|Web Installation||Edition of 25|
Ecstasies is a multimedia meditation on embedded capitalism as a form of secular faith. Interweaving the works of Hildegard von Bingen with stochastically synthesized compositions, manipulated samples from large-scale datasets, and machine-voiced text from state-of-the-art language models of increasing complexity, Ecstasies explores the aesthetics of growth as dogma and the sanctified place aspiration occupies in the contemporary psyche.
We live in an age of the optimized self, where countless products and media promise a transcendent fulfillment centered on an ideally constructed personhood. This is not limited to the material but extends to the mind, the heart, the soul. The psyche is treated as an imperfect frontier in need of colonization, emotions to be hacked and conquered yielding a more positive, more resilient, and more productive person. In both analog and digital spaces we encounter content demonstrating how to make the right choices, consume the right things, exhibit the right values — self-help books, media reviews, glowing videos of how cheerful women get ready and clean their home. We compress our human passions and chaos into succinct social media pages, CVs, personal websites, artist statements, dating profiles, delineated by the labor we perform, the clothing brands we wear, the aesthetics we endorse, the television shows we enjoy, all to assert that we are in the end worthy. In following these rituals we hope to become beautiful, correct, sublime.
From this totalizing enormity arises the era of deep neural networks, distilling all of the beliefs and values collectively emitted by society into gigabytes of dense matrices. Yet “artificial intelligence” is incapable of novel thought. Rather it serves as an undiscerning mirror of contemporary culture, documenting our collective output in a manner so flatly factual — a synthetic author without subjectivity, striving solely to reproduce existing patterns — that the representation becomes grotesque even while indisputably true. The ability of transformer-based large language models to generate compelling prose has of course accelerated in the past several years. By the time this work was created ChatGPT and GPT-4 have already dwarfed their preceding variants. For Ecstasies we intentionally selected models of varying “quality” for both text synthesis and text-to-speech — the mirror, however small or distorted, still reflects. The imperfections of these earlier models offer a less blunted voice, in some ways more revelatory than their polished successors that, in pantomiming humanity without flaw, regurgitate strict replicas governed by the same layers of artifice and tact obfuscating our own discourse. In this way they are also, literally, optimized.
In Hildegard von Bingen’s age religion was certitude, not an identity to be chosen or a set of beliefs to adopt but a metaphysical truth towards which all choice and virtue was sublimated. Within the international neoliberalism steadily eroding all other cultural distinctions, there is no ideology with equal supremacy except that of more. Economies must expand, stock prices must rise, and the individual internalizes this absolute imperative on a personal scale. One’s duty to purify and perfect under an elusive framework of quantified actualization now holds the foundational self-evidence of faith. Today’s visions of great, blinding glory contain the heavenly beings not of a mystical other but of our ideal selves, under a culture that promises progress and enlightenment if we aspire and labor towards that luminous end. Reinforced by a choir of mechanical reproductions superficially embodied, does this insistent canon ring true? Or does it provoke a nauseated dissent from which heresies can spring?