Saraceno & Cat's Cradle in the Neural Net

Key Points:

  • The top art galleries call for breathing room from hype, mass consumption and the chaotic movement of crowds
  • In unattended silence some disregarded art sat in a vacant cavern, perfectly-equipped to engage higher concentration
  • String of logic: Saraceno sky sculptures anchored in conspiracy walls and Venn diagrams, cat’s cradles, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and the linear framework of an evolving neural network
  • The neural network intrusion threat matrix update: Techno-social engineering seeps into singularly human boundaries, and is programmed to shatter those boundaries
  • (Short attention span tip: to grasp the essence of it in 15 seconds or less, skip to the final, one-sentence paragraph.)

The Exhibit No One Missed

Our arrival was ill-timed. Inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Matisse + Diebenkorn special exhibit drew immense weekend crowds reminiscent of a peak draw at Six Flags, Coachella, Yosemite National Park or any other spectacle that suffers the sold out-ness. It was a blowout. Our finest intentions mutated into evasive shades of an unknown Plan B, premium tickets were time-stamped for staggered entry in a vain attempt to create gaps between visitors and avoid a mad crush. It didn’t work. A critical mass had been reached. Tactical decisions are pondered to commit or quit. We are adroit, we can pace ourselves, but is it worth the vibe killer? Recall the crammed metro subway, the permeable mist of murmurs and fragmented conversations, exhalation oversupply and hormonal stress discharge on stiff necks and shoulders. Must we tolerate it here, too? Out front, the SFMoMA staff imposed order—a winding, endless, multi-level queue, two interior blocks long and three deep, putting us in a quandary.

Viewing art in a rat-packed tussle ruins it almost completely. It becomes its own exhibit—the human zoo displayed inside a gallery. We liked the ideal of selfless, cultured behavior in the noble presence of high art and futuristic architecture, but had to guess again. We skipped the main event, pledging to return when the hype died down.

Two weeks later we found subsidence of the human deluge, Thursday slack and the conspicuous absence of barricade ribbons. From this privileged vantage point the M&D exhibit became what it was supposed to be, quietly transformed back into its original notion—a perfectly-curated triumph of comparative greatness across generations, and one of the best we’d ever seen.

Aside from the payoff on patience, we had a memorable secondary experience as a result of the main event’s shutout on the first day. We kept going back to something separate—something esoteric—that fueled the reverie. There was a semi-secret gallery that had eluded 99% of the patrons in the building. Minimal exertion…a few soft turns, stairs and button presses away to what felt like a private wing. Unbeknownst to most, a series of lonesome, cascading “sky sculptures” hung suspended in the air two stories above Matisse and Diebenkorn, tucked away in an antechamber as if they required a backstage pass. Somehow it had repelled the swarm that arose from a common impulse for fads and special attractions.

We all know of desire that becomes so charmed by the “it” thing of the moment that we’ll ignore the peripheral stash of beauty around it. To discover the “hidden exhibit” we also intuit how our yearning for novelty can be commandeered by outside influence and marketing hype (maybe just a little bit). To equalize, to take it back to square one: Are our wants our own? Are our experiences debased by tiny mental hijackers, or do they belong to us fully?

Walking through SFMoMA’s simulated Skinnerrian monkey maze, human interests were shunted and compartmentalized, guided by clever propaganda and a promise of the new or the profound. There’s a lizard brain, and they say we can’t control when it wants to be fed! That’s where the would-be seductions and malaises start. These well-lit rooms carry a similar atmosphere as the attention economy that thrives online and pulses through our technological devices. This is exactly the mindset Silicon Valley and the evolving global neural network want us to possess. They want you vulnerable and addicted. This is where governments and corporations vie for our mindshare. Cynics are fond of pointing out how the herd romanticizes being individual and distinct in a sea of faces only as much as “individuality” was marketed to them as a feel-good selling point. The medium, itself, becomes the message, and we begin to seem airy and expendable.

If you become the irony, do your feet ever quite touch the ground again?

The Way of the Hidden Exhibit: Tomás Saraceno

Upstairs at SFMoMA, that backstage opportunity is full of an Argentinian’s artwork but devoid of people. We step in, totally undistracted. The shapes suspended overhead are a rare gift, conjuring the unsolved mystery behind a conspiracy wall, Venn diagrams, tactile signals traveling through spider webs, and the stringy complications of cat’s cradles from within the mind’s eye. We’re welcomed into free association within the tranquility of an empty space. Between the lines we see R. Buckminster Fuller’s designs atomized in Tomás Saraceno’s work, then blasted into the future.

“Stillness in Motion—Cloud Cities” was launched by Saraceno and curated by the SFMoMA Architecture and Design department. The exhibition comprises an immersive, site-specific cloudscape installation of suspended tension structures and floating sculptures, as well as explorations of the intricate constructions of silken webs.

A bored security guard—almost in a trance—appears at the edge of the hallway, breaking the solitude. The moment is over. It feels like we’ve just trickled down a latticework of axons and dendrites. We’re ready to take Saraceno’s suggestion to the next level.

