nimiia cétiï

Jenna Sutela

This video is no longer available

Uncomputables: #2 nimiia cétiï
Jenna Sutela

13 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeat: February 26-27, 2024

Inspired by experiments in interspecies communication and aspiring to connect with a world beyond our consciousness, nimiia cétiï documents the interactions between a neural network, audio recordings of what was presumed ot be early Martian language, and footage of the movements of extremophilic bacteria. Here, the computer is a medium, channeling messages from entities that usually cannot speak. However, it is also an alien of our creation.

nimiia cétiï was created in collaboration with Memo Akten and Damien Henry as part of n-dimensions, Google Arts & Culture’s artist-in-residence program at Somerset House Studios. Thanks to Kieran Bates from the Institute of Zoology at Imperial College London, Adam Laschinger for sound recordings, and Manus Nijhoff and Leith Benkhedda for 3D work. The video includes music with Miako Klein on contrabass recorder and Shin-Joo Morgantini on flute, with sound production by Ville Haimala.

nimiia cétiï is the second installment of Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Agnieszka Kurant as the thirteenth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Film.

The film is presented alongside a conversation with Jenna Sutela by Shumon Basar.

Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 15 through February 26, 2024, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

Conversation with Jenna Sutela
By Shumon Basar

Shumon Basar (SB): nimiia cétiï is an audiovisual artwork based on machine learning, but it teaches the machine to speak and write in a very specific way. Can you tell us how and why you taught the machine to talk this way?

Jenna Sutela (JS): The video shows a computer watching footage of Bacillus subtilis bacteria under a microscope and generating a script, or calligraphy based on an analysis of what it sees. Imagine a pen suspended from a long piece of string, resting on paper that’s slowly sliding sideways. Raw force from the movements of the bacteria knocks the pen around, leaving marks on the paper. Audio interacts with the bacterial movements. What you hear is the computer reorganizing or mimicking an early Martian language. A network trained on my voice looks at each frame of the video and produces a short block of sound that it thinks matches that frame, or the configuration of bacteria in it. Another layer of sound, “the vocals,” presents a more typical approach where the network simply generates more of what it has heard before.

In my work, I’ve tried to put AI in touch with the more-than-human world around it, teaching it with materials like bacterial movements or star pulses. Similarly, I’m always exploring the human system and intelligence in connection to the wider environment, with a focus on different interspecies relations within and without us. In a way, our gut bacteria, including Bacillus subtilis, already speak through us.

SB: Do biological and computational systems mirror one another? Is this made evident or legible in nimiia cetii?

JS: Ever since the Renaissance, the most complex machines that we’ve developed have been used as an analogy of the mind. But the human mind is intuitive and too complex an organism to formalize. For example, the head brain works together with the gut brain. Computers are, by design, deterministic: They follow set procedures. I’m curious about whether computers could exhibit embodied cognition. In a past project, I introduced entropic processes into computing via inserting fermenting foodstuff into the guts of a computer. I’m often looking at the history of “alt” cybernetics—projects like Stafford Beer’s “pond brain” in the 1960s, where he imagined an automated factory controlled by a biological computer, a complex pond ecosystem including a variety of organisms.

SB: Who was Hélène Smith? When was she alive? Why should we remember her?

JS: Hélène Smith, or Catherine-Élise Müller, was a Swiss-French spirit medium in the late-nineteenth century. She claimed to communicate with Martians, and her Martian language is considered the first documented form of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. Smith was also known as the “Muse of Automatic Writing” by the Surrealists, who viewed her as evidence of the power of the surreal.

SB: There seems to be a turn recently to something more ancient, a kind of animism where life and consciousness are not limited to organic beings, but extend to almost everything. How do natto and fermentation correlate with this philosophy?

JS: Psychobiotics! It seems some probiotic foods produce and deliver neuroactive substances that act on the gut-brain axis and may impact our thoughts and emotions. The world is made of brains.

SB: You introduced me to the theory of panspermia, which postulates that life on Earth may have arrived from deep outer space on some kind of projectile that landed on Earth. What is so alluring to you about panspermia, and do we get a sense of it in nimiia cétiï?

