The Electric Comma

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A group exhibition produced by V-A-C and developed in dialogue with KADIST, combining the V-A-C and KADIST collections.

Taking its title from Shannon Ebner’s installation The Electric Comma, the exhibition focuses on shifts in language, perception and understanding in the age of artificial intelligence. Through varied practices and from different backgrounds, participating artists deal with the negotiations between the conscious mind and today’s pervasive learning machine, imagining pathways of exchange between human and nonhuman, ranging from the poetic and intuitive to the algorithmical and analytical.

A number of works in The Electric Comma look at ways in which we communicate with information technologies and the ecological impact they may have, paralleling cryptographic and biological systems, revealing or imagining living infrastructures for artificial life. Andrey Shental’s video installation Descent into the Fungal features fungal mycelium networks that enable connected plants to communicate in addition to transmitting nutrients and energy, looking at how certain life forms benefit from this network of connections while others fall prey to it. Today, a growing super-organism of algorithms and databases increasingly filters how we perceive, learn, communicate and remember. Sprawling around the globe like a fabric of mycelium, our current digital infrastructure bears more resemblance to living systems than outdated analogue technologies.

Misting Miner, a vapour sculpture by Alexey Buldakov from the Russian collective Urban Fauna Lab, visualises the invisible phenomenon of mining crypto currency. The excess heat produced by the computer as it performs this process is a latent and untapped source of energy that can be redirected and used in many ways. Based on the Drunken Walk algorithm mycelium – a chance-based mathematical system used in financial theory to predict stock prices – Cheyney Thompson’s Stochastic Process Paintings employ a formula to determine a particular three-dimensional colour system, while Wade Guyton’s black monochrome paintings generated by inkjet printers on a readymade computer format foreground the paradox of the preprogrammed error as the machine’s own “creativity”.

These days the distinction between artificial and human intelligence is becoming less and less clear cut, increasingly appearing to be a mere construct of our perception. In Pedro Neves Marques’s short film The Pudic Relationship between Machine and Plant, the lines between synthetic and organic life are further blurred. A robotic arm grazes the leaves of a mimosa pudica plant, a hypersensitive species that instinctively closes its leaves in response to the cold touch of the machine.

As the majority of our collective histories, memories and imaginations are being digitised, the effects of this on the human condition and on our planet as a whole remain underestimated. Encountering Dayanita Singh’s File Room is like glimpsing a frozen, forgotten world of paper. An archive of archives, this series of photographs depicts seemingly infinite stacks of records and memories stored within India. An elegy to the disappearing paper trail, File Room is a stark reminder of today’s sea change in humanity’s relationship to memory. The way stories are told, records are kept and histories are constructed no longer follows the same trajectory as before.

With this paradigm shift in mind, a facet of the exhibition examines cognition and the way humans interpret the world around them – an area of knowledge that we still don’t fully understand. Suggesting the impossibility of finding a stable definition Jonathan Monk’s neon parenthesis Something Contained, Removed, greets viewers. The construction and interpretation of language is key in understanding how our minds work, how we perceive and communicate with an increasingly connected and automated world. In the thirteen-line poem that forms the basis of Shannon Ebner’s series The Electric Comma, written language is transformed in abstract and more intensely visual form. By turning unfinished poetry into image, Ebner’s process exposes the nonlinear, often erratic way in which we experience language.

In a time where complex technologies with human-like capabilities are developed at an accelerating pace, The Electric Comma questions just how far the relationship between man and machine goes, and whether it is one of symbiosis, parasitism or something else. With its feral computational power, is the learning machine capable of being a poet or an artist? Can the machine harness the space of intuition, metaphor or poetry, and ultimately become aware of itself?

The Electric Comma has been curated by Katerina Chuchalina, V-A-C Foundation and Pete Belkin, KADIST.