Written on the occasion of Sarah Derat’s solo exhibition ‘She Who Loves Silence‘ at Castor Projects, London. 21 June – 27 July 2019
The full essay can be read on the Castor website. And below.
If I were to appropriate, employ or hire a robot to write this essay, to automate the process of critique, what would it say of my position in the ecosystem of artistic labour and the relationship of this writing to Sarah’s latest exhibition? While I write this for no wage, as an artistic and non-alienated practice I have control over, I could be subcontracting this to a chatbot, an AI or a household assistant. My engagement with technology in this way would be its utilisation as a tool but also the acute realisation that I myself become a certain type of tool, both for the overall construct of the exhibition She Who Loves Silence, in its manifold experiences, and the unfolding of a dialectic between my target outcomes and the subcontracting of a machine to fulfil them.
The use of tools to determine a proto-existentialism in Georges Bataille’s writing on sovereignty is tightly bound to the concepts and categories Derat explores in her work. With thorough anthropological and archaeological theorisation underpinning the conceptualisation of her bodies of work, married to the dedication and commitment to internalising their production, Derat’s recent art works speak of an anthropological futurity and a questioning of where we are heading rather than merely where we find ourselves. More than a social or cultural critique, the imbrication of ancient civilisations and their contemporary counterparts impregnates a timelessness into a reimaging of Egyptian deities, like looking back into a mirror that shows you more of your future than you thought could exist.
Earlier pieces by Derat, such as The Aberration of Light (2015), in which 3000 handmade oak crucifixes adorn the gallery floor like parquet, subvert the notion of religious essentialism and highlight the human investment in cultivating the power of certain iconographies. The artisanal skill and precision in constructing such vast numbers of ubiquitous and ambivalently (in)accessible objects can only occur as part of a lineage of tool-bearing labour. It is a lineage that could equally span from the grunting apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sadistic but no doubt impeccable joining of Christ’s cross. The handmade and gorgeously finished pieces in Derat’s latest exhibition ask what impact our increased reliance on automation has on society and civilisation if – as has been posited by earlier theorists and subsequently proven – that the use of tools and the development of language spark synapses in the same part of the brain.
From the comparatively primitive wood working tools of The Aberration…through the industrial welding of steel frames and the screeding of rubber to the coding of AI, Derat interacts with technologies within both a local and fiercely connected, global landscape. The insistence of finishing each of the pieces by hand, when they could easily be outsourced to industrialised factories or smaller specialist makers, is testament to the personal investment in understanding what is at stake if the majority of physical trade, and the fringes of intellectual labour, are lost. If the narrative of tools/communication is a continuing one then where are we headed?
The French anthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan posited that bipedal development allowed the hands to be freed for clutching tools; it’s these hand/tool and face/vocalization pairings, famously adopted by Deleuze and Guattari, which remain fundamental to our understanding of human development. And so the writings of Leroi-Gourhan and Bataille come into contact and coalesce in considering the links between tools and verticality, the making of objecthood for tools and ourselves while simultaneously making ourselves human, transcendent and standing above the rest of the animal kingdom. We can still regress to an animalistic state, Bataille argues, while retaining our stance of vertical superiority, when we scream. The throwing back of our heads, unleashing the weighted power of one of our heaviest body parts and howling, brings the open mouth in line with the anus; it draws a line along the spine between two orifices in the same way a snout is aligned with a tail. However, our line is heading toward skyward, parallel to religious monuments and skyscrapers, not parallel to the ground and heading to the horizon as it does for our animal cousins. But what if we throw our heads back to communicate to one another? Does this discount Bataille’s theory that a scream is a regression to a more animalistic, carnal or primal state, when the involuntary expulsion is a name or warning?
Imagine if the blown up 1960s diagrams in Sarah’s rubber hangings were to peel themselves off of the wall, to pop themselves from their tactile rubber moulds and begin lolloping about the Castor Projects space. These creatures, body parts representing their respective brain activity in scale, would – to strike up a dialogue across a great distance, Deptford Market, say – drop their tools and swing their pendulous arms, weighted by elephantine hands, to their engorged mouths and emit such thunderous sounds, as much as their (comparatively miniscule and wildly disproportionate) lungs could muster. While their tools lay lifeless at their feet.
Would these noises, in equal measure evidencing introversion and communication, sound any different, in essence, to the syncopated and stunted voices of the AI exhibited in Gymnopaedia Exercise No1? Getting stuck on certain phrases, repeating and stuttering parts of sentences such as “underwor, underworld” like a child tapping out syllables and picking out verbs; like it is learning to read for the first time or making sense of a translation. While undeniably human and vocal, the sounds from the speakers burst out snappily, like Morse Code. The translation here isn’t of a different language but a way of understanding an existing one, translating from writing to vocalisation, from invention to recording, from the present to posterity. The tools here are the tools of modern automation, there’s no doubt about that, but they are handled in such a way as to prompt a question of their future before it comes about, to consider the way language evolves in tandem with these devices and through our engagement with them.
In 2015, 6050 babies were registered with the name Alexa in the US.
In 2017, this number had decreased to 3883
Despite the fact there has been a rapid decline in popularity of the name Alexa since Amazon released its personal assistant AI to help you spend more money and fast track your personal data to one of the largest and most influential companies in the world, no doubt use of the word has increased. I know a number of parents who are amazed – for some reason – that ‘Alexa’ is one of their children’s first words. Language and tool-use are still evolving and influencing each other. I don’t think robots are close to becoming a servant-class of emotionless assistants but this hypothesis proposes many linguistic alterations – a rapid decrease in everyday pleasantries, dropping the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and a decline the subtle art of phrasing a demand as a friendly question. The line from our yelling mouth to our puckering anuses still rides a straight animalistic course down our spines, parallel to the ubiquitous mini monolith par excellence, when we throw our heads back in disgust and paranoia to scream “Alexa!”, hoping she’ll listen to what she is supposed to, rather than everything else.
It is trite to state that our fear of technology is nothing new. Regardless, the Luddites and Saboteurs are worthy of yet another mention. From the weavers of England and France to the self-appointed Gods of Silicon Valley, the fear of the new dictates how we are equally trepidatious and fully gung-ho about our approach to technology. “I try to avoid the underworld” could be spoken by any of us, fearful of being left behind or becoming irrelevant, one system update short of any communication whatsoever. The one who loves silence is Meretseger, Theban cobra-goddess, protector of the Valley of Kings and patron of Egyptian artisans and makers. While she protected them, the artisans both adored and feared Meretseger for her kindness and mercy, and ability to strike her people blind. The Meretseger of contemporary post-capitalist automation is a patron of the robots and their programmers. Her Valley is the undulating kingdom of expanding digital spaces and their intersection with our terra firma realities– places of dark secrets (piles upon piles of deceased) and unfathomable riches as well as our downfall through our darkest, unspeakable desires.
The first time I met Sarah and visited her studio, she was wearing a Medusa pendent around her neck. Like Meretseger, Medusa was a snaked-headed woman with the ability to impose deathly blindness and muteness upon those who crossed her. I remember my only comment on Sarah’s jewellery at the time was that Medusa was misunderstood, something I almost immediately regretted saying. But the more I thought about Medusa, surrounded by mute goddesses and anthropological slogans, frozen tableaux and eerie disembodied voices, I considered her own usefulness in decapitation. Her head was a subject that, as an object, was a tool made for a new purpose from the old order. Athena’s Medusa-emblazoned shield, used to protect her and cast her enemies to stone, is an example of tools, labour, language and society evolving together, part and parcel of a single process. As automation becomes farther reaching, will the silence of Meretseger’s kingdom come to pass?