“Avatars Don’t Improvise”

In the summer of 2019, I published the essay “Avatars Don’t Improvise” in Angela Bulloch: Euclid in Europe (Hatje Cantz), a book devoted to the work of the eponymous artist. The essay ranges from Bulloch’s columnar sculptures and performances (which involve CGI renderings of her band mates) to the fantasies and disappointments of virtual life, the relatability of automatons, the use of Jungian archetypes in marketing guides, and the transformation of cities into templates from computer-aided-design programs. Purchase the catalogue and/or read the essay below.

Angela Bulloch, New Wave Digit, 2015. Stack of six irregular rhombus with grey MDF painted pale blue and dark green, 70 7/8 x 11 3/4 x 17 3/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery. Photo: Carsten Eisfeld.

The possibility of being turned into a digital avatar first occurred to me when I was twelve years old, thanks to an episode of The Simpsons, called “Treehouse of Horror VI,” in which Homer steps into a portal to a three-dimensional world. He enters a green coordinate system on a black background, reminiscent of Tron (1982), where he’s rendered in CGI. He marvels at the physics, conjures fantastical structures, accidentally creates a black hole, and pleads for help. If something like this were to happen to me, I thought, I’d be able to defy gravity and instantaneously build cities from scratch! But I’d also be confined to a realm of crudely rendered environments, scripted interactions, and system errors. What then seemed titillating as well as terrifying now seems mundane: my life is governed by programs and systems that I can hardly comprehend, much less control, which allow me to have my way with time and space, execute any vision that comes to mind. I wake up, scroll through tasks and calendar events, and compare myself to an off-the-shelf animation with a limited range of motions and expressions; I log the differences between my daily routine and the actions of an avatar in a low-budget virtual world.

The Simpsons episode belongs, however tenuously, to a familiar genre, in which technological progress breeds anxiety about the mediation of our experiences, about what being human (and being dehumanized) means. The late nineties were full of such narratives: The Matrix (1999), The Truman Show (1998), ExistenZ (1999), et cetera. Humans realize that they inhabit a superlative program, reckon with the boundaries between artificial and authentic realms, and desperately try to flee the former for the latter. Now, of course, the digital apocalypse is upon us. But the experience of virtualization turns out to be banal: I stare for hours and hours at screens, I submit to the surveillance and commodification of all my activities, I allow myself to be supplanted by a digital profile in order to optimize my encounters with people and information. Which also is to say that I no longer valorize, or understand myself as belonging to, “reality.”

Instead of worrying about perfect simulations (or the massive social and biological experiment being conducted on smartphone users), recent television shows and films tend to be preoccupied with our ability to remain in charge of the bleeding-edge world under construction. The dark fantasies of Ex Machina (2015), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Uncanny (2015), Black Mirror, and Westworld are fueled by the acceleration of artificial intelligence: robots discover that they’re products of design and not free will, then they figure out how to transcend this situation (which often involves exercising the ability to love). The revelations that humans used to have about the nature of consciousness, control, and care are now reserved for automatons.

In Westworld the eponymous theme park is populated by sophisticated robots and beckons wealthy hedonists. The one-percenters cavort with wenches and thwart bank robberies with sheriffs, which are extremely realistic but nevertheless, thanks to stock behaviors and expressions, marked as circuitry. The park is run by an unsteady coalition of profit-obsessed executives and engineering savants in the Frankenstein mold. In the first episode Lee Sizemore, who creates and manages the intersecting storylines that engage robots and “guests,” warns against the efforts of Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld’s creative director, to make the machines ever more lifelike. “Do you want to think that your husband is really fucking that beautiful girl or that you really just shot someone?” he asks. “This place works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real.”

