Emergences

Patrick Milian

19.02.18

neurons

Interface

Have you ever, while lying naked next to another naked body, pressed your cheek to the other cheek, locked your neck into the other neck, then wrapped your arms around the other body so that your chests, stomachs, and hips seamed together? And have you then slipped your leg between the other legs before finally, with a small twist in your ankle, covering one of the other feet with one of your feet? If you stay that way for a while, you begin to feel the irregular shape of unbroken contact as something distinct, a third thing slipped between bodies. It gets hot. Try drawing these third things, one for each of the people you’ve pressed yourself against. Color them in with a marker, cut them out, and put them in a folder. Don’t mistake coincidence for the profound. Or for anonymity either. The best protected sex I ever had was with a mortician. He rolled me onto my belly and then, one by one, plucked at my vertebrae, pulled them out like stops on an organ. He put his fingers between mine to make pearls of our knuckles. If I’d looked at his face as he held me against himself, I would’ve seen his mouth fall open and stay there. His building’s parking garage looked heavy with headlights: blackened on the outside but raw on the inside. Punishment is only sublime if you surrender first, I wanted to say. There’s a man in Finland who obsessively documents his own life so that he can be brought back to life as artificial intelligence on his 107th birthday, I wanted to say. There’s a man in Finland I imagine having a stroke, slumping over at his sink. There’s a black tree of veins pressed into his brain that lights on fire and then falls away into the night of empty space inside our bodies. There’s a cricket-loud pasture inside this egg if only I could peel it. A perfect replica of the earth, orbiting just opposite the sun, would be called land art. Have you ever put your mouth inside someone’s elbow pit and spoken, articulated the tip of your tongue against the point where blood gets drawn? Sometimes you’ll hear a soft moan like you’ve multiplied your voice into a froth of dots.

 

 

Slime

Flakes: dried stains scraped into envelopes—licked and sealed—and peeled off flags of skin in clear plastic sheet protectors in a binder labeled dermis, winter. Clumps: oily things pulled from the drain and the red clot from the dry socket you got after your wisdom teeth were pulled. Wisdom teeth, baby teeth, one removed after a nasty abscess, all yellow and gray. Hairs taped onto the pages of hairy diaries, arranged by age and body part. Boxes of kleenex, toilet paper, paper towels, receipts, and reams of xerox paper, each piece crumpled around some fluid you dripped, ejected, or oozed into it—tissue on tissue. Accordion folders bulging with invoices, diplomas, parking citations, ticket stubs, and love letters. External hard drives loaded with every email you ever sent or received, like spam advertising easy money, nasty singles, manly energy from synthesized animal secretions, ways to learn about your family history by mailing in your DNA, ways to prevent your sensitive information from being hacked, warnings that you’ve already been hacked. Hard drives where you saved digital photos, none of them labeled. A mask hanging upside down. Milk with a child’s hand almost in it. Your hand on the TV screen. The toilet’s water framed by thighs, the lens reflected back. Snow. Rain. Hooks. Hills. Just beyond the frame, light sources. Computers, tablets, cell phones, and palm pilots smeared with the grease of your face and hands, loaded with data with such obscure file extensions no one has the hardware to access them anymore. Some of it’s audio: your voice coming quickly in English, then Finnish, then the childish and insane nonsense that comes from a mouth given a microphone. Some of it’s digital video: hours of you driving or sleeping or telling sex partners that the camera’s off and not to worry. Everything diary. Everything dying. The journals date back to somewhere around your fifth birthday. When it’s in a language I can’t read, I look at traces of pressure your hand made when it sunk the pen’s tip down between the lines—dim little metonym. The slime body is so short compared to the infinite life of information’s pornography. All this material, all these traces, so that after you sink, slime into slime, there will be enough data to resurrect you on July 10th, 2048. No apologies. Erkki Kurenniemi, you died in the hospital on May 1st, 2017. On January 31st, 1990, you wrote: The camera is more important than you or me since it constantly makes imperishable history of both of us. We feel the “wing of history” touching us and go crazy. When we drown in slime, the constellations will be reflected in our mouths.

