Each Vanitas is a draft

Demian Schopf


There was once, we know, an automaton
constructed in such a way that it could respond to every move by a chess player
with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the game.
A puppet wearing Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth
sat before a chessboard placed on a large table.
A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table
was transparent on all sides. Actually, a hunchback dwarf
—a master of chess— sat inside and guided
the puppet’s hand by means of string.
Walter Benjamin

I
In 1769 the inventor, writer and eminent Austro-Hungarian chess player Wolfgang von Kempelen built a chess automaton. The device looked like an open table with all the mechanisms in sight. Or so it seemed. Sitting before it was a mannequin dressed in Turkish attire simulating to move the pieces. Actually, the player was not the visible mechanism, but a dwarf hidden inside. The machine was extremely successful, starring in several tours throughout Europe; one in Cuba, as the first part of a planned tour to Latin America, and one in the United States. Among the opponents defeated by the machine were Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, twice, and computer pioneer Charles Babagge. The latter case continues to be an irony of fate, bearing in mind that more than a century later, in 1996, another software automaton -the Deep Blue- defeated the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. In this exhibition, titled Monkey’s Mirage, Alejandra Prieto presents an object that looks like a Ouija. The device is a round table, a meter in diameter, on which the twenty-four letters of the alphabet and the first ten numbers of the decimal system are carved. Hidden under the table is a mechanical system that has a magnet whereby a haematite sphere moves from sign to sign. This is how it writes or, better said, how it flirts with the illusion that "something" is writing. But, unlike the Ouija boards of the late nineteenth century, in Prieto’s Ouija what writes are not spirits, expressing themselves by moving a pointer or a glass. Phrases are transcribed, obtained from a software and search engine programmed with a number of keywords —such as “ghost”, “machine”, “bird”, “obscene” and “night”— and issues related to the objects that make up the exhibition. I will later discuss the ways in which I believe they are linked. The search engine visits both static and dynamic websites looking for a keyword, and the program displays the sentence found immediately after the phrase containing the searched for term. For example, the sentence that follows a sentence containing the adjective "obscene" would be, in this case: "It is derived from the Latin obscaena (offstage) a cognate of the Ancient Greek root skene, because some potentially offensive content, such as murder or sex, was depicted offstage in classical drama". If the conditions were met, that would be the sentence that would be perfectly reproduced by the computer contraption described above.
Back to the world of objects such as Prieto’s Ouija and the Turk –I will not address the meaning of that word in the eighteenth century in the Western world– the American Deep Blue had an objectual component: the robotic arm that moved the chess pieces against the Russian. The roles were now reversed. Now the machine defeated the human. In 1854, eighty-five years after its construction, the Turk, which had been donated to the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, was destroyed during a fire. In 2007 a reconstruction of the automaton was exhibited at the ZKM in Germany. The title of the exhibition is eloquent: Wolfgang von Kempelen. Mensch- [in der] -Maschine (Wolfgang von Kempelen. Man- [in the] -Machine). Here, the cliché of Gilbert Ryle’s behaviourism resonates: Ghost in the Machine (Ryle, 1949). For the behaviourist Ryle this is just a metaphor: we can know nothing of mental states if not through behaviour. This is like a "beetle in a box" that remains closed (Wittgenstein, 1953). Something produces noise, but neither do we know what it is, nor can we describe it in exact terms.
I stress the ingenuity of Von Kempelen with respect to Prieto’s spiritless Ouija —neither human, nor from the afterlife—. The work establishes a relationship with animism and the rather comical belief that a machine can have mental states that allow it, for example, to play chess or write words originating from a reality beyond this one. In terms of computer science, this controversy emerged hand in hand with the advent of computing, although, in that case, mental states are located in the here of logic circuits and within the computer. The first document in this controversy is a famous article by Turing, where the mathematician ponders whether "a machine can think" (Turing, 1950). Meanwhile, in anthropological terms, animism is an age-old problem. It was Sigmund Freud who, based on the literature of E.T.A Hoffmann, described the "uncanny" character —"unheimlich" (Freud, 1909)— of mannequins, robots and doubles, certainly a relevant element in an exhibition that includes a mirror. Animism, on the other hand, related to the motif of the double, dates back to Palaeolithic times and is related to the attribution of spirit, in an anthropomorphic sense, to the most diverse objects: trees, rocks, lightning, animals, mountains, rivers...and much later in history to machines. Nevertheless, the uncanny is literally an effect. It has duration and also an end. It is born and then it dies. Freud’s analysis seems simple: the uncanny is the return of that which is familiar into something unfamiliar. Therefore, the disturbing strangeness can be undone. Through the interpretation of a dream, its ominous character is dissolved. When its elements, condensed and displaced, are led back to the realm of the familiar and the known, its disturbing character dissipates in a way akin to how a knot is undone. Something similar happens with Deep Blue. The appearance of intelligence fades at the precise moment when it is revealed as something programmed. For an entity to appear intelligent, or animated, the scaffolding behind the illusion must remain hidden. Its existence should not even be perceived. This is especially true about the way it works and operates. The moment we realized that Deep Blue is just a giant chart of hyperlinked relationships, we would see that it simply responds with an A wherever it sees a Z. It is difficult to say whether Deep Blue has something like imagination. Of course it has, but programmed by another person. In any case, it lacks what Heidegger called reflexive thinking or what Kant called a reflective judgement. This is the central issue. There is only cause and effect, in a large set of variables. Apparently, there is no ghost writing on Prieto's table. Therefore, her object can be neither an affirmation nor a denial, just a comment on the myth of the ghost in the machine, which in turn, builds a certain ghost in the machine. It preaches that machines —from Deep Blue to a simple calculator— have the possibility to attain or possess mental states, if they don't already possess them. This is —in attention to the prolific debates between supporters of strong artificial intelligence, as John McCarthy and philosophers of mind as John Searle— an empirically open and impossible question I wish to diligently address in this short text. There are many arguments for and against this position. According to McCarthy, there would be a mind writing, although not a human one. Searle argues the opposite: with regard to natural language, there are no minds aside from human minds. The writing on the Ouija is carried out by a program hosted in a machine under the table. Someone had to program the machine. From this perspective, Prieto’s gesture cannot be interpreted as negative or as affirmative, but rather as sceptical. Just like Sextus Empiricus, Alejandra Prieto limits herself to "describing what happens to me" (Sextus Empiricus, 2nd century AD), in this case building a Ouija that writes, in the manner described earlier.

