John Wild is a London based artist who works across performance, sound, text, code, electronics and machine learning to carry out speculative research into the utopian and dystopian futures imminent within digital technology.
The machine dreams in hyperreal hallucinatory visions emergent from the convolutions of its deep neural network. It produces a cycogeographic mapping of site, an extraction of the essence of place through a process of forensic analysis and Bayesian probabilities. Machinic Dreamings are the output of a machine learning generative adversarial network (GAN) trained on 1000 photographs of a body occupying the temporary landscape of the Limehouse Foreshore, a triangular expanse of mud, silt and rocks on the northside of the Thames, just as the river sweeps south at Canary Wharf and only visible at low tide.
All dreamings are collective acts. Machinic Dreamings link anonymous humans and non-humans across time and space. They are dependent on a technical infrastructure of GPUs housed in data centres, located across national borders and interconnected through fibreoptic cables. Machine Learning algorithms have their own ancestry and lineage; the StyleGAN2 algorithm redefined StyleGAN, which built upon wider style transfer research. It is impossible to map the network of actants whose labour has been essential in producing a single machinic image. My contribution was the gathering of a data set and the training of the GAN.
The initial results were a shock. They open up deep-seated cultural anxiety about human relations to the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The images suggest murderous intent. Severed chunks of flesh discarded on the beach, the possible abandoned residue of Capital’s human meat stranded on the Foreshore between the rising waters of the Thames and the hostile steel and glass of Canary Wharf. Surplus to requirements in an era of AI. There is a generalised fear of the replacement of labour, but the real concern should be the already existing automation of the capitalist. A simple inhuman algorithm, the appropriation of ever more surplus value, has always driven the capitalist. An algorithm very easy to replicate in code. Inside the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, high-frequency trading, places machine learning at the centre of capitalist accumulation.
The interpretation of dreams is notoriously difficult, and the non-human perspective of Machinic Dreamings opens up multiple alternative interpretations.
The streets look how I remember them but everything has come to a standstill. . Time itself has stopped. . Crystallised. . Space and time have always been inseparable, but here the whole network of streets has petrified. Space captured in a single moment of time, though on closer inspection it’s not a single moment, it’s a patchwork of distinct isolated moments, stitched into a continuum from noncontiguous shattered fragments.
Are these the moments the streets ceased to exist? The moment just before a great flash of blinding light sweeps away everything in its path. SERVER CRASH, POWER OUTAGE, TERRORIST ATTACK. I hover above this final moment. Looking down on the world as it was. From this scopic perspective, I am a god but I cannot resist descending. I join the ghosts, I walk amongst them, stare for far too long at their blurred faces, look for signs of recognition, someone I know. What sort of world do I inhabit when the faces of its residents have been obscured, leached of detail? I spot a familiar outline riding a bicycle. Instant recognition but their deformed features make me feel uneasy. I travel down streets I will never actually visit in lumbering blurs of acceleration, anticipating the next scene to emerge from the slow blocky fog as the screen renders into focus. The streets are bathed in eternal sunlight. I can feel its heat penetrating my screen, forcing a hallucinatory pink hue onto my peripheral vision. I look at buildings I will never enter, stare at people I will never speak to. Two People Talking Behind A Wall. A secret liaison documented for any jealous lover to track down. Who needs the NSA, FBI, MI5? I remember Robin Bale, a friend of mine, once recounting how he had shown his Dad Street View. He described how he spent an evening scrolling up and down Ashford high street,‘we knew that my mum, who had only died a month ago, used to walk here every day to get the papers and fresh bread … So we were looking for that digital smear… we were looking for that ghost.’. How many others have traversed the virtual streets looking for ghosts? Hoping for a last glimpse, the possibility of one last meeting, a final goodbye. I contemplate the possibility of the emergence of a street view cult of remembrance. I look up into the sky. The sun is still shining, COPYWRITE GOOGLE.
In recent months I have become what you could describe as a Cyberflâneur. Escaping the prison of my desk-bound workplace by indulging in daily digital drifts. My drifts take place not in the streets but in the distorted, glitchie and copywritten representation of urban life that is Google Street View. Unlike the flâneurs of 19th century Paris, I am neither a dandy nor a man of leisure. My drifts are an act of theft, of subversion and escape. I steal time back from a system that enslaves me to work for poverty wages in what has become one of the most expensive cities on Earth, London. Condemned to confining my body to the same two metre squared space day after day, repeating the same banal digital tasks. Repetitive data entry causes permanent strain in my right wrist and shoulder. My back is contorted, a continual source of discomfort. My mind is dull, a permanent haze of depression hangs thick throughout the office. This is not some personal affliction; it is a collective flattening of mood than can be sensed as you enter the four digit security code that grants access. While you may initially attempt to protect yourself from the melancholy, it seeps into your very being. This is the emergent affect that arises from an open plan design within which the openness and visibility is used as a form of discipline. Office workers have become adept at covering their mental wanderings. The shift from Facebook, online shopping or some other distraction to a work related screen can be achieved in a blink. My distraction, my escape, has become the digital drift.
