…in which your host’s head explodes. Twice.
I met up with my Irish neighbor Philip the other day. I have some bad news, I said to him. What is it, he asked? A taco truck, named Lucha Libre, just opened at our market hall.
Philip made a face, one of those slow motion grimaces that intensify as bad news sinks in, what I like to call the mystery meat face — you know the one, when you’ve been adventurous and tried something new, only to discover it’s something gross like cow’s tongue or tripe or, if you’re a vegetarian, meat.
It’s not that Philip doesn’t like tacos — actually, I don’t really know Philip’s position on tacos — but I do know that Philip, same as me, likes our neighborhood — kiez, in German — the way it is.
The area where we live in Berlin is an island. Literally. It’s surrounded by canals and the river Spree, and it was once mainly known for the large prison that was here. It’s mostly just regular folks here, working regular jobs — nothing fancy, nothing working class, just somewhere in the middle, a bunch of people content with their lives. For the most part. It’s a fairly diverse kiez, I guess — although I don’t know what that ideal equation of diversity is: 1/3 rich, 1/3 poor, 1/3 middle class? 1/3 female, 1/3 male, 1/3 intersex? 1/3 white, 1/3 black, 1/3 brown, 1/3 asian, 1/3 interracial — wait, that’s too many thirds. Well, this show is called Artipoeus, not Math-i-poeus.
Living on our little island, we are north of the trendier areas of Berlin, the ones filled with tattoos and vegan food and graphic designers and stuff. So we can pretend it doesn’t exist, except for when we want a tattoo or vegan food or a graphic designer. But we all know that tacos are the catnip of hipsters, so a taco truck setting up shop in our kiez is a bad sign. A very bad sign.
Stay away! Philip and I moan. Stay away, with your tacos and your avocado toast, your beards and your Kim Jong Un hair. We don’t want you here.
The gallery Neumeister Bar-Am is located in a different neighborhood of Berlin, one that is part of the old West Berlin, when the Berlin Wall was still up. It’s an area that is more traditionally German, traditionally well-off. A cup of coffee is more expensive there, the residents maybe a little more conservative,and the galleries there tend to be a bit more conservative too. Which makes Neumeister Bar-Am a bit of an anomaly.
In the gallery now is the work of Dutch artist Harm van den Dorpel, and his exhibit Death Imitates Language. I was drawn to this exhibit because I was thinking about death, the fear of dying, and a favorite sentence of mine by the French philosopher and man of letters, Anatole France: All changes, he wrote, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.
When you walk into the gallery space, the thing that strikes you first is the negative space — there’s just not much in here. There are a total of 5 works, digital art of amorphic shapes that appear to be printed on fine paper and layered over others, placed between two clear plexi-glass panels. They look like computer renderings of cells, smashed between two glass slides. It feels like a pretentious science fair presentation, a rich kid’s money slicking up a rudimentary experiment with expensive technology to hide the fact that there’s no real science here.
Leaning against one wall is a flat video panel that runs through an endless cycle of digital images. A square containing geometric shapes fades into view, moves to the upper corner of the screen. A word appears underneath it — usually something silly-sounding, like the name of a Douglas Adams alien: Nehgpibp Fluffcat. The names are amusing to me, but then, I like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A series of squares, each containing their own geometric shapes appear quickly, one by one, in a 3×3 grid at the bottom of the screen. One square is highlighted, and moves to the top of the screen next ot the original square. An equally silly word for that one appears under it as well.
The whole sequence reminds me of that Sliding Tiles Puzzle, where you have to slide plastic tiles around a frame to match them up by color or number and you only have one open space to do it. It’s suspiciously like math. I’ve never liked that game.
These two squares merge, blending the contents of each cell — shapes and colors — and create something new. At the same time, the two silly words are also combined into a third, silly word, like Fluffcat Zenoah Cosacks.
When I visit a gallery or museum, I may read a quick description about the work, but generally I like to just show up and experience it for myself — you know, feel the impact of the work directly on the viewer. So far though, I’m not impacted. In fact, I’m a little unimpressed. I mean, I don’t care about computers. I’m not a big fan of digital art. I don’t really understand any of this. I don’t like it. I make the mystery meat face. I want to leave.
