Humanizing the Machine: Selection and Synthesis in New Media
Nolan Kelly, Eugene Lang College, The New School
Originally published in the 2020 print edition
In the past century, apparatus-based art forms have moved toward modes of production that foreground selection as a textural quality. In a world that now accommodates and archives everything under the sun, these modes of artistic craft have only a passing preoccupation with the myth of inspired originality, yet they represent an organic form of derivative production, one which still places an individual in the role of producer—an original and unitary artist-subject as opposed to, say, a neural network. Here, the main focus of artistic production is through the selection, curation, and juxtaposition of diffuse, recognizable textures, by which the artist distinguishes themself from an algorithm, accessing the totality of the digital realm and sampling from it with deliberate disregard to the compartmentalization of Ian Goodfellow’s “class labels” . Selection is instead based around the aim of creating context: vivifying the perspective of one’s specific history with a sensitivity towards the unique time and place in which the work will be presented. This mode, as an alternative to artificial intelligence, displaces the latter from its perceived role as collective consciousness, returning it to an apparatus of subjective representation.
The epitome of the selective mode as it exists now is the work of the DJ, which, in its natural setting of the discotheque, has been largely neglected from contemporary functional analyses of art. The DJ’s eminence as a selector is particularly due to the elements intrinsic to music as a medium, which have made it so popular and readily accessible—emblematized by the contemporary format, the .mp3. Jonathan Sterne has documented the ways in which this filing apparatus “emphasizes distraction over attention and exchange over use” . The .mp3 was designed around portability and compression (connoting shareability) over the quality of the sound itself, essentially giving license to an era of media saturation in which qualitative, deep listening can no longer be a priority. It is also, as Sterne happily notes, “perfectly designed for illegal file-sharing” .
Such technology has primed DJs and other samplers to implement textural programming and selection in advance of computational tools—like Generative Adversarial Nets (GAN)—that now stand to change all subsequent art forms. GANs are the lodestar of algorithmic derivation in art today; the model works by breaking down a sample set of images, words, or other data into stylistic qualities, known as “class labels,” and producing similar works with congruent class labels. In music, this is known as ‘upsampling’  and a new frontier of sounds and images are being borne out of these adversarial nets, some of which have begun to penetrate the world of fine art . Because upsampling is a mode of production that itself reproduces the act of interpolation and homage, which take place naturally within a given generic milieu, GANs represent a kind of AI art that seeks to call little attention to their own artifice.
Electronic music is the form best suited to explore the intricacies and possibilities of mechanistic reproduction, and such exploration has been ongoing in the club and rave scenes for decades. Electronic music highlights, and even reifies, the arbitrary; it recontextualizes a historicized object—the sound file— into the immediacy of a live performance. Born out of a market for entertainment and aiming to capitalize directly on this, music sampling was not immediately recognized as an art form proper—a trajectory which mirrors that of the cinema. As with film, from the proliferation of this market emerged a multiplicity of styles that demanded to be taken seriously as more than just utilitarian. DJing has existed as a vocation since “the turntablist experiments of Grandmaster Flash and Christian Marclay” of the 1970s, which relied on the physical assemblage from the limited selection of the DJ’s personal record collection . But still the art form feels very new, thanks to the “inexhaustible potential for reuse” that sampling (détournement, in the words of Debord) allows . These selective sound experiences increasingly arrive—particularly now that song selection has moved into the digital realm—in the form of “radical juxtaposition,” layered with, or on top of, generally cohesive, repetitive beats . These days, it’s not uncommon to hear the predictable progression of song selections at a queer nightclub in Brooklyn suddenly decorated with the recording of a speech given by a homophobic public figure, as in DJ Sprinkles’ mix at Nowadays’ twenty-four/seven event, or for the resident DJ of a marginal rave space in Prague to end his set with a Dirty South deep cut. Antithetical rhetoric is subsumed into the textural progression; peripheries are erased in non-hierarchical play.
