David Byrne On Machines and Souls (Máquinas y Almas)


Remember David Byrne’s Julio – the creepy realistic animatronic singer?

Byrne has written a post from the opening, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. In the post, he elaborates on the show and his throughts on his man-machine:

I don’t think what I’ve addressed thus far really engages the supposed theme of the exhibition; many works seem to address the uncanny, the creepy, and the vaguely lifelike….

Julio, the singing robot made in collaboration with David Hanson’s lab, fits in mainly with the creepy uncanny side of the show. Julio is old-school creepy — he resembles a person, uses lifelike motions, and — yikes! — smiles and looks around, mumbles to himself, and then bursts into song. He recalls a Frankenstein monster, although, instead of being outwardly and obviously scary, he’s quasi-friendly looking and bursting with emotion. I hope the sense of realism together with the singing make him doubly creepy. How can a machine be feeling what’s expressed in the songs.

Like many animals, humans sing for pleasure, for sex, for attention, to express pain, to relieve angst and to join and participate in a social group. All of these urges seem, if not uniquely human, at least not at all machine like. To see machines mimic these aspects of human life, is to watch some part of our imagined souls being appropriated.

While machines can mimic aspects of human, animal and biological processes, they still lack souls, or whatever it is that leaves us sentient, independent beings. Machines, even computers, are for the most part still modeled on digital, binary and logical thought processes, clutching the legacy of Descartes and the Enlightenment. For machines to truly simulate human beings, they will need to reason with their hearts, their emotions, as we and other animals do. We may like to think that cool logic guides, buffers, and tames our hot emotions, but many now believe that the amygdala and other emotional areas of the brain do most of the “thinking.” It seems that much of our thought process is unconscious, based on impulse, gut feeling, and instinct — and no less wise because of it. This is what’s absent in these machines.

For me, an important part of this show is about this lacuna, this missing part. Witnessing a machine approach being human — and for it to be almost believable, but not quite — can be a creepy and unsettling experience.

Machines and Souls (Máquinas y Almas)

Participating artists in the show:

Antoni Abad, 1956, ES
David Byrne, 1952, UK & David Hanson, US, robot
Daniel Canogar, 1964, ES
Vuk Cosic, 1966, RS
Evru / Zush, 1946, ES
Harun Farocki, 1944, CZ, football
Paul Friedlander, lights
Pierre Huyghe 1962, FR, anime girl
Theo Jansen 1948, NL, insect machines
Natalie Jeremijenko, 1966, AU, recycling
Sachiko Kodama magnet forms
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, 1967, MX
Chico MacMurtrie
John Maeda, 1966, US
Antoni Muntadas, 1942, ES, map
Daniel Rozin, 1961
Ben Rubin & Mark Hansen 1964, US, blog feed

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