“I would like to be transformed into a polyglot and am still waiting for a basel fish to stick into my ear”
— anonymous visitor, MMB
What does it mean when someone says, “I saw you in my dream?” My appearance in their dream happens without my knowledge or consent; I become a ghostly apparition without my agency. What liminal space is this that registers my presence? It could be a screen at a spatio-temporal remove from my body that conjured me through algorithms; a spectral counterpart that absorbed from but rejected my material Otherness.
But a dream necessitates that one’s eyes be resting. Desire manifests in the eyes, say the poets. The site of meaning and its loss in excess, the eyes know the troubling power of desire; it is both immersive and fatalistic. Amir Khusro wrote a few verses once where he both lamented and sang in pride about his loss of identity in the gaze of his spiritual mentor; all markers of his identity were rendered null when met with the latter’s all-encompassing vision. This poetic discourse around identity, and its loss and willful capitulation in service of an immersive gaze forms the crux of desire in the context and premise of the projects, Chhaap Tilak Sab Chheeni (after Khuro’s eponymous song) and Beneath the tree there’s more hope of a breeze.
There’s a range of non-human life currently teeming the static landscape of Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan. Amongst them is a range of biometric machines that are out of habit with identifying staff members in accordance with data fed into them by human operators for the purpose of keeping count and track of their attendance. In this and superior variants, the machine datafies the subject, in effect, converting the morsels constituting them into self-containing pixels of information. The subject is identified by classificatory axes—physiological features, demographic data, criminal history (or its lack), and the like. Our birth, career, relationships and death become categorical entry points to our identities; surveillance becomes a seemingly benign routine that stratifies us on the basis of our privileges and marginalisations; in effect, the vulnerable bodies remain perpetually threatened.
But the machine is anchored in a physical site that leaves out much of the periphery beyond the scope of its containing gaze. It is a blind spot in the institutional infrastructure of control, and Actants Kaushal and Mohit exploit it to create an interactive experience where they involve participants into fooling the machine that has quietly entered our daily textures and come to define us for us. The Actants take charge of their living, breathing bodies again as they stand in front of surveillance cameras wearing plastic bunny masks (a ubiquitous accessory in the market), whose algorithm has been enrolled in the machine with the result that the mask now overrides the human facial constitution as ground for recognition. The bunnies replace our faces for an evening (which are reminiscent also of augmented reality features such as animal filters on Instagram and Snapchat); there are no weary or excited eyes, or wrinkles to be identified- just a synthetic contour designed to deceive a non-human agent (or actor?) of authority. The error is co-opted in an uncanny fulfillment of expectation. The opacity of the interaction is enabled by the covering of the irises—the human component that enables facial recognition. The refusal to submit one’s vision is a claim on anonymity (i.e. assertion of privacy in public) and challenges the confidence invested in biometrics as a way to know who we actually are. It is a refusal of the desire exercised by the machine on the human that makes the latter look at itself as an object in the former’s gaze.
But the machine also generates lines of poetry as the participant places their finger on a designated sensor; each line designed for each unique print of the finger. The moment of contact generates something in transit that materializes in words. It could be a friction between the organism and the inorganic actor; in recognizing the print, does it recognize the person? What if the fingerprint was manually fabricated? Is the contact then rendered invalid? Does desire always necessitate an entity with a human history or aspiration? In responding to tactile intimacy, the machine exhibits sentience and intentionality, albeit coded to mimic human awareness and response. This interface produces a desire to both preserve and transform the dualistic paradigm of the human and the machine; the alterity embedded in the transgression ignites a fascination with the Otherness of the Other. The Actants mention that there is a range of unclaimed fingerprints in institutional databases because the machines cannot link them to their human bearers. Are they dead or alive? Still human or transformed into a seedling? Maybe the seed preceded the fingerprint and the latter just awaits its inhabitant.
Actant Anish Cherian, in setting up an arboreal transmitter of messages on the site, is trying to unpack desire as well. What does it mean to deviate from a reality that is collectively subscribed to? What does it mean to want to be a lobster in this life and inhabit water permanently while being acutely aware and delimited by limbs and terrestrial obligations? Is it possible to have a post-humanity based on decentered relationalities where the human form and gaze cease to matter? Maybe the biometric machine could then adopt another gaze- that of the insect which keeps track of its distance from its prey and predator, or the earthworm that keeps pushing against the darkness in the soil, or a sand granule whose individual invisibility is enabled by its hypervisibility in company. When multiples of such desires are encouraged, evoked and verbalised (albeit in human tongues), the tree, in its own transformation into a technological conduit, creates a map of speculative futures.
In the absence of my this-ness, I become something else. What do I become? A tree? A silverfish? A microbe? In the oversaturation of my personhood with categorical brackets, my being finds a window and translates. Perhaps it travels through the radio waves engineered on the ground as the said Ashoka tree stands as witness and bearer of these manifestations of desire. The neural networks of the tree extend beyond its habitat in the earth to transmit and receive signals. In its transformation into an antennae, the tree asks us to desire the same for ourselves, muses Cherian. The sap, salt and xylem flowing through its stems carry the weight of this dream, where, bereft of a legible algorithm in code or alphabet, it becomes an intangible trace. It is a liberating prospect for this post-human entity; the machine cannot capture its form just yet.
All Images Courtesy: Annette Jacob
*Follow Desire Collective for more information on the project, Below the tree there’s more hope of a breeze by Actant Anish Cherian