Objects are speaking and listening forever, but can we hear their utterances?


Commissioned by Aaron McCarthy as part of THEY HAD FOUR YEARS, an exhibition at GENERATORprojects in Dundee.
I enter a museum and can feel conversations among the artefacts cohabiting the space with me. The language spoken is foreign and inaccessible. There may be multiple languages being spoken, for the objects are assembled from across time and space. I know that these things are not mute or dumb, they speak and listen forever, but are we able to hear their utterances?

Entering the Information Age, humans and objects have begun consuming and producing increasing amounts of digital data. The ancient associative networks established between human and non-human entities have been superimposed with a new, digital infrastructure. Things are being enlivened for the second time as we enter a so-called ‘Internet of Things’; the first instance being when things were enlivened with access to electricity. As a period of cognitisation enfolds, things are acquiring human-like properties, becoming able to sense their environments - thanks to small and cheap sensors - and actuate change in the world by executing scripts that pull in big data held within the internet’s infinite repository. Just as electricity has become a common phenomenon, the ubiquity of ‘smart’ objects will cause them to become a part of the everyday.

Data is the language that will allow humans and ‘smart’ objects to become compatible and communicable. Speaking and listening suddenly become tangible metaphors for the way that they send and receive data at the speed of light. Objects stop being suspended like basketballs in tanks and become animated social actants. Just as in the museum, I can imagine the cacophony of communications among internet connected things despite them remaining inaccessible and alien to me. The difference here is that transmissions of data are very real and fill our world: bits of information flying through the air.

Where there were previously various possible languages being spoken among things in the museum, now there is only one. It is standardised and universal; a foundation upon which a new computable world is being built. Choosing this language comes at a price. It affords our communication with objects but compromises aspects of our humanity. By 2020 there will be an estimated 50 billion ‘smart’ things that will share symmetrical agency with us as users on the internet. They will be able to converse with one another autonomously. Will increased familiarity with these digital murmurs cause us to overlook the ancient conversations occurring between physical artefacts and artworks in museums and galleries?

Computer scripts are not dissimilar to physical scripts of text. They are both written to be performed and can be enacted repeatedly over time. The performance of an utterance used to be a unique event, but we have now established the capacity to record these moments digitally and distribute them with ease; albeit with poorly simulated replication. Within a computational thing, however, a script can be executed with exactly the same result every time. This comes part and parcel of the computable world that is being founded on a language of data. The computer script is not audible as a spoken performance, but executed in a black box with data flowing in and out. To the end-user who receives the effect of the script, the process is shrouded with mystery; it may be a curse or spell depending on the author’s intention. The change or transformation that occurs at the end of the computer script is not allegorical or symbolic - as in the case of reading or hearing a physical script - but real and indexical. It does not allude to the past or to the future but occupies a timeless place. Unlike physical text, the rate of decay of a computer script is close to zero. Committing to a use of data as a language with its systematic form is like becoming the gymnast, stuck in momentary. The data that occupies this place will echo forever without loss of signal so that they are indistinguishable from one another.

Just as the reading of text creates a boundaries within which the art viewer can exist, data in proximity to the physical world does a similar thing. Physical space is not altered but our perception of it is transformed or augmented. The appropriation of data is used to configure these places and manipulate perception of reality with various intentions. If we consider that data is a performative and consumed language, how are artists exploring this? Ryoji Ikeda’s latest artwork, Supersymmetry, displays data collected from CERN’s particle accelerator. The data is performed across a plentiful array of monitors and projections. The work lies somewhere between being moving image and performance. Being with the work invited an ‘other’ perspective, but not from that of an ‘other’ human from a different time or place, but that of another mode of existence. It presents us with the reality of a language that our computable world is being built on. The overall effect is unintelligible, cold, and alienating, in opposition to the humanising process of an experience among text and image that puts oneself in an emotional state.

Meet me at the Turing Line and we will return to the museum one last time. We may encounter not only physical artefacts, but data stored about their communications with one another throughout history, accessible on demand and performed for us. They will speak forever and we will understand them.