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Sunspring: Surrealism, Susan Sontag, and the New Sensibility

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During a visit to Paris this April, I had the great pleasure of attending the thought-provoking art exhibition ‘Artists and Robots’ at the Grand Palais exhibition hall. The show was a stunning interactive and immersive journey through the history of robotic and mechanical art-making; a factory of creative machines ranging from wooden, hand-cranked painting mechanisms to giant, dancing digital screens, eyeball rolling humanoids, motion sensor illusions, algorithmic photographs, and – my personal favourite – a levitating, geometrical recital of floating copper rods whose celestial performance was affectively reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Tarkovsky’s Solaris (science-fiction supernaturalism combined with ecclesiastical awe). The exhibition was split into three parts – ‘The Creating Machine’, ‘The Programmed Work’, and ‘The Robot Becomes Emancipated’ – each one delving deeper into the existential questions surrounding artists, robots, and “robot artists”: Can machines be artists? If so, what are the implications for our understanding of the nature of creativity and art-making? What is the function of the artist in the age of art-making machines?

Grand Hexanet by Elias Crespin

Two days prior to attending the exhibition I had picked up a copy of Susan Sontag’s two essays, ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’ in a bookstore in Le Marais. The latter essay, which I read upon returning from my trip, struck me as surprisingly relevant to the questions left swimming in my head after the exhibition. A concise and yet absolutely revelatory defence of the function of art in the mechanical-technological age, her essay argues for a re-thinking of the role of the artistic-literary culture in an age defined by new moral and aesthetic values and concerns. She opens her essay at the turn of the century, amidst the industrial revolution-anxiety felt by those who saw “the coming of the machine” as a threat to literary-artistic culture: “The role of the individual artist, the business of making unique objects for the purpose of giving pleasure and educating conscience and sensibility, has repeatedly been called into question. Some Literary intellectuals and artists have gone so far as to prophesy the ultimate demise of the art-making activity of man. Art, in an automated scientific society, would be un-functional, useless.” By comparing the evolution of art’s function in society to the evolution of scientific progress, Sontag illustrates that art has not become redundant, but rather has undergone a transformation of function: “Art, which arose in human society as a magical-religious operation and passed over into a technique for depicting and commenting on secular reality, has in our time arrogated itself a new function – neither religious nor serving a secularized religious function, nor merely secular or profane […] Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility”.

By comparing the evolution of art’s function in society to the evolution of scientific progress, Sontag illustrates that art has not become redundant, but rather has undergone a transformation of function

This new art (or “new sensibility”) is defined by Sontag throughout the essay as purporting a number of characteristics that differentiate it from its original, magical-religious function and shift it closer to the spirit of science: art is no longer necessarily assigned special value for its uniqueness (see: cinema, pop-art, the mass-produced art-object); art is now equally abstruse, technical and specific as science in its “exactness, its sense of research and problems” and its experimental nature; art is no longer necessarily moral or used for edification; art is not necessarily concerned with presenting beauty or providing pleasure; and art is less concerned with “individual personal expression”, with “content” and “ideas” in favor of “concept” and an exploration of sensibility. Sontag goes on to cite music, film, dance and architecture – practices which “draw profusely, naturally and without embarrassment upon science and technology” – as embodiments of the new sensibility; art-forms which stand in contrast to the content-heavy and more often morally-coded literary form. So, if art-making is impinging increasingly on scientific territory – the impersonal, the experimental, the technological – is there reason to believe that the art-making robot has a significant role to play in the ‘evolution’ of the function, creation and perception of art?

Bebot installation by Leonel Moura
Meta Mechanic kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely

Towards the end of the exhibition, in the company of a bionic ORLAN replica, a robotic Buddhist monk and silently looping Daft Punk music video, I stumbled across the short film Sunspring by Oscar Sharp. Or perhaps I should say, a short film by filmmaker Oscar Sharp, creative technologist Ross Goodwin, and the artificial script-writing intelligence, Benjamin. Born from Sharp’s visionary quest for an “automatic” screenwriting machine and realised by Goodwin’s creative-technological proficiency, Benjamin is an artificially intelligent screenwriter who, after being taught to read screenplays and then fed up to 200 science-fiction films from the 80s and 90s for reference, wrote the short film Sunspring. The script was then realised by Sharp, resulting in a kind of absurd love-triangle sci-fi drama featuring Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch and actors Humphrey Ker and Elisabeth Gray. The dialogue walks a tightrope between the comprehensible and the completely nonsensical, with Sharps directorial decisions seemingly keeping as loyal to Benjamin’s script as possible, with room for interpretation (the stage direction “he pulls his eyes out of his mouth” is, for example, realised as Middleditch choking up an eyeball). Through their performances, the actors lend meaning to the absurd dialogue and make it scrutable – even convincing – and I would argue that the result is both entertaining and highly original. Watching it made me wonder, if Benjamin could make something so alien and yet engaging with a script, what would they (I have chosen to give Benjamin a gender neutral pronoun) do as a director, as a camera operator, or even a dancer, painter, or architect? It’s no wonder why Sharp, as excited as a child on Christmas day in his TED talks and interviews, sees such a deep well of inspirational potential in Benjamin. But does he see Benjamin as a tool, or as a colleague? This is where a difficult question arises: what exactly is Benjamin’s role in the creative process? Benjamin is not an artificial intelligence with anything that I would deem resembles true ‘autonomy’, or even ‘creativity’ – they are programmed to use, process and produce content and information as coded by algorithms designed by Goodwin and determined by the human-produced and selected input. And yet, the screenplay Benjamin produced is some kind of unpredictable and alien literary-artistic work – an embodiment of Sontag’s “impersonal” (removed, at least directly, from human subjectivity and expression), “experimental” (in the most literal sense), and “mass-producible” (in its automated production of content) new sensibility art.

Sunspring screenplay

And yet, the screenplay Benjamin produced is some kind of unpredictable and alien literary-artistic work – an embodiment of Sontag’s “impersonal” (removed, at least directly, from human subjectivity and expression), “experimental” (in the most literal sense), and “mass-producible” (in its automated production of content) art.

In her essay, Sontag makes the bold assertion that literary culture (or more precisely the novel) holds little place in her canon of new sensibility. Literature, she argues, holds onto archaic ideas about what art should be: content-heavy, purporting social and political ideas and implicitly morally lauded. She does, however, name some exceptions whose texts she feels align with the new sensibility, naming among them the father of Surrealism himself, poet, writer and essayist André Breton. The Surrealists – whose production of works ranged from poetry to cinema, sculpture and performance – are exemplary actors (possibly even the true instigators) of the new sensibility, despite – or perhaps because – their primary concern was not with the activity of art-making itself. In his 1924 manifesto for Surrealism, Breton writes of the need for a more liberated and all-encompassing view of reality, one that places the dream-reality on par with our waking and rational one, one that can free us from the crippling “prison of logic” and, to some extent, destroy subjectivity (as he writes in the manifesto, “forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of anyone else”). This, Breton believed, could be achieved through a number of methods, including the willful subjection of the self to chance and automation. This meant a number of ‘techniques’ that may or may not result in traces of artistic production, including (but certainly not limited to) flaneuring the urban streets, automatic writing, collage, bulletism (literally shooting ink at blank paper), Calligramme (whereby the poet draws his poem into a representative shape or form), or the employment of dream-logic for creating narrative (see: Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel and Dali). These games function as exercises working towards the ultimate Surrealist goal, defined as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought […] exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”. This is essentially Sontag’s ‘new sensibility’ in both nature and purpose: to shift away from personal expression and towards an erasure of the artistic ego, to be unconcerned with presenting beauty, pleasure, or morality and to favour experimentation, research, and sensibility over the expression of content or ideas.