That’s when Barak — the Bar-Am of Neumeister Bar-Am — steps into the room and starts talking to me. Normally I don’t like people explaining the work to me, but I like Barak, so I stay and listen.
Harm van den Dorpel is, at heart, a programmer. In Death Imitates Language, he has designed an algorithm that works kind of like DNA. The code of each cell contains information about the shapes and colors it contains. A specific cell will be featured — let’s call this one the dominant cell. The 3×3 grid of cells that appear a the bottom of the bottom of the screen are all unique, and each contains their own unique code. These nine cells are the “gene pool” from which one cell will be chosen, to “mate” with the dominant cell. Once chosen, that cell moves to the top of the screen, side by side with the dominant cell, and Harm’s algorithm combines the two, making the next generation cell, which contains the favored traits of its two parents, creating a superior being — in this case, since it’s all art, creating beings that are more and more aesthetically pleasing with each new generation.
Now that I know a little more about it, I’m kind of interested…
When the evolution of these combined cells have reached their peak appeal, they are then frozen — removed from the evolving population, they essentially die, unable to achieve a better aesthetic. They have reached Perfection. At this point, they are printed out as works of art, perfect cells to be preserved between two plexi-glass panels. In this way, they become fully realized, like the way a slang term is becomes so common it is finally preserved in the dictionary. Death imitates language!
Each cell, by the way, also has a name — the word that appears below the cells chosen for mating. The names are mash-ups of people’s passwords submitted to the project — a combination of combinations that produces yet another combination, that ranges from cosmically poetic to scatalogically silly.
I’m starting to like this work…
The basic function of Harm’s algorithm is the same as animal and human DNA: a man meets a woman, they mate, their DNA strands communicate and commingle, and they produce a child with her eyes and his mouth, his height and her laugh, his color-blindness and her male pattern baldness, or any of the literally thousands of variations in between. We mate, and hope for the best. Between animals and people, we don’t control it at a cellular level — yet.
But Harm’s generations of cells — he calls them populations — are controlled. They are controlled by the algorithm he himself designed, which responds to a collection of “likes” — as in, Facebook-type likes — to build a profile of its creator, the artist himself, and his preferences. Certain shades of blue dominate over others, specific elements of shapes (sharper corners, rounded edges, squares, circles, rectangles) are registered as favorable. And from here the algorithm combines all the information, based on Harm’s aesthetic tastes, to provide its creator with something he should, by all calculation, find aesthetically pleasing. If he’s not pleased enough, he keeps the algorithm going, mating generation after generation until he reaches what, according to him, is perfection. And at that point, he freezes it and puts it on display — the Ubercell, the ideal to which other cells must work to reach one day — the Marilyn Monroe of cells, the Brad Pitt of artwork, the Frank Gehry of structure, the Ellsworth Kelly of color.
I just named all Americans. Of course, I come from the US, and I like my people. Well, except one.
What’s also interesting here is that Harm has used the basic shapes, patterns and colors of work that influenced him as a developing artist, the things he liked in the past that informs his profile as an artist today — even if he now rejects them. He can’t erase the impact of the original “like:, the things that make him choose one blue over another, one shape over another, one combination of lines and squares and amorphic blobs over an another.
The grandparent cells — the Adam and Eve, if you will — contain the first colors, the first shapes, the fundamentals of Harm’s aesthetics. They hang over Barak’s desk in the gallery, and I can see Calder’s geometry and Matisse’s movement. I’m sure there are other influences in there, but those two are readily identifiable to me. By Harm’s definition, this first couple is perfection as well, because he has frozen them and printed them out. Just like Adam and Eve are preserved in the Bible…. but better. Because here there is no Lilith to muck things up, and if this first couple create a Cain and an Abel, the deus ex machina (the artist) can eliminate the Cain, keep the Abel, and keep perfecting the population.
Of course, in the Cain and Abel story, it wasn’t the brothers’ looks that differentiated them, but their personalities. Personalities shaped, no doubt, but whatever they liked or didn’t like, by whatever appealed and then influenced them.
