“UNINVITED” by Nye Thompson and UBERMORGEN, Furtherfield Gallery / London by

by January 18, 2021

UNINVITED (2020), a collaboration between London-based artist Nye Thompson and Swiss-Austrian-American media artist duo UBERMORGEN, launched on October 31 at Furtherfield Gallery in London. Presented by the artists as “a horror film for machine networks and human-machine organisms,” the work is simultaneously a film, a physical installation in the gallery, and also an online experience owing to the present COVID-19 restrictions.

As Thompson has pointed out, by incorporating different narrative elements and opposing the machine’s apathy to the pathos of the unfolding horror, UNINVITED’s soundtrack — produced by artist and composer Thom Kubli — serves as a glue between the evolving experience of the machine and the audience, favoring the gaze of a nonhuman entity over human perception. The film is created through a complicated process in which still images drawn from the UNINVITED network are algorithmically scrutinized and expanded to produce AI-generated text through content analysis. The same text is then used to map the images back onto the framework of the video and also produce automatic captions that can be turned on while watching the film online.

The ongoing project with UBERMORGEN develops Thompson’s almost obsessive preoccupation with surveillance imagery — expressed previously in the work Backdoored (2016–18), whose “global mapping of contemporary anxieties” and “technological failures” speculated on emergent inhuman intelligence and the problematic relationship between humans and networks. UNINVITED brings to life a new being, born of the combination of surveillance data with the hallucinatory state experienced by many device systems when infected with a virus. This cross-bred life form, which claims its autonomy while being deeply connected to humans, uses a centralized cloud brain to process data drawn from its sensors, virally hacked camera eyes and mechatronic avatars, termed “monsters” by the artists, which also take part in the information processing. One of these monsters is located within the Furtherfield Gallery and kept in isolation due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Similar in appearance to an alien organism, it is equipped with motion sensors and runs back and forth on a rail. The avatar was originally designed to respond both to external stimuli and its own memories, which derive from surveillance images recorded by insecure IoT devices compromised by the Mirai botnet and collected over time by Thompson through a semi-automatic method. Left alone, it reproduces only these “memories” by projecting them into an empty room and creating a machine-centric experience. The exclusion of a live audience from the physical space in which the monster moves in fact ensures that machines can be considered at the same time “performers, audience, content providers, and commentators,” as in «The Seeker» CKRBT (2019). This arrangement confines humans to the role of mere observers, dismantling the conventional relationship between the artwork, its space, and its publics.

With its dystopian tenor almost bleeding into science fiction, the work presents nightmare as fact, harnessing the unease associated with autonomous intelligent systems, machine consciousness, and surveillance. In a recent conversation with writer and curator Régine Debatty, Thompson explains, “There is an aspect of cultural horror to the idea of our surveillance society and our growing vulnerability to this unpredictable network of devices and systems growing up around us.” Yet the work also asks us to empathize with the machines as they are misused by other machines, while allowing us to grasp, for a change, a nonhuman point of view of the world UNINVITED is an inquiry into the journey of a newborn networked organism that feeds on human data and keeps evolving over time through its entanglement with humans and machine learning. But it is also an exploration of the space that lies between the physical and the virtual from the perspective of a machinic entity. While leaving the door open to different interpretations, the work is intended as a machine-for-machine experience that humans cannot escape.

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Beth Jochim