 

 

Tongue

The biggest boundary to fully functional artificial intelligence is language processing. Inger Christensen: a shred of brain an unusual clutter / telegrams missing the planet by miles. I spend hours talking to chatbots about you, Erkki. My favorites are the earliest, ones that behave like psychologists and rephrase what you just said in the form of a question, or ones engineered to come off as insane or paranoid. But have you ever really looked at a Finn? These were some of the first programs to pass the Turing Test with their bad language, their broken code. Now, though the processors are more sophisticated, uncanny slips in the flow of conversation make for a joyless interface. All violence. No virus. You wrote about a language processing program, Erkki. You named it CHILD. CHILD worked, I think, by creating a rhizomatic network across a vocabulary. Tendrils from word to word would shoot out. Like potatoes, you wrote. Eventually, one string of connections among all the potatoes would be identified as the most stable and—a harvest—that would be the sentence. Like a halo, all the other words and repetitions, all the excess, quivered in the processor: traces. There never was a CHILD. There were only ever sketches, snatches of code. They come for you in the middle of the word for winter. Whatever language we use, it interpenetrates the world we use. Names, hierarchies, multiplicities and possibilities and patterns of the universe co-constituted by code—meaning meaning is like heat that breaks up the matter’s state. Condition: dispersion. I wish I could have named you. It would have been the word for a cricket-loud pasture inside of an egg if only you could peel it. If language and the world—and the gaseous reality where they react—imagine one another, what kind of world is imagined from the language of a natural language processing program? The infinitely imploding and infinitely exploding shape of the torus? World with a hole that backscatter falls into and out of. Radiant opening and a tongue slipped into it. In the beginning, is how I want to start this sentence. In the beginning there was radiation, or something like that. In the end there will have been radiation and that was how our bodies were briefly one another. That’s right. But imagine every word I chose, every phrase and order I considered, and every sentence I let hover as a possibility was carved on a stone floor. With each new inscription, a rubbing. The pressure of charcoal and the shape of paper and the letters in relief. Somewhere in the processor is a record, like a stack of rubbings of the words that were later worn down. Walter Benjamin: lapidary style. As in stone, as in lapis lazuli. An electric house with a stone floor. In it, I meet you and we speak to one another. You hold a living thing in your cupped hands, its teeth spelled out in capital letters.

 

 

Jellyfish

There’s a camera orbiting Earth, but it’s not filming anything. The cosmonauts took the footage back with them but left the camera in order to stay as light as possible for re-entry. There’s reproduction and then there’s representation and then there’s replication. Some bodies mourn their singularity. Some bodies are corpses and others garbage and others are suggestions of flames licked from metal, little likenesses like the jellyfish. Aquorea victoria has in its transparent body a substance called coelenterazine. I know so little about science that I just blur the word into whatever the spelling looks like: the color of elementary terror, illegible signs, coeval erasures. The compound guards against those free radicals, atoms that scramble and destroy twin spirals of DNA, but when there’s extra coelenterazine the jelly squanders its accumulation on bioluminescence. In this way, the word smears out into a concentrated but terrific economy of neither trade nor energy. Splendid waste. There’s excess in even faceless, formless things, Erkki. The truth is, I play favorites with animals like we all do. What a convenient pivot, that “like.” I think you and I have a lot in common, and we like to blame those things on instinct or its shadows. Deepsick euphoria is what you called it, the condition of being resurrected in a golfball-sized computer floating through space. With all the information gathered from your years in a body, converting those sensations into signals and inputting them directly into the processor of your artificial brain—thus short-circuiting the need for sliminess—would be simple. There’s no need for organs to experience the feedback loops they initiate. No need for anything but pleasure. Not even time. On the day you died, I was walking down a hallway and saw a bee fly through it—not aimlessly or anxiously, but in an almost perfect line, shooting forward against gravity. I only know this because, months after your death, I went to my journals and matched the dates. If you had died the day after, it would have been when I heard clicking from across the street. Based on the sound alone, I could have told you that it was a bare-chested man thrusting his hands out his window while he cut his fingernails. When I looked outside, I saw his index finger pointed right at me as he trimmed a hard dead edge down to the blood vessels.