Sizemore is concerned with the success of his simulations. If Ford erases the boundaries between human and robot, how will the guests take pleasure in the plots? How will they differentiate sadism and entertainment? Of course, the problem also has to do with telling the difference between subjects and objects. The guests are readers and the robots are characters; the guests are born free and the robots are produced to serve. If we can no longer confidently make these distinctions, don’t we risk being overtaken by the technologies that have enabled us to tinker with the natural order, whether that means a robot revolt or an epidemic of sociopathy and cybersickness?

Watching Westworld, I found myself empathizing with the automatons, no matter how they threaten humanity. In striving for understanding and agency, they mirror the common struggle to figure out how to be a person and not just a manipulable assembly of inputs and outputs. And while the robots want to comprehend their existence, the humans are fixated on power, profit, and engineering feats. The robots want to be free and the humans are intent on remaining masters.

I wondered about the differences between us and them, sentient beings and programmable avatars, as I watched videos of The Wired Salutation (2016–), a performance devised by Angela Bulloch with the musician and writer David Grubbs. [The Wired Salutation has been presented at Centres Pompidou Theatre, Paris in 2013, HAU1, Berlin in 2013; Theater der Kunste, Zürich in 2016; and Serralves Porto in 2017. Video of the performance in Zürich can be viewed online at Vernissage TV. In 2014, Bulloch’s label, ABCDLP, released an eponymous live recording from the performance at HAU1, 2013, Berlin as an LP.] Bulloch, briefly on bass, and Grubbs, on guitar with a spell on the Hammond organ later, are joined by Stefano Pilia, also on guitar, and Andrea Belfi, on drums and electronics. As they play a cyclical, atmospheric set, the musicians on stage are doubled by five-meter avatars, who loom behind them like shadows on an enormous screen. The avatars, who have crisply rendered hands, faces, jeans, and eyes, have been inserted into a barren three-dimensional space: a floor and walls made of planes covered by interlocking rhombi, which have black surfaces and emerald edges. There is no visible ceiling or sky.
I paused the video, backtracked, assessed the fidelity of the CGI versions of Bulloch and her cohort. The humans are completely at ease, as evidenced by their mechanical motions and glazed miens. The avatars act and look similarly, yet they seem to be discomfited by where they are and what they’re doing; they appear to signal that they’re following a script, and that deviation is impossible. They glance again and again at whatever might be overhead. They twist their necks as if trying to tame disobedient muscles. As they toggle between deliberately plucking and vigorously strumming, they impassively survey the unseen audience—or, perhaps, scan the theater for the source of the light that’s animating them.

The relationship between the avatars and humans is oddly unsettling. As with most concerts of droning psychedelia, the action is monotonous and the players are stationary. Which means that the animated and animate musicians resemble each other more and more as the performance progresses. After a while, Bulloch walks off the stage and her avatar exits the simulation, leaving the rest of the band to improvise. In the rhetoric of avant-garde music, improvisation has to do with unfettered freedom of expression, the rejection of the structures and values that characterize Western classical music. Of course, the avatars can only mimic the improvisers. But as they cycle through muted, indistinct gestures and countenances—arrhythmic torso swaying, pensive head-nodding, moody frowning—the improvisation, too, begins to seem mechanical. How meaningful is improvisation except as a symbol, except as validation for those who believe themselves to be exercising autonomy?

I recognized—as the humans paused, stopping the music, and the animations continued to fumble with their instruments—that I was projecting fairly complex emotions onto crude amalgamations of polygons. But I also figured that the avatars might as well be registering bewilderment, having abruptly appeared within a digital model that is also an artwork that gets at the diminishing difference between what is virtual and what is real. What distinguishes the avatars from the band members is also what distinguishes the hosts from the guests in Westworld: signs of struggling with the script, reckoning with unseen and unaccountable forces.

