Artist Cinemas

Uncomputables

On Alien Intelligences and Cybernetics
*Repeat screenings: Monday, February 26–Tuesday, February 26, 12am—11:59pm ET

With films by Neil BeloufaLiu Chuang, Tim Grabham and Jasper SharpBrittany NelsonTrevor Paglen, and Jenna Sutela; interviews and responses by Shumon Basar, Stefanie Hessler, Tom McCarthy, Lucia PietroiustiNoam Segal; and a short story by Ted Chiang

Convened by Agnieszka Kurant

Whether or not we believe in their existence, aliens are inside us and all around us, everywhere, on all scales. They are present in all living systems and are alive in the collective imagination of our culture as markers of the political unconscious. Alien intelligence comes from Earth. 

The films I am presenting in this program investigate alien, more-than-human intelligences and their philosophical, technological, economic, ecological, and political ramifications. These films probe alternative political imaginaries, in which more-than-human beings take a central role or impact reality despite the fact that they might not exist.

It is impossible to discuss our bio-political futures without recognizing the “alien” in ourselves. Every one of us is a biome, a collection of several ecosystems. Our plural subjectivity is based on interspecies symbiosis and sympoiesis, while our immune system is a perpetual battlefield between the self and the alien. The human is an assemblage, a multitude, or a polyphony of simultaneously operating agencies and intelligences, from microbes and viruses to AI. The digital revolution has led to structural modifications of the mind and self, to cognitive automatisms and the plasticity of the social brain—a truly alien phenomenon.

On the other hand, today we are applying legal “personhood” to inanimate objects or natural phenomena—lakes or animals—which enables collective care for the things we are unable to anthropomorphize. But what about the legal personhood of aliens, or corporate alienhood? 

Stanislaw Lem warned that the radically alien cannot be grasped by any human category. How do we think about what exists totally outside human thought? Alien life seems radically unknowable, and therefore unrepresentable. Astrobiologists suggest that there might exist systems that have several attributes of life but that never cross the threshold to Darwinian life. Aliens could evolve by other mechanisms. Meanwhile, there exist forms of terrestrial life too complex to be computed, modeled, or predicted even by artificial intelligence: complex living systems based on recursivity and contingency, which allow novelty and creativity to occur—the uncomputables that hitherto evaded our algorithmically controlled society because of their extremely complex, weird ontologies.

Aliens are deeply embedded within the critical and speculative discourses of the twenty-first century, from systems of political, economic, and legal alienation to weird life (such as extremophiles, or life forms able to survive in the most adverse of conditions); to genetically engineered new life forms that blur the boundary between the synthetic and the organic, life and nonlife, and natural and artificial; to the alien and dangerous logic of AI and computational rationality. Aliens play a very important role in reifying the contemporary exploitative status quo of colonial capitalism, in normalizing the idea that there must always be an exploitable other, and in naturalizing colonization as a consequence of sentience.  

Alien intelligences are present in the theoretical humanities: from post-human theory and materialism to xenofeminism, from “alien” capital (xeno economics, solar capital of Georges Bataille) to alien justice (interspecies equity) and alien ecologies. Philosophers and theorists—from Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard to Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Mark Fisher, from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and Bruno Latour to Fredric Jameson, Luciana Parisi, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Reza Negarestani, and Ian Bogost—analyzed alien ontologies and alien intelligences as frameworks, metaphors, tools, and media to discuss questions ranging from subjectivity to the logic of capitalism. They have proposed various images: of rhizomes, hybrids, cyborgs, quasi-objects, networks, and assemblages to describe these more-than-human forms of intelligence. 

Alienness is assumed to be a human-legible intersubjectivity referring to otherness. As a political figuration, the alien exists within the context of queer and critical race politics, while Afrofuturism aligns the alien to the “alien-on-earth,” such as displaced, enslaved, and exploited communities. The cosmologies of indigenous communities have embraced alien intelligences, including through thinking with forests and incorporating them into their ways of being.  We certainly need “other minds” or various forms of alterity, as well as chimeric, distributed cognition, unintentional sentience, and the uncomputables to understand the universe by looking from as many different points of view as possible. 