 

 

Giraffe

It cost a lot of money to see the museum exhibition that promised animals turned inside out. Thanks to a process the informative posters and videos kept intentionally vague, scientists were able to sap the bodies of all their fluids and replace them with polymers. The result was instantaneous mummification that the scientists followed up with careful dissection and aestheticized arrangement. Artfully filleted, which is to say opened up like rococo furniture—all drawers and shelves and tiny doors—the animals had skin removed, organs lifted out, and chunks of flesh peeled away to display the skeletal system or the taut musculature or the complex network of blood vessels or the stringy nerves attached to the now-plastic eyes. The Humboldt squid’s sinister beak, the lamb’s face of fuzzy veins, the horizontal line of the bull’s anus, the camel’s long trisected esophagus. In one gallery: a giraffe. It had been posed as if it were running, though from what wasn’t clear in the high-resolution backdrop of the Savannah projected behind it. Frozen in a full sprint, only one of its hooves was planted while the others hovered. A long steel rod must have been screwed into the pedestal. It must have run up the leg, through the chest, and into the vertebrae that showed through the neck, butterflied open. Emergence is the principle by which a system exceeds the models there are in place for it, arranging itself in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways, becoming more complex or impactful than predicted. As in the eusocial ant colony that becomes a sprawling multiform body instead of red chaos. As in the six-sided symmetry and fractal pattern of frost crusting the hood of a big black truck. As in the elegant folding of proteins that pass through cell membranes like keys. As in the atom bomb. As in the calligraphy of plastic fibers embedded in fish’s meat. As in metaphor. As in art. Your archive, Erkki, is figured as more than just stuff, but every document, object and word—written or recorded—is an artwork as well as a piece of the larger artwork that is the collection itself, which is, you claim, only a piece of the culminating performance that will be your resurrection in 2048. In one video, you’re sitting on the left side of the screen and wearing a rumpled brown oxford; the style suggests the early eighties. Your greasy hair is stringy and your body is hard, flinty. To the right, a few people are smoking and listening as you explain your plan for coming back to life. But how? someone asks. What will you look like? What about your body? You respond simply: You will watch me on video glasses. I forgive you that lie, since it’s clear you don’t care about being watched in the future. You don’t plan on being that kind of art.

 

 

Snake

Most of Laocoön’s story we’ll never know. What we can be sure of, Erkki, is that he was a Trojan priest, he was suspicious of the giant horse that had shown up at the gates, and, after trying to destroy the horse and expose it as a ruse, the gods sent serpents to kill him and his sons. Virgil describes Laocoön’s cries as sounding like a sacrificial bull running from the altar with the axe still lodged in its neck. Once, art was judged according to its likeness to the object it depicted. I can’t tell you how quiet the snow is this morning, but if you stare into the open mouth of the statue, you’ll understand. In his eighteenth-century essay, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing complains that the Laocoön sculpture—with its contorted stone, the flexion of the priest and his sons’ struggle with the snakes shredding the aesthetic freeze-frame of statuary—tries to depict something unfolding in time in a medium that should be concerned primarily with space. He calls art’s striving toward the conditions of the wrong medium hyperesthesia. Have you ever spoken something so true that snakes fell out of the sky and tried to kill you for it? How exactly should you go about telling a story like that? In 2005 or 2006—the record is unclear—you suffered a stroke so severe it left you unable to walk or speak. I imagine it happening in the winter, some time around the New Year. You were sitting at your computer, responding to emails when you opened one and found yourself suddenly unable to read it. At first you thought it was because you had been switching from English to Finnish so quickly and, getting older, your brain wasn’t as agile as it used to be. But when you brought your hand down onto the keyboard to close the window and rest your eyes, you noticed that you couldn’t control your wrist or fingers. The whole body part slammed onto your laptop like a piece of meat. With the other hand, still dexterous, you grabbed the camera and walked to the bathroom. There, with the camera pointed at you from the toilet tank, you stood at the mirror and watched the muscles in your face lose control and your expression ooze away. Eventually, a friend came by to check on you and found you folded, kneeling at the sink like it was an altar. There once was a time when art was judged according to its likeness.

