Thoughts and prayers

So I wanted to apply to a few art competitions, and the Wells Art Contemporary drew my attention because of its amazing setting (the Wells Cathedral). This is a dream place for any kind of conceptual art because you’re already working with centuries of connotations and expectations that you get from the get go as your raw material.

The bit about the art manifesto

I will do a proper manifesto later, but I wanted to jolt down the technical process I’m going through here. The basic concept is a reflection around the ontology of reality. Once upon a time, people looked at gods not only for source of morality, but as the ontological entity that imbued life with meaning and in some way warranted the consistency and order of the world.

With the “death of god” heralded by Nietzsche, humans lost all of this. At first glance, you may worry about the loss of absolute moral values, but it goes far deeper than that: it’s the loss of ontological structure. No wonder that analyses tie the totalitarism movements of the 20th century as a reaction to this.

Nowadays, the thing that took the place of God as source of ontological structure seems to be the economy, which organizes pretty much all of life in an increasingly globalized world. Furthermore, its efficient decentralized decision mechanism are truly a sight of wonder, whose complexity aggregates all the wisdom of mankind. Yet, it cannot be comprehended in its entirety by a single person, elevating it to a mystical position of unfathomability.

These are the many deep parallels I wanted to explore with the “Thoughts and prayers” project by establishing a “Church of Neoliberal Capitalist Realism”. In this art project, it was important for me to have it be a participatory living piece, engaging the viewers on their own terms, literally reaching into their daily lives. It was important for me that the art piece blends in innocuously and almost unconsciously with the fabric of the spectators lives, much like religion did in other time periods.

This is why I ended up publishing the project as a facebook and twitter pages, because that’s where people actually direct their attention, time, and interactions (much like they did with churches and prayers). In fact, this social network aspect adds a whole dimension to the project centered around the shallowness, speed, and outrage-focus of these platforms, which is probably why I’ll end up submitting a QR code to this image to the exhibition.

The bit about machine learning

But enough about the pretentious artsy considerations: the reason why I wanted to write this article down was to cement somewhere some of the technical challenges and solutions I faced. The piece really came to life when I decided to try to use Machine Learning (GPT-2) to merge the Bible and Marx’s Capital. On the final pages, I’ve decided to split the AI generated text by presenting it as scriptures (i.e. numbered) as opposed to what I’d write myself.

You may remember that I quite enjoy using GPT to produce new content in a specific style, which is what gave me the idea in the first place. But the main challenge was that GPT does not deal very well with heterogeneous training sets. In particular, the Bible and Marx’s Capital have very little words in common, so the output would often be one or the other (you can think of them as distinct connected components in the semantic graph).

The way I solved this was to build a bridge myself between these two corpora. I took the Bible and applied a bunch of word substitutions to bring its language closer to the one from the Capital. I worked with the most frequent words of both texts in priority, but I also threw in some terms that seemed important to the current economic context. The substitution would not always make perfect sense, but the fact that it all goes into GPT to be regurgitated later makes these mistakes pretty irrelevant (GPT can correct some, but anyway the output of GPT is always pretty trashy).

I do very little modifications to the output of machine learning (it is, after all, the holy word), and even when it comes out vaguely nonsensical I guess it serves as a nice reflection of the nonsensical commands the technocratic economy sometimes dictates to humans.

And that’s how you get the main content of those publication feed. I’ve automated it so that it keeps posting regularly, and made the twitter randomly follow a few users who tweet about market efficiency, in order to bring the gospel to its most fervent zealots. It seems like a natural step ^^

Anyway this was all good fun but now I need to figure out how I’m going to turn that into an installation proposal for museums. Cheers.

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