Wednesday, November 26, 2008

“uncharted pages from a voyage of the beagle”

Posted by Alpha Auer

"This time I am alone
This time I will not leave"

"I can not remember"

"It is happening again"

"what we thought were offspring are in fact an extension of the two: A way for change, a way to bring us in as a part of the whole."


The lines above are whatever little fragments I have been able to catch from the notes of the explorer that float above my head as I stand enraptured watching the toil of Nonnatus Korhonen's doomed creatures as they try to desperately make their way into an overcrowded tank that awaits them at the end of their long journey down a stepped structure resembling an inverted Ziggurat, one surrounded on three levels by circular walkways.

"... In lonely isolation, the avatar Lamarck Zapatero has been standing and observing the constant cycle and recycle of the system that surrounds him. Like his namesake, he is part of a cul-de-sac in a way of thinking about things - though the fragments of knowledge he will come away with are still vital to the picture as a whole. He is also the avatar of an avatar, a representation of Nonnatus Korhonen, one step removed from having his own human.

Falling from one of two ‘egg’ shaped objects at the top of the system, and close to where Zapatero spends his long days of observation, are small monotone creatures that appear to be at the whim of the simulated gravity, like ‘fish out of water’ they bounce and flail their way ever downwards. Their existence is short, as they are propelled from a place purely constructed from numbers (and values assigned to placeholders) into a place describing a possible visual representation of these numbers. As they fall, one of the many possible values that defines them will change ever so slightly, and this change has the potential to be inherited by further creatures as they are thrust into this world of eternal flux, where extremes of parameters are set in stone, but where almost limitless combinations of the interrelations of sites within these extremes give Zapatero the impression of infinite variation (and where the far more complex mind of the human observer is invited to suspend disbelief and observe the origins of complexity arising from these evolving parts.) The potential for inheritance is strengthened through longevity; something the viewer has direct control over, given dedication and perseverance to understanding the system through observation, trial and error..."

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
and Charles Darwin. Two names, two clues, which Korhonen seems to me to have woven into this starkly hermetic piece addressing the emergence and extinction of artificial life: "The Voyage of the Beagle" is the title commonly given to the book written by Charles Darwin published in 1839 as his Journal and Remarks, ideas which Darwin would later develop into his theory of evolution by natural selection. And Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 – 1829) is the author of the first truly cohesive theory of evolution, in which an alchemical complexifying force drove organisms up a ladder of complexity, and a second environmental force adapted them to local environments through "use and disuse" of characteristics, differentiating them from other organisms.

Hermetic as Korhonen's installation is, it did propel me towards my own musings and imaginings, which may or may not reflect the original intentions of the artist: Firstly, it would seem to me that the piece invites the viewer to make connections to Second Order Cybernetics, symbolized in the lone figure of Lamarck Zapatero, the observer of a system who in his turn ends up becoming observed - by me. Leading me to speculate on my own involvement and how I too am observed, in an endless cycle of Droste effects, by others.

The Theory of Evolution put an end to the Biblical Myth of Creation. But did it also put an end to the mystical explorations surrounding the subject of creation itself? Or did it simply reposition the whole discourse onto the level of abstraction already present in the Kabbalah? And does Korhonen ever so subtly weave these associations into his Ziggurat of generation and destruction? The creatures themselves: I can end their overcrowded agony by pushing a button, something resembling the stopper of an ancient inkwell. A red stopper. Red for Gevurah? The 5th Sefirot on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? The mighty one of destruction which makes way for new life? And sure enough, when I push the stopper on the "inkwell" the glass tank turns red, and the doomed creatures become extinguished. I have just destroyed artificial life - to make room for its new generations. And isn't it strange that it is me, standing at ground level, who has been endowed with this power rather than the observer Lamarck Zapatero, enthroned God like, high above at the top of the edifice? Which, of course, leads me straight back to Second Order Cybernetics? Is this where I am meant to go?

It is not an easy piece to understand, this work of Korhonen's. However, understand it or not, it dis-settled me into asking some very uneasy questions, while it also embroiled me in a very compelling narrative, a tale of inevitability and destruction, which despite the stark minimalism of the construct makes its presence profoundly felt; especially, I believe, through the rendition of the "creatures" themselves: Brown, soft textured spheres, a few striped tail like protrusions: It is through such stringently used visual means that Korhonen has managed to present us with an artificial life form that we do in fact end up feeling for, that we can thoroughly identify with. A reminder of childhood toys? The long lost eyeless teddy bear that I once had?

"... this incomplete narrative can only become whole through the creative imagination, and speculative mind of the persistent viewer. Suffice is to say this whole system is built upon the shaky foundations of a set of assumptions about artificial life processes that I believe exist in the previously mentioned cul-de-sac. Regardless, shaky foundations are often the starting place for many a fascinating insight or experimental exploration leading to the firmer ground supportive of more persistent sites."

"This time I am alone
This time I will not leave"...

You can teleport to “uncharted pages from a voyage of the beagle” by Nonnatus Korhonen/Andrew Burrell directly from here.