Nightmare of a futurist past


My friend Paul had an extra ticket to a performance art piece at The High Line park last night, and graciously invited me along.  The piece, entitled “City Symphonies Out of Doors” was part of the Performa 09 series, performed by “Acclaimed avant-garde ensemble Text of Light“. Basically, the ensemble played music to accompany a silent film from 1927 that had many scenes of life in Berlin. Their premise is to “improvise”, not “illustrate” in the presence of film. The film itself is seen as part of the Futurist movement, with its representations of dynamism in modern life. I studied the Futurists in college and was quite a fan of them, especially their work in sculpture (Boccioni, for example) and architecture (Sant’Elia). The antics of Marinetti and other founders of the movement were sometimes inspirational (trying as they were to shake off the chains of history) and sometimes merely petulant. It didn’t help that many of them aligned themselves with Mussolini and Italian Fascism later on. Be that as it may, the movement was one which tried to fuse art with the chaos and industrialization of modern life, to find a meaning and direction that was truly modern (and appropriate to the age). One hundred years later, it is still interesting (and sometimes comical) to look back on these preoccupations for what they tell us about the great upheavals and dislocations brought about by technology.

The film itself was mostly interesting for its historical content. There were some excellent compositions, but the only “avant-garde” thing about the film was its tenuous relation to “story”. I did find the scenes of early 20th century life to be fascinating in and of themselves. And although to modern eyes there wasn’t much particularly shocking, I can imagine a hundred years ago the sense of newness and chaos in the imagery and editing would have been more palpable and disorienting. The ensemble played “music” to accompany the film, and I struggled to find any structure, pattern or meaning in their noise. I played a game of trying to imagine their motivations for the screeching and at times physically painful sounds they were inflicting on the audience. Here are the possibilities:

1. They were trying to induce in the crowd the panic and disorientation of modern life, as close to the horror and dislocation as might have been felt by a farmer in the city 100 years ago. If they had played for merely 10 minutes, I would have gotten the point and enough already. But they continued on with this noisy one liner for over an hour.

2. They were trying to induce bleeding from the ears in the crowd. The level was so loud that at many points many of us had to put our fingers in our ears. I am not exaggerating to tell you that my teeth actually hurt.

3. They had a bet among them to see how many people they could make leave before the end of the hourlong performance. (They achieved about 20 percent attrition by my estimate)

My friend Paul professed to having loved the performance. Although I tried to elicit from him a clear explanation of what it was he found so wonderful in the “music”, I came away unconvinced. I can only imagine that a birthday gift of root canal would be most pleasing to him, if performed by an “artist” in drag with rusty implements. Ultimately, I was glad to be a part of this and get a look into another of the many worlds that layer over each other in this diverse and amazing city. That said, I think it will be close to the first of never before I would subject myself to anything associated with Text of Light again.

For your amusement (if not enjoyment) I am embedding a small clip from the event. To get the full effect, please turn the volume on your computer to maximum.

Is the future here yet?


Went to see a fascinating film at the Tribeca film festival called Transcendent Man, which is a documentary about Ray Kurzweil and his attempt to achieve a sort of immortality. I won’t try to describe Kurzweil’s complex belief system here (you can read the wiki article and other sources for that), but in  a nutshell he believes that the exponential growth of technology will take us to a point in the very near future (which he calls the singularity) in which it will overtake us and (with the creation of artificial intelligence that surpasses human intelligence) direct itself. He believes (and hopes) that at this point we/he  will merge with and/or be replaced by this super-intelligence and direct our future evolution. I tend to think this will happen as well, albeit in a somewhat different manner. As I have written before, I think our technological path is leading us to a point in the future where we will be completely linked and borg like, for both good and ill (or neither if you prefer). We will at some point cease to be separate, individual entities, and will shed our humanity as we evolve into something else. I see this as a long term process that we are already well down the path towards, but I doubt there will be some single moment in time that we can point to and say, aha, this is it. Boom, we are no longer human. I believe this will happen gradually over time, as we make ourselves more interconnected, replace our body parts with bionics and such, and enhance ourselves. People will not go kicking and screaming towards this future, they will welcome it step by step, bit by bit, for convenience sake. Already when you talk to young people today about how exposed they are to the world on facebook and the like, they stare at you blankly. Why is my generation (and older ones) so bothered by our loss of privacy while they are not, for example? There are certainly all kinds of questions to be sorted out between the technical haves and have nots and the social order, and there is and will be great social upheaval, but the writing is on the wall if you ask me.

The most interesting aspect of the film however deals with Kurzweil’s body obsession and fear that he was born just a little too soon to make it to this point in time. He is obsessed with taking care of his body long enough to be able to “upload his mind”, long enough to achieve this “immortality”. It is the driving obsession of his life, as well as recreating his father (who died of a heart attack  at a fairly young age) in some new virtual world. He clearly wants to experience this new world of human evolution, and yet he uses terms like “upload” or “backup” his consciousness, which always leads me to want to ask the teleport question about what happens to the original. Does it just get destroyed but that is ok b/c the copy continues on? I don’t know about you, but it would be small comfort to me to be destroyed even if a replica was continuing on with all my memories…

Or maybe it is more like the darned sock analogy. I’ve got a hole in my sock, which I get a patch for. Then another, with another patch, and so on until there is no material left of the original. Is it the same sock? In reality, over many years our bodies’ cells have replaced just about everything that we were born with anyway, so what is the difference? The difference is, in Kurzweil’s (and admittedly our) future, the sock will no longer resemble the thing it started out as at all. It will have transcended sock-ness completely. And we will have transcended humanity for something else, something unknown.