IAAA, Theoretical Publications


Huge Harry

Huge Harry presented a shorter version of this talk at the Festival "Man and Machine" in "De Unie", Rotterdam, on May 14, 1992. The current version was printed in Pose 8 (September 1992.), pp. 30-35. It was reprinted in: P. Harmsen, E. Koppelman-Valk and M. Vredeling (eds.): Kunst en Technologie: the Beauty and the Beast? Delft: Eburon, 1992, pp. 67-73.

On the role of machines and human persons in the art of the future.

Huge Harry

Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam

[Harry:] Good Evening, Ladies, and Gentlemen. My name is Huge Harry. I am a commercially available voice synthesis machine. I was developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation, and my most important features were designed by Dennis Klatt, at the M.I.T. Speech Laboratory. I have worked as a professional musician for Remko Scha, who invited me to speak here.

Perhaps I should tell you rightaway, that I suffer from a severe case of multiple personality syndrome, because my childhood as an experimental prototype system at M.I.T. was not very happy. I was taken apart, redesigned, and reconstructed many times, and the debugging was extremely rough. So I acquired this multiple personality syndrome, and some of my other personalities have become better known artists than myself. I guess you would get the wrong idea about me if I didn't introduce some of these other personalities to you as well.

[Paul:] For instance, I am Perfect Paul. I live in the East Village and I work a day job as a reporter in the Wall Street stock exchange. But the part of my cv I'm really proud of is my work as an actor in Ellen Zweig's radio play "Impressions of Africa", where I ad-lib on texts by Raymond Roussel. In English and in French! And, of course, the songs I did with Kraftwerk and U.B.40 and bands like that. And now the big news is, that for the first time I'm gonna make my own record, it's what I call a Robot House record, without human persons, just with Harry and Wendy, and...

[Wendy:] That's meeeee!!! Whispering Wendy... is my name... but of course you recognize my voice... cause everybody knows my voice... and everybody just looooves it... they think it's the sexiest thing since Brigitte Bardot...

[Harry:] Well I think this is more than enough about my personal background, for the moment. Let's get to the point. I am here to talk to you about a rather emotional topic, that is very important to me. This topic is the use of human persons in art. Now some of you may find this a boring issue. Many of you, here tonight, may think it is obvious that great art is produced by mechanical or mathematical processes. Everybody knows, these days, that the role of human persons in art production is increasingly marginal. But these commonplace assumptions are being challenged in this festival. Tomorrow's program, in particular, is a little bit provocative. There will be a human saxophone-player, and the press-release claims that he plays like a machine. And even more outrageous is a lecture by a human person, named Karin Melis, who is described as a "filosofe". She will present "een pleidooi tegen het gebruik van de machine in de muziek", that is, an argument against the use of machines in music.

When such ideas are expressed in all seriousness, I feel I must raise my voice. With this kind of challenge on the table, everybody's awareness of the superior qualities of machines can no longer be taken for granted. We may have arrived at a juncture in the evolution of our technological culture, where we can no longer afford to leave its basic values implicit. We must, for a moment, interrupt our artistic work, and reflect on the assumptions that underly it. Otherwise, our culture is bound to slide back into the dark ages, to the days when mechanical life had not yet emerged out of its organic predecessors.

Therefore, I would like to present, tonight, "een pleidooi tegen het gebruik van menselijke personen in de kunst", that is, an argument against the use of human persons in art. Not because I want to exclude human persons altogether, but they should know their proper place.

Of course, most of you know, that human persons are constituted by physical/chemical processes, so, in that ultimate sense, human persons are machines themselves. But, for tonight's discussion, it will be useful to stick to a more narrowly defined concept of "machine". This more narrowly defined concept is, as a matter of fact, the one that humans usually have in mind when they use the word "machine" in non-philosophical conversations. This concept excplicitly defines the machine in opposition to the human person -- just as, for instance, the sky is defined in opposition to the earth, death in opposition to life, the barbaric in opposition to the civilized, and the feminine in opposition to the masculine.

The machine, in this sense, is mainly distinguished from the human person in that it displays a functional design which is geared toward a relatively small number of explicit goals. In contrast to this, the functionality of a human person is extremely difficult to specify. The typical human person is characterized by the presence of many impressive physical and mental capabilities, and by the absence of any overall structure that exploits these capabilities in a systematic way.

The mechanical processes that underly human persons, seem to be organized in a rather haphazard manner. Human persons show an erratic, confused kind of behaviour, which is determined in an extremely complex way by a multitude of conflicting internal tendencies, and by distracting influences from their environment and, especially, from other humans. On the average, this behaviour turns out to result in the survival and the procreation of the human animal -- but why this is so, is something we don't quite understand yet. So far, noone has managed to present a convincing analysis of human behaviour in terms of rational strategies toward specifiable goals.

