directors Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer.
Set within an ‘orbital facility’ in an un-specified future, the film opens inside a cavernous hall. The scene carries a strange echo for visitors to Steyerl’s show: a musty provincial gallery, sepulchrally lit, clad in dark wood — that is, much like the Armory, where the entire work was filmed. A cleaner uses a 1950s Hoover on a mist-shrouded floor. His labor is interrupted by a rattle within the machine — upon inspection, out fall hundreds of spent bullet cases, diverse of calibre, age and manufacture. Cut to a room lined with museum display cabinets. Standing are some 20 rather nervous-looking people, naked, of all genders, colors, shapes. In a butoh-via-Rubens scene, some characters fall about, others awkwardly stumble, but they all learn quickly. Eventually they manage to clothe themselves in a variety of combatant outfits — Japanese kamikaze pilot, leftist militant, conquistador, indigenous American, and so forth. The actor Jim Fletcher, previously playing the cleaner, and now narrator, presents the scenario: these assembled humans are resurrected victims of past wars, brought to life by AI (jarringly, ‘AI’ is a proper noun throughout the film). It is unclear whether humanity is still a thing. In the sparsely-decorated bar, the re-born learn to eat soil (a humus ultimately made up of dead organisms including other humans); and drink a shot of colorless liquid (that brings back memory, loosening their tongue sufficiently so they can speak). The bar-man/narrator, now clad in a simple grey shirt gives an ekphrastic account of AI’s passion for ancestor revival.
Cosmism was a philosophical and speculative program that emerged from the ferment in the Russia of the mid-nineteenth century. Its principal theorist, Nikolai Fedorov, believed that Cosmism’s radical program, which proposed immortality for all, space colonization and universal brotherhood, if confined only to the current and future living persons, would constitute a massive injustice to the already-dead, because it would deprive them of the benefits of said utopia. Accordingly, Fedorov believed the dead, or rather, dead ‘fathers and sons’, ought to be resurrected, through yet-to-be-developed technical means. This profoundly historical, areligious, and materialistic philosophy saw the museum as an important conceptual model: artefacts lovingly preserved in permanent stasis, organized and categorized within a universal history.
The museum, and specifically its relation to indigenous artifacts, cultures and communities, constitutes the commitment of the New Red Order collective, of which Khalil, a film-maker and Ojibway, is a member. This film comes at a time when the museum-as-category is in flux: the physically-sited Enlightenment model described above has been supplanted by the internet, which, belying its emancipatory promise, has become a cacophonous instrument of bio-political surveillance. Online space has become the logical repository for a surfeit of contemporary and future identities, all of which make prima facie equally-valid claims to representation. Meanwhile, many museums face intense pressure to re-patriate colonial-era ethnographic collections, as eloquently debated by Kader Attia and Souleymane Bachir Diagne in a recent MoMA symposium. What then should a museum be, once emptied of artifacts? Boris Groys proposes that the museum evolves into a space where the flow of time is made manifest, through temporary curatorial initiatives where artworks are staged, leaving behind only documentation to be shown in catalogues, videos or the internet. In his view, the museum vernissage becomes a space of spectacle akin to the theatre, with the exception that the boundary between stage and audience has all but dissolved.
Echoing Groys’ notion of the curator as (temporary) dictator, there was a certain edge to Fletcher’s performance: a distinct feeling of evangelism, as in a TED Talk, combined with a repeated message on the screen, at once earnest and sinister: ‘AIOU’ (‘AI owes you [humans]’ geddit?)
Fletcher’s AI states that, in this museum, exhibits would be allowed to speak for themselves — perhaps a reference to the Brussels Expo 58’s human zoo of Congolese’s ‘villagers’. Curiously, the language of the resurrected — their Heideggerian ‘home within which human beings dwell’ — was English, rather than their respective tongues. When questioned on this point, the film-makers referenced the hegemony that (American) English has established, at the expense of many other languages, as well as a pragmatic artistic choice to not pile obscurantism upon obscurity.
Linguistics notwithstanding, the right-to-speech does not equal bio-political agency in this Hotel California: take the case of the Kamikaze pilot who, having committed suicide on-screen, was un-ceremoniously retrieved from a display-case and returned to the bar for another drink. One might conclude that the inherent, albeit heavily contested, right to take one’s own life, remains in the gift of a balding, white, able-bodied man. Plus ça change…
While watching, I was continually puzzled by why AI might even wish to resurrect its ancestors. After all, Fedorov’s ideas draw upon uniquely Russian sources that emphasize man’s ascent or rescue from fallen-ness: Orthodox Christianity and communism; whilst our present moment makes no such positivist promises.