Orlanoïde by ORLAN

Goodwin, almost 100 years after Breton published the Surrealist manifesto and a little over 50 years after Sontag published her essay, also mentions the Surrealists during a talk at an international software/tech convention. In the talk, Sharp and Goodwin recount the story of how Benjamin was born, revealing the fascinating thought-process and technical journey behind their screen-writing invention as being a kind of unintentionally pseudo-Surrealist exercise in achieving the ultimate form of automatic writing. To begin, Sharp got his idea for the “automatic” script whilst watching an improv drama exercise whereby performers were given random objects that they were then forced to interact with. In the game he saw refreshing potential for inspiration and an experimental approach to building narrative, which he then emulated using dice. Already here, Sharp displays a Surrealist methodology, a sort of creative game that treats words, scenarios and narrative as objects to be gambled, and art as something potentially liberated through a subjection to the most literal form of chance. Sharp was then stumped, however, at the issue of creating automatic dialogue – his results using dice were all too incomprehensible. Then Sharp met Goodwin, a creative technologist whose experience as a political ghost-writer (including writing presidential proclamations for Obama) led him to study natural language processing and natural language generation at ITP. Goodwin recounts how, in an effort to increase his productivity as a ghost-writer, he would cut up his statements into paragraph chunks, number them, and rearrange them through various tables and systems so as to efficiently short-cut the production of his next letter. This life-hack turned into a number of experimental word-games that he later realized greatly resembled the kinds of experiments carried out by Surrealist poets, citing Raymond Queneau and his “One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” as an example. Queneau’s book is a giant collection of cut up lines of poetry that, by flipping them in the book, can be rearranged to theoretically (or I suppose, literally) create billions of different poems. Both Goodwin and Queneau take one of many Surrealist approaches to language; a kind of treatment of words as objects, or rather a kind of breaking down of language into pieces and parts (as Adam Sitney explains it, using “sounds and letters of the alphabet rather than words, as the fundamental materials of poetry”).

Hundred Thousand Billion Poems by Raymond Queneau

Sharp and Goodwin are by definition, time and place, certainly not Surrealists. But the nature and process of Benjamin’s art-making is still undeniably comparable to some kind of hyper-Surrealist utopia: an automatic writing machine whose results are purely dependent on the processing of information by a form of “chance” (insofar as its outcome is unpredictable and relatively uncontrolled by human intention), thus resulting in the production of a “literature” free of human subjectivity, free of the “prison of logic”, and untroubled by moral or aesthetic concern. I would argue that this demonstrates some kind of continuation of the Surrealist dream, and evidence of the materialization of Sontag’s prediction and diagnosis of the shifting function of art, and a promising demonstration of the role technology can, and already does, have to play. Can the machine be a way for us to truly step out of the artistic-ego, to create radical and ‘liberated’ art with the potential to fuel “new modes of vivacity”, and help us escape a reality in which “our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown classifiable”? ‘Artists and Robots’ display of mechanical, programmed and artificially intelligent art-making was certainly celebratory, but a dark cloud of fear – fear, primarily, of the replacement of the artist with machine – hung over the exhibition. Perhaps we can at least, amidst the threat and existential anxiety we feel surrounding the automatic art-making machine, see the radical potential of the robotic artist through the lens of a Surrealist intention, and through Sontag’s optimistic defence of the shifting function of art.

Works cited

Artistes & Robots exhibition at Le Grand Palais

Tinguely, J. (1950). Métamatic generative sculptures.

Murakami, T. (2016). Murakami Arhat Robot (title to be determined). 

Crespin, E. (2018). Grand Hexanet. 

Sontag, S. (2018). Notes on Camp. Penguin Modern

Sontag, S. (2018). One Culture and the New Sensibility. Penguin Modern

Orlanoïde. (2017). 

Couchot, E. (2017). Les Pissenlits. 

Technologic music video. (2005).

Sunspring. (2016). Directed by S. Oscar.

Machines Making Movies. (2016). GitHub Universe.

Breton, André (1924)  “Surrealist Manifesto”

Buñuel Luis, Un Chien Andalou. Luis Buñuel-Salvador Dali, 1928.

Queneau, Raymond, (1978) Hundred Thousand Billion Poems

Sitney, Adam (1979) Image and Title in Avant-Garde Cinema

2001: A Space Odyssey. (1968) directed by Stanley Kubrick

Solaris. (1972) directed by Andre Tarkovsky

 

Ebba loves literature, but has a BA in the slightly lower ranked art form of cinema. Her heroes are Pauline Kael, David Lynch, Donna Haraway, RuPaul, Albert Camus, Kathryn Bigelow and Eileen Myles, to name a few. She wrote her Bachelor dissertation on cyborgs and has a soft spot for science-fiction and horror. She likes her culture mixed, high and low, pop and pretentiousness together. She spends most of her time listening to pop-culture podcasts, writing, reading, and making crappy art. She’ll be starting a master in film studies at KU in 2018.

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