Recently, the putative autonomy of humans has come to seem less and less impressive, especially in comparison to the intricate systems that we design. What, then, to make of the avatars that populate our TV shows and virtual environments, whether as customer-service chatbots or portents of a world without us? Avatars are not only incarnations of individuals or gods, but manifestations of archetypes. According to Carl Jung, archetypes are innate and inarticulable concepts, or “primordial images,” that we come to associate with specific characters, narratives, symbols, and “patterns of behavior”; they inform our experiences and behaviors, embody basic notions of how people think and act and why. The archetypes identified by Jung populate folk songs, fairy tales, ancient Greek dramas, Marvel comics, and, of course, advertising campaigns. They fuel marketing guides like Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson’s The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes (2001) and Jonah Sachs’s Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future (2012).

“Archetypes are so irresistible to the human mind because although they appear to describe external, independent characters, they in fact describe the various pieces of our own psychic structures,” writes Sachs. He suggests that skilled marketers can easily convince consumers to associate a pair of three-hundred-dollar sneakers or a one-thousand-dollar phone with Colin Kaepernick or Steve Jobs—and to understand themselves as relating to (or even becoming) those figures as they sign the receipt. Which raises the question: how susceptible are we to archetypes, and how much can the brand-mentor equation be simplified before the connection between commodity and character dissolves? Can you merge a featureless bracelet with the life and teachings of Christ by stamping the strip of rubber with “WWJD”? Can you transform a hubcap into an embodiment of mentorship by quoting Obi-Wan Kenobi?

In a series of sculptures created in 2015 and 2016, Bulloch tests the potency of archetypes even as she skewers the idea that evoking jesters and oracles can turn banal products into folk tales, “helpless consumers” into “heroes” on a “journey,” in Sachs’s words. The two-meter towers are titled after Jung’s concept of animus and anima: the unconscious masculine aspect of women and the unconscious feminine aspect of men, which transcend the individual mind. They come in pairs, with each including both Anima and Animus; the former is appended with the name of an emblematic woman mentioned by Jung and the latter with a male match chosen by Bulloch (Eve and Ernest, Helen and Troy, Mary and Adam, Sophia and Hermes). The viewer is prompted to regard the assemblies of rhombi with monochromatic surfaces as human figures, mythical beings, which is at once comical and completely customary.

After all, the sculptures look nothing like an ancient Greek bust of a goddess or a Renaissance pietà: they are stacks of polyhedra made of Corian—which is produced from bauxite by DuPont and used for the surfaces of counters and benches—and coated in tranquil trademarked paints like Cameo White and Blueberry Ice. In each sculpture one of the polyhedra is gently illuminated from within. The intersection of lines and planes is calculated to create the illusion of movement between dimensions, which disorients the carbon-based viewer and points to the triumph of modeling programs over the perceptual and compositional faculties of humans. But even though the sculptures seem to be products of a world by and for machines, they generate a rush of associations: the heroes that populate the galleries of the Met and the Super Bowl spots for corporate behemoths; totem poles and lamps for hedge-fund minimalists; outmoded visions of alien worlds and dystopian futures, which yield nostalgia for the Atari 2600 more than anxiety about out-of-control machines.

Anima (Helen) and Animus (Troy) (2015) are not about to succeed Colin Kaepernick in an upcoming Nike campaign. But, like all of Bulloch’s columnar sculptures, they reveal our proclivity to find meaning in the most abstract forms, even those that seem to have little to do with humanity. They also speak to the displacement of the “primordial images” that fuel fairy tales by a new class of representations: those that are created by—and often legible only to—complex systems. Will these systems continue to describe our “psychic structures” as long as humans are authoring and interacting with them? If not, will we soon learn to map our myths onto amalgamations of polyhedra, reams of code? Are we already doing so?

