Plants in a Garden, Tended by Machines. A Conversation with Nora N. Khan, Andrea Bellini, δημοσίευση στο Flash Art [25/10/2022]Marilena Pateraki
Andrea Bellini: As a curator and writer, you have stood out in recent years for your focus on both the rhetorical politics of software and the philosophy of artificial intelligence, meaning machine learning and emerging technologies. You explore these issues through collaboration and exchange with artists and thinkers exploring the same. I am interested in understanding what led you to become interested in these issues and fields.
Nora N. Khan: I have always wanted to write on what I do not quite understand. Writing was and is my way to understanding all aspects of the impossible. And these fields — software, machine learning — produce menageries of warped life forms and bizarre experiences that are utterly alien and curious, and so clearly unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And it’s true: with machine learning and neural networks generating gobs and gobs of images, a hundred thousand in a pass, you haven’t seen these forms and images and experiences before. Each, endlessly new, novel, ready for projecting onto. You can move from one exhibit to the next, examine and analyze the little artificial within, which are both of us and not of us. They refuse language; they make language fold in on itself.
How do you analyze an algorithmically produced painting made in part by analyzing the patterns of a million paintings made by people across every era, movement, and set of styles? You could spend your whole life answering just that question. One year for textures. Another five for the forms in the painting. Another for the references that gave rise to the forms. Another twenty for the database of all paintings that fed the ML system. And so on.
In the menagerie are experiences that, in this way, generate their own field, their own discourse. One gets tangled up in the didactic effort at explaining alone, as here. This is sometimes necessary, but not always generative. I have to instead compress, to find metaphors and narrative and semantic structures for these moments of aesthetic surprise and horror and delight and complete moral confusion, even panic, that arise in the individual’s encounter with technology, which is a moral encounter, and an aesthetic one, a psychological one.
Software, machine learning, artificial intelligence, techne in all its forms, whether emerging or inscrutable or utterly basic, like a handheld calculator: over the last twenty years, ten years, these fields are where some truly strange, gooey, impossible decisions about the future of humanity, society, language, and art are taking place. What’s not to love! Where else can you find all the basic, core questions of philosophy, so violently debated in such public, unabashed, unfiltered ways, than in the live, real-time building of technological systems? There are the obvious questions: What does it mean to be human? A classic. How do we know that we think, and how do I know what I know? What do we (and I use “we” loosely) agree on as just an irrevocable core of our identity as human beings? What do we feel that we humans alone can do? Linked to these questions are the ones bubbling up from the other side: Why does the thought of nonhuman intelligence threaten us? Just maybe it is in part because we have treated humans as nonhumans: we have developed the need to dehumanize in order to feel human. Can we be so confident that we can understand a machine’s “intelligence” or its alive-ness in the world, when we don’t “understand” fungi or spirits or spiders or an octopus? You just might watch a video of an octopus, going about its day, to remember that you know one percent of what there is to know of the inner lives of beings outside the human. We believe we know all because we can compute and predict and build and use techne. And techne continually brings us up against our limits. Again and again.
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