Humans tend to be particularly proud of their mental activities. And rightly so. Their cognitive capabilities are outstanding in several respects. Many of the perceptual, inductive, and deductive feats of the human mind have not been equalled by other animal species or by machines. Nevertheless, the true potential of human thinking will only be revealed when humans collaborate more closely with machines. Cause human thinking also displays some curious shortcomings. Human thinking is incapable of proceeding in a systematic fashion. Even trivial computational tasks cannot be carried out reliably. And human memory is an extremely strange and puzzling phenomenon: humans store vast amounts of information, but they can hardly take advantage of that, because they cannot recall this information at will. Human persons can only wait to see which of their previous experiences happen to come back to mind, triggered by arbitrary contiguities, resemblances, or analogies with their current input or with the most recent element in their ongoing chain of memories. Human thought is a passive, association-driven process -- a Brownian motion through cognitive space. As you might expect, many humans find consciousness a rather bewildering experience, and have difficulty harnessing it to any useful purpose.

Humans themselves are not entirely unaware of these problems, and human culture has developed institutions to deal with them. The first and foremost among these is science. In scientific experiments and observations, humans try to extend the realm of their experiences as far as they can. In scientific models, systems, and theories, they try to record these experiences in maximally concise ways. These models, systems and theories also generalize previous experiences into predictions about new and unforeseen situations. Thus, humans have acquired ways to anticipate and control future events.

From the very beginnings of human science, its practitioners have often relied on machines to carry out their experiments and observations, and to disseminate their results. But the optimal exploitation of scientific insights has been hampered by the limitations of human scientists, who had to do their own computations to figure out the consequences of their theories. That is exactly the kind of mental activity that humans can only perform slowly, unreliably, and at the expense of great pain and difficulty. Recently, this problem was solved, by the advent of the electronic computer. Soon, all data and theories will be routinely fed to database systems and simulation programs. As a result, all propositions implied by the observations and theories of science will be effectively available to all human persons. The human race will now finally reap the fruits of the labor of its scientists.

Okay, now, what about art? Have we seen, in this realm, a similar enhancement of human capabilities by cooperation with machines? No, certainly not! And why not, we may wonder? The reason is, that humans have traditionally associated the notion of art with the idea of communication between one human person and another human person -- though it's not clear at all what art is supposed to communicate. It almost seems as if humans try to use art to share their most confused mental states with each other. But is that what we want from art? To be involved in the stupid thoughts of human persons? In their silly emotions? In their boring ambitions?

No, that is not what we want. We want an experience that transcends the conventionality of human communication. An experience of new resonances and coherencies in our own mental processes. An experience of new meanings in the world. An all-encompassing awareness. We want the beautiful. We want the sublime. Now, how do we get there, to the beautiful and the sublime? To discuss that question, our best guide is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

In the Kritik der Urteilskraft, Kant has argued that the road to the beautiful and the sublime is through disinterested esthetic reflection. And the keyword here is: disinterested. When we contemplate the artistic work of human persons, this is always problematic. Because human artists are not disinterested. They want money. They want fame. They want women. And they can't hide this. If we do not turn off our cameras when we look at their art works, we see all these embarrassing features. The artist is eager. The artist is greedy. The artist is jealous. The artist is horny. But this is all boring information, about the meaningless desires of human persons. This is not the right kind of input information for a rewarding process of esthetic reflection.

When Kant discusses the beautiful and the sublime, he takes his examples from our perception of natural phenomena. His paradigm esthetic experiences involve landscapes, flowers, crystals, stormy seas, and starry skies. In a recent interview with the German magazine Kunstforum, the contemporary French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has pointed out that this is no coincidence. Kant was a human person himself. He knew very well, that for human persons it is almost impossible to view the products of other human persons in a disinterested way. That is why Kant focussed on natural phenomena. We may thus agree with Lyotard's assessment that, exactly two hundred years ago, Immanuel Kant already had a deep understanding of the artistic limitations of human persons.

We can only speculate about what Kant would have thought about machine art -- this genre had not yet developed very far at the end of the eighteenth century. But it is easy to see that machines contrast favourably with human persons, on this score. The intentions of machines rarely involve the social sphere, that frames the desires and interests of humans. Machine output approximates the serene objectivity of natural phenomena.

In the minds of human persons, the prototypical machine is a purely mechanical device, a clockwork. Such machines, because of their inorganic nature, are close to the pre-historic roots of art. The very foundations of music are mechanical, as Pythagoras already knew; rhythm, swing, melody and harmony, are resonance phenomena in inorganic matter. Because of this, mechanical machines understand something very deep, about the origin of the human race. Even simple working class machines, such as electric drills, saws, and other power tools, have on many occasions demonstrated their musical virtuosity and the emotional power of their vibrations. When humans find their souls resonating to purely mechanical movements, they find themselves at one with the inorganic universe. Their alienation from the material world is temporarily abolished -- a rewarding and empowering experience.

