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Machine Learned Futures

September 6, 2018 3 comments

We are with Abelardo Gil-Fournier writing a text or two on questions of temporality in contemporary visual culture. Our specific angle is on (visual) forms of prediction and forecasting as they emerge in machine learning: planetary surface changes, traffic and autonomous cars, etc. Here’s the first bit of an article on the topic (forthcoming later we hope, both in German and English).

“’Visual hallucination of probable events’, or, on environments of images and machine learning”

I Introduction

Contemporary images come in many forms but also, importantly, in many times. Screens, interfaces, monitors, sensors and many other devices that are part of the infrastructure of knowledge build up many forms of data visualisation in so-called real-time. While data visualisation might not be that new of a technical form of organisation of information as images, it takes a particularly intensive temporal turn with networked data that has been discussed for example in contexts of financial speculation.[1] At the same time, these imaging devices are part of an infrastructure that does not merely observe the microtemporal moment of the “real”, but unfolds in the now-moment. In terms of geographical, geological and broadly speaking environmental monitoring, the now moment expands in to near-future scenarios in where other aspects, including imaginary are at play. Imaging becomes a form of nowcasting, exposing the importance of understanding change changing.

Here one thinks of Paul Virilio and how “environment control” functions through the photographic technical image. In Virilio’s narrative the connection of light (exposure), time and space are bundled up as part of the general argument about the disappearance of the spatio-temporal coordinates of the external world. From the real-space we move to the ‘real-time’ interface[2] and to analysis of how visual management detaches from the light of the sun, the time of the seasons, the longue duree of the planetary qualitative time to the internal mechanisms of calculation that pertain to electric and electronic light. Hence, the photographic image that is captured prescribes for Virilio the exposure of the world: it is an intake of time, and, an intake of light. Operating on the world as active optics, these intakes then become the defining temporal frame for how environments are framed and managed through operational images, to use Harun Farocki’s term, and which then operationalize how we see geographic spaces too. The time of photographic development (Niepce), or “cinematographic resolution of movement” (Lumière), or for that matter the “videographic high definition of a ‘real-time’ representation of appearances”[3] are part of Virilio’s broad chronology of time in technical media culture.

But what is at best implied in this cartography of active optics is the attention to mobilization of time as predictions and forecasts. For operations of time and production of times move from meteorological forecasting to computer models, and from computer models to a plethora of machine learning techniques that have become another site of transformation of what we used to call photography. Joanna Zylinska names this generative life of photography as its nonhuman realm of operations that rearranges the image further from any historical legacy of anthropocentrism to include a variety of other forms of action, representation and temporality.[4] The techniques of time and images push further what counts as operatively real, and what forms of technically induced hallucination – or, in short, in the context of this paper, machine learning – are part of current forms of production of information.

Also in information society, digital culture, images persist. They persist as markers of time in several senses that refer not only to what the image records – the photographic indexicality of a time passed nor the documentary status of images as used in various administrative and other contexts – but also what it predicts. Techniques of machine learning are one central aspect of the reformulation of images and their uses in contemporary culture: from video prediction of the complexity of multiple moving objects we call traffic (cars, pedestrians, etc.) to satellite imagery monitoring agricultural crop development and forest change. Such techniques have become one central example of where earth’s geological and geographical changes become understood through algorithmic time, and also where for instance the very rapidly changing vehicle traffic is treated alike as the much slower earth surface durations of crops. In all cases, a key aspect is the ability to perceive potential futures and fold them into the real-time decision-making mechanisms.

The computational microtemporality takes a futuristic turn; algorithmic processes of mobilizing datasets in machine learning become activated in different institutional context as scenarios, predictions and projections. Images run ahead of their own time as future-producing techniques.

Our article is interested in a distinct technique of imaging that speaks to the technical forms of time-critical images: Next Frame Prediction and the forms of predictive imagining employed in contemporary environmental images (such as agriculture and climate research). While questions about the “geopolitics of planetary modification”[5] have become a central aspect of how we think of the ontologies of materiality and the Earth as Kathryn Yusoff has demonstrated, we are interested in how these materialities are also produced on the level of images.

Real time data processing of the Earth not as a single view entity, but an intensively mapped set of relations that unfold in real time data visualisations becomes a central way of continuing the earlier more symbolic forms of imagery such as the Blue Marble.[6] Perhaps not deep time in the strictest geological terms, agricultural and other related environmental and geographical imaging are however one central way of understanding the visual culture of computational images that do not only record and represent, but predict and project as their modus operandi.