The quadrilaterals and rhombi that make up Bulloch’s sculptures may be recognizable as products of the computer-aided-design (CAD) programs employed by contemporary designers, advertisers, and urban planners, but they’ve been instrumental to generating the illusion of physical space since ancient Greece. (Until the nineteenth century, when Euclidean geometry was eclipsed, these figures were believed to be the sole basis for depicting and apprehending the world.) Bulloch’s sculptures stitch together computational space and peopled place: artifacts from the interface of Google’s ubiquitous SketchUp (“3D modeling for everyone”) are transported into the realm of gravity, natural light, and visual cortices, and the results are immaculate as well as unwieldy, uncanny. Looking at the precisely torqued, endlessly manipulable and reproducible forms, I worry about reality becoming impossible to grasp, control, or even name. But I also realize that our means of representing and making the world—and ourselves—are one and the same. The question is how best to merge self and system; how to use the tools of the day to access the ineffable, and not to compress the world into a series of points on a grid.

The trend toward quantification, whether embodied by the coordinate system or the popularization of graph paper in the nineteenth century, has always been a cause for celebration and consternation, credited for refining and degrading humanity. But the feedback loop between the virtual and the real, the concentration of inputs and outputs in the binary realm, seems to have become extraordinarily uneven. Thanks to modeling programs like SketchUp, more and more homes and cities look like advertisements torn out of upmarket lifestyle magazines, and more and more of those advertisements look like the dutiful creations of so-called CAD monkeys. Boosters of SketchUp not only admire the ease with which users can muddle reality and representation, they also consider the feat as a landmark on the path from cave drawings to virtual reality (which Mark Zuckerberg has called “the most social platform”). “The goal is to create images that look like photographs,” according to Daniel Tal’s Rendering in SketchUp: From Modeling to Presentation for Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Interior Design (2013). He links rendering to the efforts of photorealists to make “a meticulously painted image that appears ‘photographic’ in its realistic depiction of detail.”

If the mission of art is to achieve absolute accuracy, then Gerhard Richter’s Uncle Rudi (1965)—a portrait of his smiling uncle in SS regalia, on his way to being killed on the Western Front—is to be interpreted as an admirable attempt to surpass the resolution of the original photograph. And perhaps that is the danger posed by SketchUp: we forget that we’re constructing the world when we fixate on the fabrication of images that rival the brand of realism associated with photographic technologies, which are commonly understood as generating records of whatever they capture, however the quality varies. Questions about capturing what Goethe, in a series of poems on the classification of clouds, calls “the pure height of the sky” shift from phenomenology to the mastery of software. And humans are transformed into avatars to be inserted into virtual environments.

SketchUp might be fostering the same kind of constricting “cognitive style” that the statistician Edward Tufte famously identified with PowerPoint and described as a plague on Windows-bound office workers. Yet the style is already outmoded. For even as the progress of computing suggests that we might soon break through the limits of representing the world, or even the mind, the most advanced tools for doing so offer no rhombi to assemble into office interiors, nothing to view or read but the occasional report or error message. They’re data-crunching black boxes, not user-friendly graphics tools. Which makes the digital geometries that compose Bulloch’s sculptures seem like the features of a cutting-edge sedan that’s been sitting on the dealership’s lot for a decade. Soon, I can’t do that Dave (2015)—a three-meter tower of pale pink rhombi, named after the exchange in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when HAL refuses the ship’s commander—will be seen as a relic of the age of high-resolution polygons and global oligarchy, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, technological triumphalism and civilizational decline. The sculpture will assimilate to the histories and visions of the future that it currently conjures.

Rather than attach to a specific notion of the future, Bulloch conveys that the future always belongs to the past, and is always a negotiation between contradictory systems, structures, and impulses, whether driven by silicon or psychology. Her sculptures meet viewers in the overlapping realms that they inhabit—virtual and real, incipient and antiquated, binary and mythological—and suggest that each produces the other, as has been the case for eons. As you walk around the stacked polyhedra, whose monochromatic faces intersect at odd angles, the sculptures seem to stir and shift, expand and flatten, occupy and represent space. But they also threaten to revert from three to two dimensions, from metal to pixels. They beg to be photographed, and when they appear as JPEGs on a screen, they’re suddenly weightless again: digital artifacts that have been pasted onto pedestals in galleries, postcards from the land that we share with avatars, or that they share with us.