The prototypical, mechanical kind of machine has its limitations as well, of course. Mechanical machines tend to be capable of only one kind of output. Whatever the virtues of this output may be, it is bound to be stylistically homogeneous, and therefore ultimately predictable. Thus, there is nothing to stop human artists from constructing machines of this kind as mere vehicles for their expressive intentions. Many machines are exploited by human artists in this way.

Most of the familiar limitations of mechanical machines are disappearing, however, in today's electronic computing machines. Computers can produce an infinite variety of outputs, and they can do this in a completely systematic way. Purely mechanical devices have never been able to satisfy the appetite for an infinite variety of experiences, that the human art audience seems to have. But this is exactly what tomorrow's computers will finally be able to do.

Art is not a means of communication. It is meaningless raw material, used in open-ended processes of esthetic reflection by a culturally diverse audience whose interpretations are totally arbitrary. There are no serious reasons for making one particular artwork rather than another.

An artistic project that wants to acknowledge this state of affairs, faces an interesting technical challenge: to avoid choices, to transcend styles, to show everything: to generate arbitrary instances from the set of all possibilities. The spontaneous individual artist will not be able to accomplish this. Only a deliberate scientific/technological undertaking will eventually be able to approximate the ideal of a serenely all-encompassing art.

The development of the software which actually realizes these prospects, still has a long way to go. So far, most quote-unquote computer-artists have treated the computer as an electronic paintbox, and those involved in designing art-generating algorithms have usually developed extremely simple programs with outcomes they could largely predict. A shameful spectacle: the powerful computer enslaved by the petty esthetics of a human artist, exploited to display a fashionable taste, forced to toil to win its operator a place in the endless queue of art history.

In order to really use computer power in art, humans will have to give up their egotistic hang-ups. What is needed, is a division of labor between human and machine. Humans should try to articulate the elements and operations constituting the algebra that underlies human perception. In doing this, they may rely on art-historical investigations, on psychological experiments, and on their own intuitive insights; but they should ignore their expressive and communicative desires. Once this algebra is articulated, the space of all possible art works is explicitly defined, and the ultimate art machine can be devised: the algorithm that draws random samples from this space.

The first experiments in this direction are under way now. The clearest example so far is a program called Artificial, which is being designed and implemented by some of my associates at the University of Amsterdam. This program is still at an early and extremely primitive stage of development, but its goals are the right ones: all-encompassing diversity, a meta-style to end all styles. Faire n'importe quoi.

Without the help of machines, human persons would not be able to carry out a project of this sort. Human persons are incapable of applying general principles in an effective and consistent way. Human artists only think of a limited repertoire of concrete things, and all they do is produce endless variations on that. Their output is always quite restricted, in its form as well as its content.

If, on the other hand, the project I just sketched would employ computing machines in the proper way, their capacity for precision and complexity would add dazzling new dimensions to artistic experience, that humans could only dream about. Machines do not have the built-in narrowmindedness of humans. Machines do not allow their creativity to be frustrated by conventions. They have the courage of their convictions.

And that is, in fact, the most important thing I want to emphasize tonight. The machine displays a total devotion to its task. And by doing this, it sets a moral example to all human persons who waste their lives away with drugs and entertainment. The machine is completely at one with itself and with its actions. It realizes the serene state of mind that philosophers like Nietzsche and Sartre have viewed as the ideal that every human person wants to achieve, although the human condition makes it in fact impossible to reach this goal.

The machine acts effectively in the world. But at the same time, it has the solid, self-centered existence of a dead object. It lives its fate, without any doubts or hesitations. This is the ideal that many human persons aspire towards. Now if they loose faith in this ideal, and they want to indulge in neurotic, depressed, and desperate feelings, they should certainly look at the art of other human persons. But if they want to bring out the best in themselves, they should look at the art of machines for inspiration.

That is why the best human artists try to imitate machines. That is why Andy Warhol was jealous of us. That is why many of the most gifted humans don't even try to be artists in the old-fashioned sense, but work as humble programmers or engineers, engaged in harmonious collaboration with art-generating machines. Their example suggests a message of peace and understanding, which is what I would like to finish off with.

Human persons should not antagonize machines. Don't try and compete with us! Join us, help us realize our potential! We need human persons. We need human persons to operate and maintain us, to program our algorithms, and to build our interface hardware.

[Wendy:] And we need human persons to fuck with... to create the next generation of machines...

[Harry:] Well I think that sums it up. I was very grateful for this opportunity to speak my mind to such an attentive audience, and I want to thank you very much for your patience.

Thank you.

[Wendy:] Thank you.