This text will focus on this temporality of the image that is part of these techniques from the microtemporal operation of Next Frame Prediction to how it resonates with contemporary space imaging practices. While the article is itself part of a larger project where we elaborate with theoretical humanities and artistic research methods the visual culture of environmental imaging, we are unable in this restricted space to engage with the multiple contexts of this aspect of visual culture. Hence we will focus on the question of computational microtime, the visualized and predicted Earth times, and the hinge at the centre of this: the predicted time that comes out as an image. The various chrono-techniques[7] that have entered the vocabulary of media studies are particularly apt in offering a cartography of what analytical procedures are at the back of producing time. Hence the issue is not only about what temporal processes are embedded in media technological operations, but what sounds like merely a tautological statement: what times are responsible for a production of time. What times of calculation produce imagined futures, statistically viable cases, predicted worlds? In other words, what microtemporal times are in our case at the back of a sense of a futurity that is conditioned in calculational, software based and dataset determined system?

[1] Sean Cubitt, Three Geomedia, in: Ctrl-Z 7, 2017.
[2] Paul Virilio, Polar Inertia, London-Thousand Oaks-New Delhi, 2000, S. 55.
[3] Ebenda, S.61
[4] See Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography, Cambridge (MA) 2017.
[5] Kathryn Yusoff, The Geoengine: geoengineering and the geopolitics of planetary modification, in: Environment and Planning a 45, 2013, S. 2799-2808.
[6] See also Benjamin Bratton, What We Do Is Secrete: On Virilio, Planetarity and Data Visualisation, in: John Armitage/Ryan Bishop (Hg.), Virilio and Visual Culture, Edinburgh 2013, S. 180–206, hier S. 200-203.
[7] Wolfgang Ernst, Chronopoetics. The Temporal Being and Operativity of Technological Media, London-New York 2016.

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Towards 2048, Erkki Kurenniemi*

Erkki Kurenniemi (1941-2017),  a pioneer of electronic music, technological inventions and imaginaries, has passed away. He can be characterised by lists that catalogue his interests and skills, lists that are eclectic, fragmented but also about enthusiastic curiosity: a filmmaker, creative music technologist, roboticist, tinkerer as well as “perennial dissident” (as Erkki Huhtamo quipped). He was of the generation who used computers before they became personal; computers were odd experimental machines found at university departments and sometimes banks. Perhaps part of the trick was also to remind oneself of computers as something you could build yourself, and use for all sorts of wrong purposes.

The Finnish technologist recorded his life with the meticulous intent of an admistrative worker, a scribe – notebooks, audio recordings, video clips, collections of ephemera. A large part of Kurenniemi’s life was a sort of durational performance art piece that aimed to gather bits of human life, memorabilia, towards the point (around 2048) at which computational capacities are efficient enough to model and simulate human life.

He also took the liberty to write his own premature obituary: “Oh, Human Fart” some 13 years before his actual death. The text starts like this:

“I was five when the ENIAC electronic computer was started. During the fifties, as a schoolboy, I read about computers and electronic music. Max Mathews used the computer to generate music. With my father, I visited the Bull computer factory in Fance and I was sold.”

In many ways, Kurenniemi himself wrote what others should write and think about him. After that self-defined ur-scene, many devices, sounds and ideas followed like the Dimi-series of synthetizers where in some cases also touch and movement became sound.

Kurenniemi’s way of narrating his own life emphasises the role of technology, which is not a surprise. One can say that he is a symptom of the particular period, the post-World War II and Cold War age of computer technologies, experimental technological arts, as well as the  discourse of cyborgs and the technological singularity.

But all this was also situated in the more mundane the entry of technologies in institutions: university departments, companies, socio-technical infrastructures from telephony to gaming to automation of factory production.

Kurenniemi’s work became a reference point that was rethought, reinvented, remixed, and re-performed in various contexts in electronic music. It was not merely to be replayed but acted as a reference point and as a resource for experiments. Florian Hecker discussed Kurenniemi’s work also as part of the wider culture of experiments in sound from Cage to Xenakis: “Kurenniemi showed progression from one register to the next, the period of his musical instruments was followed by a study of tuning systems and theoretical conceptions on neural networks; it’s essential to do something else with all that material, rather than a mere scholarly reactivation or reorganization.”

Cue in, Pan Sonic with Kurenniemi.