II
The most widespread commonplace about mirrors —from the myth of Narcissus to the theories of Jacques Lacan— preaches that these are areas where the self, or rather its image, is projected and built. Something similar could be said of the works of art; partially they are projections of the self. However, the mirror reserves itself something like the principle of otherness. The image does not reflect the self, just like a globe cannot be the world. This is a much more mysterious and complex issue. Jorge Luis Borges writes, "We discovered (an inevitable discovery late into the night) that mirrors have something monstrous about them. Then, Bioy Casares recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men" (Borges, 1944). Alejandra Prieto has been working with mirrors since 2011, when she made a charcoal mirror of 300 x 185 cm. This was a reference to the charcoal mirrors of the Chavin culture (1200-200 BC), but it also quoted that great black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This new pyrite mirror of 150 x 220 cm is related to the mirrors of the same material found in the Yucatan Peninsula, in northern Peru and even in ancient Egypt. But, what could possibly be monstrous about a mirror? A mirror is, as I have already stated, a projection surface of the self. It is literally the most visible face of our epidermis. According to German aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: "There is no surface on Earth as interesting as the human face" (Lichtenberg, 1764). It is the surface of the self, in itself already disturbing —which Lichtenberg could only access through a mirror— which becomes blocked by irregularities, cracks, flaws and the weak reflection of our masks and grimaces (de)-composed on the polished rock. Furthermore, the monolithic character is also a projection surface. Kubrick knew this well. The monkey became Homo Sapiens from the moment he was able to project himself onto the world through the development of geometry, a mathematical abstraction of reality, the advent of language, the invention of concepts, the use of tools, writing, law and religion. I mention these last two concepts under the spectre of the Kaaba and the Code of Hammurabi, because I recognize them both in Kubrick's monolith and Prieto's mirror. At this point Deep Blue becomes relevant, as the intelligent automaton is nothing but a more complete form of this projection, which certainly does not belong to the West if we consider, for example, the prolific design and construction automatons of the Muslim world and other cultures of the East. Kubrick portrayed this well by including, in the same film, the Hal 9000, an intelligent computer that ran the Discovery spaceship. We never knew if Hal 9000 followed a program inoculated into it by someone, or if it acted on its own decisions. It is as if a mirror began to reflect us according to its own criteria and its own will, changing both our image and our selves; and not only as the image of an individual, but as an entity that, by means of reflecting, ends up devouring the subject, conditioning it at will, like Zeus kills Kronos. Perhaps, at this point, it is appropriate to briefly mention another postmodern myth: "technological singularity" which stems from strong artificial intelligence and predicts that machine intelligence will outperform human intelligence sometime between 2030 and 2045. The Ouija, the mirror and the monkey carved on stone, that I will shortly comment on, are related to all the issues outlined in this text.

