Huddled around Lauschmann’s ‘Prototype for Future Economies’ (2018)—a supine fibreglass body whose segmentations identify it as a kind of collapsing child’s toy—the bemused anticipation of onlookers is heightened by the sudden whirr of a small motor. But this is not to last. Suitably liveried as a latter-day Bauhaus bike courier, the figure rises by some scant degrees before settling back into its initial slump on the marble-laminate steps. One punchline is replaced with another by the courier’s inability, or straight refusal, to deliver.
Aimed at gaps in the faux-brickwork vinyl, the eclectic mix of video segments that make up ‘The War of the Corners’ (2018) perform a playful literalisation of its title, which refers to a spat in the opera criticism of eighteenth century France. Primarily a debate over the integration of the comic elements of Italian opera—lambasted as gauche—into the classically inflected lyric tragedies of the French, in turn decried as calcified and self-serious, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that this is Lauschmann’s wink at an art world whose categorisations he has repeatedly manage to evade. His projectors have been misaligned—though only slightly—resulting in videos that don’t quite fit their niches. Overhearing assurances that this was an unintentional effect, it’s evidence, nevertheless, of Lauschmann’s particular brand of editorial canny.
The subjection of votive bodies to a crude kind of physics dominates the video installation, in affect if not in number. Toy-like forms crumple over a succession of pegs, attempt to push past one another in a horribly confined environment, or else repeatedly fall down the same set of virtual stairs. Several of these segments seem to draw on the reinforcement-learning experiments of contemporary AI, where computational bodies learn to walk and traverse obstacles through trial-and-error. In their heuristic objective a lineage can be drawn which stretches back to the first Greco-Roman automata, also built in the discovery and demonstration of natural laws. As Susan Sontag once observed, the mechanical replication of the world is an ancient fascination; the heart couldn’t be likened to a pump until the pump had been invented in its image.
Occasionally interjecting the silent action of the screens with a similarly ancient sort of accompaniment, the ‘Automata 1-4’ (2018) occupy low plinths in the centre of the room. Motorised instruments and assemblies of objects with musical potential, one, a segmented crutch festooned with bells, rises, serpentine, to its full height, jingling as it goes before coiling back down with a clink. In the background, the simulation of a man soars through a video-game sunset before crumpling into a bloodless heap on a nearby rooftop. ‘Oh no’ a young boy near me murmurs, approvingly.
Stuck in their loops, the redemptive potential of reinforcement-learning is curbed. They will never learn; the characters will fall again, but they won’t fall better. Perhaps an abstract subject for ethical concern, the casual endlessness of it all strikes a disquieting, albeit playful chord. We have always understood that, far from mutual exclusivity, play and cruelty intersect in some way. If we didn’t, so much apocalyptic hysteria wouldn’t be expended on the news of a robot whose sense of balance can withstand a kick, or on narratives where the master’s robotic vassals rise up to destroy the master’s house, with him inside it. Perhaps this also explains, to some extent, the breathless reporting at the other end of the spectrum when these creations fail. Above a GIF of an ungainly biped missing its mark and careening into the abyss, the subheading reads: ‘It’s like watching a baby learn to limbo’, the gleeful copy suggesting a number of deeply uncomfortable equivalencies.
Tragi-comic, then, and uneasily so, Lauschmann’s orchestrations seem to align him most closely with that favourite of the Eighteenth century automaton connoisseur, the Équilibriste. Teetering on a wire, his conceits may be mechanical, but in the audience’s simultaneous fear and thrilled anticipation, the predicament he stages is all too human.
War of the Corners. Torsten Lauschmann. Glasgow School of Art. 17 April - 7 May
Simulation and the failure to recognise it sit at the heart of the Waste Paper Opera Company’s production. From Ovid to Turing, the predicaments of transmutation are invoked with dizzying complexity in the opera’s attempt to imbue an Android with speaking consciousness.
Layered in monochrome ruffs, cut-sleeves and with crinolines in continuous orbit, a King and Queen step forth from the awnings to preen over their sulking daughter. They, and the confidently gestural set, are grander than one might expect the eponymous waste paper of their construction to bear the weight of, baroque and austere all at once. Given the narration’s insistence that the castle is only four pixels wide by four pixels tall—minute and two-dimensional—it is a curiously material tableau. One begins to get the sense that for all its aesthetic bombast, the image ‘i’ presents of operatic tradition constitutes a sly wink; the suggestion that the formal strictures it mimics can, and have been, overcome.
The narrative cipher to this end arrives in Android form, a present to appease the Princess on one of her 153 birthdays. Can she be made taller? she asks. ‘No.’ A quick downward glance at her sexless form leads her to prod at the inert Android’s chest, the most recognisably human body on stage. ‘I am particularly proud of those,’ the Inventor giggles, cast as a solipsistic pervert in the Pygmalian mould and eliciting a number of snorts from the audience.
It is not enough. Like so many patrons, the Princess refuses accept a commission that cannot adore her personally. After all, what good are breasts if they can’t tell you they love you? Language must be the object’s objective, a narrative turn that provokes the opera’s greatest innovation: the use of machine learning as a structural element. In collaboration with Janelle Shane and Dr. Amita Kapoor of the University of California, the Android’s part of the libretto was generated by a neural network fed a potent diet of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Indian epics. Though arguably already a feature of operatic enunciation, encouraging the network to make greater imaginative leaps provides a range of entertaining abstractions, where increasingly recognisable language builds from phoneme snippets and poetic flotsam. Here, and in the score itself, the integrity of these stylistic digressions is upheld by sheer vocal and instrumental virtuosity as they build to the soaring operatic phrase.