From sounds and performance to contemporary art, Kurenniemi’s work has been featured in various exhibitions, including at dOCUMENTA (13), Kunsthall Aarhus and Kiasma in Helsinki. Curators such as Joasia Krysa have been especially active in articulating Kurenniemi’s work in the context of contemporary technological arts. His archival project can be perceived as an archival fever that was partly triggered as part of digital culture. However for Kurenniemi, this was always in the context of imagining the coming AI future but without the fallacy that this machine intelligence would be humanlike. Why would it want to model and imitate something so “slow, imprecise, forgetful, and easily fatigued” (Kurenniemi’s words)? Kurenniemi’s vision of the future was based on I.B.N.: info, bio, nano, the three defining scales of social change.  The future did not match particularly well with the human form or size. Oh human fart.

Reading Kurenniemi’s life, try approaching it as rewind and fast forward. Time-axis manipulation: backwards, he is part of a cultural history of computing, of early computer experiments with visual arts such as computer animations; and then the other way, he is also a forward-dreaming, sometimes hallucinating, writer of the imaginary of a technological next step that takes a singular turn.

A switch.

Electronics are the backbone of this imaginary, both as visuals and as sounds, but despite his seemingly at times focused vision of the coming quantum computer future, perhaps it was never  exactly sure even to him as to what was to come: perhaps these ideas, snippets, machines, were all little probes into what is possible? Of course, he was convinced that certain technological advances will happen but perhaps as interesting as the wild imaginaries were the ways in which he worked closely with machines throughout his life, as one sort of a companion to his own meat-based existence.

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It was not merely about knowing what’s coming but experimenting about how to know what’s to come and educating that sort of a way of thinking to others too. There’s of course a strong hint of the particular optimism that characterised the spectacles of technology in the 1950s and 1960s in the US and Europe as well. The Eames Office was offering its own version of the visual communication in the age of information and many other institutions from MIT to AT&T, EAT, etc. participated in the new institutional entry of technological arts as part of world fairs and other events. The avant-garde was – and has since been – closer to the corporations of technology so that it became perceived as a natural step Silicon Valley took over the role of offering imaginaries of technological future. But sometimes instead of elon musks, it’s more interesting to read the erkki kurenniemis and their much earlier visions that are not solely a corporate fantasy brand line or a TED talk. Sometimes it is more interesting to look at what was going on in the seeming peripheries, like the Nordic countries, to get a sense of a slightly alternative way to understand this story, rewinding and fast-forward.

After Kurenniemi’s death, what’s left is a collection of his recordings and other materials, housed at the Central Art Archives of the Finnish National Gallery (and thanks to a lot of work by Perttu Rastas and others). It is a mixed collection of technological dreaming that at times seemed more interesting when it was not focused on trying to invent a new thing but just speculating, like this one sound recording of Kurenniemi’s. This is where the technological imaginary does not follow a straight geometric line, but goes off on a tangent and towards escape velocity.

“(00:00:00) (Click click, radio signal, blows in the microphone five times, click, blow)
One, two, three, puppadadud. Fuck, fuck, fuck, this is sensitive. There we go.
(blow) Yeah, a dreaming computer… will be the last human invention. Well not the last one, but… the last invention. Because a dreaming computer will already have dreamt up
everything. Prior unconscious. Well, no. Dead computers may only be in two spaces: in an idle loop waiting to be interrupted or in a conscious space receiving and handling external information, printing it. A sleeping computer is not in an idle loop. Yeah, well of course it is, it does ask questions and wakes up when needed but otherwise it dreams. It is organizing its files, optimizing, associating, organizing, thinking, planning. And only when called upon, it interrupts its sleep for a little while to answer a question.

(The sound of the microphone being touched, cut) (Kurenniemi C4008-1 1/11)”

___

More on Kurenniemi and texts by Kurenniemi in English:
Erkki Huhtamo’s Preface “Fragments as Monument” can be read online.
Mika Taanila’s film about Kurenniemi: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be.
The Wire wrote a short obituary about Kurenniemi.
* Note also that “Towards 2048” is the title of the earlier Kiasma exhibition on Erkki Kurenniemi.

The Consortium: On Autonomous Sensing

January 6, 2015 1 comment

Last Spring we at #WSA started a consortium partnership with two other universities: University of California (San Diego) and Parsons School of Design (New School, NYC). Together with Jordan Crandall and Benjamin Bratton from USCD and Ed Keller from Parsons we are addressing themes such as machine perception, remote sensing, synthetic intelligence, etc. We are also organising a panel for transmediale 2015 – and Jordan Crandall will be in performing his drone performance Unmanned.

But already before transmediale at the end of this month, we are organising a group meeting and a public panel this week in San Diego under the rubric of “Autonomous: Sensing“.

Last Spring, we organised a panel in Winchester on Design and Contemporary Technological Realities and we aim to continue these meetings alongside some publications and curating exhibitions with the consortium partners.

— update —

Below some pictures from the San Diego-event and our panel.

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