- Jack Smurthwaite essay
WLTHF Meretseger or similarsnake headed woman
She Who Loves Silence examines the relationships between language, technicity, and the mythologies created by the interactions between them. Drawing from an exhaustive research practice that encompasses archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, sociology and neuroscience, Derat presents a selection of new works that seek to understand how our modern relationship to tools and tool-making practices informs almost every aspect of who we are and how we relate to one another. As the modern technological paradigm accelerates and the tools that define daily life become more obscure, Derat looks to examples from the past—as well as to key scholars seeking to understand the origins and functions of technicity as they relate to human nature—to show how these changes fundamentally alter both the organization of society and core human ontology.
For this exhibition, Derat has created a series of large-scale rubber panels developing a non-linear language and narrative referencing egyptology, neurosciences, digital technology and popular culture, alongside a digital video installation (Rites The Number, 2019) that relies upon a real-time use of the Google Translate tool applied to cuneiform writing. In the center of the gallery, an experimental sound installation work (Gymnopaedia Exercise Number 1) relates a real-time collaboration between Derat and an artificial intelligence entity as they co-produce an auditory experience: the artist having routed the machine learnt system to sing, listen and autonomously respond to itself in an endless feedback loop.
The title of the exhibition is drawn from Egyptian mythology. “She Who Loves Silence” refers to the goddess Meretseger, a guardian of the Theban Necropolis Valley of the Kings who watches over ‘silent’ cemeteries and crypts. Meretseger was both feared for her wrathfulness and worshipped for her kindness. The goddess was believed to strike down those who displeased her or committed sacrilege to a burial site with blindness, while healing or bestowing blessings upon those who repented to her.
Many of the ideas presented in She Who Loves Silence stem from scholarship produced by French scholar André Leroi-Gourhan (Le geste et la parole,1964-65) and recent neurosciences/paleoanthropology studies exploring the connections between toolmaking and language: i.e the postulate that paleolithic tool fabrication actives neural areas dedicated to language and communication. In Deep Dive (2019), Derat reproduces a diagram created by Leroi-Gourhan which attempts to look at human anatomy and areas of the brain controlling motor functions; showing once again the important and interwoven connections between the hand and the mouth.
In light of these theories, the goddess Meretseger emerges as the personification of technicity. Worshipped by builders—the makers and users of tools—Meretseger possesses the capability to bestow or take away one’s capacity for seeing. Derat uses these ideas as a vector to talk about modern technology, and the role of the maker in contemporary society. When the neurological connection between the architecture of the brain and tool-making and usage are so intimately linked, what does it mean to bow down to full automation and give labour away in the form of crowdsourced development or more crudely in the form of likes, views and comments? Humanity, on an evolutionary scale, may be irrevocably altered by our choice, wittingly or not, to provide this labour to the hungry machine birthed from our own technicity.
Wade Wallerstein, June 2019
Wade Wallerstein is an anthropologist from the San Francisco Bay Area. His research centers around communication in virtual spaces and the relationship between digital visual culture and contemporary art. Wade is a member of the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Laboratory and Technology & Events Curator at the Consulate of Canada in San Francisco. Most recently, Wade has curated a series of downloadable ZIP file exhibitions for Off Site Project, and will participate as a pavilion curator in the 2019 Wrong Biennale.
AI Generated Sound in collaboration with Vincent Cavanagh, Programming Erik Lintunen
Derat’s on-going research is supported by The Arts Council of England and The British Museum.
WLTHF Meretseger or similar snake headed woman
by Jack Smurthwaite
If I were to appropriate, employ or hire a robot to write this essay, to automate the process of critique, what would it say of my position in the ecosystem of artistic labour and the relationship of this writing to Sarah’s latest exhibition? While I write this for no wage, as an artistic and non-alienated practice I have control over, I could be subcontracting this to a chatbot, an AI or a household assistant. My engagement with technology in this way would be its utilisation as a tool but also the acute realisation that I myself become a certain type of tool, both for the overall construct of the exhibition She Who Loves Silence, in its manifold experiences, and the unfolding of a dialectic between my target out comes and the subcontracting of a machine to fulfil them.
The use of tools to determine a proto-existentialism in Georges Bataille’s writing on sovereignty istightly bound to the concepts and categories Derat explores in her work. With thorough anthropological and archaeological theorisation underpinning the conceptualisation of her bodies of work, married to the dedication and commitment to internalising their production, Derat’s recent art works speak of an anthropological futurity and a questioning of where we are heading rather than merely where we find ourselves. More than a social or cultural critique, the imbrication of ancient civilisations and their contemporary counterparts impregnates a timelessness into a reimaging of Egyptian deities, like looking back into a mirror that shows you more of your future than you thought could exist.
Earlier pieces by Derat, such as The Aberration of Light (2015), in which 3000 handmade oak crucifixes adorn the gallery floor like parquet, subvert the notion of religious essentialism and highlight the human investment in cultivating the power of certain iconographies. The artisanal skill and precision in constructing such vast numbers of ubiquitous and ambivalently (in)accessible objects can only occur as part of a lineage of tool-bearing labour. It is a lineage that could equally span from the grunting apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sadistic but no doubt impeccable joining of Christ’s cross. The handmade and gorgeously finished pieces in Derat’s latest exhibition ask what impact our increased reliance on automation has on society and civilisation if – as has been posited by earlier theorists and subsequently proven – that the use of tools and the development of language spark synapses in the same part of the brain.