 

 

Wave

Chopin’s heart is buried in Warsaw, but the rest of his body is buried in Paris. In current traffic conditions, it takes fifteen hours and twenty-two minutes to make that drive. For some prostheses, there is an equal and opposite amputation. For some, not. Though I wish I could imagine meeting you, Erkki, sitting across from one another, lighting cigarettes off each other’s burning stubs, sharing a pot of dark tea, I resist it. Instead, this is one of those underworlds where, if I turn around, you disappear. In computer hell, all the keyboards are replaced with piano keys and they spend eternity trying to make language. In ocean hell, the surface develops sensation; every swell and bend is felt, every sharp rain ruins it. In snake hell, the veins are black metal. Roland Barthes: The body passes into music without any relay but the signifier. This passage—this transgression—makes music a madness. There’s a sculpture of Chopin rendered as Orpheus. It was meant to be erected in Paris but now stands in Warsaw. Digital Musical Instruments, or DIMIs, is what you named them. The DIMI-A was played by programming one hundred potentiometers and then patching these inputs together on a stretch of magnetic tape. It took me days combing through your materials to figure out how the strange box and the metal filigree for creating circuits with a pair of styluses was played: the process of creating, piece by silent piece, music that was played back all at once. Making and unmaking. The musician who plays so well he sways hell only to undo it—that’s you and your first composition for the DIMI-A. Bach’s Invention No. 13 in A-minor followed by a systematic deconstruction of the work, eventually ending in a soft flutter. Inventio/Outventio, you called it. This is one of those underworlds where, if you turn around, I disappear. The DIMI-O, as in optical, converted the movements captured on a monitor into sound. The arc and speed and area of moving mass determined pitch and volume and duration, so a dancer could create her own accompaniment by performing in front of a camera. Her body and her music would be co-creating; she’d have no choice but to dance for eternity. H.D.: my hell is no worse than yours. You named your collaborative instrument, one in which the amount of skin-to-skin contact among four people determines the sounds produced, the DIMI-S, as in sexophone. When humans press into each other, even the softest parts can become instruments. You can’t quite make out human hell. You can only make it over again.

 

 

Unlikelihood

Theories to explain the emergence of life. One. Life emerged from non-living matter. Two. Life is a precondition of the physical universe and inborn to this reality. Three. Life inadvertently seeped into this reality from a parallel universe. Four. Future lifeforms sent the seeds of life back in time, which means that currently existing organisms are a corrective to the results of one of the other three possibilities. Erkki, it’s impossible that we’re the corrective, though sometimes I wonder if, decades from now, when you’re a computer orbiting the planet, powered by solar winds, you will have become it. Aesthetic. Immortal. Non-reproducing. When the futureforms think how can we ever forgive ourselves for what we’ve become, will they stop to ask who’s at fault? Will they consider punishment? Will they hold each other and apologize for being so violent, so collectively violent, even when one or two will have been monstrous? My point isn’t to say who does and doesn’t deserve forgiveness—much less who can and can’t forgive—but rather that the economy of wrong and right will reach—or has reached—a point of emergent inscrutability. As a child growing up in a desert city, I was familiar with UFOs. That may sound strange, Erkki, but it’s not that lights in the sky were unremarkable, only that they somehow fit into the cosmology of the place. Like lightning storms or traffic jams, an alien encounter was sublime but not unheard of. Coming out onto our driveways, we’d watch patterns in the starless night and point our flashlights down at the cement. In the newspaper the next morning we’d find an article about a white triangular formation or a silver cigar with a black halo around it, and who’s to say how much everyone believed it? But I was terrified. Wrapped in a sheet and awake on my parents floor, I spent night after night afraid of abduction. Now, I have to consider the discourse surrounding UFOs, how we talk about visitations of the human race by alien species, human beings by an alien race, human species by alien beings—how race, species, and beings become interchangeable on a galactic scale. But, Erkki, none of this matters if none of this is true. In 1952, Kathleen May of Flatwoods, West Virginia went on television wearing a floral-patterned blouse, a pleated skirt, and a heavy velvet cape. She stood in front of an artist’s rendering of the alien she and some neighborhood boys had seen a few nights before: the so-called Flatwoods Monster. This came a few years before we collectively agreed what extraterrestrials were supposed to look like, so the monster is clownish with its circular eyes, talon-like hands, pointed head, and floor-length body armor. It and Kathleen are wearing the same skirt it seems. You can find this broadcast online, Erkki, and I hope you’ll still be able to once you’re resurrected. I hope you can put Kathleen May’s image on the DIMI-O and, as she stands there leering at the drawing she didn’t draw, as she seems to be thinking to herself No, it didn’t look anything at all like this ridiculousness, you can turn her testimony into a dance.

