this is aaronland

artificial iconography

Fact Associations: Fantastic Futures 2019

I attended the plenary sessions of the second Fantastic Futures conference about artificial intelligence in libraries, archives and museums yesterday. I took notes throughout the day some of which manifested themselves as blocky letter form word-drawings, some of which I've included here.

These are the very definition of notes to self and I do not recommend trying to reconstruct the substance of anyone's presentation from these drawings. Some are actual quotes, other are fragments of quotes, others are observations. Some are all three combined. These should be treated as figure drawings where the value lies more in the exercise of doing them and in the shadow of their suggestion rather than any actual representation.

Wherever there is something that presents itself as inevitable you are in the face of ideology.

Zadie Smith

As to the subject of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the cultural heritage sector I am not a disbeliever but I not yet a true believer either. To the extent that these drawings might be seen as snarky, or even hostile, that should be understood more as more a commentary on the language we use to discuss these subjects than a reflection on the nuance and subtlety of anyone's argument.

Also, spelling is hard.

It was encouraging to hear both Michael Keller and Aslak Sira Myhre, the Librarian of Stanford and the director of the National Library of Norway respectively, agree that the distinctions between libraries and archives and museums is vanishing as everything that the near-future makes possible permeates these institutions. This idea has been something of hobby horse for me so it was nice to know there are others who see that future with sympathetic eyes.

As the day progressed and as the question of what it means to be a library, and in particular a librarian, in the face of all these new technologies kept resurfacing I found myself thinking again about the AK-47 story. This was part of the preamble to a talk I delivered at the Technology experiments in art: Conserving software-based art symposium, in January 2014. (The irony of that link being an Eventbrite listings page with nothing of substance about the symposium is not lost on me.) The talk then had nothing to do with artificial intelligence but the broader questions about the relationship between inference and meaning that the AK-47 was meant to raise still seem relevant and germane to the issue of artificial intelligences in the service of cultural heritage today. I've included that part of the talk in-full below:

I also considered adding a slide with Bill Clinton's famous quote questioning the meaning of the word is when asked whether he had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky but the common thread in all these passages is the idea of motive and how we recognize it. That's an important question for all museums, but especially for a design museum since by-and-large we all have the same things in our collections. By their nature design objects come in multiples, often to the point of being mass-produced or in some cases not even being considered design objects unless they are mass-produced.

For example, this is an AK-47 from the collection of the Kalashnikov Museum in Izhevsk. It is from the first pilot batch of assault rifles produced in 1948 that would go on to be adopted for use by the Soviet Army in 1949.

This is a Chinese-made AK-47 from the collection of the National Museum of American History. Which is to say: The Smithsonian has a Chinese-made Russian assault rifle in its collection. Is it just a talisman of the Cold War period or might we imagine that it was a gift from Mao Zedong to Richard Nixon during his famous 1972 visit to China? It is currently not on display.

This is an AK-47 from the collection of the CIA Museum. It was acquired sometime in 2012. It is said to have belonged to Osama bin Laden. The museum remains closed to the public and I get the sense that it was never really meant to be known to anyone outside the family in the first place.

By now you've probably figured out that these are all the same image and it's not any of the actual machine guns that I've been describing. By now you've probably all figured out that this is the same picture of the same AK-47 from Wikipedia, so here is a picture of a plush AK-47 by Mindy Sue Myers.

I might also have also told you that any one of those AK-47s belonged to a child soldier in Sierra Leone. That is was from a museum devoted to telling the history of child soldiers and the mineral wars that have plagued Africa for the last fifty year. Not a word of that story would have true been, by the way. So why does this matter?

It's difficult to look at the CIA Museum's AK-47 and not also see Napoleon's Vendôme Column. For anyone not familiar with the Vendôme Column it's a big-ass sculpture in the center of Paris in a square originally built the celebrate the conquests of the French Empire. It is said to have made from the melted canons belonging to all the armies that Napoleon defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon was not lent to subtlety and the Vendôme Column is essentially the 19th century version of the fictional Conan the Barbarian's answer to the question What is best in life? to which he replied To crush your enemies. To see them driven before you. To hear the lamentation of their women.

If you think I am just being provocative stop for a moment and imagine what the reaction in the United States would have been if the Kalashnikov Museum had acquired Osama bin Laden's AK-47.

This on the other hand is a proper work of art by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps. It was on display at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, in 2013, as part of an exhibition about contemportary art and war.

The late painter Francis Bacon gave an interview, somewhere around the mid-point of his career, in which he said that he aspired to create paintings that defied narrative. Whether or not he succeeded or whether or not he even still believed that idea by the time of his death is sort of irrelevant. We have always celebrated works of exceptional execution and in contemporary times we increasingly afford artists the luxury to pursue a singular itch to that end.

It is interesting to consider that as the art world and the discourse that surrounds it continues to get wordier and more theory-driven we are also seeing both museums and artists create works that can only be described as spectacles. That's a whole other talk but just keep this idea in the back of your mind: That people are starting to use spectacle itself as a kind of medium in part, I think, because it remains bigger than words.

I want to mention craft and the timeless arts-and-crafts debate only long enough to describe a scenario guaranteed to upset everyone involved. That capital-A art is the Abel to capital-C craft's Cain, but with a twist. If art will knowingly murder his brother the problem he faces is that his brother is also a zombie who can never die and wants to eat his brain.

It's not a very flattering picture for anyone but the reason I enjoy this fiction is because it's a useful way to consider design. That is, design is the shadow of the unresolvable struggle between an outstanding, over-achieving sociopath and a his seen-to-be lesser sibling who refuses to give up no matter what anyone says.

This is the world's first operational 3D printed hand gun. It was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum last year. It is worth mentioning that in writing about the acquisition Dezeen (.com) made a point of noting that the original prototypes did not arrive at the museum in time for London Design Festival, so the museum printed out a copy in London based on (the) blueprints.


Because, you know... it's a 3D printed object. The whole point of 3D printing is to make anything Walter Benjamin ever said seem quaint by comparison. That does not make it any less difficult to resist the allure of a thing imbued with aura, whether it's real or imagined. Is the very first 3D printed hand gun any more or less special than the very first AK-47?