JS: Panspermia, literally “seeds everywhere,” is a hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and spacecraft in the form of unintended contamination by microorganisms, such as Bacillus subtilis. This particular extremophilic species is often taken along spaceflights to test the limits of life on Mars, among other places. It seems to do pretty well. This is also why I decided to have it as a protagonist of nimiia cétiï: It’s a likely Martian that already lives inside of us as well. What interests me about the idea of panspermia (even though I’m not sure about the name) is the thought of sharing a cosmic place with other life forms in a broader open system.

SB: We hear this phrase “machine learning” a lot, but Trevor Paglen and Kate Crawford curated a show called Training Humans which seemed to turn the phrasing around, and with it, the power relationship between humans and machines. Are machines also teaching us to be more machine-like, even though we assume the main task to be to teach machines how to be more human-like?

JS: When machines can take over tasks that were traditionally done by humans, like organizing information, for example, some time is released for us to develop ourselves and find out what human potential could be. I’m thinking about a recent text by Yuk Hui where he meditates on different possible relationships between humans and machines that surpass competition or our reduction to patterns of consumption—a form of collaboration that requires an existential shift.

SB: For some time it was claimed that one thing that differentiates humans from machines is humans’ ability to make art and culture. But in the past year we have seen an explosion of generative AI music, literature, video. I’m curious whether you think machines are just as capable of making art as we are—and if the only true judge of said art would be other machines?

JS: A lot of art is AI art now, in that it uses deep learning and large language models for research, sketching, or the image-, object-, sound-, software-, etc. making itself. However, it’s still mostly collaborations between humans and machines. When it comes to machines working on art by themselves, I wonder about things like aura and oeuvre. I mean, how should machine-made art be valued, in what context and by whom? What do the machines want to say or do with their work? External forces drive machine-artistic operations: Humans seed the aesthetic, companies host the algorithms. No art, I guess, is totally immune to externalities, but the best art can outlive the circumstances of its creation.

SB: Aliens seem to be normalizing in our everyday life. If you met one, do you know how you’d react? Do you know what you’d ask it?

JS: Rather than what I’d ask, I think it’s about how I’d ask it—like if there was any way in which we could communicate. But if I did meet one, would I even know that it happened? In my past work, I’ve speculated with the “alien” being in us through the extremophilic/space bacteria that we host. Sure, I’d be interested in how a species from another planet spends its time. I’d like to know how they understand reality, the Universe, and us, and if something’s sacred to them. I mean, where to even begin.

SB: If you could be cloned today, would you say yes?

JS: Are you thinking about a genetic clone or more like a digital one? The movie The Congress (dir. Ari Folman, 2013) comes to mind. It paints a dystopian picture of an actress commodifying her existence for entertainment and profit through a digital avatar that simulates both her physical and emotional attributes. Then there’s the whole extremely privileged mind-uploading discussion. Ghosts in shells. Or biological clones that could share the same genetic information but not the same experiences and memories. Who would nurture the clone? Instead of cloning ourselves, we should focus on nurturing each other and the life after us, be it human or not.

Shumon Basar is a writer, editor and curator. He is author of the books The Extreme Self: Age of You and The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, both with Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Together, they co-curated the large-scale exhibition Age of You at MOCA Toronto and Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. In addition to being Commissioner of Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum since 2011, Basar has also been a member of Fondazione Prada’s Thought Council; Chief Narrative Officer at Zien; and a curator at Fórum do Futuro and at Art Jameel; and has editorial roles at the magazines TANK, Bidoun, 032c, and Flash Art.

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Language & Linguistics, Music, Film
Video Art, Human - Nonhuman Relations, Outer Space, Biology, Artificial intelligence, Cybernetics
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Jenna Sutela is a Finnish artist based in Berlin. She works with biological and computational systems including the human microbiome and artificial neural networks to create sculptures, images, and music. Sutela’s work has been presented at museums and art contexts internationally, including Swiss Institute, New York (2023); Helsinki Biennial (2023); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2022); Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin (2022); Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki (2022); Shanghai Biennale (2021); Liverpool Biennial (2021); Kunsthall Trondheim (2020); Serpentine Galleries, London (2019); and Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2019). She was a Visiting Artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) in 2019-2021.


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