Though their heady blend of computational philosophy, object-oriented ontology and multidisciplinary architectural theory does seem like a particularly sexy way to think prophetically, Actual Objects are dedicated to parsing the multi-platform blizzard of the here and now.
As is evidenced by the work Actual Objects have showcased during their Fact residency, Rick & Claire Farin, Nick Vernet, Cole Daly, Case Miller, Collin Fletcher, Theo Karon and every one of the talented team of artists, directors and programmers they collaborate with have some extremely big ideas. So big, in fact, that they need to build new worlds to contain them, marrying bleeding edge technology with a diverse range of references, both contemporary and traditional, in complex and interconnected systems. Between the studio’s sci-fi sound design, video game engine aesthetic and intricate, alien avatars, you would be forgiven for assuming Actual Objects might be trying to predict some far flung future, but you’d also be missing the point. Though their heady blend of computational philosophy, object-oriented ontology and multidisciplinary architectural theory does seem like a particularly sexy way to think prophetically, each member of the team is dedicated to parsing the multi-platform blizzard of the here and now. “I often find this misplaced sense of futurity around science fiction and I think Actual Objects is interested more so in a focused examination of the present, this hypermodern aspect that actually bears the signature of what we typically think of as science fictional,” asserts Karon
“It’s not really speculation about the future so much as it is a close look at this very moment. There’s a thought from William Gibson that the future is already here, it just isn’t very evenly distributed. However you encounter this, or any bit of media, it becomes flattened on the screen, your specific experience of it has a certain materiality right then, but that’s totally transitory. The actual object, the thing itself, is somehow behind the screen, it’s vast, it’s always changing, and so you’re only ever kind of tapping into it at one specific intersection.” It’s this experience that Actual Objects seeks to translate into sound and light, creating digital ecosystems imbued with physical heft, encompassing systems that link back into our lives in front of the screen. Refuting antiquated distinctions between the natural world and the technology with which they build digital ones, Actual Objects offer a different lens through which we view our every day. It’s in this shift in perspective that we might very well gain some insights into what our world, however we choose to define it, might begin to look like. “If we want to talk about what’s going to happen in the next 25 years, it’s going to be about understanding layers of nested systems,” suggests Miller. “How we interact with those nested systems, how those nested systems interact with each other, where the touch points are, where the choke points are and what the vulnerabilities are. From there we can start to build narratives that show how we as people are going to move through these environments, with this kind of ubiquitous ambient computing reworking our entire cosmology.”
Actual Objects Presents: Fact Mix 828
One fundamental pillar of Actual Objects’ wider practice is music. Rick’s soundtrack work with Berlin-based producer Theo Karon can be very much be understood as emerging out of the intricate, muscular productions he was making as Eaves, thick washes of sci-fi sound design, pummeling batteries of weaponised percussion and precision-engineered sample fuckery filling every inch of their digital topographies. “It’s all meant to fit in the same world,” says Rick. “One thing we’re really interested in from a soundtrack perspective is things feeling quite diegetic, sounds that feel like they’re part of the soundtrack, but also happening on screen.” Karon finishes Rick’s sentence: “sounds that bring their own context with them.” Their dizzying contribution to Fact’s mix series is a stunning showcase of this, fusing 30 minutes of frazzled Ableton gymnastics with our first glimpse of Actual Objects’ visual universe, as a virtual avatar curates the duo’s sounds in real time. “The audio is pretty much straight ripped, with a little bit of editing, from a live recording that Theo and I did when we opened up for Amnesia Scanner in LA,” explains Rick. “There’s music we wrote specifically for the show, but then there was this whole other project that ended up getting fucked up because of COVID that a lot of the music was taken from and was remixed into this live show context.”
“It’s this last remnant of a thing that really never got a chance to exist otherwise,” says Karon. “I love that it expresses very clearly that Rick and I are often coming at music making from just the most opposite technical angle possible, but with a lot of aesthetic compatibility.” Though sharing an interest in similar sounds, the two producers couldn’t be more different when it comes to actually making them. “I was shocked when I met Rick, I’d heard his music, I thought it was brilliant, and then I saw him working on it and he explained his process to me, and it’s all samples! It’s all like YouTube! I come from a very traditionalist background, I learned to record music on analog tape so it’s been immensely rewarding to work with Rick. There’s a purism in both of those schools and I think Rick and I have really managed to completely obliterate that demarcation and I think it’s quite evident in the music and that makes me very happy. There’s a tremendous amount of verisimilitude that happens where each of us responds to features in the process of the other that are unconscious to us individually and and the tension between those is fuel, it isn’t argumentative. It’s what compels it.”