An insight into this question might be found in the writings of philosopher Nick Bostrom. In an essay, he presents the hypothesis that currently-alive humans could be living within a simulation, created by our own post-human descendants, and running upon some adequately powerful computing substrate. He discusses why these descendants might want to simulate their ancestors. The idea isn’t ridiculous: after all, we simulate ecological populations, weather patterns, algorithmic automata, urban traffic, political systems. In addition, many video games contain simulated worlds. A promising research sub-field within AI involves training computers to navigate simple physically-realistic simulated environments, much like a toddler, in order to teach computers ‘how the world works’. Importantly, Bostrom flags up why such a sophisticated civilization, which may well have a different or ‘better’ ethical construct and collective awareness than our own, might elect not to simulate its ancestors: as the simulation becomes arbitrarily accurate or realistic, presumably the simulated beings will feel pain, have emotions, and so forth, and their suffering will be real and avoidable. The Dead Walk into a Bar seems to raise similar questions — what happens to these twice-born entities, who now exist in contextual vacuum, without any of the friends, families, geographies, food, literature, or music they had when alive. What will they do all day? How will they pass an eternity? Put another way, Benjamin’s removal of aura, through techno-reproductive means, is taken to a logical extreme: the human as museological object.
Cosmism’s obsession with death, framing it as an ‘evolutionary flaw’ that can be mechanically corrected, lies in contrast to philosophical traditions which set death as an important part of human existence, that drive for achievement in any given life. Within the AI discourse, Reza Negarestani, writing in Intelligence and Spirit (Urbanomic and Sequence Press, 2018, pp. 493-499) sees death as a necessary condition for intelligence to emerge, where intelligence is understood as existing outside of any individual person, location, or time, something to be considered sub specie aeternitatis. Negarestani’s expository device of a ‘Toy Model’ (ibid., p. 123-124), proposed as a way of understanding ourselves through the specification and design of an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), also provides a speculative vector for why Fletcher’s AI might have chosen to resurrect specific classes of humans — combatants and victims of violence. Perhaps, like museum conservators investigating the obscure pigments of a Medieval image, the AI wanted to simulate the collective psychological process, apparently a pathology, that caused their forebears to destroy their own world. Would these experimental subjects simply re-enact the cycle of identity, selfishness and conflict, or would cooperative, collective behaviors emerge?
Rhyming with Cosmism’s vision of universal kinship, Negarestani comments on the need to imagine realities, howsoever improbable, that do away with the selfish individual and tribal identifiers: religion, ethnicity, gender, blood-lines.
‘To migrate from the Hobbesian jungle of competing individual experiences it is not sufficient to build consensus between different individuals and groups – a necessary undertaking which is not wholly conceivable in this environment. It is necessary to posit the possibility of an otherworldly experience, one that, while devoid of all mystical supernatural, religious, and paranormal qualities, is in contiguity with reality yet distant from this present world of experience. To posit such an otherworldly experience… [is] outside of the horizon of the inhabitable world in which we currently live and dream’ (ibid. p. 499)
In any event, if AI was indeed conducting an experiment upon the arisen, the early results weren’t promising — there was a scuffle over a conquistador’s helmet; as they dressed, some characters grabbed gold necklaces from others; while in a comic moment, the Ulsterman muttered imprecations against ‘Catholics’. Stretching Bostrom’s idea, at what point will AI decide that allowing these fallen beings to live is, by any compass of ethics or utility, doing more harm than good, and ‘pull the plug’, or in museological terms — perform a mass act of de-accession, returning the exhibits to the dead where they belong.
Cosmism carries an obvious over-tone of Christian resurrection — albeit heretical (certainly in its early-20th century Russian Orthodox context) with its omission of divine providence, katechonical struggle or eschatological finality. But it also rings oddly in contemporary ears: a technological conquest over contingency, chaos, entropy stands at some remove from Continental Philosophy’s wariness of techno-dominant narratives. Moreover, ambitions of cosmic colonization jar with our reality and experience: unchecked population growth, carbon emissions, and long-term radioactivity have probably irreversibly damaged the planet we actually live upon.
Lastly, I was struck by the intense reflexivity in the work — we (fragile biological humans albeit possibly simulated) were watching documentation of an event in a geographically and temporally undefined locus, where our technological heir, garbed oddly yet familiarly at an altar/bar, is convening a cult. This mis en scène, redolent of the televised apocalyptic messianism so beloved of right-wing Christianity, is produced, staged, and screened adjacent to Hito Steyerl’s installation — one that documents America’s rampant gun-culture, a poignant placement in light of the overlap between two vicious fundamentalisms.
I wondered if AI, represented within the video as a ‘God’s eye view’ surveilling the scene, would retrieve from its database of human memories that oldest of Mediterranean fables:
‘When Silenus finally fell into [King Midas’] hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.” ‘ — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
Kanad Chakrabarti is an artist based in New York and London. He is interested in how military technology and financial capital intertwine within networks of power. He has exhibited at the ICA London, Whitechapel Gallery, CCA Glasgow, and the Queens Museum. His video Exorbitant Privilege (2018) will be shown at the 26th International Photography Festival (Noorderlicht House of Photography, Groningen NL). Instagram/Twitter @ukc10014.