Journal Entry: Molding the Signifier

Molding the Signifier

Recently, Annick Bureaud published her impression of Molding the Signifier by Ivor Diosi that took place at Ex Post in Prague on November 19, 2015. Annick’s original journal entry is available here in French. Below, you will find a summary of the post in English.

[…] The work is presented by CIANT in Ex Post which, as its name suggests, is a former post office in the town centre that has been converted into an art centre.

Let us start with what we see. Molding the Signifier consists of three main elements. The first is a video projection on the wall of three smooth faces that embody the perfect, cold beauty of a synthesized female persona who quote the text by Ferdinand de Saussure about the signifier. The second is a culture of mould in a scanner frame on a table. Finally, a data collection system for the mould that will interfere with the virtual creatures in the projection. Gradually, the faces lose their coherence (eyes become unfocused, mouths distort themselves, etc.) and the articulation of their discourse disintegrates until it becomes incomprehensible. […]

Taken from a video game character, they summon up the cliché representation of artificial intelligence in popular culture.[…]

It goes without saying that, in this work, neither the bacteria and organisms making up the mold nor the computational bits or the polygonal faces are “mistreated” […]. Molding the Signifier, therefore, falls within the realm of what one can describe as speculative ethics.[…]

At first, Molding the Signifier explores a potential future that sees the emergence of a new form of inorganic life, one both gifted with a consciousness and that we would have created from scratch. What are our rights and duties towards this life? “Real” artificial intelligence, conscious, and (perhaps?) suffering are still (for how much longer?) hypothetical, but it was stressed that, for once, this gave us the opportunity to raise and discuss the problems and questions before we are confronted by it […]. In fact, this revealed Molding the Signifier to be a metaphor for the present.

Regarding ethics, how do we establish the dialectic between consciousness and suffering? We do not recognize (at least not yet) the consciousness of animals, and it is in the name of the suffering they feel that we lay down ethical rules. But, we could not “mistreat” those human beings with congenital analgesia who do not feel pain. And, our rules become looser for beings that we consider neither conscious nor able to feel pain (like plants or microorganisms).

Molding the Signifier highlights the difficulty of defining what is human. At a certain scale, the individual and unique being remains clear and central; but it appears more and more like a heterogeneous ensemble, a sort of “society” consisting not only of human elements but also of non-human bacteria (including those that make up our microbiome). These elements have their own goals and objectives that can have a positive or negative impact not only upon our physical well-being, but also upon our intellectual and cognitive system, our consciousness, for us and the world. […]

Data on the activities of bacteria that disrupt an artificial brain: Molding the Signifier reveals itself as a simulation of a scientific experiment to comprehend the exogenous mechanisms of mental illness and insanity. In a reversal, the speculative ethics becomes concrete and the work acquires another dimension, as Bobbie Farsides explained *. It would take another context and other means (in a laboratory) for it to also become a real experience. While watching the image lose its color, the synthetic face lose its perfection and become deformed, it brought to my mind not only the photographs of hysterical women taken by Charcot, but also that the breach of ethics in psychiatry was no less or has been as bad to those ethical breaches in bodily medicine, and that women were often on the front line.

The discussion allowed for the unfolding of the different layers of meaning and discourse conveyed by Molding the Signifier, sometimes well beyond the original intention of the artist, and sparked an unexpected question: does the fact that the work can be considered also as scientific simulation and, thus, enter into a more defined context regarding ethics, change the way it is perceived and evaluated as a work from an aesthetic point of view? […]

* The Ethics Committee was composed of Bobbie Farsides (Professor of Biomedical and Clinical Ethics at the Medical School of Brighton and Sussex, UK), Anna Dumitriu (artist, Brighton, United Kingdom), Lucas Evers (Waag Society, Amsterdam, Netherlands), Claudia Lastra (Arts Catalyst, London, UK) and moderated by Ondrej Cakl (CIANT, Prague, Czech Republic).