In December of 2007, a few days before Christmas, hundreds of enthusiasts from all over the world gathered at the Sixth International Chess Festival in Benidorm, Spain. One of the highlights of the festival was a demonstration by World Champion Viswanathan Anand, during which he played thirty-five simultaneous games against skilled opponents, conceding only one loss and five draws. Photographs of Anand’s contest show him penned in by a ring of tables, surrounded by chequerboards, with the black armies of his challengers advancing and falling back, ant-like, around him – an image of supreme mental achievement. But inside another smaller and dingier room at the festival, a very different and much more significant contest was taking place. In the first event of its kind ever staged, thirty-one competitors participated in a Freestyle Advanced Chess tournament, a form of the game in which players may use the technology of their choice to assist them during competition. Tables were covered with multiple laptops, tower computers and monitors, and players pored over databases of plays, whole histories of chess, and calculated thousands of possible moves ahead. The play was fast, frenetic, and unlike any other games played in tournament before.
Advanced Chess has grown in popularity in recent years, and we can date its inception – its genesis, if not its first deployment – with great accuracy. Ten years and seven months before the Benidorm tournament, in a hotel auditorium in New York, Gary Kasparov lost in 3.5 to 2.5 games to a computer: IBM’s Deep Blue. Kasparov, widely regarded as the greatest Chess player of all time, has never accepted the loss, but he saw which way the wind was blowing. Human intelligence, and more specifically the uniqueness of human intelligence in nature, is no longer unquestioned. As a result, Kasparov developed the new discipline of Advanced Chess: humans, aided by machines, playing against other humans aided by machines. The result has been a revolution in Chess. While the theory and practice of computer chess, as well as its hardware, has advanced rapidly, to a point where any Grandmaster today will struggle against relatively simple machines, human-computer teams routinely triumph over the most complex machines in the world. Co-operation, not competition, seems to be the answer when it comes to thinking through our trickiest problems.
Advanced Chess is also known as “centaur play”, called so after the half-human, half-horse monsters of Greek mythology. The origin of these strange creatures is often attributed by scholars to the arrival among the non-riding cultures of the Aegean of mounted raiders from Asia, who saw them as terrifying, hybrid apparitions. Their shock is echoed in our own reaction to the new monsters in our midst: augmented natures, of our world but unlike it, demanding to partake in our events. In the light of such uprisings, we must rethink our relationship with technology, and our place as masters of our tools, and our environment. As our technological achievements take on strange, new lives of their own they reshape us too – and, if we are serious about no longer putting ourselves at the centre of our thinking, we must rethink our relationship to what we once termed the “natural world” through the lens of technology too.
Our modes of representation and interaction are increasingly conditioned by the systems we use every day: the pixels of the digital camera which captures antelope at play on the savannah and ourselves, bathed in the screenlight, before video chat; each image transmitted as light through fiber optic cables and reconstituted on screens far away, to be downloaded, processed, and re-screened. The processes of encoding and decoding by which we approach the digital world are literal instantiations of the emotional and social processes we have always carried within us, made explicit by the technologies we have written to enable them at scale and distance.
It is this interdependence of modes of thinking which is called to mind by George Dyson when he writes: “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines.” Dyson picks sides, for himself and for the other players, but I’m not sure the gaming metaphor suffices here, or not the one that Dyson intends. It is in the spirit of cooperation rather than competition, entanglement rather than distance, that these assemblages manifest. As the political theorist Jane Bennet has written, there is no true separation possible between the agency of people and things; rather we must acknowledge ‘thing-power’: “the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience.” In Bennet’s taxonomy of vitality, ‘things’ – animals, edibles, commodities, storms, metals, silicates, stem cells, machines – “act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own”.
The layers of agency in Shawn Smith’s sculpture echo and restate these trajectories. Starting with digital images of living creatures, the artist manipulates their likeness in software programmes, which have been coded and compiled by hundreds of software engineers, based on the findings of computer and natural scientists over decades, in the fields of colour theory and image processing. Each pixel is cut to shape, expanded, coloured, before it ever leaves the screen – or may be undigitised, sketched onto graph paper, hand-coloured and planned out.
Some of Smith’s animals undergo further manipulations, further explorations of this material plane. The griffon vulture is a scavenger, a consumer of the dead, an apt avatar for Smith’s own consumptive practices. Smith’s griffon has been digested itself, its raw information cleaved apart and reconstituted in a hex editor, which allows the user to manipulate data at the lowest level. Tinkering with such base materials, the DNA of digital representations, results in a spray of the most unnatural colours, a rainbow of artificial pinks, yellows and greens. The results, however, are unpredictable: the “glitch” is both a glimpse into the inner workings of the machine’s vision, and an emergent, non-human artistic possibility, a form of creativity claimed by software, which we can only guess at.
Finally, these images are reconstituted in paint and plywood, an intensely industrial material comprised of multiple layers of laminated woods, peeled, patched, graded, glued and baked together, as far from “natural” wood as any mass-produced plastic product. And in the space of the gallery, they continue to toy with definition, appearing both close and immediate, frozen in motion, while on approach breaking apart, becoming dead, and uncanny, like digital images themselves.
On the one hand, Smith’s work serves to bring us to a new accommodation with nature in all its mediated wildness, to bring it close to us when it has been so removed by documentary and digital distance, to revivify it in an age of cities and networks, perhaps even to assert that such experiences of nature remain natural even when mediated. If we cannot love nature in the raw, we should at least learn to love our digital experience of it. But at the same time it troubles all of these distinctions, and reminds us that the space between nature and us, between nature and the things we make, and between us and our own tools, is always illusory, has always been a contested and confusing space.
Smith’s sculptures then, in their raw vitality, evoke not only the majesty of nature and the functioning of technological assemblages, but also their mystery and their emergent possibilities: their thing-power. Their references multiply, allowing us to see in one the glazed eye of the machine gazing upon the world, in another the beady eye of nature gazing back, and in the whole a reflection of ourselves: predator, or prey, or something else, moving amongst these creatures, fleshy and metallic, endlessly entangled with their being, and trying to make sense of them.
- James Bridle