While Barak enthusiastically explains all this to me, my mystery meat face does another slo-mo transformation as my head explodes–pfooooom. Because the implications of what Harm is doing with this work and the questions he’s raising are… pfoooommm. It’s not just a simple matter of aesthetics, or even genetics. These simple colors and shapes and Harm’s algorithm and even his human intervention, raises questions of the logic of creation, of totalitarianism, of the vulnerability of individual reality, of the vulnerability of us… to be controlled.
And to think I was just going to walk away from this exhibit. I’m glad I stayed and took the time to understand it, because now that I do, I love it. I see the beauty in the cells themselves, in the living evolution in the video panel, in Harm van den Dorpel’s vision. It’s brilliant.
It’s the logic of Facebook, the algorithm the social media site uses to suggest friends, products, events that we are, more often than not, interested in — ensuring that we continue to talk to, spend time with and attend the people and events and ideas we already like, becoming so insulated we don’t even know anything else exists until the algorithm makes a mistake: a suggested event for a Hunting and Safari group pops up on the feed of a vegetarian because they used the words “hunting and safari” in a combination that activates the code. We gasp, clutch our pearls– beads, and click on “stop sending me notices like this” so we never have to see them again. So we can pretend they don’t exist.
And it’s the logic behind gentrification. When you are inundated with only one kind of aesthetic — free trade coffee, avocado toast, wide plank floors and mismatched sofas and rough-hewn tables — it becomes, without you even realizing it, your definition of aesthetic. Surround yourself with enough of it, it becomes your definition of home — familiar and safe. And we all want the comfort of home. So you seek it everywhere you go. If you don’t find it, some clever person comes along to provide it for you — a slow food restaurant with white plaster walls and locally sourced plates, a free trade coffee shop with mismatched sofas, a taco truck called Lucha Libre.
It’s also the logic behind eugenics, the favorite pseudo-science of fascism. Breed only the citizens with the desired traits: certain color eyes, certain type of hair, hearty bodies and strong teeth, and you will create a master race. Eliminate everyone who doesn’t look like that… everyone you don’t like. Send them to camps, in Siberia, in Mongolia, in your own country, in Africa. And voila! You can pretend they don’t even exist.
What happens though, when you are the only person providing yourself feedback? Does the feedback loop become incestuous … does it work with thoughts, ideas, preferences?
The Neumeister Bar-Am gallery also has a curious little feature called Der Wurfel, an 80 cm squared box set into the wall that contains an installation complimentary to the main work on display, although usually with a humorous twist. I don’t necessarily always like the work in the box because I’m not so big on daioramas, but I like the fact that the gallery doesn’t take itself — or contemporary art — so seriously that it can’t have a good laugh.
Currently, Der Wurfel is occupied with the work of Shana Moulton, with a piece called No One But You Can Build You the Bridge On Which You, and Only You, Must Cross the River of Life, a title that is bigger than the Wurfel itself. Moulton, who likes to play at the collision of consumerism and New Age spirituality, has installed a daioramic reference to the cycle of life, birth, and the feminine, centered around a uterus, upon which is projected an educational video of about the process of kangaroo gestation. Did you know that baby kangaroos actually climb up the birth canal and emerge through the mother’s pouch? The thought of something climbing up through my body and popping out of my pocket is…. ugh. Slimy meat face. I don’t like it. But I like the daiorama, and the kitschy, fluid femininity of it in the same space as Harm’s rigid, geometric algorithm.
I like things, I don’t like things. It’s more comfortable for me to hang around stuff I like — the people who think like me, the art I understand, the kiez that looks the way I think a kiez should look. This is also called, by the way, cognitive bias. It’s something we all do, and we can’t help it. In fact, most of the time, we can’t even see it. And we can’t see it, because we’ve surrounded ourselves by people who like and believe the same things we do. We are the algorithm.
As the French philosopher Anatole France also said: If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
And as my Irish neighbor Philip said: let’s at least try Lucha Libre for lunch one day — maybe the tacos aren’t so bad.
Harm van den Dorpel’s Death Imitates Language is at Neumeister Bar-Am until February 4th. Shana Moulton’s installation No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life is in Der Wurfel, also until February 4th. Neumeister Bar-Am is located at Goethestraße 2 Buildling D in Berlin.
You can also see Death Imitates Language online at death.imitates.org.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus