Here’s a question we’re all gonna have to answer: Are machines poised to replace humans? It’s the question the film Blade Runner (from the original novel by Phillip K. Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968) asked in 1982. A question German philosopher GWF Hegel first asked in 1807 when writing about the “dialectic.” Here’s the nutshell argument in his famous master/slave relationship thesis that became the basis for worldwide socialist revolutions or, what goes around, comes around: The slave works with nature and begins to shape it into products for the master. As the slave creates more and more products with greater and greater sophistication through his own creativity, he begins to see himself reflected in the products he created, he realizes that the world around him was created by his own hands, thus the slave is no longer alienated from his own labour and achieves self-consciousness, while the master, on the other hand, has become wholly dependent on the products created by his slave; thus the master is enslaved by the labor of his slave. The master becomes the alienated one. This is basic Taoism. And, it turns out ol’ Hegel himself had a lean toward Asian philosophy: Ohne Namen ist Tao das Prinzip des Himmels und der Erde; mit dem Namen ist es die Mutter des Universums. Without a doubt he says, the Tao is a universal force. “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.” He saw the universe as a teeter-totter. Do they teach this in Philosophy 101? Sometimes?…often?…did I listen?
Now that the machines have taken over… You don’t think they have? Put away your device for a month, for a week, for a day. The chip on your credit card is a robot sending your economic activity back to “Central.” Hey! I’m trying to keep this as simple as possible. The singularity as it’s called—that moment when machines take over is not in the future and both Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) spoke to the point. We also have the excellent recent films Her and Ex Machina dealing with artificial intelligence.
Blade Runner (1982) asked the questions with such overwhelming visual beauty and sound, I was moved to step up my own art practice. I wanted to create pictures as beautifully fine-grained, able to carry a narrative beyond themselves, but still, carry the story. The film made me want to tell picture stories, and the art of the time was just beginning to lean away from the more arid and intellectual posturing of conceptual and minimal art. The first Blade Runner film was made as Neo-Expressionism was on the march. The gooey paint was back in fashion. Pictures of people doing things! Back in fashion! In 1986 I had a brainstorm that the Frankenstein movies of the 30’s were the precursors to Blade Runner (of course I thought I’d come up with this idea–har dee har). The dream of a synthetic man, a willing slave wholly beholden to his creator… how did the bride of Frankenstein work out? Maybe Blade Runner 2049 was the new bride of Frankenstein?
I wanted pictures. I wanted pictures of Frankenstein, the Doctor and his creation. At the same moment, VHS (Video Home Systems) were also on the march. The on-demand world was born and I rented the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein so I could hit pause and be able to draw the images. I really wasn’t trying to draw a story but like the rest of my art, I began with an impulse and went on to see where it would take me. I first drew the “monster” and I chose the frame where he was in that moment of loving connection with the innocent girl he accidentally kills—but his look was utterly bewitching. For the good doctor I chose the frame where he says “And now do you think I’m mad?” As the monster shows signs of being a living being…mayhem ensues.
I had wanted to make my own synthetic creatures and set about creating their parts. I made the parts that were to become the pictures, cut them out, scattered them about on tables and let them drift together until they seemed “right.” I used different techniques—quick gestures, careful painstaking renderings, passages of pure color, drawings on paper, monoprinted sheets of paper—each technique activated a different aspect of my brain’s function. Try it yourself: draw something as carefully as you can, I mean really looking while you draw, then draw something quickly as you can—different parts of your brain at work. The idea being, that when the whole brain is engaged a fuller sense of things emerges.
So here are the first two images—the monster at the moment of pleasure at being alive and the Doctor in his supreme hubris. The idea for working this way came when I felt released from the rigors of conceptualism and minimalism back in the mid-70’s. It was a time some called “Art Degree Zero” when all the experimentation of modernism had run its course and we came to a time when art stopped referencing itself, making art about art, and we just got on with living in the mystery of doing to see what happened. “Take an object, do something to it, do something else to it” (the prime directive from Jasper Johns—from his 1964 notebook).
These pictures are collages; pieces of paper, cut out and, in the studio, I have piles of these images scattered on tables. The walls of the studio are galvanized steel, and I am able to magnet up the pieces of paper until they seem to drift together as a level of meaning is reached. Think of a newly emerged sea-mount; an island, a volcanic cone. In the surrounding sea, particles of living plankton drift until they come ashore at this new piece of land. A coral eco-system is realized in this way. (An ecological climax community in which populations of plants or animals remain stable and exist in balance with each other and their environment; the final stage of succession.) Does a climax coral reef have meaning? To answer I went into the memory archives, to see if I could find an image of a billboard sponsored by the SF Arts Commission I remembered from years ago. “Our flesh is our dress” was the line that stuck.
In 1978, this billboard appeared over the freeway in San Francisco. The Michael McClure poem became a pointer leading me further into the work I enjoy doing to this day.
And, this stems from a summer school class I took way back in 1960!. An inspired teacher took a group of 15 on a kind of mystery tour working each day to do an ecological map of a creek on an Illinois farm abandoned in the ’30’s. Who’d heard of Ecology back then? Pretty much no one. (maybe Ed Ricketts who organized creatures by the niche they occupied and not homologous body structure) We spent all summer at it, seining the muddy water for critters to identify—life science as a system study. 1960! When we feel a kinship to life, we have meaning. Does a coral reef have meaning…? Here is the spindle around which this story spins. When we glimpse the whole, we have empathy for all creatures. Life evolves on Earth as a system and the relationship we are creating with machines is part of life itself.. In medicine, for example, Utilization Management is the algorithmic robot that is assigning programmed care. Are you worthy of a new knee? The human body becomes another aspect of the discussion that summer school course opened to me. Systems thinking! In the original Phillip K Dick novel, the idea of empathy was the value as a marker for what was a machine and what was truly alive. Are we talking about robots, cyborgs, androids? All of it talks about the growing relationship between ourselves and some kind of synthetic life.
And then comes this. I must give thanks to the internet search robot on my MAC, very dutifully leading me to this image of the Michael McClure poem on a billboard. Happy to have found it—and, my memory did not deceive (this time). Surprise! I’m given a series of thumbnails including the billboard I’d remembered. What is truly more amazing, is that the very next thumbnail on the Picssr site (an offshoot of Flickr) is a picture of me! A picture with Isabella Kirkland taken at my shop in SF when we were preparing to do prints of her amazing paintings. The painting on the billboard above the poem is Izzy’s. (I direct you to her TED talk to find out more about this awe-inspiring artist.) Serendipity? Are the robots reading my mind?
I started this post being thrilled by a movie that gave direction to my visual thinking; and terrified at what the future might bring, dismayed at possible corporate control as the robot slaves become our masters. And finally, I am just dumb-struck at the wonder of life in this age of robots. We are reminded the word serendipity comes from the tale of the three princes of Serendip (Shri Lanka), wherein the three are sent on a journey to find the magical one-eyed camel. They never find the camel, but they do find the world.