“Claude Shannon, artificial intelligence pioneer and founder of information theory, met his wife, Mary Elizabeth, at work. This was Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, in the early 1940s. He was an engineer, working on wartime cryptography and signal transmission.
She was a computer
What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us about Being Alive, Brian Christian
Spike Lee’s creation of sex-crazed NOLA DARLING in his 1986 movie “She’s Gotta Have It” was so innovative it disrupted independent film production and distribution around the world. Up until this point African American women had been portrayed by a range of celluloid stereotypes for example; Ethel Walters was the matriarch, Hattie McDaniel the maid, Dorothy Dandridge the hussy, Tamara Dobson, the aggressor, Diana Ross, the victim and Whoopi Goldberg the asexual being. Spike’s creation was sexy, warm, self assured, intelligent, strong, creative, vulnerable, supremely confident, financially stable, with a good sense of humour and was comfortable in her own skin. Even though Nola was a fantasy created by Lee she had attributes women from the African Diaspora craved to see on the screen. This post contains links which if you click on may earn me money.
Decades later two writer/editors, Lawrence Lek and Patrick Hough, winners of the Jerwood FVU Awards, 2017 present their female leads in “Geomancer”, “And If in A Thousand Years” for the exhibition “Neither one thing or another”. Two films that couldn’t be further away from Lee’s box office busting flick, they’ve put together films that nurture non-human leads using technology to show us the world as viewed by a Singaporean satellite Artificial Intelligence and a Hollywood Sphinx talking to audiences with a female v/o.
Hough’s film is split into three parts unlike Lee and Lek, he employed female scriptwriter Sally O’Reilly to create the feminine voice which is played by Lisa Dwan. ‘And If In A Thousand Year’s’ three parts seek to disturb our understanding of the past and the way we relate to it in the present. Hough says: “Part two follows the journey of the Sphinx awakening above the sand dunes kind of croaking into existence we hear this voice assembling itself in the darkness then coming into being and it begins with this very hoarse biblical reference that are almost built from the rubble of language in a way.”
“I worked myself up into a lingering enigmatic question rising above the garbled hints and hearsays that pointed about idiotically and which kept you busy with petty uncertainties. What if I don’t bear reiteration well?
Voice of Sphinx, Part II played by Lisa Dwan
He says: ”In a way the Sphinx itself has to go on this journey of self discovery to figure out who it is and what it is in the beginning the Sphinx comes back into the world and is in some way reanimated resurrected but its unaware of its identity both as a representation of an Egyptian Sphinx and as a digital artefact un-tethered from its body and set free into the world.”
We know Lee created Nola Darling to coincide with the popularity of African American female literature in the 80s. Writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou had risen to share the spotlight with writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. These women exposed a voracious appetite for stories about the female experience. In 1985 Alice Walker’s popular novel “The Colour Purple” was released as a film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. In the UK Curator June Givanni’s exhibition entitled, “Some of us are brave, all of us are strong… but how many of us do you see? Screened four films in 1986 as part of the women’s distribution collective Circles where small scale film and video tours around the UK were given grants by the Arts Council. The year before avant-garde video artists were floundering around for a unified political stance and aesthetic. “The New Pluralism” season exhibited by Tate Education was a response to this dilemma.
Toni Cade Bambara in Black American Cinema said Lee, who was a member of the Black Film Makers Alliance, opted for a different route to the conscious wing of the movement. He harnessed independent and commercial strategies. He knew he didn’t want his films only shown during black history month or at libraries, he wanted his films to be widely distributed. It was into this climate that SGHI appeared. Lee created a product which fitted trends serving a newly recognised group of consumers. Cinema goers had come out in great numbers to see the 1984 movie “A Soldier’s Story,” directed by Norman Jewison, Lee captialised on this.
Lek, the director of “Geomancer”, talks about Google’s AlphaGo an AI programme which beat Lee Sedols the world champion GO player. Sedols won one game against the AI who beat him four games to one in March 2016. The moment Sedols makes the winning move is called “The Hand Of God”. The beginning of “Geomancer” focuses on this move that won him the only game against AlphaGo. Lek says: “I felt that if you had infinite capacity to win games what you’d naturally want to do is play a game where your skill or intelligence had nothing to do with whether you’d win or not. I’m particularly interested in this really human aspect of irrationality and I feel there’s no reason why an AI or a future consciousness might not also crave irrationality as well because that’s what they lack.”
Besides competing and winning against humans AI teaches us about communication. We connect meaningfully with the AI in Lawrence Lek’s film voiced by Joni Zhu. We rely on the emotion of the content; images, sound cut powerfully to music created by Lek, the writer, editor and composer. We’re rocketed into 2065 where the story builds empathy with the audience as the AI is forbidden to be an artist in this sphere and time. Lek says: “The idea of this being who wants to be an artist now that technology has enabled some people to automate physical labour there may be other tasks which are more to do with thinking and creativity maybe that can also be outsourced to algorithms and technology. So what a lot of AI researchers look at are games. A game is an easy way to determine whether this AI programme that someone created is better than humans at a certain task. ”
Spike Lee went to film school surrounded with film-makers and got his Dad to score the music for his films. Lek on the other hand studied architecture he built the world inhabited by the AI Geomancer. One of his collaborators, Terry Broad, a computer scientist/artist reconstructs moving images with artificial neural networks he created all the AI-generated footage in Lek’s movie. Broad wrote a machine learning programme that analyses film and then re-renders it not based on any of the original footage but only based on the data, brightness and pixel positions. Lek says Broad treats film as a set of data and not a series of memorable images. He says: “He helped me with generating Geomancers dream sequence right at the end which is the entire film but re-encoded through this network which basically forms geomancers dream from the experience it had in the first 40 minutes.”