III
Not only did charcoal mirrors occupy an important place among the indigenous cultures of ancient Peru, monkeys did as well. In this regard, Bolivian art historian Teresa Gisbert quotes a Jesuit missionary named Arriagada: “In the windows of the church we found two wooden monkeys, and suspecting what they were, we found out that they were revered, because they were upholding the building and had a long fable about them” (Gisbert, 1980). For some reason, monkeys appear at the base of some churches of the old Viceroyalty. That is, for example, in the column under the choir of the Church of Santa Cruz de Jerusalén (Julí), on the shores of Lake Titicaca. But probably little of that was transferred to the mulatto José Gil de Castro (1785-1841), a Peruvian painter who portrayed, at the dawn of the Chilean Republic, Don Ramon Martínez de Luco and Caldera and his son Don Jose Fabián in 1816. The third object included in this show is a small, carved rock. The carving depicts a monkey looking in a mirror while holding a razor blade in his hand. The image is a quote: on his left hand Don Jose Fabián holds a medallion with a portrait of that same monkey. Chilean critic Justo Pastor Mellado writes: "The monkey was an emblem of the painter: an imitator of things. The monkey is an impersonator of human gestures. But there's a joke: while a man shaves he discovers that on the opposing building a monkey imitates everything he does. The man wets his face; the monkey washes its face. The man takes the razor, the ape grabs the razor. The man reverses the razor edge and makes the gesture of cutting his throat; the monkey looks at him and gives him the finger. The painter is like that monkey, he gives the finger and reverses the situation "(Mellado, 2010). There isn’t much left of the weight bearing monkeys, if we follow Mellado's point of view. He later adds: "Here we find the end of affiliation and loyalty to the Crown, at the time of rising of small-time forces, who —in the opinion of those who enforce the law— are as dangerous as monkeys holding razors in their hands" (Mellado, 2010). Mellado's acute interpretation, constructs an image where small-time forces —a Chilean expression referring to subjects of low economic status who are on the path of social mobility and are frowned upon by the higher social layers— aspire to and, in fact, actually start to become part of what he calls “The Law”. But as we see in Kubrick, anthropologically “The Law” proceeds from the one monkey —as much a monkey as any other—, who, however, suddenly finds himself reflected in none less than the Tower of Babel or the obelisk of Luxor. And that’s what sets him apart. That difference is provided by Kubrick yet again, when a monkey clubs another with a bone. Before that he has witnessed himself laying eyes upon the Kaaba, writing the code of Hammurabi, building Tiahuanaco and the pyramids in Mesoamerica. He has seen that he will see himself reflected on water, in a mirror and then on a liquid crystal screen: as a (post) human monkey. With regard to these other monkeys, solemn and Egyptian-like —and in relation to the main object with which the Ouija is related— it is important to highlight that all Internet connections in Latin America pass through the United States and almost all the connections that are being built in Africa are provided by the Peoples Republic of China. In such an asymmetric scenario, the rupture with the new crown becomes almost impossible for nineteenth century monkeys, on the one hand, they have a poor understanding of the new power that dominates them and, furthermore, they lack the technology to subvert the situation. The revolutionary models of modernity have become impossible in a world where, as noted by Julian Assange: "In this ethereal space, this apparently platonic space of flowing information ideas, can the notion of coercive force exist? A force capable of changing historical records, of tapping wires, separating villages, turning complexity into rubble and erecting walls like an occupying army? The platonic nature of the Internet, the flow of ideas and information, is debased by its physical origins. Its pillars are fibre optic cables extending along the ocean floor, satellites orbiting overhead, computer servers housed in buildings in cities from New York to Nairobi" (Assange, 2012). In fact, words like "cloud" are nothing more than euphemisms to present something as intangible, that actually has little of immaterial. These things are as material as stones and volcanoes. In this context, the Ouija, the mirror, and the monkey who looks at himself in it, become highly relevant allegories. Assange adds: "... the independence of Latin America is still in its infancy. Destabilizing US efforts are still rife in the region, as happened not long ago in Honduras, Haiti, Ecuador and Venezuela "(Assange, 2012). It is clear what the new knife would be: to overcome digital illiteracy and be able to produce a cryptographic software and hardware, unreadable to the new power; or at least to try. However, there is not much interest on the part of the new Pelucones, nor from the new monkeys with a razor.

