May 30, 2007


Went to MASS MoCA this weekend and was lucky enough to see one of Theo Jansen's Strandbeests, Animaris Percipiere, in "person." Jansen's sculptures are kinetic sculptures that he has designed using PVC pipes that employ the wind on the beach to move around in the manner of an "organic" being. He simulates the process of natural selection by nurturing, testing and discarding models which do not work. The Strandbeests have reached a level of sophistication where sensors tell them if they have strayed into the water or into the dry sand of the upper beach where they can't walk, and also if conditions are such that they have to drop anchor until a storm passes or more favorable wind conditions occur. Jansen is another one of these people who are challenging the notion of "Artificial Intelligence," with the concept that, if it acts like it is alive, then perhaps it is alive; sort of like the programmer of the A.L.I.C.E. program who controversially won some AI competitions because his program acted as though it could hold a conversation, based on generic linguistic prompts. The AI community eventually denounced him because the program did not conform to the standards set that determine what "cognition" is, despite the fact, that, to the participant, the program exhibited every characteristic of being "alive."

Jansen hopes to some day release his creations into the wild and allow them to live out their own autonomous lives--to the eye, creatures, despite the fact that they are inorganic. Looking at the Animaric Percipiere got me thinking about poetics, the idea of authorship and the agency we attribute to poems and the creators of poems. It struck me that Jansen's sculptures correspond to my idea of poetics in some pretty profound ways. What I wish to do with poems is to give the veneer of 'intent,' without actually imbuing them with any intent as such. The poem exhibits all of the trappings of life, yet it is inert. It can exist in the wild following the program of its own primitive existence, yet it is only a simulacra, not a living, breathing thing. Yet the difference between the poem and the author seems ultimately academic. I may be an organic being, but generally what I do is react to outside stimuli in a way that is somehow hardwired or preordained. The rituals of my consciousness are not so very different from the programed motions of the Strandbeests. The beauty of the sculptures lies both in their ability to function autonomously, and to the way that they are also avatars of Jansen's own consciousness.

What I want for my poems is to give the illusion of intent, of life, of quickness without instilling in them any actual 'intent' as regards the traditional understandings of cognition. They will make their small motions and protect themselves, as they have been fashioned; but their actual purpose or intent is as obscure as my own actual purpose or intent. If adequately fashioned, they will stumble their way into the world and persevere. Much in the same manner that I, myself, have. Ultimately their purpose is ambiguous, as is the purpose of the herd of Stranbeests lurching along the shore, to eventually dissolve into the sea or to wind up as skeletal debris.

Gazing at the lattice of the Strandbeest I wondered about the Romantic 'I,' and the sacred conventions of art that dictate that the creations of I should be merely shed skins, the scratchings and leavings of I and not entities unto themselves--that the poem I write is simply a trace of my own unmalleable consciousness. That my consciousness exists at all. Perhaps it is the poems that create the person and not vice versa. Most of the time I feel not altogether different from a Strandbeest, lurching around in my preordained ways, my eyes blank windows on the word--betraying every semblance of consciousness, but yet I am merely a process, as the poems themselves are processes. When the wind blows too strong I hammer my little stake into the sand and wait for more hospitable gusts and when the wind blows favorably I scrawl my poems, who, in turn will do the same. Someday you will find them on the beach, fanning their fragile wings and nailing their nails into the strand--perhaps even when I am a significantly less animate but perhaps no less sentient skeleton.


Elisa Gabbert said...

The question is really more whether the program is conscious than "alive" ... I think "alive" is more well-defined than "conscious."

Mark said...

Yes. I am certain that I am alive, but how can I be certain that I am really "conscious," or conscious to a greater extent than and object or a program.