My Text on Uncanny Artist Matti Kallionen Now Online

The great new book about the art of Matti Kallionen was published just days ago by Kalejdoskop. When I first met Matti, he and I spent a lot of hours discussing the cognitive life of artworks and those conversations led to the writing of a text for the book about the mechanisms for understanding. Enjoy the final version of the text below.

The Experience Machine 

Am I some kind of apparatus, a desire-machine, possibly conscious, apparently intelligent? Here, “apparatus” and “machine” do not necessarily indicate a purely material “gadget”, but rather an instrument created for a specific purpose. Can my “ego” be reduced for an individual purpose? And could I, somehow, catch a glimpse of this “self”? This is what I ponder in front of Matti Kallioinen’s work. Rarely narrative but constantly informative, his art is difficult to place. On several occasions when I have ended up in front of his performances, sculptures or drawings, my impressions have been coloured by introspective thoughts. The works Beautiful Robot (2007) and Self Destructive Theory (2009) comprise sculptural shapes, exterior hardware and moving images with sound. There is an overall narrative, but it generally serves to frame tiny moments of “losing oneself”. One really has to sharpen one’s senses to be able to appreciate his works fully, not least as the nature of the content is a kind of meta‑data – information about information.

The film Self Destructive Theory turns out to be a circular movement in and out of my own consciousness, due to the fact that the metallic, computer-animated voice in the film (mis)guides the viewer through a parallel, alternative reality. Not in the style of Hollywood, but rather as a Freudian LSD dream. Words that stick, throughout the film, are: “Not exist… can you feel… another reality”. Suddenly, you stand there and psychoanalyse yourself, if your “self” is willing to play along, that is. Just like all other lens-based media of today, the film is static. It looks the same each time it is screened, but to me it seems as if it modulates every time I watch it. To throw yourself into meta‑spection – read: thinking about how you think – leads to a questioning of one’s senses and forms of thought, to the extent that all present experience bases begin to wobble. How can I trust myself, how can I know that it is “I” who is thinking right now, at his very moment and not some external software downloaded into my head? Descartes’ doubts provide little comfort in this situation. Just like Alice in Alice in Wonderland follows the white rabbit down into a world of new laws and rules of nature, I also soon become aware of the ricketiness inside my head, when I follow Kallioinen down his rabbit hole.

Self Destructive Theory starts with some kind of greeting from a group of unidentified beings, or perhaps they are presenting themselves. Everything takes place in a rehabilitation ward in a hospital, in a kind of “experience room” for the autistic and the severely disabled, complete with flowery patterns and a ball pool. And here I begin to falter, because, if a gang of intelligent non-Homo sapiens appeared, would we actually be able to distinguish their bodies, clothes or body movements from our own inveterate references? Our socio‑cultural canon? Certainly, the brain is adaptable, but at the same time very limited. Our false memories sometimes trick us. If we encountered an anthropomorphous being we would perhaps, for that reason, regress to the ball pool of our childhood and to 1950s science fiction in order to sort the unknown, scary and even threatening into recognisable pigeon‑holes. The velour androids of Self Destructive Theory are, as in so many of Kallioinen’s stories, seemingly friendly but uncanny, and even ghostlike.

In robotics and artificial intelligence theory, feelings of eeriness in front of anthropomorphous robots are seen as a sign of psychological resistance. The condition is referred to as “The Uncanny Valley”. People who fall into the UncannyValleyhave often encountered a humanlike robot or animation whose richness of detail and anthropoid features have tricked them in believing that they have seen a real human being. Almost. Kallioinen constantly plays with this feeling of “almost”, in order to provoke our firm conviction that we control everything we see and hear and that we are quite capable of telling the difference between things as obvious as living human beings and inanimate objects. In his film Beautiful Robot, this feeling is particularly evident. However, I wonder if Kallioinen has consciously created an uncanny setting with normal people who are clad in “space suits” and engaged in a bizarre interaction, or if he, by using high-tech robots, has created androids that try their hardest to act as human beings. Difficult to say. In any event, the feeling of unease arises. Here I am amazed by yet another experience of my brain’s limitations: how a specific feeling – in this case the sci‑fi flavoured “UncannyValley” – can be generated regardless of whether I’m faced with a human being or a machine.

However, to be pulled down into the UncannyValleydoes not only happen in the encounter with robots or unorganic objects; this uncertainty may also be provoked by people with neurological conditions and similar deviations from the norm. The American futurist Jamais Cascio argues that the UncannyValleyeffect may appear more frequently in the years to come as people modify and improve their bodies by means of “transhumanist modification”. According to Cascio, human beings will soon be able to improve their sight, muscle strength and brain capacity, and, as a result of this, may end up being classified as a different kind of species, separated from Homo sapiens, leading to more instances of uncanniness. “Well, now…” I think in a whimsy of childishness, “maybe it’s this kind of transhumanist individuals that actually populate Kallioinen’s installations and films. No wonder he never allows them to show their faces. They may be genetically modified or something – they are former human beings…” But, on further consideration, perhaps this impression is also generated in an artificial way by Kallioinen’s clever way of blending analogue hippie aesthetics with super-digital futuristic philosophy. Lost, again. Further down the rabbit hole.

All things considered, the most prominent feature of Kallioinen’s work may still be his manic use of loud, unnatural ranges of colour. When you look at the film The Gentle People of Utopia, you encounter full-body suits in colourful latex, or some kind of nerve-tickling leisure suit. In Beautiful Robot you also see a kind of colour code flicking by; perhaps it is the written language of the androids, or something like Morse code. Colours are in fact physical light phenomena, which, according to contemporary neurologists, physicists and robotics engineers, is something uniquely human. Not that colours can only be perceived by human beings, but that the experience of them is so complex and personalised, even within our own species, that it is difficult to talk about objective ranges of colour. Some people claim that this experience is entirely individual. Just look at achromatopsia – complete colour-blindness – or other forms of colour vision disorders. How to describe the northern lights to people with these conditions?

The robotics engineer and artificial intelligence researcher Luc Steels has devoted much of his work to colour vision and how to reconstruct the experience of colours. Early AI researchers, in the tradition of classical mechanics, thought it would be fairly simple to construct a robot that was able to experience colours like a human being. It was just a matter of calibrating light-sensitive sensors’ different inputs of a colour and then connecting the output to its linguistic counterpart – the word for “blue”, for example. Adjust variations of shades and light intensity – and hey presto, some theoreticians claimed, we have a colour robot! Steels and others have, of course, tried this method and failed miserably. If you want to construct a robot that is able to perceive colours, you have to build in a function for determining where on an object you should measure the colour; the robot must also learn to “understand” where the very object begins and where it ends. Because, in physical terms, there are actually no clear borders for where an object begins and where it ends.

You have to say that Matti Kallioinen has created his own colour wheel, which is as far removed from the pre‑modernist colour palette as is (un)humanly possible. He constantly glances at cognitive science and robotics, and in his work, futuristic visions of earlier times rub shoulders with contemporary chimera culture. Kitsch and low-tech are mixed with high-tech robot culture. Everything we see, hear and imagine do not, as in the head of Descartes, form evidence that anyone but me is experiencing it. And what Descartes never could imagine, but what Kallioinen and other contemporary neuro-philosophers have begun to understand is that there is no scientific proof for the existence of an “ego”, of a “self”. The philosopher Thomas Metzinger uses the term “ego machine” to describe our body’s ability to experience things amalgamated. That is, there is something in ourselves that constructs an “ego”, but not the psychoanalytical triad of id, ego and superego, as in Freud. Instead, it is a mechanism which, by connecting widely differing sections of the brain with the rest of the nervous system, generates a self-image in front of us, which we, for practical reasons, describe as our “self”. In Kallioinen’s work Intelligence (2009) and particularly in his film Turing Battle (2009), the chimera of something serious, large and extraterrestrial is frighteningly manifest. To begin with, these works are enveloped in techno-dramatic music that forces my “ego” to dig out references to popular depictions of extreme religious cults, 1950s science fiction, and human indigenous peoples. It does not look like anything one has previously seen in terms of rituals, patterns of movement and fluctuations of light, but still, I recognise everything. Uncomfortably and inexpressibly. The end product of the mixed feelings is that I instinctively drag my memory for references to all sorts of uncanny things and mix them with the imagery of the artwork. I swirl around inside Kallioinen’s head, looking for a stable, Cartesian point to hold on to, but to no avail.

Because, just as in our (post)modern cultural loss of soul, and now also of the coherent “ego”, you find, in Matti Kallioinen’s work, no firm scientific evidence or references to anything outside your own experience. Whose experience is real, credible or objective? I conclude my meditation on these works by ascertaining that I am a hallucination. “A hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination”, as Douglas Hofstadter put it. If you want a real, credible or objective description of Matti Kallioinen’s peculiar imagery it has to be this one.

Translation: Hans Olsson

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