This is the case because audio recordings are sensory material uniquely conducive to transportability and adaptability—a recorded song has among the smallest byte size of any viable artistic reproduction to traffic as data within the digital sphere—as well as the fact that music is the medium most conducive to instantly relatable variances in genre and tone . These recognitions become points of engagement when put into radical juxtaposition with one another, and in doing so become the best embodiment yet of what textural feedback looks like when enacted creatively. Genres, movements, and the intent which imbues them are indiscriminately mixed on the turntables, for an effect that intends to move the listener whether or not they recognize the referent. The tone of these sets, composited from the music they sample, ranges dialectically between distinctly utopian and deeply ironic. It is a wholly new form of mechanical reproduction, a form Theodor Adorno identified as “synthesis, the self-production of the work”—an original production that is immediate and unique yet composed of entirely reproduced material . The revolutionary apparatus for this mode is, naturally, the synthesizer, in the sense that the particular sounds the keys make are mutable, set only by the variations they have with relation to the other keys.
The experiential, atmospheric qualities created by artistic synthesis are quite remarkable, as they are indexical to the synthetic art form itself. Recording and documentation in the club environment is strongly discouraged worldwide, both by venue operators and other spectators. This is, ostensibly, to engender a space of privacy for those who want to dance, as well as to hinder surveillance of illicit activity, but the very recognition of these factors implies an environment of convergent energy and activity unlike the typically passive viewing experiences of other experiential art forms. A strong sense emerges that everyone in the environment is responsible for the condition of one another’s reception of the set. This sense is directly tied to the fact that the DJ is creating something never before heard—and never to be replicated—in front of them. The event is special, private, often secret; despite this, it never achieves the condition of what Walter Benjamin calls the “occult aura” because nothing new is being ‘made’ in the space which—if it were to be recorded or processed—could be extracted from the environment and placed somewhere else.
Recording or otherwise reproducing a rave inevitably falls short of capturing the full experience; the organic quality dissembles into its inorganic materials. The immediate event, when mediated through the recording apparatus, only brings forth other media—a series of diachronic sounds, each which can be identified and obtained in the exact rendition which the DJ herself originally possessed to select them, such as vinyl or .mp3. By recording the set, one has no sense of the experience itself, only a testimony of the DJ’s curation and mixing. Because the apparatus apprehends previously existent media, the assemblage of the set itself becomes both immediate and inimitable, while a recording of the set dissolves into merely its basic components, the extant music. At best, it becomes a description of the set, a crude rendering by even the most faithful of reproductive devices.
The possibility of such crudeness within the world of textural aesthetics today—where indistinguishable renderings of artistic creations across various media have become the hallmark of our era— allows us to imagine the ways in which artistic reproduction can actually influence artistic production itself. While we generally understand reproduction to be totally derivative of the act of artistic production, a process of copying which strips the latter of its inimitable power, the rave space demonstrates how the usual order might be reversed. In selective synthesis, reproduction can reanimate and reconstitute the auratic power of artistic production through derivation, turning something borrowed into something truly new.
In art forms outside of the auditory, digital photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is an early example of synthesized production—though it is no mistake that he got his start “in the early nineteen-nineties… chronicl[ing] Gen X and rave culture” . Three of his photos are currently displayed in the Panorama Bar at Berghain, a discotheque as famous for its DJ’ed performance events as for its strict policy against recording. Tillmans always “carries a small snapshot camera so that he can be open to ‘the gift of chance’,” constantly photographing anything in his day which strikes him as interesting; his artistry necessitates the use of the digital sphere as an archive. Emily Witt describes seeing Tillmans taking photographs: in her New Yorker profile he was “casual and barely noticeable, often in motion” . This method is readily apparent in his art and results in, above all, variety. His photographs vary widely in terms of sensor and file formats, which leads to discrepancies in the resolution of his work; when displayed in a gallery space, some are as small as a postage stamp while others fill a whole wall. He is a photographer who thinks not only of the image but the form on which it is being presented, placing “magazine pages next to printed photographs and inkjet prints, clustering unframed pictures of different sizes” . His curated environments are also noticeably atemporal—a deliberate attempt to frustrate cohesive chronologies of his capturing, emphasizing thematic or visual relationships only. This gives every exhibition the feeling not of a chapter or period within the artist’s life, but an array of the artist’s sensibilities. The wall he inhabits in the latest rendition of MoMA’s permanent collection is just this, a microcosm of elliptical experience, with certain characters and motifs in ambiguous arrangement.
Tillmans differs from nearly all contemporary photographers in that he oversees the curation, arrangement, and handling of all of his own work, with exact specifications. This makes him more than a photographer; as Witt describes it, “the installations [are] themselves compositions” . His photographs may be arranged around a recognizable theme, but often they are juxtaposed ways which are endemic to the artist’s comprehension at the moment of layout — either an intentional mental link or a whim. Like a DJ, Tillmans’ travels to his site of enactment with a full library of materials, the arrangement of which is not set until the point of arrival. The arrangement is itself the point. In his work. intensely public images (protests, security checkpoints) collide with intensely private ones (raves, genitals, sleeping positions), as well as ambient ones (empty rooms, ocean surfaces, textures in the traditional sense), in radical juxtaposition .
Rather than using his exhibits to convey his singular narrative, Tillman clearly arranges his exhibitions as conduits for manifold experiences and perspectives. His photographs, though they are objectively captured in the visual realm, demonstrate a cautious attention to the falsity of his method of mediation; some of his most famous photographs—of the musician Moby, for instance—are unavailable outside of a compressed, pixelated form. He often includes “arrangements in his exhibitions of what he called ‘truth-study tables’—collections of articles and images that documented his process of ‘observing how I observe’” . This practice reflects his commitment to investigating the epistemological underpinnings of his work.
Tillmans suggests a way forward for art in an era of media saturation, an alternative approach to the trend of creative content in which nothing need be created because everything already exists. By indiscriminately capturing everything and culling from it, Tillmans aims to fit the infinite scope of data to the proportions of human sensibility. And this sensibility is no longer merely corporeal. As the physical world becomes enmeshed with the apparatuses and archives of the digital, an art that can fully synthesize these technologies is and can only be an art of selection. Whether that selection comes from a personal archive or from the collective archive of the internet is of little importance; what matters is that the selection process is foregrounded as a method of representing the world, and, in turn, displaying an epistemological awareness of this presentation’s artifice. With this approach we realize three major qualities unique to synthetic production: the priorities and hierarchies of the selector become the formal techniques of said production; the resulting selections are inherently environmental and experiential; and these environments are experienced directly and collectively by audiences. Tillmans’ exhibitions, like a DJ’s synthetic selection at a rave, exemplify these qualities—proof of a pattern emerging in derivative production, by which we can theorize: if derivative production allows for the synthesis of inorganic media into original forms, these forms will move increasingly toward curatorial selection as the fundament of artmaking.
The danger of artificially intelligent selection, by contrast, is that because its sample range may extend far beyond the knowledge base of any human individual, it can be mistaken for an objective rendering of certain value systems. On a day-to-day basis, we see this fallacy: that what is actually a manmade mechanism crafted around the subjectivity of designed problem-setting—and thus, inherently imperfect—is mistaken for an objective or inevitable outcome. This flawed line of thinking is often applied today to commercial marketing and data analytics, under the assumption that it will deliver what consumers want before they even know they want it, based on recognizable habits and tendencies. This, for Adorno, is the condition upon which an enlightened society dies. “Debasement itself would not be possible if resistance ensued,” he writes, “if the [users] still had the capacity to make demands beyond the limits of what was supplied” .
It is the duty of artmaking, then, in opposition to such a fate as Adorno describes to subvert or trouble homogenous value-systems and epistemologies, to reject widely conferred aesthetic options and false binaries—in short, to imagine realities alternative to those which are taken for granted as real. This has always been a mission of imagination, but a new set of challenges arise with the primarily digital arena in which this ordering of stimuli plays out, as data, and the reliance upon the technical apparatuses on hand to support or subvert these homogenies. Media theorist Anaïs Rolez observes that “there is an obvious potency in enticing the machine to reveal its subversive and/or comic nature” . Digital technologies of the recent past have been created and disseminated with immense collectivizing power, but their functions are decidedly capitalistic. One looks to the artist, then, to remind us that mechanisms have many functions, and the purported value they exert can be easily reconstituted for other ideologies .
In “The Author as Producer,” Walter Benjamin predicts the new role of the artist as someone who primarily synthesizes existing media, by taking into account the ideological conditions an artist may express simply in the form of their work. Benjamin writes, “the place of the intellectual in the class struggle can be identified—or, better, chosen—only on the basis of his position in the process of production” . This is, of course, Tillmans’ role in hanging his own work, and the DJ’s role in prioritizing ‘safe spaces’ for dancing over those which may provide greater exposure or incentive for capital gain . “Only by transcending the specialization in the process of intellectual production,” Benjamin declares, “a specialization that, in the bourgeois view, constitutes its order—can one make this production politically useful; the barriers imposed by specialization must be breached jointly by the productive forces that they were set up to divide” . Tying this idea directly to his dialectic between occult and reproductive technologies, Benjamin predictively characterizes the means of production which point to the act of synthesis, as well as atmospheric aura which exudes from the synthetic event:
…what matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. As this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators into collaborators…The more exactly [the artist] is thus informed about his position in the process of production, the less it will occur to him to lay claim to ‘spiritual’ qualities.
– Walter Benjamin .
The spiritual qualities of the past were those of the monolithic artist, whose Promethean ability to sculpt from the granite a David or to paint in the highest reaches of the cathedral the hand of God were beyond reproach. By depicting religious themes with sublimity, the artist relegated his audience to the position of worship. Even as we divest ourselves from these outdated modes of regard, seeing aesthetics instead as decentralized, relational play, the concepts of the sublime and eternal live on in the age of information in quantification. Data, the algorithm, and the rapture of Singularity threaten again to reduce the power of the human sensorium against the specter of a higher power, and nowhere is this new religion practiced more earnestly than in the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence. The mission here is to reduce human agency to data and the human sensorium to an artifact, outdated for its biases, preferences, implicit tensions. The alternative, a homogenized sensibility of categorical quantification, presents now a real threat to mechanize all that is instinctual, arbitrary, and human about us. In synthesis, the work of art responds by humanizing the machine.
1. Goodfellow, Ian J, et al. “Generative Adversarial Networks.” ArXiv.Org, Cornell University, 2014, arxiv.org/abs/1406.2661. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019. The Generative Adversarial Net (GAN) is a neural network that has recently become a favored tool for creating derivative artwork with limitless variations on a single style. The algorithmic process of a GAN identifies the stylistic commonalities of a sample set of works fed to it, groups these points of distinction in “class labels” and produces new works of art with congruent class labels – in effect, proliferating a certain unique style (i.e. De Stijl) into an infinitely applicable texture (i.e. object in the MoMA Design Store).
2. Sterne, Jonathan. “The .mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” pp. 825–842. New Media & Society, vol. 8, no. 5, Oct. 2006. 89.
3. Ibid., p. 829.
4. Engel, Jesse, et al. “GANSynth: Making Music with GANs.” Magenta, Google AI, 25 Feb. 2019, openreview.net/pdf?id=H1xQVn09FX. Accessed 28 Feb. 2020.
5. Cohn, Gabe. “AI Art at Christie’s Sells for $432,500.” The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/ arts/design/ai-art-sold-christies.html. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
6. From editor’s introduction to Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s “Production–Reproduction: Potentialities of the Phonograph,” qtd. in “DJ Culture,” pp. 1067–1144. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, New York, Bloomsbury, 2017, p.1073.