Actual Objects Presents: Yves Tumor – Jackie (Behind The Scenes)
“Jackie was crazy,” says Actual Objects director and co-founder Rick Farin. “We love Yves Tumor and we saw it as an opportunity to just throw everything we could at a video, and, gratefully, they let us do that. We didn’t really know if it was going to turn out good or not, honestly.” Combining a conventional music video shoot, hand painted textures and an ambitious miscellany of advanced imaging techniques, including GAN-assisted deep fakes, A.I.-enabled style transfers, rotoscoping, 3D animation and 2D overpainting, the video for ‘Jackie’ sees the Actual Objects team bringing together every tool in their arsenal and in so doing gesturing towards the kinds of dense, immersive worlds they’re committed to building. Drawing influence from Panos Cosmatos’ lysergic instant cult classic Mandy, the Actual Objects team painstakingly crafted a hallucinatory landscape for Yves Tumor and Jackie, played by Dayana Lafargue, to strut, shred and sword fight in. Yet, the further you follow Jackie into the moonlit forest the more complex her story becomes. Beneath the animate Heavy Metal blacklight poster visuals and psychosexual drama storyline, a second, more subtle narrative unfurls, manifesting both an aesthetic and critical preoccupation with the potential of new graphical technologies and the systems within which they can interact with each other.
“When you talk about systems-level thinking in relation to art practice, I think that’s where the rubber hits the road with the question of whether we necessarily need to aesthetically deploy some of these tools,” says Case Miller, Actual Objects’ resident machine learning expert. “Is even the existence of those tools within the world like a meta narrative hiding beneath the surface? So much of Jackie is not just about the interaction of the two characters, but the characters with the technology.” Throughout the video, in a nod to one of Mandy‘s most affecting scenes, Tumor’s face is mapped onto Lafargue’s and vice-versa, a visual and technological metaphor for Tumor’s enigmatic relationship with their own identity. Not simply content with presenting this complex artifice as merely surface level, Miller’s application of GAN (generative adversarial network) technology to create deep fakes of Tumor and Lafargue is amplified by a considered critical engagement with the technology that excavates an ethical dimension to the illusion. “Right as we’re doing the deep fake thing, in America, the FBI issues a white paper on the dangers of deep fake and how this is a technology that threatens democracy, and we’re co-opting it to make a music video,” explains Miller. “We’re taking these processes and trying to extend out the relevance of them, or the implications of them, beyond the kind of mass media narrative of it and try to find other ways to use these tools, but at the same time acknowledging the dark underbelly of the implications.”
Actual Objects Presents: Solstice
Fact is proud to present the world premiere of Solstice, a speculative documentary, directed by Case Miller, exploring humanity’s future relationship to agriculture through four contemporary harvest rituals. “It’s basically working off a very well known provocation in the greater foresight community, which is my other day job, of trying to understand, at a systems level, how large interconnected geo-engineering projects are going to play out in the face of multiple pressures,” explains Miller. “Climate change is the big one, but also population increase, combined with energy systems, all that stuff.” Divided into four chapters, Solstice, Asado, Mayday and Ash Wednesday, the film seamlessly merges documentary-style footage with motion graphics and CGI to take a closer look at four key, in-development projects that address rapidly encroaching climate catastrophe and the effects this will have on global food production. “The initial inspiration for Solstice came from this weird diagram that the UN put out that talked about how food systems on the planet need to double production, even though we’re only going to jump up by about 2 billion,” continues Miller. “There’s some sort of critical mass that’s happening in food production and how we are going to solve that is still a big question that is often on the table. The way in which we decided to explore this problem of food production was through agricultural ritual, essentially: could we use that as a vehicle to start to explore not only the changing of growing seasons, but the implications of new technologies, both in the field and in the lab and the process of automation and our relationship with labor in that sphere?”