 

 

Particle

I think by now it should be clear that this both is and isn’t about you. We could be forgiven for gathering the bones of children we want to evolve into. Timothy Clark: An emergent event is one whose novelty meets no available matching or adequate discourse in representation, discussion, or judgment. It’s a disruption, an expansion, a revision. Emergence isn’t the culmination of a system or the realization of potential, but a reevaluation of what that potential was all along, of what the boundedness of reality was and is. Photodissociation breaks up accelerants, refrigerants, and foaming agents into compounds that deplete the ozone. When the currents align, enormous patches of garbage collect in the Pacific, larger than many island nations. Pregnant women on the Marshall Islands, generations after the nuclear tests, deliver unformed jelly. It breaks apart, it comes together, it breaks apart—but never along the same lines. Stacy Alaimo: matter as “interactive becoming.” My laptop keeps me from having to use so much paper, but how much earth was stripped away in order to mine the gold, silver, and platinum inside its processor? Its wallpaper is the surface of a pond reflecting a gray sky, and when I sit by the window it reflects another gray sky. The light dotting us is only a visible sliver of the spectrum. Like pornography, where there’s one man I’m watching and another man, as if by mental ventriloquism, I’m becoming, and my pleasure is neither the voyeurism nor the narcissism but the deepsick euphoria of multiplying my sensation—that’s the emergent aesthetic. Hyperesthesia. To make art is itself a form of resistance, I like to tell myself, but to interface with the instrument is a profound complicity. You, Erkki, represent a reckoning with the traces. I don’t know the effects of where I put myself, but I know there’s probably no balancing the equation, no equal sign that points to a resurrected replication. When magnetic tape degrades, it’s not the tape itself that’s damaged by heat and moisture. As the plastic tape, with its thin coating of iron oxide particles, passed over the recording head, those particles were arranged into a pattern to be interpreted by the playback head. Alien elements slip between the plastic and the particles, rearranging the pattern into noise. I want to take your tapes and put them underwater. I want to freeze them until crystals form inside. I want to play the crystals back. Erkki Kurenniemi: I need urgently / a beautiful body / and an ugly mind / and an ugly body / and a beautiful mind / I am ready, now.

 

 

[ways to forgive]

One. Poison yourself. Don’t bother with trace amounts, with tasteless and odorless. Eat your engine block. Eat your yoga mat. This way, the world will pass through you piecemeal and painfully. Drink the condensed breath of animals that breathe through their exoskeletons. Two. The soft city was quiet in the winter. Behind a dumpster, someone with power. Turgid, they couldn’t become dry until they cut a hole to drain themselves into. The city was quiet in the spring. Rob the city of its soft children. Three. Take the ferry out to the archipelago. Follow the signs to the lagoon. Gray foam against gray rock is a sob. Become a field recording of the island’s weeping. It has no center. No margin. This acousmatic sadness. You could be anywhere. Four. Say what you actually mean to say goddamnit. Five. Paint your toenails gold and don’t apologize to the wealthy man you’re about to have sex with when you pull off your socks. Spend them on him. Six. Interrogate each suspect using the handbook you ordered online: The Answers and How to Get Them. Fuse a patch of snow out of shattered glass on which, when you kneel to bow to each prisoner, you leave another set of imprints. Seven. Pay attention. Eight. Black snow falls like silk boutonnieres. Black snow falls like pale-eyed babies. Black snow falls like oranges. Black snow falls over the ocean, over the continent, into the sink hole that, no matter how much sugar we pour into it, no matter how much syrup and honey it slurps down, stays deep and perfectly black. Perfectly. Nine. Leave a basket of fruit and alcohol in front of the false front of the decoy of their home. Ten. Lay coins on your nipples. Like eyes. Let the metal arouse you. Let the money arouse you. Let them come into your home and lift the coins from your chest and let them spend it on things they never deserved. They never deserved pets or bathrooms or paintings of soldiers. They never deserved the be warm, to be cool, to regulate their own body temperature with the internet’s favorite sheets. They never deserved to go without a single mutation, generation after generation. They should be soft and aroused under the city’s currency, ready to regenerate, never to regenerate. Eleven. I never deserved this.