Sung or not, even perfectly imitated speech would not qualify a machine as conscious, the argument goes. Like the Inventor who teaches the Android language by inserting his favourite books before their common interests leave him smitten, we would simply be failing to recognise that we are getting out nothing that we did not first put in. ‘Oh I love love!’ he exclaims, ‘I love shells. They are what is left, when the inside is gone’. Quite.
As the narrative reaches its conclusion, some semblance of order is restored and the King, remembering his ‘favourite song’, belts out some bars from Mozart’s ‘Figaro’ before being summarily shushed. Having never encountered a trope they didn’t insist on inverting, Waste Paper Opera’s nested worlds have no use for pure tradition. It makes for entertaining viewing, but exhausting synopsis. As its makers rarely fail to mention, opera is the original Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork. But the authority with which it could once corral its constituent elements has waned in an age of increasingly autonomous practitioners. Against the backdrop of GI, and an art world frequently concerned with importing ‘authentic’ elements of the performative arts, a neat kind of symmetry emerges. ‘i’ recognises that the continued relevance of opera lies, like the Android, in being a synthetic form; one that must collaborate since it can no longer subsume.
Embodying the alternative, the Princess’ demand for love is met only with a gnomic response, but how much consciousness does validation require? She places the Android in a gilded cage. It’s good enough.
’i’ - The Opera. Wastepaper Opera and Babaloose. The Art School. 25 & 26 April
The screams started at 3PM on the gravel. One of ten artists invited to respond to Pollok House—a grand Eighteenth century house, now National Trust-owned—Duncan Marquiss’ sound installation ‘Buzzard Feedback’ (2018) cuts through the mild afternoon from four open car doors. In the feedback to which Marquiss’ title refers, a loop of emission and reception, distinctions become increasingly muddied before dissolving into noise. Recorded nearby on the grounds, it is unclear whether the cries we hear are of hungry chicks or their harried parents. But in certainty’s place a question begins to form: if they are to be receptive to their surroundings, how can individual voices hope to be heard above the din?
Another form of din, Pollok is the kind of house one would refer to as a ‘pile,’ in an acknowledgment of textural depth, as well as its heapings of objets d’arts. Where they are not marbled, the more frequently trodden floors of the house have been scanned by conservators, and woven a protective second skin. The precise image of the boards and carpets they lie shielding, the faux-floor’s doubling effect is uncanny and suggests that any idea of outside intervention with these storied confines will meet with some degree of push-back.
Among the contemporary works, narrative emerges as a popular strategy to avoid unduly straining the historical surfaces. In Shauna McMullan’s tour, ‘I gladly strained my eyes to see’ (2018), readings of textual responses from a range of female artists, academics, volunteers and staff are by turns lively, ironic, mournful and sly in their reappraisals of the collection’s portraits of women. Circulating the house, they probe at lacunae between records of jewels, marriages and heirs where, we can hope, protective niches were once carved out for the self.
One such jewel re-emerges in Sarah Forrest’s fantastical narrative on her time in the house; a wandering pearl from one of the tour’s portraits is woven in with the theft of a camera filming the fake floor. In Forrest’s confrontation with the would-be thief, priorities realign; temporarily resident and part of the house, the onus of its material conservation falls on her. Liz Taylor loses the pearl in the shag of a Caesar’s Palace carpet. The camera’s state is unknown. Elsewhere, Alan Currall’s charming video sees him posing bathrobed, wielding a toothbrush-as-baton. Musing on portraiture and family history, albeit with a small ‘h’, he appears no less grand than his surroundings.
Some gestures are subtle to the point of obscurity. Susan Brind and Jim Harold’s ‘Planting by the Book’ (2018) portfolio sits alongside an obsidian orb, near caged tomes on agriculture; Shona Macnaughton’s cedarwood scented soaps, vape-juices and domestic products are placed around the Cedar Room. Rather than a lack of ambition these works speak to the uneasy balance between addition and conservation in a house where many of the books are so valuable they cannot be listed for fear of theft, and are never read save by the specialists tasked with their upkeep. Heritage welcomes, but rarely does it accommodate. None of the chairs are for sitting on.
Against these strictures, some interventions manage to mount greater resistance. Approximate to fluorescent light tubes in both dimension and the hue of the Sidka spruce pollen that fills them, Jasper Coppes’ glass cylinders represent a potent disruption. Fecund and tax-deductible, these conifers were introduced to the marshes of the Flow Country as an investment opportunity with devastating consequences. Their roots sucked dry the peat; the wildlife ebbed.
The thrill of contamination must remain a figment. Coppes’ glass is in fact laboratory-grade and hermetically sealed, suitable for the containment of a biological weapon. Nature, amongst other invaders, is admitted back into the landowner’s house as totem only. Imagined as the cabinet of the title, Pollok’s riches have been rearranged and its frames deftly shifted by these visiting artists—if only temporarily—although the survival of its history depends, to an increasing degree, on the marginalisation of the contemporary. At closing time, every would-be conqueror must make their way back home.
Cabinet Interventions. Ruth Barker, Susan Brind & Jim Harold, Jasper Coppes, Alan Currall, Sarah Forrest, Shona Macnaughton, Duncan Marquiss, Shauna McMullan and Joanna Peace. Pollok House. 20 April - 7 May
Ari Nielsson is an artist and writer living in London.