7. The Situationist International, “Détournement as Negation and Prelude.” (qtd. in “DJ Culture,” p. 1080).
8. This terminology is Susan Sontag’s, applied by her in reference to the Happenings of 1960s New York, and instructively placed within the Surrealist milieu: “The Surrealist tradition in all these arts is united by the idea of destroying conventional meanings, and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtaposition (the “collage principle”) …The Surrealist sensibility aims to shock, through its techniques of radical juxtaposition” (Sontag, Susan. “Happenings: Art of Radical Juxtaposition,” pp. 183–190. Against Interpretation, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, p. 187).
9. Sterne, p. 827.
10. Adorno, Theodor. “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” pp. 270–299. Aesthetic Theory, edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, London, Continuum, 1997, p. 284, emphasis mine. It is crucial to note that, in paraphrasing Adorno, I am taking on his theory of self-production by applying it counterintuitively to the way he used it. For Adorno, synthesis is the cherished act of “symphonic effort” he idealizes onto productions which existed before recording and reproduction rendered them obsolete, or at least in competition for the records as a true performance. Adorno nostalgicizes these instances against what he calls “the new fetish”: “flawlessly functioning, metallically brilliant apparatuses… [in which] its performance sounds like its own phonograph record” (p. 284). Adorno is here referring to the technicization of the symphony, but his words apply even more aptly to the work of electronic music. I therefore agree with Adorno’s statement and extend it into the present, repositioning it as such: it is undeniably true that all forms of performed music, particularly pop, have a live component that is now only secondary, imitative, of their recordings. The only synthetic space which exists in music now, the one which most closely resembles the symphonies of the pre-recorded age, are therefore the unrecordable, unpredictable spaces of DJ’ed selection. Their assemblage of media is the only truly immediate form of popular music extant today.
11. Witt, Emily. “The Life and Art of Wolfgang Tillmans.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 10 Sept. 2018, http://www.newyorker.com/ magazine/2018/09/10/the-life-and-art-of-wolfgang-tillmans. Accessed 25 Sept. 2018, para. 4. Tillman’s photography here is a notable, and unique counterexample to the otherwise exploitative attempts at capturing and reproducing the rave space; the formal qualities of his photography were themselves in homage to the immediate environment. As a rule, “He does not publish photographs of underground spaces or parties until they have closed down” (para. 42).
12. Ibid., para. 59.
13. Ibid., para. 29.
14. Ibid., para. 29.
15. Wolfgang Tillmans: Rebuilding the Future, 26 Oct. 2018-10 Mar. 2019, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Visited Feb. 8, 2019.
16. Witt, para. 44.
17. Adorno, p. 285.
18. Rolez, Anaïs. “The Mechanical Art of Laughter.” Arts, vol. 8, no. 1, 21 Dec. 2018, p.2, 10.3390/arts8010002. Accessed 2 Sept. 2019.
19. To put it in a specifically Marxist construction: The use-value of the mechanical object must be resurrected outside of the shadow of its exchange value as a commodity. As Adorno notes, “The more inexorable the principle of exchange-value destroys use-value for human beings, the more deeply does exchange-value disguise itself as an object of enjoyment” (“On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” p. 279). Reimagining technological development outside of a capitalist ideology would drastically recast the roles it plays within mass society. Art today has the duty to offer alternatives which provide us with a more harmonious mediation between humanity and nature incumbent with Walter Benjamin’s idea of reproductive technology.
20. Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer,” pp. 79-95. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. pp. 19-55. Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al. Translated by Edmond Jephcott et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 31 May 2008, p. 85.
21. The safe space trend is “bolstered by a global network of promoters, artists, DJs, and party-loving activists who believe that creating that ‘everybody’s free to feel good’ environment can only be achieved through clear communication of expectations, boundaries, and consequences.” (Kakaire, Christine. “A Space to Be Yourself: The Rise of Safe Space Parties.” DJMag.Com, Thrust Publishing Ltd., 11 Sept. 2019, djmag. com/longreads/space-be-yourself-rise-safe-space-parties. Accessed 10 Dec. 2019, para. 7).
22. “Author as Producer” p. 87.
23. Ibid., p. 89-93.