The cinematic aliens we have produced since the beginning of motion pictures co-evolve and transform with our technologies and ideologies. The essence and plasticity of alienhood might have been best embodied in Felix Guattari’s unmade film script The Love of UIQ (1980-1987; written in collaboration with the American filmmaker Robert Kramer), about an invisible, formless, manifold, unstable, alien intelligence coming from the infinitely small Universe of the Infra-quark (UIQ). After this intelligence establishes contact with a group of humans, it is confronted with the problem of finding a form in which to manifest itself. Since the film remains unmade, the polysemic informe and the transindividual subjectivity of UIQ surpass representation and always need to be reinvented.

The feature-length documentary The Creeping Garden (2014) by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp explores the extraordinary world of the slime mold, which seems like a creature from science fiction. Slime-molds are organisms capable of solving a maze despite their lack of a brain or nervous system. Along with the mycorrizal networks connecting trees through fungi and roots (the Wood Wide Web), slime-molds could be considered forms of alien intelligence. These mindless life forms display collective intelligence that is more than the sum of its parts, and are capable of problem-solving and decision-making. They problematize the questions of intelligence, cognition, sentience, and subjectivity and disrupt some fundamental concepts in philosophy and anthropology by questioning the notion of individual intelligence and individualism in general. 

Jenna Sutela explores similar topics in nimiia cétiï (2018), inspired by experiments in interspecies communication and aspiring to connect with a world beyond our consciousness. The film documents the interactions between a neural network and audio recordings of what was presumed to be early Martian language originally channelled by the medium Hélène Smith, as well as the movements of extremophilic bacteria. 

Neil Beloufa’s film Kempinski (2007), a science-fiction documentary, features interviews with local inhabitants of Mali as they imagine their visions of the future and of alien intelligences, as well as inter-species communication between humans, animals, and even inanimate objects such as vehicles. The future society Beloufa portrays communicates telepathically through light and sound waves.

Alien intelligence was the subject of early cybernetics, a science of feedback systems sponsored mainly by the American military. Cybernetics—anticipated by the early twentieth-century biologist Jakob van Uexkul, who viewed the organism as an information-processing system adapting to its environment in a feedback loop—referred to the capacity of a technical, social, and living system to control itself through an exchange of information with its environment. From the late 1950s onwards, the central theme of cybernetics became self-organization and the ability of machines and computers to imitate a living being. In the 1950s Jacques Lacan speculated about the nature of language and the unconscious by reference to the cybernetic machine, and posited subjectivity as based on circuits and feedback. Stanislaw Lem’s ocean in Solaris—an alien-minded entity—was inspired by the experiments of the British cyberneticians Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer: quasi-biological and chemical computers that included water ponds. Beer considered the self-organization of a factory as equivalent to a brain, and proposed to apply cybernetics to governance as a management system for society and labor: to shape machines, organisms, and workers. In 1971, he collaborated with the socialist government of Salvador Allende on the cybernetic factory project Cybersyn, a communication system for the management of Chilean economy based on a centralized network of connected telex machines in five hundred Chilean factories, responding to changing conditions. The lifespan of Project Cybersyn was cut short following the 1973 US-backed military coup in Chile.

Over time, the goal of cybernetics became to create a single stable global society, expressed by objectively controllable social mechanisms and protected against all the accidents of the future. Today cybernetics is seen as a project or ideology of control that contributed to the development of digital surveillance capitalism, since self-organization was crucial for the research into neural networks and artificial intelligence. In the twenty-first century, digital technologies and AI, capable of capturing and exploiting social cooperation, brought us to a point where the political economy in which we currently live could be described as total cybernetics. 