The human being is the only animal with the most intelligent object in the Universe; the human brain. WIRED interviewed William Tunstall-Pedoe, the creator of the software that works the Amazon voice activated AI Alexa. Alexa is the personal assistant that sits inside the Amazon Echo. He says where he thinks this technology will take us next. “Computers are built in a completely different way to brains, though there is quite a bit of work now trying to merge cognitive science and AI, looking at how neurons work and taking inspiration from that. A lot of the recent big advances in artificial intelligence, such as those in computer vision, have come from what’s known as deep neural networks, which are inspired by the way the brain works.” He’d set out to create voice controlled technology to rival Apple’s SIRI and his dream came true, after Amazon bought his company Evi in 2012 and mass produced the Alexa and the Echo devices.
Hough uses LIDAR scans which measure the distance between the scanner and an object by firing out a laser which bounces back to the scanning unit creating an image composed of hundreds and thousands of tiny points in a point cloud to represent how a digital artefact might see the world. Lek uses his expertise building virtual worlds to turn Singapore into a Mecca for entertainment and gambling. The theme of Geomancer sees Lek examine the merging of the real and unreal in his popular use of computer gaming technology to build the futuristic world in which Geomancer is awoken from her slumber like a virtual sleeping beauty, for all the cutting-edge technology the story has a whiff of Disney about it. Geomancer takes place on the 100th anniversary of Singapore where Lex has juxtaposed a fake celebration of autonomy and independence of the nation state and the Geomancer. He says: “What I feel is interesting in a particularly modern tropical post colonial neoliberal city like Singapore it existed as a rendering before it existed as a city. By taking this artificial landscape as the site I was particularly interested in seeing what was there this kind of glossy three-dimensional neo liberal architecture of entertainment and gambling is kind of the scene where this takes place.”
The iconography in SGHI includes Nola’s colossal ‘loving bed’ surrounded by hundreds of candles. Like a shrine it’s placed in the central position in her minimalist artist loft. Spike Lee allows her to be an artist in Brooklyn living well and making money. The bed is the first thing we see in the opening shot. As the camera tracks in the occupant looks squarely at us and protests her innocence. Nola is a free character; her clothes illustrate this as every piece is unstructured, soft and comfortable. She rarely wears a bra and her movements are fluid, her hair is worn in a barbered afro softer than the one worn by Grace Jones when she released “My Jamaican Guy”.
We see most of Lek’s film through the eyes of Geomancer who Lek describes as a satellite AI built to monitor the environment and weather patterns in South East Asia. He says:” Even though an AI is in many ways the ultimate kind of other for a human we have no idea of what they might want to do or feel in my story it’s safe to say that they’ll want to feel like themselves, they’ll want to feel unique, they’re not just a product of a start-up corporation they’d want to feel like they have meaning and agency in life.”
There are two underlying themes in Spike Lee movies, firstly he explores class polarisation. Secondly he deals with issues of release, change and the conflicts that arise trying to achieve these states in human relations. Polarisation is shown in SGHI between Mars who represents the underclass, Jamie who represent the working class, Nola and Greer who represent the middle classes. The characters are trying to reconcile their African past with their present. Nola has unified the three men in her mind they are a complete entity. When she tries to have a relationship solely with Jamie it doesn’t work – he sexually abuses her; she leaves him and enters therapy.
Geomancer wants to behave badly says Lek. Human irrationality is a goal. Bad behaviour has long been the fodder of artists. Causing offence and showing a rebellious streak is celebrated in contemporary art. AI scientist/artist use original HD footage to surprise viewers with distortion to achieve their goals of seeing the world through the eyes of non-humans. The images blown up on the screens resemble splodges of paints slung on huge canvases relating to Guy Debord’s 1955 study of psychogeography. To get lost in the AI environment producing simple and exciting juxtapositions to meet our aural and visual needs. Geomancer’s opening sequence is cut tightly to the music; the AI footage is fluid, hypnotic. The viewing experience is simply staged in a darkened box shaped room with a smattering of reclining leather gaming chairs. His idea of an AI’s artwork would be based on copying rather than originality he says: “I feel that algorithms increasingly emulate thinking and not just thinking but cleverness and not just cleverness but brilliance we will continuously have to push the thinking boundary further back. So in Geomancer for example human society has pushed this margin back to art.
These movies didn’t follow conventional Hollywood yet their importance is unquestionable. The film makers are artists challenging the assumptions of the prevailing social order. Human beings are the only animals that provide a composite view of the world by superimposing computer generated images of the real world. The quote at the beginning of this article is a composite view of the inventor of AI Claude Shannon. Shannon met his wife at work, she was called Betty but she wasn’t a computer, she was a living being, who encouraged his love of juggling on unicycles.
Dee Semple aka “Onayemi” is a video artist and journalist working in London. Her video and writing explores the ways the environment affects the lives of people and vice versa, how geometric boundaries affect the physical and cultural contrasts of sickness and adversity. She’s a published poet her book “The Rhythm Writer” includes poems which she performed alongside up-and-coming writers such as Lemn Sissay, Zena Edwards and Jackee Holder. The highlight of this period was supporting Pulitzer prize-winner Toni Morrison, at the Bloomsbury Theatre, on her tour entitled “Jazz”.
Words Copyright: Tidyup Media*, 2017
Photograph Copyright: Malcolm Banthorpe, 2017