Daniel Jenatsch

Daniel Jenatsch's animatronic operas vivify complex, unresolvable, ideas about language, specificity, and the archive. Erin McFadyen speaks to Jenatsch, who has just won the John Fries Award, about his work.

The Close World (2020) was built from conversations with GPT-3, and for the project, you fed the model with foundational texts on the philosophy of language. Which texts did you use for this, and why did you make the selection that you did? What do these texts teach us, and how do they speak to and with each other?

In the close world there aren’t any specific references, so I’m a bit reluctant to answer with any specificity for two reasons. The first reason is that the work is a kind of meta-fictional work where a world called The Close World has been created, and we find out about that world through The Close World’s incursion into our own. The dynamics of that world hinge on a lack of specificity and within the framework of this piece I get the sense that the only way that you can access The Close World is by trying to remain nonspecific.

The second reason is that GPT-3 and technologies like it create some weirdly specific new conditions for intellectual property that are similarly evasive. In a sense this work rather than being a discursive exploration of specific philosophy of language texts is more about this changing relationship to intellectual property. 

Being that GPT-3 is trained on what is effectively the whole internet and through the way that I worked with it — aimed at a specific subset of words included in various discourses around the philosophy of language — the results achieved through GPT don’t resemble references the way we’re used to them. With this kind of system we’re no longer standing on the backs of giants as before, but standing on the backs of giant ghosts. In a way I don’t really know what texts are referenced or how it works; what’s left is a spectral impression of the original texts. The way that these texts speak to each other, there’s a temperature impression left and in this case that temperature impression is essentially random words which cohere with natural language rules with a statistical bias towards words which come from the texts that it’s initially been fed. What’s interesting to me is how to carve out meaning from that statistically structured noise, which was the task in writing The Close World.

You also gave the AI some classic exercises in world building from science fiction and fantasy texts; what is it about these genres which interests you?

There’s a natural connection between world building and language, and probably always has been. If you start with the Bible —  ‘in the beginning was the word’ — the power of language to build worlds or destroy them is a constant theme in myths and legends, and science fiction and fantasy is a continuation of that longstanding tradition. As Ursula K. Le Guin talks about in her non-fiction essay on Borges, fantasy (and sci-fi) is an attempt to look at subjective experience without taking the world itself and its effects on the individual for granted. In a way I think science fiction has been the most accurate temperature check for a long time of emerging subjective states, but given that now technology has exceeded our ability to speculate on it I think that baton may have been passed on to fantasy for the mean time. 

It seems to me that you’re quite interested in technologies (AI, video technologies, surveillance, data capture, language) as methods of distributing knowledge and power. Am I right in thinking this? If so, could you speak a little about how your work deals with these ideas?

I’ve never really thought much specifically about technology. I feel like it’s more a feature of being a member of the millennial generation. I grew up with a telephone that you poked your finger into and had to wait for it to wind back until the number was dialed, and now I seamlessly interact with my friends on the other side of the world without really noticing the delay. I think coming of age across this threshold has made millennials acutely aware of the effects of technology with a degree of sensitivity that isn’t really shared with those who came before or after. I saw this tweet the other day that said something like ‘you either make science fiction with swords in it or you don’t’ and I think for a millennial artist you either make art about technology or you don’t, but, it’s still about technology.

I notice that you often use archival material as a launch point for your work. What is it about the archive which interests you, and what might you find troubling or difficult about it also?

Coming from a music background, I think my approach to the archive has come more from the direction of plunderphonics and sampling than anything else; this sampling ethos is kind of alive in GPT-3 as well. With plunderphonics, all historical materials are on the same plane and treated with equal disdain. You can see a similar relationship to time and archival material in Benjamin’s thesis on history with Angelus Novus: ‘where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe.’ For plunderphonics artists, instead of wreckage upon wreckage it’s record upon record. 

There’s an historical narrative woven through The Close World which looks at the foundation of OWL (One World Language) which was an early natural language programming language developed by William Martin at MIT and based on Wittgenstein’s theory of knowledge that the meaning of any concept in language is linked to the totality of all other concepts. This was built into the programming language and was fundamental to what was eventually called a closed-world assumption. The title of the piece comes from a typo in one of William A. Martin’s papers on this. 

OWL and programming languages like it are are the early roots of GPT and other natural language machine learning platforms and with OWL it’s an example of being able to trace a clean line from philosophy in the 1920’s to programming in the 1970’s to GTP-3 now

I’ve noted that you’re interested in Brian Massumi’s work on the animal (me too!) — the situation of the animal and the technological together is intuitive in fleshing out a landscape of the post-human (or more-than-human). Does an engagement with the animal shape your methods of thinking and working?

Massumi’s book What Animals Teach us About Politics was kind of the grain of sand in the oyster which The Close World was built around, but in a way doesn’t figure very highly in the work itself. The alternative title to The Close World could have been ‘to spontaneously surpass the given,’ as the way I was working was really informed by this book, especially the conversation around trying ‘to write like a rat flicks its tail.’ This is a writing technique that comes easier to GPT-3 than it does to me, and the work itself was an attempt to move towards ‘as yet unknown territories.’ In the end though I sort of avoided animality because this confluence of intuition and technology and animality is i think as you put it really important in fleshing out the landscape of the post-human, but I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it. So I think The Close World doesn’t really deal with animals directly, except that in The Close World, the bird like creatures have human eyes.

Many of your projects, across disciplines, have been collaborative. What are the challenges and the delights of collaboration, for you? Is there a particular collaborative project that you remember fondly?

I kind of live for collaboration, the various constraints and opportunities and conditions and conversations it allows and creates. In a way I was trying to synthesize the experience of collaboration over lock-down by working with GPT-3. Working with Franziska Aigner, who is the singer and voice artist behind The Close World, was instrumental to how the work took shape in the end. 

I think one pretty fundamental collaboration was the collective New Forms of Life that Franziska Aigner and myself were both a part of along with Samuel Forsythe, Enad Marouf and Billy Bultheel. Many of the creative techniques that we developed collaboratively over many projects and residencies are still ones that I continue to refer to and and draw from. I’ve also continued to worth with Samuel Forsythe on a number of projects and now Franziska too, so I’m really grateful for having worked with that collective initially and to be able to continue those creative relationships and the work we developed in some form now too.

John Fries Award
13 March – 17 April 2021
UNSW Galleries, Sydney

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