The Jerwood/FVU Awards is an annual prize inviting submissions from artists in the first five years of their practice. For the 2017 edition, applicants were asked to respond to the curatorial theme ‘Neither One Thing or Another’. Lawrence Lek and Patrick Hough were awarded £20,000 each in support of their work, now showcased at Jerwood Space.
‘Neither One Thing or Another’ – there is something eerie about this line, the grammar of the sentence doesn’t quite work. The dictionary suggests a more accurate alternative: ‘neither one thing nor the other’. The difference between the two expressions is minute. A sense of responsibility asks that I be rigorous and call this a mistake. Yet the sound of the words and how they flow together persuade me to consider ‘neither one thing or another’ not as a faulty version but simply one that has been changed.
‘Geomancer’ is the title and main character of the story told in Lek’s film. He – sorry, it – is an artificial intelligence satellite originally built for the purpose of environmental monitoring in South East Asia. Yet Geomancer is also blessed with more creative skills. Just like many growing children rebel against their parents’ will, Geomancer chooses to follow his own dream. But that artificial intelligence might create art, that a being or, indeed, a thing like Geomancer should be called an artist are prospects, Lek reveals, that are out of this world. His plot envisages man-made laws establishing that any work made by artificial intelligence cannot be considered art. In these terms, Lek proposes the timeworn question of what is art against the backdrop of a present-day debate: namely, what is the relationship between artificial intelligence and us.
We traditionally understand artistic creativity as a process that is exceptional: a talented being creates an artwork that is inimitable or is informed by an ingenious concept. If originality is the essence of art, art becomes a prerogative of mankind: each person is unique, whereas a machine is not. Yet, Lek observes, we are teaching machines to think. As soon as they learn to do this on their own, each one will be different from the rest – in other words, each one will be unique. Lek warns against the prejudice that we can be artists but it cannot; the moral of his story is that art is just another realm where technology will catch up with mankind.
Tracing Geomancer’s journey, Lek recounts the parable of artificial intelligence emulating thought, this thinking developing into cleverness and this quality maturing into brilliance. AI might, eventually, one day shine like a human mind. For the moment, however, we are already like them. Our own thoughts are electrical patterns that cross the brain. Lek’s work encourages us to see continuity between the artificial and the human sphere. At this point, the reference to the eerie theme inspiring ‘Geomancer’ is key. By bending the rules of grammar something else emerges, which is not necessarily a mistake, and that might even sound poetic. ‘Neither one thing or another’ sounds more hopeful than the more correct version: ‘or’ softens the absolute negation expressed by ‘nor’; ‘another’ releases the dichotomy binding ‘the other’ and ‘one thing’. So we might consider artificial intelligence as ‘another’ thing, still vague, of beauty and not a threat, something that is different from, but not necessarily in opposition to, the ‘one thing’ – us.
‘And If In A Thousand Years’ reflects Hough’s caution in drawing a line in the sand. The bareness of the land filmed and digitally scanned matches the deserted film sets whose props and décor lie abandoned amid the golden dunes. In their previous life, these objects had a purpose and they were also subordinate to man. The fake brick walls of the tavern building and fabricated trees were used to disguise the arid landscape of Southern California. No longer used by the film crew, their abandonment can also be read as a new independence: they acquire authenticity precisely through being neglected. Hough’s work sheds light on a reality that is seemingly far from our own. While we come to terms with his sand dunes covering the objects and restoring them to a new life, we find ourselves considering how the boundary between us and inanimate things can be blurred. Lek’s ‘Geomancer’ predicts a time when AI will trespass on the territory of man.
One prop that features in Hough’s film is the figure of a sphinx. According to the Ancient Greek legend, the beast guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes. Any brave visitor wishing to cross this threshold was asked to answer a riddle: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?”. All attempts were in vain, with the Sphinx devouring the unlucky men, until Oedipus came and guessed: “Man”. Enraged and proud, the Sphinx this time killed itself. Perhaps it is a matter of time, then, until someone cracks the enigma of what – or indeed, who – a AI is. We should expect the question to sound like “... and what is at man’s heels?” We should regard it a luxury that, for now, we are still called upon to solve the mystery. There might come a time when AI, interrogated, will speak up. The ultimate challenge is how we react: whether we will become the uncompromising monsters who fall for their own tricks, or whether we can accept change and truly prove our worth.