IV
The fourth object Prieto presents is a cast aluminium and painted sculpture which references an illustration from Subterraneus Mundus (1665) by Athanasius Kircher. I will concentrate on their association and the traits shared by both, rather than on the reference to the illustration. In his book, Kircher’s attempts to draw a parallel between the Earth and the human body, in the understanding that both are living organisms and open systems that exchange matter with their surroundings. Nevertheless, the sculpture represents —unlike the Earth and any other open system, such as a living being, a Ouija or a mirror— that which has no openings to its outside, a completely closed system: two bodies, similar to animal stomachs —perhaps like the material used to manufacture the first bagpipes— joined by two horns that resemble elephant tusks or mosquito antennae. Here it becomes slightly relevant to mention a character from Mapuche mythology that is especially important in Chiloe’s mythology: the Imbunche. Chilean folklorist Oreste Plath describes him as "a deformed human being whose face is turned toward his back. Ears, mouth, nose, arms and fingers crooked. Walks on one leg because the other one is attached to the neck or behind the neck. He does not have the power of speech "(Plath, 1973). In the original Imbunche the body orifices are not sewn shut. In later versions, such as in Jose Donoso’s El Obsceno Pájaro de la Noche (The Obscene Bird of the Night, 1970) a character associated with the Imbunche, the mudito, appears. His body orifices are sewn closed. Furthermore, doors and windows are planked shut and houses are boarded up so that no light can penetrate. Thus, the Imbunche has been read, from the perspective of Literature and a more cultured and academic point of view, as a metaphor for the decommissioning and closure of Chile's own culture, or at least a part of it. Essayist and literature professor Roberto Hozven cites Chilean anthropologist, Sonia Montecino: "[the Imbunche] is the image result of a way of understanding certain national characteristics of confinement, the deformed, the monstrous and the manipulation of power" (Hozven, 2012). What Gil's monkey sees in the mirror can be, in fact, the desire to remain a provincial aristocrat, decayed, locked in his own reflection: an Imbunche which, in turn, produces more Imbunches. Thus we deal with four elements: first, Gil's monkey, which is neither the Egyptian monkey nor Kubrick's epic or Assange's Orwellian monkey; second, Gil's mirror, which is nothing like Kubrick’s transcendental metaphysical mirror, third, the Imbunche, which reminds me of the scene from 2001 where the astronauts cover their ears from the unbearably high-pitched sound caused by the monolith’s appearance on the Moon, as they try to take a picture next to it (a possible starting point for another text about "it") and finally, the fourth object, the Babelian automaton, Hal 9000, who brought the travellers to the place where the iconoclastic monolith transforms them back into monkeys as a punishment for their too human iconophilia. The scene comes to a cut and we see a crescent moon. It cannot be a coincidence. The monolith is God. But, whoever invented God remains unclear. We do not know if the deafening sound stems from God, or, perhaps, from the monstrous reflection on the cuboid stone of its inventors, that is, all of us, after all. Here —in front of Prieto’s polished pyrite mirror— the Freudian concept of return gains meaning. The same applies to the Turk and the Ouija boards and also to the crescent moon that appears after the mirror. To finish this fourth part and in relation to the mirror’s symbolism, I would like to conclude with another quote from Borges: "A verse from St. Paul (I Corinthians, 13, 12) inspired Leon Bloy. Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate: tunc faciem facie autem ad. Nunc cognosco ex parte: sicut et tunc autem cognoscam Cognitus sum. Torres Amat miserably translates: Until today we have not seen God except as a reflection in a mirror, dimly; but we shall see him face to face. I know him now all but imperfectly; but I shall get to know him with a clear vision, like I am known." Forty-four voices perform the duty of twenty-two; further verbosity and lassitude seems impossible. Cipriano de Valera is more faithful: "Now we see through a glass, darkly; but we shall see face to face. Now I know partially; but I shall know as also I am known". "Torres Amat believes that the verse refers to our vision of divinity; Cipriano de Valera (and Léon Bloy) to our overall vision" (Borges, 1952).

