By CASSIE CUMMINS, MAR. 2015
In this post-Enlightened era, one that is characterized not by self-consciousness but by the relationship between consciousness and technology, the notion that consciousness exists as a necessarily human phenomenon is constantly being called into question. Drawing on the language of pulp horror and science fiction, this is precisely what artist Zack Davis explores in his work that was a solo show, Vivo Vitro Silico Situ, at the Bedford-Stuyvesant gallery American Medium.
The show’s title was taken from the New Latin names for the various places in which scientific observation typically occurs: in the living organism, in glass (or a test tube), through digital simulation, and in place (or field observation). Davis describes the name as a kind of incantation for scientific discovery—hinting at a very Foucauldian frustration with human-made systems for sectioning off and observing reality. Davis is particularly interested in how the development and maturation of Artificial Intelligence (avatars and the like) have caused the interpretive and dictatorial powers formerly belonging only to the human subject (made manifest in such things as the scientific institution) to be subsequently and inevitably displaced.
In the greater portion of the artist statement for the show, Davis recounts a series of “fever dreams” that act to depict this kind of dispersion and escape of thought, as it moves on to exist independently of the human form. One fever dream reads: “Bubble-like entities are growing inside you and to keep them in check you squeeze them down with your attention, but more keep appearing and you can only hold a few in place at a time.” Another reads, “Your body is a dense field of clockwork machinery made of insect parts, and some set of chitin gears is binding again and again. You focus on the broken thought until it frees up and you can trace the motion out through the entire field, but each time you lose track it binds again.”
The fever dreams, which describe the brain’s attempt to process information whilst the physical body sits in a fevered and dysfunctional state, demonstrate how thought, in its most basic form, is a deconstructive process—or the brain doing what little it can to construct the whole image of a thing it has very little definite information about. Some researchers would say that artificial neural networks, which have been designed to simulate this same manner of processing, differ from actual brains only in terms of their scale, Davis points out.
And in fact, for the “Wellspring” pieces in the show, Davis has assembled two silver, steel boxes built with neural networks inside of them. The boxes lay on their sides, plugged into a nearby wall with two casually strewn, long black cords. On one side of each box is a screen with a pixilated image of a changing face. Davis describes the screens as resembling a Chuck Close painting—composed of tiny tiles with gradients on them that make up a larger digital image, a sort of “Artificial Impressionism”.
The networks for each box are programmed to respond as if they are experiencing something without that something really being there—the coding used applies random stimulation (a series of numbers) to the innermost layer of the box, causing a “nerve” to fire and then cascade out. The pixels making up the face act as neurons in the system—when a neuron is activated on a minimal level it is gray and when it isn’t activated at all it appears black.
The face, Davis specifies, is a product of the system, not the face of the system—the idea is to have a subject in the space with the viewer that is not human. “The initial tendency, however, draws on the viewer’s own frenetic internal machinery, which is primed under all circumstances to recognize affect and attribute agency,” Davis says. “The shifting and amorphous nature of the facial imagery also touches on a broader Transhumanist/Inhumanist theme in the show as a whole, suggesting that a practical grasp of the inner workings of our supposedly defining human trait—thought—heralds a diversification and blurring of the definition of human.”
Following suit with what is a rather Gothic aesthetic, the “T-Foam” sculpture, yet another evolving project of Davis’, has the appearance of a melted-out cell—it is cubic in shape but with mostly negative space. The slate, cage-like object was made using a process of water jet-cutting stone, a very compelling choice conceptually.
In this instance, the recurring idea of thought escaping form is made manifest, of course, in how the original cube-shape is visibly losing its physical form. But the “T-Foam” piece also allows Davis to touch on another, more nuanced aspect of this idea—that thought itself acts as an abrading, almost destructive process. In other words, a breaking-down of things.
The fact that water acted as the medium for cutting away at the stone interestingly compounds this notion. It seems here that the erosive quality of water acts as a metaphor for the destructive prowess of the brain, and appropriately so—symbolically we understand water as being fluid, flowing, and often see it as a sign of life. Here however, despite its lack of form, water performs a cutting away of something in a way that we only understand physical objects (or shapes) capable of doing.
On a final, but certainly not forgotten, note—Davis has lined the walls of the gallery with mounted polymer clay candles. The candles’ dramatized, dripping wax is electric blue and gray in color, and their flames swirl upwards and to either side, as if whipped about by an aggressive wind. “Whatever ruinous or gothic feeling the T-Foam has I would want the candles to continue, like dungeon candles,” Davis says. “If anything escaped from that cell, that is what is creating the wind.” Davis notes that the candles have agency and personality, but are also an entropic, non-human process. This blending of atmospheric and conceptual elements (particularly Davis’ diversity of medium) assigns a kind of sci-fi grammar to his work, allowing it to exist somewhere in the space between materiality and poetry, installation and discussion.
The Enlightenment—the “light” and “dark” sides of which have been of great interest to Davis—was a hugely fascinating cultural moment, when the world seemed to peel open before us. This union of human consciousness with reality was, in many ways, an act of liberation. The sculptural work in this show, though, seems to respond to a very different cultural moment, one that wonders if these same “truths” about human existence might have become a prison for thought. It is a cultural moment that begs the question of what role “human” plays in a universe that is, essentially, an embodiment of life, but is not itself human. WM
Cassie Cummins is a writer in New York City.