In this context I am presenting Liu Chuang’s film Lithium Lake and the Lonely Island of Polyphony (2022). Chuang weaves together several threads: a story of an alien anthropologist visiting Earth to observe how we destroy it while we look to settle on other planets; a reflection on cybernetics as a form of neoliberal governance; the industrial production of lithium ore, a key element in a carbon-free society; animal communication and its surveillance; and the history of polyphonic music in indigenous societies as a prototypical technology. 

Brittany Nelson’s film I can hardly bear it when it is over, I can hardly bear it when it starts (2022) utilizes footage from the Arecibo telescope’s collapse in 2020 and fragments of correspondence—500 letters exchanged in the 1970s—between Ursula Le Guin and a woman named Alice Sheldon, who used the male pen name of James Tiptree Jr. to publish science fiction in the 1970s and to write freely about her closeted desires using alien encounters as metaphors. 

The political role of governmental and military-controlled narratives around alien intelligences is explored in Trevor Paglen’s Doty (2023), a quasi-documentary featuring an employee of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, whose job was to recruit spies and spread disinformation about alien, extraterrestrial intelligences that would benefit the Air Force efforts to keep certain activities secret. Doty concedes that the field of UFO research is filled with charlatanism and disinformation, but nonetheless insists on the reality of the phenomenon. 

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Episodes

#1: Monday, January 15–Sunday, January 21
Liu ChuangLithium Lake and Island of Polyphony (2023, 54 minutes), with a response by Stefanie Hessler

#2: Monday, January 22–Sunday, January 28
Jenna Sutelanimiia cétiï (2018, 12 minutes), with an interview with Sutela by Shumon Basar

#3: Monday, January 29–Sunday, February 4
Neil BeloufaKempinski (2007, 14 minutes), with a response by Noam Segal

#4: Monday, February 5–Sunday, February 11
Brittany NelsonI can hardly bear it when it is over, I can hardly bear it when it starts (2022, 8 minutes), with a short story by Ted Chiang

#5: Monday, February 12–Sunday, February 18
Trevor PaglenDoty (2023, 65 minutes), with an interview with Paglen by Tom McCarthy

#6: Monday, February 19–Sunday, February 25
Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp, The Creeping Garden (2014, 81 minutes), with a response by Lucia Pietroiusti

Monday, February 26
Last day

Category
Film
Subject
Cybernetics, Human - Nonhuman Relations, Science Fiction, Artificial intelligence
Return to Artist Cinemas

Agnieszka Kurant (Łódź, Poland, 1978) is a conceptual artist investigating collective and nonhuman intelligences and the exploitations present in digital surveillance capitalism. Kurant is the recipient of the 2020 LACMA A+T Award and the 2019 Frontier Art Prize. She has had numerous solo exhibitions, including Crowd Crystal at Castello di Rivoli (2021-22), Uncomputables at Hannover Kunstverein (2023), Exformation at Sculpture Center (2013), and Errorism at Kunsthal Gent and Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź (2021). In 2015 she realized a commission for the façade of the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and in 2021-22 a permanent commission for the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA. In 2010 she co-represented Poland in the Polish Pavilion at the 12th Venice Biennale of Architecture (with A. Wasilkowska). Kurant’s works were also exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Kitchen; the Pompidou Center and Palais de Tokyo in Paris; Istanbul Biennial; the SFMOMA; Kunsthalle Wien, Witte de With; Whitechapel Art Gallery; the De Young Museum; Moderna Museet; Villa Medici; Milano Triennale; Bonner Kunstverein; Kunstverein in Hamburg; Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Frieze Projects; Performa Biennial; and FRONT Triennial, Cleveland; among many other institutions. Kurant was an artist-in-residence at the Berggruen Institute (2019-2021) and a visiting artist at MIT CAST (2017-2020), and held a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institute (2018). Her work will be featured in the upcoming Sydney Biennial, and her upcoming solo exhibitions and projects include a solo show at Mudam Luxemburg, as well as commissions for the Pompidou Center, and for Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection in Paris. Kurant’s monograph Collective Intelligence, co-edited by Stefanie Hessler and Jenny Jaskey, will be published by Sternberg Press/ MIT Press in February 2024.

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