V
Finally, some thoughts regarding the mirror surface, which consists of a set of pyrite tiles that have been polished and bonded with translucent resin. Under it, small cracks and holes are visible, tiny geometric shapes looming within these small cavities. The mirror surface, the monochrome gold stone painting or metallic stone, if you prefer, can be interpreted in a context that has to do with all these materials, closer to art history, and particularly involving abstract and minimal art, an approach about which I have written in a previous text (Schopf, 2013). Nevertheless, on this occasion, I would like to develop a different line of thought. One that is more consistent with what has already been elaborated in this text and originates from further literary sources. Geometric shapes occupy a unique place for some authors that interest me. In their work they produce a strange astonishment. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction (1975), tells the story of Roithamer, a man already passed away, who set out to do something as impossible as to build a cone-shaped house in the exact middle of a forest. The first aporia arises: how does he determine the exact middle of the forest? Bernhard writes "(...) Building the cone, for this construction as a work of art, which was planned for his sister, during three years of uninterrupted work and built over another three years with his greatest energy, referred to once, by himself, as almost inhuman, and precisely in the middle of the Kobernausser forest" (Bernhard, 1975). To locate the exact centre of a forest —into which an unknown highway should lead— and to build a home in a perfect cone shape, as high as all the trees that surround it, is in fact, human and inhuman at once. These are Austrian Imbunches. Roithamer, whose character was inspired on Wittgenstein, wanted to lock up his sister in this cone, "for her own perpetual happiness" (Bernhard, 1975). Whoever has been to the Wittgenstein Haus in Vienna, designed by the philosopher and logician for his sister, will have noticed straight away that it looks like a prison. Incidentally, one of the main characters in Correction —Roithamer’s alter ego— is a taxidermist named Höller. There is something about Bernhard’s novel that reminds us of Donoso’s , but also of the Babel Tower or the pyramids, something which I have already mentioned. Human and inhuman, one cannot be understood without the other. We can couple Bernhard’s inhumanity to something equally human from Borges —who was so fond of anything Babylonian— in the aforementioned Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius: "By daybreak, the man was dead in the hallway. The roughness of his voice had deceived us: he was only a youth. In his delirium a few coins had fallen from his belt, along with a cone of bright metal, the size of a die. A boy tried to pick up this cone in vain. A man was scarcely able to raise it from the ground. It held in my hand for a few minutes; I remember that its weight was intolerable and that after it was removed, the feeling of oppressiveness remained. I also remember the exact circle it pressed into my palm. The sensation of a very small and, at the same time, extremely heavy object produced a disagreeable impression of repugnance and fear. One of the local men suggested we throw it into the swollen river; Amorim acquired it for a few pesos. No one knew anything about the dead man, except that" he came from the border." These small, very heavy cones (made from a metal which is not of this world) are images of the divinity in certain regions of Tlön" (Borges, 1944). However subjective it may sound, I find it almost impossible not to see both the Roithamer cone and the Tlön cone in the four items that make up this exhibition and, above all, in the small cubic holes on the polished mirror surface. Here, the motif of the double returns, once more, in another specular comeback: the sculpture that quotes Kircher is some kind of objectified reflection that confronts two identical things in space. The union of the horns marks its refraction. Its symmetry is monstrous. A "fearful symmetry," says William Blake about the symmetrical face of the tiger [Blake, 1794]. Regarding symmetry, let us recall Kubrick’s aforementioned scene. The monkey, after beating the other ape, throws a bone into the air and it transforms into a spacecraft. Before that, it has discovered itself —"human, too human"— pounding the skeletal remains of a tapir. Initially we hear the symphonic poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1896) by Richard Strauss in the background. But when the bone, the knife or the mirror are already a ship, we listen to the Blue Danube waltz composed by the most frivolous, and perhaps most Dyonisian, Johann Strauss in 1867. Two cones, two men, sharing one name, twins in a sense, doubles, like other characters in Kubrick’s films such as The Shining, 1980, or Dr. Strangelove, 1964, where Peter Sellers plays three characters.
Two is followed by three, which indeed would mean surpassing the double and approaching the triad, which owes so much to the representation of the Holy Trinity in the Andean Baroque, but also to Byzantine and Russian icons, who are its source. But, for a third we would need another mirror, except if he is nothing less than the other monkey; or just the other Other.

Demian Schopf, Santiago, August 2015


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