From the comparatively primitive wood working tools of The Aberration...through the industrial welding of steel frames and the screeding of rubber to the coding of AI, Derat interacts with technologies within both a local and fiercely connected, global landscape. The insistence of finishing each of the pieces by hand, when they could easily be outsourced to industrialised factories or smaller specialist makers, is testament to the personal investment in understanding what is at stake if the majority of physical trade, and the fringes of intellectual, labour are lost. If the narrative of tools/communication is a continuing one then where are we headed?
The French anthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan posited that bipedal development allowed the hands to be freed for clutching tools; it’s these hand/tool and face/vocalization pairings, famously adopted by Deleuze and Guattari, which remain fundamental to our understanding of human development. And so the writings of Leroi-Gourhan and Bataille come into contact and coalesce in considering the links between tools and verticality, the making of object hood for tools and ourselves while simultaneously making ourselves human, transcendent and standing above the rest of the animal kingdom. We can still regress to an animalistic state, Bataille argues, while retaining our stance of vertical superiority, when we scream. The throwing back of our heads, unleashing the weighted power of one of our heaviest body parts and howling, brings the open mouth in line with the anus; it draws a line along the spine between two orifices in the same way a snout is aligned with a tail. However, our line is heading toward skyward, parallel to religious monuments and skyscrapers, not parallel to the ground and heading to the horizon as it does for our animal cousins. But what if we throw our heads back to communicate to one another? Does this discount Bataille’s theory that a scream is a regression to a more animalistic, carnal or primal state, when the involuntary expulsion is a name or warning?
Imagine if the blown up 1960s diagrams in Sarah’s rubber hangings were to peel themselves off of the wall, to pop themselves from their tactile rubber moulds and begin lolloping about the Castor Projects space. These creatures, body parts representing their respective brain activity in scale, would – to strike up a dialogue across a great distance, Deptford Market, say – drop their tools and swing their pendulous arms, weighted by elephantine hands, to their engorged mouths and omit such thunderous sounds, as much as their (comparatively miniscule and wildly disproportionate) lungs could muster.While their tools lay lifeless at their feet.
Would these noises, in equal measure evidencing introversion and communication, sound any different, in essence, to the syncopated and stunted voices of the AI exhibited in Gymnopaedia Exercise No1?Getting stuck on certain phrases, repeating and stuttering parts of sentences such as “underwor, underworld” like a child tapping out syllables and picking out verbs; like it is learning to read for the first time or making sense of a translation. While undeniably human and vocal, the sounds from the speakers burst out snappily, like Morse Code. The translation here isn’t of a different language but a way of understanding an existing one, translating from writing to vocalisation, from invention to recording, from the present to posterity. The tools here are the tools of modern automation, there’s no doubt about that, but they are handled in such a way as to prompt a question of their future before it comes about, to consider the way language evolves in tandem with these devices and through our engagement with them.
In 2015, 6050 babies were registered with the name Alexa in the US.
In 2017, this number had decreased to 3883
Despite the fact there has been a rapid decline in popularity of the name Alexa since Amazon released its personal assistant AI to help you spend more money and fast track your personal data to one of the largest and most influential companies in the world, no doubt use of the word has increased. I know a number of parents who are amazed – for some reason – that ‘Alexa’ is one of their children’s first words. Language and tool-use are still evolving and influencing each other. I don’t think robots are close to becoming a servant-class of emotionless assistants but this hypothesis proposes many linguistic alterations – a rapid decrease in everyday pleasantries, dropping the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and a decline the subtle art of phrasing a demand as a friendly question. The line from our yelling mouth to our puckering anuses still rides a straight animalistic course down our spines, parallel to the ubiquitous mini monolith par excellence, when we throw our heads back in disgust and paranoia to scream “Alexa!”,hoping she’ll listen to what she is supposed to, rather than everything else.Jack Smurthwaite, June 2019
It is trite to state that our fear of technology is nothing new. Regardless, the Luddites and Saboteurs are worthy of yet another mention. From the weavers of England and France to the self-appointed Gods of Silicon Valley, the fear of the new dictates how we are equally trepidatious and fully gung-ho about our approach to technology. “I try to avoid the underworld” could be spoken by any of us, fearful of being left behind or becoming irrelevant, one system update short of any communication whatsoever.The one who loves silence is Meretseger, Theban cobra-goddess, protector of the Valley of Kings and patron of Egyptian artisans and makers. While she protected them, the artisans both adored and feared Meretseger for her kindness and mercy and ability to strike her people blind. The Meretseger of contemporary post-capitalist automation is a patron of the robots and their programmers. Her Valley is the undulating kingdom of expanding digital spaces and their intersection with our terra firm realities– places of dark secrets (piles upon piles of deceased) and unfathomable riches as well as our downfall through our darkest, unspeakable desires.
The first time I met Sarah and visited her studio, she was wearing a Medusa pendent around her neck. Like Meretseger, Medusa was a snaked-headed woman with the ability to impose deathly blindness and muteness upon those crossed her. I remember my only comment on Sarah’s jewellery at the time was that Medusa was misunderstood, something I almost immediately regretted saying. But the moreI thought about Medusa, surrounded by mute goddesses and anthropological slogans, frozen tableaux and eerie disembodied voices, I considered her own usefulness in decapitation. Her head was a subject that as object, a tool made for a new purpose from the old order. Athena’s Medusa emblazoned shield, used to protect her and cast her enemies to stone, is an example of tools, labour, language and society evolving together, part and parcel of a single process. As automation becomes farther reaching, will the silence of Meretseger’s kingdom come to pass?