Ultimately, though the sounds and images in the film could be interpreted by some as dystopic, Miller contends that Solstice is an inherently optimistic piece. “I think the point is that it persists,” he says. “These rituals are essentially a sense-making technology in and of themselves. You take the unknown, you input it through a ritual, it comes out as a known, it now sits inside our cosmology. Through ritual practice, regardless of what happens, we will continue to persist and make sense of a world as it changes and that will help us to adapt. Mitigation is not the solution, adaption is the solution.” The film’s laser-eyed focus on the kind of world it is possible to build highlights the spaces in which the human spirit rises out of the machine, gesturing towards the potential humanity has for using automation and machine learning to find a sustainable way to live. It’s this kind of world, in which computers, trees and genome sequencers are all understood as forms of natural technology, that Actual Objects is interested in building, too.
Actual Objects Presents: Voice To Skull
Voice To Skull, the brainchild of artist Theo Karon, is a direct response to being overwhelmed by technology, as well as affecting investigation into what kinds of meaning it is possible to make in collaboration with artificial intelligence. “The film is an emotional response to just how it feels to be alive and consume media right now, when everything is cast out on everything else, all the time,” describes Karon. “You get worked up about something and then it turns out to be debunked, or to have just been more complex than the initial presentation of it that you encountered let on. So you’re stuck. It’s like perpetual jetlag. You’re constantly waking up from a dream and you’re reading about an atrocity and trying to figure out what to order for lunch, both on your phone, at the same time.” Narrated by Chino Amobi, with whom Actual Objects collaborated with on his 2018 film Welcome To Paradiso (City In The Sea), Voice To Skull assumes the perspective of a “data harvester”, a consciousness scouring a hard drive for the last remnants of data, searching for anything resembling information. Citing the work of object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton, the assemblage of avant-garde artist and experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell and countless hours spent immersed in online conspiracy theory forums, Karon seeks to render visible the residue left behind when different kinds of media interact within a larger system.
Whether it’s the exhaustion and malaise felt when flitting between social media voyeurism and compulsive doom scrolling, the psychic deformities that begin to appear after the quotidien barrage of disinformation found online, or the organic growth of a paranoid logic in the schizophrenic interactions of members of online message boards, Voice To Skull captures all of these feelings. In the words of the film’s narrator, “there is a dim sort of magic to be found here, but first it must be trapped.” This process of entrapment takes the form of a total collaboration with machine learning, in which both the script and elements of the imagery are generated using A.I. For the script, Karon utilized GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), an autoregressive A.I. language model that uses machine learning to produce eerily human-like text. Feeding the model with excerpts of a novel Karon had abandoned writing, as well as numerous conspiracy forum posts, the ensuing dialogue became the basis from which the script for Voice To Skull, itself only the first iteration of a wider Actual Objects project, Disintegration-2, was adapted. “It needs a lot of curation, it would run for a while and then I would do a lot of editing, but in the context of the world that process felt very fitting to me, in that it was this continual layering, adding, subtracting, remixing it back into itself,” they explain.
“That’s an important point about the way all of us at Actual Objects want to use A.I.,” notes Rick Farin. “It’s basically Holly Herndon’s whole idea, it’s not about presenting A.I. as it is, it’s about human collaboration with it.” It’s this entanglement of different kinds of intelligence that manifests as a narrative through-line in Voice To Skull, in which the narrator seems preoccupied with distinguishing between artificial and organic consciousness. “YOU APPEAR HUMAN, BUT YOU’RE NOT…” flashes across the screen at one point, while later the narrator describes a process of “regular voice-to-skull communication with the broken artificial intelligences that inhabit this world.” These attempts at categorisation cast doubt on the fundamental qualities of the voice we’re listening to. In this world, is humanity, and by extension the viewer, considered a broken artificial intelligence? Perhaps the title’s reference to bone conduction functions metaphorically and our narrator is only able to make meaning on the inside of the world it seems to be in the process of creating, just as our voices sound other when not heard amidst the vibrations they make across our own skulls. “None of the individual pieces of clips in there have any real significance on their own,” says Rick, “but when they’re all stuck together and then integrated with the audio, some kind of emotional response ends up becoming generated.”
Watch next: Actual Objects Presents – Voice To Skull