Boredom. Eight and a half hours each day, forty two and a half hours each week. Over one hundred and seventy hours per month. God knows how many hours year after year I have sat on the same brown checked office chair with its incomprehensible collection of levers that, however you adjust them, never make it comfortable. Confined to the same two metre squared corner of a dull office with white walls, a grey short pile carpet with, by now, its own scuff marks pointing to the correct placement of the chair wheels. Open plan. Light blue, grey, and yellowed veneer. Each desk separated from the next by a pale blue screen, clusters of three desks form islands within the larger office archipelago. Eyes becoming sticky, have you ever noticed that you don’t blink as often when looking into a computer monitor? Carpal Tunnels resting on the grain of the yellowed veneer. A windup toy car, the best present from last year’s Christmas party cracker and a children’s felt tip drawing attempt to add some personality to this lifeless environment. This is an open plan office but any chance of relieving the boredom by chatting to workmates is quashed by the foul atmosphere created by the overbearing, micromanaging supervisor who patrols the office like a prison screw. We have been unionising, there’s talk of a collective grievance, but this all has to be kept quiet for now. No one has the confidence to be open yet and it looks like the union official could sell us out. They want individual cases rather than a collective approach. In the current climate of precarious work, no one in this office has the confidence to take an individual grievance.
The first time I experienced Street View it registered as a shock. The type of shock that is rare for someone who has lived in a large city for a long time. Its arrival appeared with a generalised anxiety. It initially awoke collective fears about privacy. Newspaper articles debated questions as banal as; could it be used by criminals to plan robberies? Can the cameras see into my house? Will I be caught in an embarrassing act like the famous examples of the people photographed leaving a sex shop, vomiting in the street, being arrested or being given a hand job under a Manchester underpass?
I was instantly captivated by Street View and its hyper-real parallel universe. I hoped the privacy lobby wouldn’t turn Street View into a morally sanitised ideal representation of the streets. Street View would loose its seduction if the possibility of stumbling across the seedier sides of urban life were airbrushed away, the moral brigade finally getting to recreate the city as they would like it to be rather than how it is. Questions of morality and privacy seem to miss the fundamental essence of the shock. On experiencing Street View I intuitively recognised a more fundamental process coming into being. Street View represented the first real attempt of the digital to breach its own boundaries. Mapping a territory is well known to be a prelude to colonisation, but no colonial power ever documented a territory to the level Google has mapped the physical world. Google maps, GPS, and Street View combine to form an abstraction of the physical world. The would-be digital colonists of the physical have taken radical geography seriously. They have read de Certeau, and paid attention to mapping both the totalizing overview and the view from street level. Cartesian mapping is employed to enable social tagging.
Looking from the street you can see the small white flowers of the overgrown potato vine whose years of interlocking growth provide the garden with shelter from the constant flow of traffic. Curious as to how much you can see inside the house I zoom, directing the focus on the downstairs window. Then stop. A strange physical sensation passes through my body in advance of any interpretation of what I have registered. The feeling is equivalent to being startled, but somehow different, a strange coldness that passes through the body but contains the prickly heat of irrational fear. I can make out the faint figure of a person in the grainy and pixelated image of the window, but not any of the people I expected. This is my own home yet the figure appears as a pale elderly reflection in the glass. A thousand cheap horror movie tricks have conditioned my response to this type of image. I recover from the initial recoil and study the image closer. The underlying compression algorithm is exposed by the magnification. The integrity of the image is at the point of impressionistic disintegration into geometric abstraction. I’m sure that the occultist Helena Blavatsky would have appreciated the geometric revelation thinly disguised behind the naturalistic representation of the world. I become aware of familiarity within the weak outline of the figure. A sensation I associate more with touch than sight. My conscious mind lags my body in its recognition, too distracted by irrationalism. Both the bodily sensations of knowing and my conscious thoughts start to coalesce into recognition. Feelings form into images only to form a name at the end of the process. This is Jenny, my partner’s 91 year old mother. Someone I know well but who seldom visits our house. A rare visit, a fleeting moment, has been captured and stands as a spectral representative for all the moments of this house.
It is strange how, given the possibilities of endless
exploration of the world, my first tendency is to visit the places I am already
integrally tied. I do not explore unpronounceable towns in far off countries; I
first head for my own home, my workplace and the routes that my repetitive
daily routines demand I travel. I virtually follow the indelible psychic
grooves I have already inscribed into the concrete of the city. Why follow
these paths in digital space? Is it possible I desire to find evidence, proof
of my existence? Is it the urge to witness myself from the anterior as others
do but is always denied me? Is it the nostalgic urge to invoke past memories,
reactivating them through the recollection of place? I am always drawn first to
the spaces I currently inhabit, then to the spaces of my past, back to
childhood and my teenage haunts. Aitkin Road, Meadow View, the Sung Ying
Chinese takeaway and Robin Rix’s shop, down Highthorne road to the train bridge
which used to list all the scabs from the strike in thick white paint next to a
hangman’s noose, then along Glasshouse Road to what is left of Kinhurst
Colliery, over to Swinton Comprehensive School, the Patios Estate, down Goldensmithies
Road, a visit to the infamous Denman Road and to the former site of Manvers
Main, the pit where my granddad worked as a miner for most of his life and the
sight of one of the ignition sparks of the 1984-85 miners strike.