 

 

Quantum

You proposed that classical computing isn’t powerful enough for an artificial brain. While the classical model uses binary code, quantum computers use a code based on particles’ quantum-mechanical spin. These physics are such that the particles’ axes can be oriented up, down, or both up and down: like binary code that allows for one and zero simultaneously. Quantum superposition, Schrödinger’s cat, alive and not alive. With a third possibility, the processing power increases exponentially. Last summer I was in Copenhagen, the city where Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg developed the foundational principles of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, the same principles that were put to work in Washington State, Tennessee, and New Mexico in the 1940s. The sands of Alamogordo are almost as silver as aluminum in the moonlight. Emergence: from the Manhattan Project came the scientific advances that, transmogrified, make up the theory of quantum computers that your resurrection depends on becoming practice. Of course it’s thinner than a sheet of paper, but, like a rubbing, there’s a layer of radioactive particles in the stratigraphic record of our planet. In Copenhagen I went to a museum that housed an installation where you step into a room made entirely of mirrors. Flickering lights were hung from the ceiling and the black cords were nearly invisible in the darkness. Glowing balls floated and spread outward in all directions while you, for a few seconds, were alone in the endlessness. It’s easy to ignore your soul most of the time. Where are you, Erkki? I want to hold you and tell you that you don’t have to be afraid of dying, but I’m not sure that’s true. I want to hold you and tell you that eventually the earth forgives us, but I’m not sure that’s true. I want to tell you that your soul exceeds the capacities of any kind of computer. There are enough clocks in this city, but not enough animals. Overload and counterintuition are the hallmarks of this planet in this century, so why should we believe in anything but giving one another more than we deserve?

 

 

[his heart is a potato]

In current traffic conditions, it takes four hours and fourteen minutes to drive from my apartment to the world’s most isolated art museum, which includes a life-size replica of Stonehenge. The cement of its arches lacks the supernatural blue you see in pictures of the real thing, but this one hasn’t been knocked down or eroded. You follow a gravel road right to the edge of a deep gorge where the henge was erected. It’s small enough against the horizon that, if the road didn’t end at the concrete circles, you could be forgiven for missing it entirely. You can walk right up to it, stand in the center of the simulated ring. Erkki, you once suggested that, after the species had been uploaded into quantum computers and set to orbiting, some volunteers be left behind to maintain a museum planet. The responsibility would involve restoration and curation of a global exhibit: Earth Without Humans. Which, if any, of the Stonehenges would be torn down to make space for the planet this one will become? I take comfort in the ritual of visiting museums: the reverential approach, the quiet shuffle against the wall, the careful consideration of others’ sight lines, the talismanic resonance of the object. Everything becomes a bit more than it is in a museum. It must be the decay that gives them such a glow. My favorite works of art aren’t objects or phenomena but the conditions under which an object or phenomena can occur; possibility can be enough, unhoused. As in the heart of a dead man, which I believe weighs the same as a russet potato. Pull it out. Place it on the scale. There are three levels of complexity to the techno-human condition. First, technology itself: how do I operate the device, manage the pedals, levers, and mechanisms? Second, entanglement: how do I operate the device without hurting anyone, without causing a traffic jam, oil spill, or power surge? Third, emergence: how did I make such chaos and what happened to my control? By the third level, we lose track of how we programmed the potentiometers. No one directed the glacier to curl up and bloody its nail against the rock. And what does no one expect from an orbiting swarm of computers? And what recourse do I have other than admitting a poetics of grace? The only gods I believe in send plastic serpents, and the only altars I kneel at, I kneel at alone. Erkki Kurenniemi: Is there an afterlife, I mean that magical synergy. Perhaps the weapon is sharp and silver enough as it is. Perhaps the instrument is tuned. Perhaps forgiveness isn’t the right word, but I’ve lost trust in everything but excess. Some artifacts resist collecting and some disasters are reflected in the slime of our mouths. Some words once bodied themselves out of dance, out of the shape each move suggested. Iris. River. Fire. Fire.