A short drift from the literal simplicity of cat’s cradle, there exists a literary one with higher density, reframed by one of the loftier elite voices of American satire and science fiction. Here we stand surrounded by the vestiges of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle as it explores issues of science, technology and religion. It is a blackly fatalistic commentary on modern man and his madness. The story hinges on the discovery of a substance called Ice-Nine, and how its inventor—compelled by intellectual virtue—grew to be so indifferent to what became of his discovery. This dreadful substance, which is discovered by a man who is purely interested in truth, finally winds up in the hands of a dictator and—not to leave you in suspense—the world ends.

It’s about the fluctuation between good and evil. Ice-Nine instantly freezes any moisture it comes in contact with (including moisture contained within a living body) and turns it into yet more Ice-Nine, creating an unstoppable chain reaction. It’s that ceaseless assimilating grey goo of nightmares. This is basically the foreshadowing of a Depopulation Bomb. The kind of thing that makes us sit back and say “My God, what have we done?”

In a fluid state of reflection, what’s described above is also about us being too dumb to live. The entire human race. From the beginning, we get the sense that humans are stupidly rushing themselves toward destruction and that it’s just a question of how and when it happens. Tie it back to a final, post-modern unlocking by Saraceno’s sculptural eccentricity and it’s about getting played like a violin, about instigating doom à la Vonnegut and being an unwitting pawn in the machine we are creating.

Cat’s Crade in the Neural Network

Metaphorically, Ice-Nine is in the Artificial Neural Net we’re forming to enhance and outlast the human species. That neural net, like Ice-Nine, is consuming us. Unlike a 1960s Vonnegut trope, however, this iteration of Cat’s Cradle looks to smash its way into the Guinness Book of World Records as #1 in complexity and complication. In some ways, it’s here because it was taught to dwell on our past better than we did; develop what looked like chaos into patterns only it could recognize. With or without our understanding, they’ll say in hindsight that the coup occurred when AI’s nets and webs attached themselves to a destination we couldn’t otherwise reach. And it wanted to finish the job in 10 minutes, or at least overnight while we were sleeping.

People set the ball rolling on all this proverbial “reaching” because—myths, legends and religions aside—we run this corner of the Milky Way galaxy. We’re constantly seeking wisdom like the Norse god Odin, obsessively. Echoes of “can’t stop, won’t stop” ethics and boundless appetites; we’re not overly concerned if it erupts into various untidy conflicts that evoke minor panic in Elon Musk and his chums.

Saraceno’s visual imprint harkened back to the alien liberties of a neural network that coalesces around us in the zeitgeist. The kind of thing that makes one wander far to unpack symbols, right where a crescent of vision and cognition lies trapped behind the eyelid.

An important idea, a royal flush of an idea, surfaced years ago and magnified itself recently: that our intelligence will be encoded into the neural network that will try to supplant us. Based upon technology’s interpretation of your mind, it will leave you living in a world without your own mind. It looks for someone who could make a case for it to avoid being too effective, too deep, too grand and scary on its own, which is bound to happen as Big Technology creates a world that will be less individual and less human.

A growing body of work and research sought to clarify the following concept: Despite Silicon Valley’s professions of wanting to help society, its true endgame is the advancement of a chilling ideological agenda. They are creating an artificial intelligence leviathan designed to eliminate human autonomy. Google says that such talk is a deluded conspiracy theory while they’re simultaneously doing it at just about every level. Amazon squelches potential criticism through its make-or-break grip on authors, publishers, retailers…tip of the iceberg, but that’s the idea behind censure and lopsided reproach. And we also have a Facebook puppet master tied up in large-scale stealth social engineering experiments and political manipulation. The tech giants’ data-driven algorithms are meant to erode free will; you’ll be a cog in their grand design, and your participation will be involuntary. The captains of the tech industry have mixed utopianism and monopolism into an insidious whole. They’ll tell you any strong argument against them is merely exaggerated scaremongering, and their money speaks louder than yours.

No matter where one lands on this topic, it’s the kind of existential dilemma that only leads to more dilemmas—about how we define “human”; about whether or not our most unique traits are, in fact, data points to be duplicated; about how much we can trust our own recollections or societal interactions. The sheer ambiguity of it is by design, and why many cautionary tales have been written extensively about AI, robotics and the programmable human mind, and how that mind will be replaced. This is no longer the last digital bastion of the paranoid.

Is one ever secure in the knowledge of how you got here—of how you were made? It’s an existential head- and id-scratcher that quests for an oracle as we add a new chapter to the human saga. We were not wrong to use a Tomás Saraceno installation to puzzle over the ironies higher-minded ambitions play upon potentially sinister, dystopian, “Blade Runner”esque forms of progress in this era. So by what measure would this be an era of progress, insofar as we are confronted by the slow disappearance of meaning or truth in the pursuit of progress?

Conclusion: Strings, Attached

As I keep pointing out, the futurist visions of self-driving cars, sex robots, holographic waifus like in “Blade Runner 2049,” robotic unemployment, guaranteed basic incomes and algorithms which tell us how to live “properly” all share the goal of isolating us from having to deal with the real world where we acquire skills and develop our powers of agency.